Thursday, 26 July 2012

Why learn French?.... er.

This picture was linked on Twitter. It would make a really good classroom poster. I hope it's legible. It comes from a Canadian site which aims to foster bilingualism.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Pace, challenge and questions

I'd like to come back to an issue I have blogged about before: questioning.

Here is part of a very good page from the From Good to Outstanding site.

Questioning can fail because:
  • questioning techniques are inappropriate for the material.
  • there may be an unconscious gender bias.
  • there may be an unconscious bias towards most able or more demanding students.
  • levels of questions might be targeted to different abilities inappropriately.
  • students don’t have enough thinking time.
  • learners don’t have any idea as to whether they are the only ones to get it wrong/right.
  • learners fear being seen by their peers to be wrong.
  • questions are too difficult.
  • questions are too easy.
Questioning succeeds when:
  • all learners get a chance to answer.
  • learners can see how others are thinking.
  • teachers gain information about thinking and learning.
  • learners have time to consider their answers.
  • learners have time to discuss and follow up on their answers.
  • the answers are not always clear-cut.
  • learners feel safe to answer.
  • questions stimulate more questions.
  • questions stimulate thinking
Some of the above points are certainly relevant to MFL teachers, but some may not be.

Let's first take the issue of thinking time. Language teachers are usually encouraged to generate pace in their lessons as well as challenge. Pace is important because it probably reduces the potential for boredom and it helps to develop quick, alert responses. In language teaching we are sometimes working on the behaviourist dimension of learning, depending less on analysis, more on stimulus-response and unconsciously acquired knowledge developed through sheer practice and repetition. Reflective analysis comes into play when we are teaching a grammatical concept. In a typical questioning sequence for beginners or near beginners we therefore do not want to give too long to reflect.

Secondly, the claim that all questions should be answerable by all pupils needs critical reflection. An important part of skilled language teaching is the capacity to pitch questions at different levels of difficulty depending on the student. I would argue that if all questions were answerable then some must be too easy for the most able. There is, therefore, a case for differentiated questioning with hands-up. This may especially be the case with intermediate or advanced students.

Thirdly, let us look at the notion that questions should not be too easy. In some language teaching sequences we deliberately choose to make questions easy and answerable because the questioning has a different purpose to that in other subject areas. Questions are used as a form of structured drilling, a kind of artificial game where the main aim is to teach and practise a structure rather than to focus on declarative knowledge.

Take this sequence:

Teacher: Is it a pen or a book?
Pupil 1: It's a book?
Teacher: Is it a book?
Pupil: Yes, it's book.
Teacher: Is it a pen?
Pupil 3: No, it's a book.
Teacher: All together - it's a book.
All pupils: It's a book.

Now, to a language teacher, this is is all very valid questioning  because the focus is on form rather than meaning. The questions are all very easy, not very challenging and barely constitute real communication at all. The aim of the questions is not to elicit knowledge, but to allow for instant response and repetition. In the long run, the ability to reply quickly without reflective thought is what will make a student a successful speaker and listener.

I only make these points to highlight the fact that language teaching is not like the teaching of, say, mathematics or history. Much of our questioning is of a special type, with the purpose of developing internalised competence with grammar, vocabulary and, ultimately, fluency. Language teachers must therefore treat the most recent recent pronouncements on questioning technique with at least a degree of scepticism.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Carol Dweck's mindsets

I have only just discovered this, thanks to a conversation with my friend Tony Swainston.

Black and Wiliam's "must read" work on formative assessment (otherwise known as assessment for learning) argues that to maximise pupil progress a teacher should always aim to move a pupil on from their present level rather than allowing them to coast. They recommend, among other things, that you should not tell a child that they are good, but suggest ways they can improve from their current level, whatever that level may be. This is why they argue against giving grades rather than giving advice on how to get even better. Now, Carol Dweck's notion of mindsets dovetails nicely with this work.

Professor Dweck is a psychologist from Stanford University. She writes on her web site:  

Mindsets are beliefs—beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities. Think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that? Or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life? People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t... So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Tony put it to me this way: the single most important thing a school can do for its pupils is to nurture a growth mindset in students and teachers. Too many teachers label children, put them in boxes and assume that they cannot achieve things. This inevitably communicates itself to children who therefore lower their own aspirations and fail to believe in their ability to achieve.

Dweck gives this example of how one might affect a child's mindset:  

Nine-year-old Elizabeth was on her way to her first gymnastics meet. Lanky, flexible, and energetic, she was just right for gymnastics, and she loved it... In the first event, the floor exercises, Elizabeth went first. Although she did a nice job, the scoring changed after the first few girls and she lost. Elizabeth also did well in the other events, but not well enough to win. By the end of the evening, she had received no ribbons and was devastated. What would you do if you were Elizabeth’s parents? 

  1. Tell Elizabeth you thought she was the best. 
  2. Tell her she was robbed of a ribbon that was rightfully hers. 
  3. Reassure her that gymnastics is not that important.
  4. Tell her she has the ability and will surely win next time. 
  5. Tell her she didn’t deserve to win. 

There is a strong message in our society about how to boost children’s self-esteem, and a main part of that message is: Protect them from failure ! While this may help with the immediate problem of a child’s disappointment, it can be harmful in the long run. Why? 

Let’s look at the five possible reactions from a mindset point of view [and listen to the messages:] The first (you thought she was the best) is basically insincere. She was not the best – you know it, and she does too. This offers her no recipe for how to recover or how to improve. 

The second (she was robbed) places blame on others, when in fact the problem was mostly with her performance, not the judges. Do you want her to grow up blaming others for her deficiencies? 

The third (reassure her that gymnastics doesn’t really matter) teaches her to devalue something if she doesn’t do well in it right away. Is this really the message you want to send? 

The fourth (she has the ability) may be the most dangerous message of all. Does ability automatically take you where you want to go? If Elizabeth didn’t win this meet, why should she win the next one? 

The last option (tell her she didn’t deserve to win) seems hardhearted under the circumstances. And of course you wouldn’t say it quite that way. But that’s pretty much what her growth-minded father told her.

So, praise is not always the way to go. The key point is to always find a way to get the child to believe they can improve.

This all makes sense to me. It ties in well with the government's messages about high aspirations for all. We all believe in this in principle, but in practice we are all tempted to focus on the limitations of the child.

Now, I just temper this with some realism. Tony stressed how the human brain makes a near limitless number of connections and that we are all capable of much more with motivation and practice. However, I choose to believe that there is such a thing as natural ability and that some things are just beyond some children. There is natural language learning ability. There is natural mathematical and musical ability; some people are tone deaf.

But if teachers could get into the growth mindset and develop it within their pupils, greater motivation and achievement would ensue. Einstein said: "It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer."

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Retirement day!

Well, since it is a pretty momentous day for me, I might as well record the fact that today was my last day of teaching French.

After graduating from Reading with a degree in French and Linguistics and doing a PGCE at the West London Institute, I began teaching at Tiffin School in Kingston-upon-Thames. After four years I moved on to Hampton School, an independent school for boys which had formerly been a grammar school. During my time at Hampton I did an MA at the Institute of Education, for which I wrote a dissertation on second language learning and acquisition, with a particular focus on the work of Stephen Krashen, who still holds considerable influence. I have always had a particular interest in second language learning theory and methodology.

After four years at Hampton teaching French and a little German I moved to Ripon Grammar School to be a Head of Department. At that stage my only future career plan was to possibly move into teacher education at some point, but opportunties in that field became rare, and, in any case, I continued to enjoy teaching above all else. Being a HoD also provided opportunities to mentor other teachers, either younger colleagues or PGCE students doing their placements with us at Ripon. Above all else I have always found the classroom a stimulating, challenging and enjoyable place to be. So I stayed at Ripon from 1988 to this day, supplementing my teaching with cricket and rugby coaching for a while, all the while running trips to France and a long-running exchange which, I am pleased to say, is going to continue.

I have always been extremely lucky to work alongside very talented colleagues, both in my departement and in others. Ripon GS is an excellent school which recently got the Ofsted "outstanding". In some ways conditions for teachers have improved. There is less cover and less admin to do, but performance management, targets and accountability have added other pressures. Overall the job has got harder as greater pressure is placed upon you to achieve the best results and as the expectation to produce enjoyable lessons has grown. We have always had to teach too many lessons for them all to be excellent.

So now it's a bit of a relief to shed some responsibility and focus on other areas of life. I shall have more time to keep refining and building up the site, which I began in 2002, after learning to do some simple HTML language. So look out for a relative frenzy of new resources in the months to come!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

So what about compulsory MFL at KS4?

 This is a longer than usual post, so bear with me.

Apparently, according to Teresa Tinsley via Twitter, the recently leaked suggestion form a KS2 consultation document that languages would not be compulsory was a mistake. The DfE has, it seems, not yet reached a decision, though one factor weighing on their minds must be the possibility that the EBacc will cause numbers opting for languages to rise to the point where compulsion may not be necessary.

It may be wishful thinking to assume that the EBacc will cause sea-change in attitudes to MFL at KS4, though there is already clear evidence that the falling trend in GCSE entries has been reversed.

So what is at stake here?

Arguments in favour of compulsion go like this:

All other comparable countries to ours, except the USA, have languages in the core up to 16, and often beyond. To raise the status of a subject which is considered intrinsically important you should make it compulsory. If it's compulsory, it must be important, like maths, English and science. Thirdly, Britain is suffering in the job market because of our lack of second language skills. Fourthly (and surely most importantly), Britain's youngsters are missing out on all the life-enhancing opportunities which knowledge of foreign languages bring. It so happens that most of these young people who are missing out are working class, so raising the status of MFL fits with the government's social mobility agenda.

A useful insight into the government's view on social mobility is found in this recent comment on Laura McInerny's blog by government advisor Sam Freedman. I'll quote a fair chunk of it as it is quite revealing. He says that, with reference to our narrow common core at 16:

 ... one reason why we have such a large “opportunity gap” between rich and poor. Most middle class children study a wider range of academic subjects to 16 which ensures a wider range of post-16 choices and a greater liklihood (sic) of progression to university. Too often, especially over the past ten years, poorer children have been sent down routes at 13/14 that have diminished their options at 16 and subsequently. Our basic principle is that unless the national expectation for young people is broadly in line with what middle class parents expect of their offspring we have little hope of closing the opportunity gap. While we didn’t want to compel schools or young people to take a wider range of subjects when, in some cases, it may not be appropriate, we did want to challenge schools to ask questions about whether as many young people as possible were taking a wider range of academic courses that would give them more options post-16. (my emphasis)

It appears that the social mobility argument is fundamental in the DfE's thinking and this is to be applauded, though I am concerned that they are more concerned with comparisons with other nations than the intrinsic arguments for learning a second language.

Why do MFL teachers have mixed views about this issue?

Whilst it is to be deplored that MFL has become, to a considerable extent, the preserve of the middle classes, we also know that in the Labour years up to 2004 when languages became optional, many children were "disapplied" from exams, many children were not motivated and failed and many teachers had to deal with unmanageable classes. It has been claimed that Estelle Morris, Minister of Education at the time, made languages optional as one means to reduce truancy rates.

The government also remains concerned that MFL may not be suitable for all students, as Sam Freedman's last sentence indicates. They remain reluctant, as I would be, to return completely to the pre 2004 situation. EBacc was a clever way of using accountability measures to encourage schools to value MFL more highly. One would think, however, that if they were really totally focused on the social mobility agenda they would go the whole hog and make languages compulsory along with maths, English and science.

On balance I think they are right not to go the whole way with this exercise in social engineering. The other countries we may compare ourselves to are different in that their second language is nearly always English, which is a much easier sell to students who come into contact with our language through film, TV, music, the internet and often the world of work. English is the lingua franca, French, German and Spanish are not.

Schools should make sure, by high quality teaching, adequate timetabling and option systems, that all students, whatever their background, should have equal access to foreign language learning, but I do not believe we should force feed children who, often legitimately, do not see it as vital to their own needs after the age of 14.

It is often claimed that our youngsters are at a disadvantage because of their relatively low level of foreign language skills compared to some other nations, but let us not forget that they have one immense advantage: they speak English.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Compulsory MFL at KS2

Teresa Tinsley argues in her blog post that the government's policy on compulsory at KS2 is desirable, but that they should go further by reintroducing compulsory modern languages at KS4. The KS2 policy is currently open for consultation. Teresa writes:

"The DfE’s arguments for making languages compulsory in primary schools are spot on: more time for languages overall, equality of opportunities, consistency, and comparability with ‘high-performing’ education systems internationally."

I'd like to take each of those arguments one by one and suggest why the proposed policy will fail.

More time for languages: in reality primary schools will offer relatively little time each week to the type of second language learning which will generate real competence. Lack of skilled teachers will exacerbate this problem. For successful progress primaries would have to devote the same time and expertise as that offered in preparatory schools. The continued focus on maths, English and science along with the relatively short working day will make it impossible to deliver enough contact sessions to assure progress. The recent entitlement to MFL at KS2 has had mixed success and I know as a secondary practitioner that even pupils who have had reasonably regular MFL lessons in their primary lessons arrive with relatively few skills.

Equality of opportunities: as long as there is ample time offered at KS3, with the "little and often" principle respected, all pupils should have equal access to modern language learning. It is true that many, usually middle-class, children get good quality MFL teaching at prep schools. If primary schools could offer the same quality of teaching and the same amount of time then we would have even greater equality of access. I cannot see this happening for the reasons stated above.

Consistency: the entitlement policy in force until quite recently, and applied in the large majority of primary schools, did not provide consistency. To achieve consistency across schools a compulsory framework would have to be put in place, possibly with some kind of accredited assessment to assure standards are met. For consistency to be achieved high quality teaching by at least reasonably able linguists would be necessary. It is quite possible to set up a programme of study for all to follow, but the lack of qualified linguists at primary level means that the programme would be followed with mixed success.

Comparability with high performing education systems: it is commonly held that the earlier you start learning a language the better you will achieve in the long run. I would argue that this is true when the quality of input is good (as Teresa points out). The French have been pushing primary English quite strongly but with very mixed results; and this in a country where the learning of English should be quite highly valued and where there is a reasonable amount of contact with English through popular culture, notably music. The fact remains that quality of teaching and amount of time are crucial. In France primary teachers are often unable to communicate well in English, whilst in England the situation is even worse. In other "high-performing jurisdictions" such as Finland, Shanghai and Singapore, the motivation to learn English is much higher than the motivation to learn another language here.

I remain a sceptic on primary MFL. Unless politicians really follow through their fine words and policies with real commitment and resources we, as keen linguists, will remain frustrated. They will not do this because, ultimately, they do not believe in second language learning passionately enough. They are, alas, the product of their country's culture.

Do you believe that, in ten years from now, all 9 year-olds will be doing high quality French, Spanish or German lessons at least three times a week?

Monday, 9 July 2012

More frenchteacher updates

I've been quite busy recently producing resources for

The most recent additions include some short news items of the fait divers style, along with a matching exercise, vocabulary, writing task and translation sentences with a focus on the passive in the perfect tense. This resource would suit an AS level group (upper intermediate).

I have also heavily adapted a text from Le Figaro about integration in France. The source text was based on a report produced in 2009 which painted a fairly rosy picture of the progress made by immigrants in France. The basic argument is that "l'intégration marche", which runs counter to what we sometimes read in the press. I have added vocabulary, questions, comprehension, lexical work and general questions about the issue of immigration and integration. This is a very mainstream A2 level topic and the text hits the mark very well.

There is a text on the benefits of tourism to which I have added vocabulary, questions, discussion and vocab work. This would work well with the topic of holidays at AS level (upper intermediate). I have included some general conversation questions on holidays.

Finally, I found an article in Sud Ouest, which I have used as a basis for a text on the delicate issue of abuse of the elderly (la maltraitance des personnes âgées). This seems to me to be a worthy topic for advanced students and one which is not often discussed. The language of the text is quite straightforward, so little vocabulary is needed, but I have included lexical work and comprehension questions. I like to include tasks which get students to relate nouns to verbs and vice versa. If students get a feeling for word relationships, fluency and better comprehension should be encouraged.

Thursday, 5 July 2012 latest

I am very pleased by the interest in the site. Since May 1st 480 individuals or departments have become subscribers, with the number rising every day. It really encourages me to add new resources which I am doing on a regular basis. Over the last month here are the new additions to the existing 550 or so resources:

New gap fill exercise on future tense in Y9 section. 5.7.12
New gap fill exercise on perfect tense (avoir verbs) in Y9 section. 4.7.12
New article and exercises on la francophonie in Y10-11 section and as a free sample. 3.7.12
Story of the three little pigs with activities in Y9 section – for good Y9s and above. 24.6.12
New article and exercises on locavores (people who prefer locally produced food) in Y10-11 section and as a free sample. 24.6.12
New article and exercises on electric cars in A-level section and as free sample. 23.6.12
New simple sheet on definite articles and partitives in Y10-11 section. 19.6.12
New sheets on the subjunctive and drug taking in sport in A-level section. 16.6.12
New sheet on perfect and imperfect tenses in Y10-11 and A-level sections. 14.6.12
New sheets: A-Z of English-French grammar terms and prepositions worksheet in A-level section. 14.6.12
New sheet on conditional in Y10-11 and A-level sections. 13.6.12
New recipe for cookies and set of conversation questions on food theme for Y10. 10.6.12

Oh, and just for fun, here is a video we have used a lot in the department recently (good tip from Dom McGladdery via Twitter). You'll like this. Trust me.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Les éthylotests désormais obligatoires dans les véhicules

"Chaque véhicule à moteur circulant sur les routes françaises, à l'exception des petits cyclomoteurs, doit être équipé à partir de dimanche d'un éthylotest chimique ou électronique. «L'alcool est depuis 2006 la première cause de mortalité sur les routes» françaises: près d'un tiers des tués, «un taux pratiquement inchangé depuis dix ans» et «bien supérieur» à l'Angleterre (17%) ou l'Allemagne (10%), à consommation d'alcool quasi égale, selon la Sécurité routière."

Apparemment, selon un sondage effectué au mois de mars, deux tiers des Français seraient favorables à la mesure.

Il est certain qu'il existe toujours un gros problème d'alcool au volant dans l'Hexagone, mais est-ce que l'éthylotest obligatoire dans les véhicules y est une réponse appropriée? S'agit-il d'un marteau pour casser une noix?

A la différence de la situation pour les automobilistes britanniques, en France il faut être muni dans sa voiture d'un triangle de sécurité, d'ampoules de rechange et d'un gilet lumineux. A cette collection d'objets il faut désormais ajouter un alcootest, soit chimique (pas forcément fiable), soit numérique (très cher).

Le triangle, c'est logique pour la protection d'autres automobilistes, les ampoules moins, car souvent le conducteur moyen n'est pas capable de les mettre en place. Le gilet de sécurité sert à protéger l'individu, mais ne devrait pas être imposé par la loi. A mon avis il en va de même pour l'éthylotest. Personne ne sait combien de vies seraient sauvées par l'alcootest obligatoire et de toute façon l'Etat-nounou ne devrait pas obliger les gens à acheter un objet dont la quasi-totalité des gens ne se serviraient jamais. On pourrait même soutenir que la présence de l'alcootest encouragerait une consommation modérée d'alcool.

Si on veut réduire le nombre de morts et blessés où l'alcool est impliqué, il vaudrait mieux tout simplement réduire le taux permis d'alcoolémie sanguine.

En Angleterre on a le droit de consommer un peu plus d'alcool qu'en France, mais d'autres pays sont plus stricts sur la question, notamment (en Europe) la Suède, la Pologne et la Norvège. Lorsque la Suède a réduit en 1990 son taux permis d'alcoolémie, le nombre de fatalités sur les routes a chuté de 8%.

 Il est curieux que le taux d'accidents impliquant l'alcool reste plus élevé en France qu'en Angleterre, malgré la relative générosité de notre taux d'alcoolémie.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Goodbye board pen

I haven't used a board pen for months.

When my classroom had its interactive board installed about five years ago I was provided with a pen to use with the Interwrite workspace software. I used it for a while, but then the batteries packed up a few times and I got used to using my computer keyboard for writing notes, informations and (occasionally!!) lesson objectives on the board.

Fot the whole of this year the only time I have used the pen is when students come up to do interactive tasks with Boardworks or languagesonline.

All my grammar notes (conjugated verbs, note on tenses or other structures) are kept as Word files and I display them whilst still being able to face the class or sit at my desk. (I have not got into the habit of Powerpoint for notes and for most items I don't see the advantage of it.)

They are nearly all available here as free files.

Another good site for read-made notes on grammar is Jon Meier's Langweb. A further practical advantage to not using the pen is that you can stand away from the board and use the computer mouse/cursor to highlight items. This means you are always facing the class and leaving the board clearly visible at all times. This works because my computer is just to the site of my desk.

We all get used to working in our own way, but I have found this suits me well, as does having all the students facing the front. But that's another matter!