Saturday, 31 March 2012

Writing good multiple choice questions

Multi-choice seems to have come back into fashion somewhat in the UK. I gather it has long been used extensively in the USA as a means of practising and assessing skills and knowledge. Writing good multi-choice tasks is an interesting challenge and I was happy to learn something about it a few years ago when I wrote some assessment tasks for Asset Languages in Cambridge.

Firstly, three options are, it seems, as statistically adequate as four, although you often see four choices given on exam papers.

Secondly, it is important that all options be "in play". That is, they must be reasonably tempting to the learner.

Thirdly, a good multi-choice question should have the aim of allowing about 70% or 80% of learners to get the answer right. A good balance of outcomes would be around 70% get the right option, with the other two options getting about 15% each. A question which attracts equal responses for each option is a poor one. Similarly, if one option gets no ticks, it is a poor question.

Fourthly, the layout of questions is important. Each option should ideally be about the same length. Each option should linguistically be distinct. i.e. you do not want two options beginning with one wording and the third with a different wording. In this respect I find the multi-choice questions on AQA GCSE French papers wanting a little.

And last, questions may take the form of a question with three or four different answers, or they may begin with a partial sentence completed in three or four different ways. The latter format is, I suspect, more common. Anyway, it's all good fun and setting multi-choice questions is a good mental exercise. I have little against the format and disagree with those who say it is a way of trying to catch out students and that it is somehow unfair. Well, yes, it is trying the catch out students and that's the point. The thing is to make sure the level of task is fair.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Remember this?

In 2002 the Department for Education and Skills produced a document entitled:  Languages for All; Languages for Life - a Strategy for England. Here were the three over-arching objectives which were laid out in that document:

1. To improve teaching and learning of languages, including delivering an entitlement to language learning for pupils at Key Stage 2, making the most of e-learning and ensuring that opportunity to learn languages has a key place in the transformed secondary school of the future

2. To introduce a recognition system to complement existing qualification frameworks and give people credit for their language skills

3. To increase the number of people studying languages in further and higher education and in work-based training by stimulating demand for language learning, developing Virtual Language Communities and encouraging employers to play their part in supporting language learning

Now, I cannot support what I am going to say with detailed facts and figures, but the essence is about right.

Since 2002 primary school modern languages have seen considerable progress, recently halted, but that progress has been patchy and it certainly has not led to a noticeable improvement in proficiency or take-up at older age levels. Realistically it could probably be described as a partial success at best. As far as improving the quality of teaching and learning, this must be very hard to demonstrate. You would have to ask Ofsted what they have discovered, but my hunch is that any progress must have been marginal. In any case, improvement would be hard to measure given the huge reduction in the number of children doing languages at KS4.

As regards e-learning, well, there has been some progress in this field, with greater investment in equipment in schools (England, according to the OECD, has an excellent ratio of computers per pupil, for example), but progress in individualised e-learning has been limited and electronic links with overseas schools are very restricted for all kinds of practical reasons. There has not been a strong drive from above on this.

Most objective observers would have to conclude that progress on point 1 of the strategy has been disappointing.

As regards point 2, a recognition system, or "languages ladder", was introduced and Asset Languages saw some growth, although I read that take-up for Asset qualifications has declined recently. I doubt very much whether it has seen much use at its higher levels. League tables have meant that GCSE maintains a stranglehold on entries even though its assessment systems are inferior to those employed by Asset in Cambridge. My impression is that we have not seen Asset taking off and becoming established in the same way as music exams have. Maybe a renewed drive is needed on this.

Point 3 - this has been a miserable failure. Whilst higher education institutions have made good progress with internationalisation and language courses for non-specialists, the number of specialist linguists has declined alarmingly, a trend just confirmed with a record fall in applications for modern languages this year ( a fall of over 20% compared with last year - UCAS). I am not sure whether "Virtual Language Communities" (whatever they are) have seen the light of day and the reference to employers playing their part looks very vague, doesn't it?

One is left with an impression of honorable intentions not backed up by political will or follow-through. The feeling since 2002 is one of decline, not progress.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

What we know about second language acquisition

Education researcher and trainer Dylan Wiliam tweeted this abstract today. The study concerned has analysed 71 peer-reviewed studies in order to find out the optimal conditions for learning a second language. Here is the relevant part for teachers of French in the UK, or teachers of English in France:

(1)... L2 learners with little L2 exposure require explicit instruction to master grammar; 
(2) L2 learners with strong L2 aptitude, motivation, and first language (L1) skills are more successful; (3) Effective L2 teachers demonstrate sufficient L2 proficiency, strong instructional skills, and proficiency in their students’ L1; 
(4) L2 learners require 3-7 years to reach L2 proficiency, with younger learners typically taking longer but more likely to achieve close-to-native results.

I am reminded of Sybil Fawlty's specialist subject on Mastermind ("the bleedin' obvious"), but to be fair it is reassuring to know that research supports what sensible teachers know. Point (1) is notable since it refers to the need for explicit grammar teaching. There may be a minority of language teachers who would not accept this view.

Point (3) raises an interesting question: are native French speakers teaching in the UK, and perhaps with imperfect English, at a disadvantage in some cases. Despite the research findings it would be unwise to generalise, since so many factors come into play when you try to measure successful teaching.

As regards point (4) I wonder what is meant by proficiency, but my impression would be that when a L2 learner is learning in a L2 environment, then 3-7 years may be reasonable. However, when the learner of French is in the UK, then 3-7 years appears optimistic for most students.

To my mind, natural ability is the major factor, followed by motivation. There is a curious view around at the moment that there may be no such thing as ability and that all students can achieve high levels with enough time and practice. The argument goes that David Beckham became brilliant at free kicks becase he practised them hundreds of times, not because he was naturally good at kicking a ball. Practice makes perfect and ability is not the key.

It may be true that all young children can acquire languages, but once students are older all teachers know that the ability to master new languages varies enormously and that some children just can't do it, or at least they would need lots of time and immersion to achieve proficiency.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

An MFL professional development consortium

I am posting a an email message I received via the Linguanet forum. It may be of interest to MFL teachers in the south east of England in particular. It looks interesting.

"A new project between the universities of Reading and Oxford has seen the 
establishment of a Professional Development Consortium in MFL. The consortium 
involves leading MFL classroom teachers and researchers who are working to 
establish a closer relationship between research-based principles of effective 
language teaching and learning, and current practice within the MFL curriculum. 
We want to invite all language teachers to join the consortium by attending one 
of our six workshops which will take place this summer. The workshops will 
exemplify how eight research-based language learning principles can be 
implemented in MFL classrooms with the aim of raising attainment among students. 
The subsequent dialogue between researchers and teachers of modern languages 
will continue, as the consortium seeks to apply the outcomes of the workshops to 
other areas of the MFL curriculum.

The workshops will be an all-day event with lunch provided. Attendance is free 
of charge. The scheduled dates are:
Reading – 13 June / London – 19 June / Oxford – 26 June / Walsall – 29 June / 
London – 3 July / Bristol – 12 July
For further details and to register please contact Heike Bruton at"

Friday, 23 March 2012

Ofqual report on AQA French

Ofqual has just published monitoring reports on three new GCSEs, including AQA French. I wonder why they chose this examination. Was it connected with all the complaints they may have picked up from teachers, particularly about the marking of controlled assessments?

You can read the pdf document here:

It isn't terribly long and there are some quite specific recommendations on how AQA could improve its examinations and advice to centres on controlled assessments. Here is an example of a comment on speaking CAs:

"Also for AQA French speaking, AQA’s requirement for candidates to cover a series of bullet points was judged to have constrained opportunities for natural conversations to take place for all candidates."

Er... yes. But then the format of the exam rewards candidates who pre-learn everything in detail, so what sensible teacher would encourage "natural conversations". Ofqual would have been better advised to point out that the format is just flawed.

Their advice to AQA?

 "For speaking controlled assessments, continue to reinforce the advice given to centres, in that best practice aims to achieve a natural conversation (from January 2012)"

Hmm... the mark scheme does not reward naturalness of conversation. To get 30/30 on a task candidates should memorise their best possible answers and avoid spontaneity.

Here is a comment on controlled assessment of writing:

"For AQA French writing, although AQA had instructed examiners to consider candidates’ work as a whole, in several cases examiners were crediting the number of characteristics – tenses, opinions and justifications – shown in the responses at the expense of the overall quality. This was particularly evident from the sample of work reviewed for mid-ability candidates, who in a number of cases were overly credited for the work that they had produced."

Interesting point, but then examiners can only work with the mark scheme they are given. My experience was that work of very good quality was not highly rewarded enough and certainly was graded lower than under the previous coursework format. There were a lot of very unhappy teachers this year.

One piece of advice Ofqual offer AQA:

"For writing controlled assessments, provide exemplar marked candidates’ work to include examples of tasks that successfully meet the criteria for assessment".

In fact, AQA already do this and there are ample examples of candidate exemplar work on the AQA site. This is not the problem. The problem is making sure that examiners are consistent and grades accurate. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show this was not the case last year.

They also suggest:

"For writing controlled assessments, provide further guidance to examiners so that they reward the overall quality of candidates’ work (from June 2012 marking period)."

Good idea.

Lastly, Ofqual found faults in the setting of reading comprehension papers (which they call, curiously, written papers). These included pictures which could cause confusion and inconsistencies between specimen papers and actual papers.

Their advice to AQA:

  • ensure that for future examination series (from 2013 onwards), images are made clear to all candidates and there is no possibility of confusion in questions
  • ensure that for future examination series (from 2013 onwards), as far as possible, each question in all its parts is appropriately demanding for the target candidates, including in this careful consideration of particular task types for questions aimed at key grades
  • ensure that for future examination series (from 2013 onwards), questions make clear to candidates the information required by the mark scheme
  • ensure that for future examination series (from 2013 onwards), written papers provide a varied range of text types.
Why didn't AQA get this right first time?

Perhaps they should do what the people at Asset Languages do and pre-test questions properly, rejecting ones which do not produce the right outcomes or which produce unnecessary confusion.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The environmental cost of ICT

Have you ever stopped to compare the costs, both to budgets and the environment, of using technology in the classroom with pen, paper and books? Calculations are hard to do in this field because there are so many variables, but....

If you were to equip a class of 30 students with iPads, you would be looking at an investment of at least £10 000, assuming some kind of discount on a set of cheapest non 3G iPads. If you then added the cost of re-charging and factored in the carbon footprint of manufacturing, shipping and energy use, it is easy to see why old tech might be considered, in actual cost, but especially in environmental terms, an attractive option.

A set of text books with a similar life to the iPads would cost around £350. A set of repromasters might set you back about £70. If you assume photocopying at about 5p a copy, then do a calculation based on, say, 120 copies a week over 36 weeks, you get an additional cost of about £45. There is the energy cost of photocopying, a small cost on file paper or exercise books (from sustainable forests).

A computer base shared with other departments in the school, the situation in most schools, is a sensible compromise. You get the benefit of computer interactivity without the huge cost of multiple sets of laptops or tablets. The computers may be in use most of the time and be cheaper to maintain when they go wrong. Cheaper tablet alternatives to the iPad may be another option, but how usable are they?

Environmentally, a laptop may be preferable to a PC in terms of power consumption, but could be less reliable, cost more to maintain and need replacing sooner. A tablet consumes less energy, but is expensive and less flexible in use.

Just using a single computer, interactive board and projector uses significant amounts of energy.

Are we heading towards transformed classrooms with tablets or notebooks for all? I hope not. Old tech books, pen and paper have plenty going for them. They are tried and tested, work well for most students and, above all, leave a much lower carbon footprint.

It would be interesting to calculate how much energy would be required to enable all students in the developed and developing world to learn with the aid of computers. Unless we can supply this energy cleanly, then it may be worth questioning how much tech we should be using in schools and colleges.


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Miming games in MFL

Children enjoy playing games which use mime and good learning can result from them. Children who are a bit shy in the MFL classroom may also be more confident when miming.

With my Year 7 near beginners today we practised regular -er verbs in French by a simple miming activity where partner A mimed a simple activity from a list of verbs on the board which partner B had to respond to using the tu form of the verb. Verbs included chanter, dessiner, regarder, aimer, adorer, détester, entrer, sauter, travailler, voyager and manger. Then I mimed selected verbs and the students had to respond using the vous form of the verb. This was useful since studenst rarely get to practise the 2nd person plural.

The same principle applies to sports vocabulary. In this case, having taught sports via flashcard or powerpoint, you can get a student up to mime sports which the rest of the class have to identify. There are two advantages to getting a student to come to the front: firstly it can be funny, secondly students get to practise the 3rd person singular. If you get two students up, you can then create the opportunity to practise the nous and ils forms of the verb. This is textbook question-answer, oral approach technique.

Another pair work miming game I have used several times is "dumb customer". In this game partner A, who cannot speak, has a list of items (e.g.a wedding list) which he has to get across to the salesperson (partner B). This works well with household items. Again, the teacher can give examples to get the ball rolling or as a plenary.

Jobs and household chores are other vocabulary areas which lend themselves to pair work miming. These have worked well for my classes.

Not quite miming maybe, but pairs can draw letters, pictures or clock times on the back of their partner. Fun for beginners, or even older learners.

How about this one - I haven't tried it, but it could work well. Give students a list of adverbs:

doucement, calmement, violemment, lentement, rapidement/vite, mal, bruyamment

Then ask a student to come to the front and give them a task to mime with an adverb. The rest of the class has to say or write down the activity and the adverb. Tasks to mime could include: joue au tennis de table, dessine un chat, bois une tasse de café, prends une douche, brosse-toi les dents, lave une voiture, mange un gâteau, joue à la console, conduit une voiture etc etc.

If you like mime, try this:

Thursday, 15 March 2012

CfBT survey on Language Trends

This is the major annual report on trends on modern language teaching in England. The executive summary and conclusion may be worth reading if you don't have time to read all the data.

A number of things struck me:
  • Ebacc is having a notable effect on take-up, as predicted
  • A-level still on the slide because of harsh grading and lure of STEM subjects
  • Severe grading at GCSE and A-level still an issue, including difficulty of reaching A* at A-level
  • Lack of curriculum time at KS3 and KS4. Not enough "little and often" to embed learning
  • Controlled assessments come under fire - too much time to prepare and too much memory learning
  • GCSE too dull
  • Continued dominance of independent sector in MFL - it's a subject area for posh kids
  • German still suffering badly, Spanish less so
  • Continuity with primary MFL proving a challenge
The "expert panel" on the national curriculum recommends that MFL become compulsory again. I remain, on balance, unconvinced about this. Even if the severe grading issue were dealt with (and it won't be), MFL remains fundamentally hard and apparently irrelevant for many children. EBacc may provide a useful correction to the recent trends, but to force the vast majority into modern languages up to 16 may just be counter-productive. We have the experience of pre-2003 to demonstrate this, a period when many children were "disapplied" in any case. I am not sure whether that era raised the status of MFL and I am sure that there are thousands of disillusioned pupils and teachers who would bear witness to the futility of the exercise.

What is this man on?

I had a good time with my Y9 class today using this video tweeted by Sylvia Duckworth. Good for teaching imperatives. It's to the tune: if you're happy and you know it clap your hands.We watched, did the actions, sang, then I got the class to make up their own silly instructions.

e.g. Si tu aimes parler français..... pose une bombe/saute dans l'air/ne fais rien etc. It was quite productive and encouraged, dare I say it, creativity.

Interesting that a video like this, which looks more suited to primary, may work better with older pupils as the language is arguably too demanding for the youngest students. I just played it to a Y11 class who joined in with the actions and found it amusing.

Reminds me of Borat for some reason. Here he is:

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

English by Yourself

Voici une superbe intitiative pour les apprentis d'anglais, proposée par le CNED (Centre national d'enseignement à distance). Selon le site:

"English by Yourself a été conçu pour vous permettre, quel que soit votre âge, d’améliorer votre pratique de l’anglais (écrit et oral) en mettant à portée de clics un ensemble de ressources anglophones soigneusement sélectionnées par une équipe pédagogique pour correspondre à vos attentes et, si vous souhaitez aller plus loin, un ensemble de propositions pour construire un parcours de formation en adéquation avec vos besoins repérés.

Les ressources en ligne sélectionnées par nos experts sont des articles de presse, des animations, des podcasts, des mini-jeux, des vidéos, des jeux éducatifs, des jeux sérieux, des applications, des émissions de radio ainsi que des modules de formation.

Toutes ces ressources vous sont proposées sous la forme de billets qui vous permettent de découvrir d’un seul coup d’œil les caractéristiques d’une ressource : niveau requis, temps nécessaire pour la consulter, thème abordé, origine (USA, Australie, GB…), intérêt pédagogique, etc."

Le site est optimisé pour les navigateurs les plus récents et fonctionne bien sur iPad et d'autres tablettes. L'inscription est facultative et réservée aux plus de treize ans. Ces derniers peuvent créer un espace perso qui vous permet de suivre l'actualité en anglais, de connaître votre niveau à tout moment et de "modeler le contenu du site" selon vos intérêts.

Les ressources que j'ai regardées étaient toutes gratuites, mais, semble-t-il, certaines ressources sont payantes. Il faudrait approfondir le site pour en savoir davantage.

Le site fonctionne avec le soutien du British Council et de France Télécom. Il mérite d'être suivi par un public nombreux. Dommage qu'il n'y ait pas un site semblable au Royaume Uni pour les étudiants du français.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012 updates

There have been some recent additions to the site: a couple of simple Y7 sheets on -er verbs, a help sheet for students preparing for the AQA A2 stimulus card, plus new oral/writing drills on the tenses in the Y8 and Y9 sections.

I have also been checking for dead links and have discovered a few. I try to keep up to date, but with with such a large number of links I don't keep up with everything. What surprises me slightly is how few new, free resources become available online. The well-established sites like Languagesonline, MFL Sunderland, TES and others continue to be the main sources of reliable material. There are, of course, a growing number of subscription sites with a good reputation, such as Linguascope and Atantôt, but I have to say that I am not "blown away" by much of what I come across, and certainly not the resources coming out from the big publishers. I fond the Kerboodle resources from Nelson underwhelming. Maybe I need to look harder!

Meanwhile, the new-look site is taking shape and I intend to put it online in its complete form by the start of May. There will be a £20 annual subscription for the main resources pages which I am currently going through to check for copyright issues, but powerpoints, links and teacher help pages will remain free. When I retire in July my intention is for to be a sort of paid hobby to which I can devote a good deal of time. I have no idea how many teachers and departments will choose to subscribe, but I hope there will be enough to make it worth my while making new resources.

For a sneak preview of the evolving new site:

Oh, and someone tweeted this fabulous site:

If you enjoy France and maps, you'll enjoy.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

GCSE French revision links

GCSE French revision links

Reading (Foundation/Higher)


AS French revision links






Speaking test

A2 French revision links

Here are some very usable links for A2 level French revision.




Essay writing

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Comparatif des programmes éducation de Sarkozy et de Hollande.

Le Monde a publié un comparatif des programmes éducation des candidats à la présidence. Ce qui frappe au premier abord c'est la proposition de Sarkozy d'offrir aux enseignants la possibilité de travailler plus d'heures pour un salaire plus élevé. François Hollande par contre propose de scolariser les enfants dès 2 ans et de revoir les rythmes scolaires en allongeant l'année pour alléger les journées de travail. Selon Le Monde:

"M. Hollande compte également arrêter le "un sur deux" dans l'éducation et embaucher 60 000 professionnels de l'enseignement – sans pour autant augmenter le nombre global de fonctionnaires. Il propose de revaloriser leur salaire et de restaurer l'année de formation pratique."

Il serait bien temps de modifier l'année scolaire pour les enfants et les profs. La journée scolaire est trop longue, les vacances le sont aussi. Quant à un salaire plus élevé plus un emploi du temps plus chargé, il est vrai que les comparaisons internationales (OCDE) révèlent que les enseignants français font moins d'heures de cours que la moyenne (au collège et au lycée, pas forcément dans le primaire)*. Ils sont moins bien rémunérés que leurs homologues britanniques et allemands, par exemple, mais le problème n'est pas que les Français font trop peu d'heures, c'est que les Anglais en font trop. Les profs français feraient bien de résister à toute tentation de travailler davantage. Je ne vois pas où François Hollande va trouver les fonds nécessaires pour créer davantage de postes, lui non plus, j'imagine.

*Si les comparaisons internationales vous intéresse:,3746,en_2649_37455_46349815_1_1_1_37455,00.html

A noter (chiffres OCDE de 2010):

Le salaire d'un prof débutant dans le secondaire en dollars:

France: 26123                   Angleterre: 30534

Et après 15 ans de service:

France: 34316                  Angleterre: 44630

Heures de cours annuelles dans le secondaire (collège):

France:  644                    Angleterre: 722

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Beware -ation words

Blair's mantra was education, education, education - a worthy if not very original soundbite. As we witness the seemingly inexorable fragmentation, marketisation, corporisation, americanisation, privatisation of health services, education and even, it seems, the police, here is an amusing sketch in which Fry and Laurie foresaw the future. Unfortunately it isn't really a laughing matter. Enjoy anyway.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Code-breaking games

We've been using code-breaking vocab games for quite a while, especially with younger students at Key Stage 3. I have mixed feelings about them, since they are all about spelling detail and little to do with communication in the foreign language, but students enjoy doing them and it's revealing to see how they approach the task. First, here's an example based on the topic "en ville" (Year 7):

19, 22 1,22,2,14,11,24,1,11,20,14 = LE RESTAURANT

19, 11 6, 11, 1, 22 ___________________

19, 11 21, 10, 2, 18, 10, 20, 22 ___________________

19, 22 8, 11, 1, 18, 16, 22 ___________________

19 ‘ 23,7,7,10,18,22 5,22 14,23,24,1,10,2,8,22 ______________________

19, 22 21, 23, 1, 14 ___________________

19, 22 18, 10, 20, 22, 8, 11 ___________________

19, 22 21, 11, 1, 18 ___________________

19 22 18,22,20,14,1,22-4,10,19,19,22 __________________

24, 20 8, 24, 2, 22, 22 ___________________

19, 11 17, 11, 20, 25, 24, 22 ___________________

19, 22 21, 11, 1, 15, 10, 20, 6 ___________________

19, 11 21, 23, 2, 14, 22 ___________________

19’ 16, 23, 21, 10, 14, 11, 19 ___________________

19’16,23,14,22,19 5,22 4,10,19,19,22 ___________________

Now, what you find is that some students are extremely methodical and write out a list of letters and any numbers they can match up. They try to solve the code before putting in answers. Other students (often boys) use clues beyond the code, for example the length of the word, the number of words or the gender. They see things more globally and may get to the answer more quickly. Others look "globally" but are too impatient to solve the detail of the code. I have sometimes found that those who get to the answer quickest may not be the best linguists at all and this can give them a boost to the ego.

The method they adopt tells you, as a teacher, something about the learning style of each pupil. That, in itself, is a useful piece of information.

Ultimately, I see these exercises as a pleasant change for you and the students, a chance to relax while they get on and an opportunity to reinforce vocabulary. Some would argue that this is a sound way of introducing new vocabulary. I'm not so sure. I still cling to the traditional notion that vocab is best introduced orally first, then reinforced later on paper.

See for more examples of code-breaking tasks, including a wingdings one!