Thursday, 31 May 2012

Do MFL teachers need good degrees?

I read in The Guardian today that applications from students to PGCE courses are slow this year, although in subjects where extra financial incentives have been made available (e.g. languages and physics), applications have risen. This is all in the context of the governments attempt to raise the status of the teaching profession by giving higher grants to students with a 2.1 or First and not allowing students with third class honours to apply at all.

Not sure what you think about that, but I understand that research indicates that there is little or no correlation between a teacher's degree classification and the quality of a teacher's results. The argument is obvious: good teaching depends more on communication skills and effective pedagogy than pure subject knowledge. We all know of very bright people who are not great teachers.

I have to confess, however, that when I look at a CV, the degree classification and university is something which carries weight with me. Why? In a selective school with a fair number of able linguists I expect a teacher to have very good language skills. Students need good language models and if a teacher is not very fluent or knowledgeable there can be a loss of credibility and effectiveness. From a young applicant I like to see a 2.1 at least and I also like to see high A-level results. But on interview day, other factors will come into play, and teaching skill will trump academic qualification.

I wonder whether in some subject areas academic excellence is more vital than in others. Does MFL fall into this category?

Will the government's preference for higher class degrees raise the status of the profession? The Finnish model suggests there may be something in this. In Finland, teachers are paid reasonably well, but have high status and competition for jobs is intense. Only the brightest students become teachers. If we are to trust PISA, outcomes for Finnish pupils are thought to be high.

But isn't there something a bit crude about using degree classification as a basis for selecting PGCE students? Is a 2.2 of equal worth from every university? Is a 2.2. in MFL of the same worth as a 2.2 in English literature or maths? Should a really gifted educator with a 2.2 receive less support than a bright student with average teaching potential? What about the 2.2 student who has lived for an extended period in France and become highly fluent? What about the PGCE candidate in experienced middle age who wishes to change profession? And what about the native speaker?

We need more sophisticated means of identifying potentially brilliant teachers, pay teachers more than adequately to show we value them and to give them the time, training and resources to excel.

I doubt whether the government's policy on degrees will raise the social status or quality of teachers. This stems from something more fundamental: how much we value education as a country.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Tech bringing MFL to life?

I was prompted to write this by a tweet I read just now. It was asking for any ways the iPad could be used to bring language lessons to life.

Now, as it happens, I am an iPad addict and I'm not against technology, but there are a number of quite evangelical apologists for what is now often called "tech" here on the internet. Not surprising, I hear you say, that's where you'll find them. But in actual fact, the large majority of language teachers do not tweet, do not read blogs, make little effort to seek out new technology, but just use their computer suites and interactive boards judiciously, or not at all. They teach very good lessons and their students are motivated. They they are good communicators, have a sound basis in methodology and know how to keep kids on task.

They have good reasons for not seeing technology as a panacea. Their lessons are not dead, moribund or dull. They talk a lot, they do lots of listening, they do pair and group work, they use information gaps, they play games, they explain grammar, they do useful drills, they crack jokes with their classes, they and their pupils take amusement from error and so on. These teachers, either implicitly or explicitly, realise that language learning is primarily about face to face communication, as it is for the young first language learner.

Yes, there are other forms of communication; social networks could be exploited further, new technology can spice things up and make lessons more varied, but it is not a sine qua non of good language teaching. In addition, it carries with it a heavy carbon footprint (something I never hear mentioned) and not all pupils by any means enjoy using technical interfaces.

There is much research to be done on this, but I have found interesting a study in child language acquisition which clearly shows that babies acquire phonological patterns more quickly when humans talk to them, rather than when they hear sounds and watch images from a screen. Is that at all surprising? I wonder whether second language acquisition also works better without an intervening medium.

Anyway, maybe in a very few years we language teachers will become less useful, as people use their phones and tablets to instantly translate and speak electronically with the aid of ultra sophisticated translation and text-to-speech technology.

Are we already there?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012 updates

The site became partly subscription based on May 1st as planned, thanks to the web designing of one of our students Harry Green. The bulk of French resources are now available at £20 a year. I pitched the price pretty low to entice as many users as possible. I would rather lots of people used any resources I produce rather than a select few.

Just a reminder that all the powerpoints, whiteboard notes and Spanish resources are free, as are the sections in the Teacher's Guide.

So far almost 300 people have signed up. I'm really pleased with that number. I really had no idea how many teachers would choose to carry on with the site. A colleague suggested I was like a crack dealer who had already got people hooked over a long time.

I have had the odd issue with subscribers finding it hard to pay online, so the option to allow payment by cheque has been worthwhile. I have also had the odd broken link after the changeover. I am fixing these. I have had the very occasional grumble about having to pay, but I would unlikely to carry on making worksheets purely for fun (even though I enjoy making new sheets).

I have recently added two new sections in the free Teacher's Guide - one on teaching literature, one on teaching film. I have created a latest updates page and added two new Y7 (beginners) resources, one on time, the other on weather. From July I shall be adding a good deal more new resources. I am happy to respond to reasonable requests from subscribers too - customised worksheets, if you like.

PS I wish to make it absolutely clear that I do not deal in narcotics, but that £20 for such a lot of resources is pretty good value, n'est-ce pas?

Just added: new sheets on adverbs and present participles.

Saturday, 19 May 2012


I raised a Spock-like eyebrow the other day when I heard an interview on the Today programme with Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, the very profitable parent company behind the Edexcel examinations board. He was commenting on the issue of grade inflation and testing in general. I was a little surprised because we don't normally hear exam boards commenting on educational issues and I wondered why he had chosen to speak out, or why he had been given a platform. You would usually expect Ofqual to be speaking on these issues, as they have done recently.

Now, exam boards set and mark exams. That's their job and I'm not sure they should be commenting on issues of educational policy. But I also wonder why a prosperous multinational publishing organisation is running exams at all. Exam fees from schools come in the main from public funds which have been filtered through to state schools. To me it feels a tad askew, as Jerry Seinfeld might have put it, for tax-payers money to then be directed into the funds of a private company and its shareholders. The other main exam boards are not "for profit" companies and this feels better to me.

Should examining the nation's children be a profitable business? Even in the new post-Blairite world where public service gets confused with private profit? I understand that one argument for letting in Pearson is that their investment can lead to innovation in the exam setting and marking field, but I have to say that Edexcel are not particularly noted for their reliability or even the quality of yheir assessment. In MFL, at A-level, they do not even include any assessment of listening, whihch is frankly bizarre.

So, in sum, when choosing an exam board, I would think twice before subsidising Pearson with public money and I would rather they kept any views they might hold on policy to themselves.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Are French exams getting easier?

To write this post I am depending on slightly unreliable memory and long experience!

If I limit myself to the GCSE era since about 1987, a comparison of listening and reading tests would show that the content of today's papers is easier, at least at higher tier level. Over the years teachers have bemoaned the difficulty of GCSE listening tests. Exam boards have responded to these criticisms by designing papers which are less demoralising for candidates. On the other hand, the boards have become less generous when converting raw marks to UMS scores, so overall the range of grades has not changed hugely. In this sense, therefore, the exams have not got easier. Fewer of my students now get full UMS scores for listening.

The same could be said for GCSE reading papers. In the nineties many of my students achieved full UMS scores, but today far fewer do because the raw/UMS conversions are meaner.

How about orals? I would argue that the latest CA regime is easier for candidates that what went before, mainly because it allows for memorisation of dialogues and there is no real spontaneous conversation or role play.

Writing has also become easier since, again, material can be pre-prepared and set to memory. But in the case of both speaking and writing, the mark schemes ensure that the grade outcomes have remained reasonably consistent, with some toughening up due to the falling cohorts and the inability of exam boards to compensate for this adequately. Example: the ability range of my grammar school candidates has changed little over 25 years, yet twenty years ago we would get at least 35 A* candidates a year. Now we are lucky to get 20. Last year we had 13 in part due to some dubious marking of written CAs.

How about A-level?

I detect less of a change at this level. You still need to be very good to get an A-level at French, but the data does suggest that it is harder to fail or get a very low grade. Very good candidates can still get A grades (or, in rare cases, A* - that's another matter!). Weaker students who used to struggle for an E grade are now more likely to get a C or D. What has changed a good deal is the content of the course. There is much less reading of literature, but a greater concentration on other cultural topics and more time spent on practical language use, especially listening.

This page has some fascinating data on grade inflation:

Friday, 11 May 2012

BBC Learning Zone Class Clips

The BBC has a good tradition of supporting the learning of French over the years, but in recent times budget squeezes have led to a drying up of new content. Pity. However, the BBC has done us a really good service by organising a good deal of its French content into short "class clips" which can be used at home or in the classroom.

Here's the page to start with:

You choose French from the menu of subjects, then a topic from the drop-down list. This provides you with a list of available clips from programmes such as Quinze Minutes Plus, Vingt Minutes, Jeunes Francophones and so on. Each clip comes with lesson ideas and a list of formats which can be used to stream the clip. These short videos are great for spicing up a lesson at any point and can easily be exploited in a number of ways. A whole screen option is available for classroom use. Students could easily view them at home. Today with my Y10 class we were working on shopping, so I used one clip on a car boot sale as a starter, plus, at the end of the lesson, an extract from Vingt Minutes, with the famous Michael Fairclough buying souvenirs.

I hope the BBC decide to produce some new material, but in the meantime the Learning Zone clips remain an excellent resource. I wonder if they are viewable outside the UK?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Extensive reading

In the United States the second language acquisition academic Stephen Krashen has many supporters. I wrote a dissertation about his work back in the 1980s. His main contention, laid out in his book Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, was that people best acquire second language through exposure to large amounts of "comprehensible input". Krashen argued, and still does, that traditional "skill-building" approaches which see a language as a complex system to be gradually mastered, bit by bit, from simplest to more complex, through analysis and controlled practice, are less successful.

He now calls his idea the Comprehension Hypothesis. It is superficially attractive since it effectively says that second language acquisition is like first language acquisition and that all you need to do is provide students with large amounts of understandable listening and reading for successful acquisition to take place.

Krashen goes further, however, by claiming that the language we practise consciously by means of drills, structured question-answer or grammar-translation, does not really count as comprehensible input since the focus is on form, not meaning. He claims that such controlled practice just allows you to monitor your accuracy as a you speak or write. (My hunch is that this is a false dichotomy and that all practice in the target language, whether focused on form or content, can be good. In other words, conscious learning can leak into natural acquisition.)

None of this is verifiable, despite the many attempts to show by experiment that one approach is better than another, but it seems to chime with common sense and experience that large amounts of contact with comprehensible language is what you need to make most progress. In this regard Krashen has done us a great service.

So, extensive listening and reading must be a good thing. Trouble is, modern language teachers find it hard to supply listening and reading materials which really motivate students.

From the 1980s the Bibliobus series for French was a good example of a set of graded readers which could motivate. They were written in accessible French alongside professional cartoon pictures, including some by the Guardian's Steve Bell. Pupils started at the bottom level, selected books themselves depending on their interests and worked their way through. I used to devote a lesson a week over several weeks to extensive reading with Bibliobus. Bibliobus went out of print after a few years (expensive to produce, expensive to buy and schools had insufficient time to devote to extensive reading) and since the nineties I have failed to find anything as good.

Extensive reading has, alas, been a bit neglected therefore. At A-level, where it it is easier to access material at the right level, we include an internet reading task once a week whereby students choose an article, copy and paste it on to A4, then add a vocab list and short summary in English to prove they have actually done the reading. This has worked well, but you have to monitor whether any Google translating goes on. I recommend this kind of reading task.

In general I am sure we neglect extensive reading for a number of reasons: lack of good materials, lack of time, feeling guilty that we are not being active as teachers in the classroom and, lastly, crucially, a failure to realise the importance of comprehension. There is a gap in the market for a publisher to produce a series of graded readers, either in book form (expensive, but preferable) or online.