Friday, 30 November 2012

Teachers Pay Teachers

Teachers Pay Teachers is an American site set up by Paul Edelman, a former new York City teacher, which allows teachers to sell their resources to each other for modest fees. There seems to be a good range of French resources available, but it is hard to evaluate their quality since you can only rely on the description of each one; there is no preview facility. However, there is a rating system and buyers can leave comments on the quality of the resources.

Resources include card games, powerpoint presentations, activities, worksheets, mini-lessons and posters.

Most resources cost between $1 and $5. Some are free.

Although many teachers would question why they should bother paying for powerpoints and workbooks when they can get them for nothing on a site like TES, this online marketplace concept is a good one and an easy way for teachers to make a small income from resources made in their own time. Teachers ought to be aware of ownership issues, however, since, in England at least, resources you make for your school may be the property of the school, even if schools rarely follow up on this.

I rather like their mission statement on the site:

"Teachers work hard and deserve extra compensation for all those hours spent lesson planning. Newer teachers and those looking for ideas can save time and leap ahead in competency by learning from veterans. We strongly believe that the ensuing exchange lifts all boats and leads to the better sharing of best practices. In the end everyone wins, especially our students."

Monday, 26 November 2012


This is an interesting and potentially extremely useful initiative for language teachers and students. OpenExam is a "teacher-led, non-profit, charitable foundation of schools, colleges and universities" which aims to provide a bank of examination papers which can done on computers, tablets and phones, and self-assessed online. Exams will include GCSE, IGCSE, A-level, IB, AP (USA), Matric (South Africa) and SSCE (Australia).

These are the stated objectives of the charity:

1. to encourage the teaching and learning of modern, foreign and endangered  languages, thereby promoting international relations and mutual understanding between cultures.
2. to facilitate the acquisition of foreign languages by providing teachers and students with online access to exam-style resources.
3. to provide a mechanism for formative assessment and internationally recognisable records of achievement.

The list of "advisors" for the foundation are mainly Heads of Languages in English independent secondary schools.

As an example, there is already posted a Foundation Level GCSE reading comprehension paper. (It took me a moment to work out how to use the interface, but it works well enough once you figure out the zooming effects.) The exam can be adapted and set for students to do online. Everything is web-based, no software needed and the exams should work well on phones and tablets. The tasks use the Schoolshape technical platform. Schoolshape is an established commercial concern, but I am not sure what their interest is in the scheme.

Ultimately schools who provide material will get free access, whilst other users would pay a fee.

It is early days for OpenExam. As they say:

"At this early stage in its development, OpenExam is looking to establish a consortium of contributing partners before going on to offer its resources more widely – on a self-supporting, non-profit basis. These “Foundation Schools” will be able to contribute to the organisation’s development and assist in the production of resources. They will also benefit in return from unlimited free access to the library of practice examinations."

Overall this appears to be an excellent sharing intiative. There are other banks of shared MFL material on the web, notably TES, but none that I am aware of which provide interactive, self-marking exam papers. The free BBC bitesize material fulfills a similar brief, but is limited in scope. The stress on the word "exam" will no doubt encourage the greatest use of the resources. I am sure teachers and students would find this a very worthwhile aid.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

How about an immersion week?

We all know that the best way to boost the linguistic progress of students is to get them in an immersion situation for as long as possible. At Ripon Grammar we could measure the improvements in listening and oral skills made by those who did the exchange.

Teachers are always striving to increase motivation and skill in all sorts of ways: games, using new technologies, looking for new ways to practise grammar and vocabulary. However, I would suggest the best single thing we could do, if an immersion stay abroad is impossible, is to organise an immersion period in school.

How could this work?

You could first persuade your senior leadership that the benefits would be worthwhile - improved results, higher motivation, personal and intercultural benefits, higher take-up for A-level. You could even present the equal opportunities case, as there are always pupils who are unable to do exchange visits.

You could request a week, probably after exams in the summer term when teachers of other subjects may be less protective of their time. You could ask for volunteers from your Y10 and AS students to join in. Maybe about 30 would be a good number. It's likely you would attract your most motivated linguists. That's fine, but don't make it exclusive.

You would then take them off timetable for a whole week and design a programme of activities with the emphasis on enjoyment and maximum "comprehensible input (i.e. target language). You might include a smattering of grammar, but keep that to a minimum. Remember that immersion is attempting to recreate the conditions of natural acquisition. You would be quite strict about using the target language for everything, even including lunch. It should be possible for pupils to dine together with staff using French.

You would include your languages team, an assistant if you have one and any native speaker visitors you can get hold of. Maybe you could invite a play group. Perhaps you could include a suitable film with some guided activity. You could include song, "serious" work on written texts and listening skills, time in the computer room doing interactive tasks and maybe some major creative task to complete during the week e.g. a playlet, a magazine, a song.

You could have a mini French party at the end of the week to celebrate achievement.

Now, is this all feasible? With smart planning for teacher cover during what might be the "gained time" part of the year, I think it could be. Not every MFL teacher would be involved all the time. For teachers in England it could even be a development opportunity included as a performance management objective. It would be a great way to build a teamwork ethos in the department too.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Lessons from abroad

Lessons from abroad: International review of primary languages is a research report from the CfBT published this year and written by Teresa Tinsley and Therese Comfort. It looks at practice in a number of overseas countries, some of them Anglophone, for example the USA and Australia, others including Asian countries, France, Spain and Scandinavian nations. It is a very lucid and interesting review.

The clear executive summary is worth reading and in a sense it says nothing very surprising, but delving into the detail a bit more I was more persuaded a little than before about the value of second language learning at primary level, though remain as sceptical as ever given the challenges it presents to Anglophone countries.

To sum up, research is pretty clear that there are significant benefits to children in learning another language whilst young. The younger you can go, the more likely you will be able to tap into the natural acquisition capabilities of the under 6s. In addition, there is a natural fit between the "joyful" (I liked that word in the report) learning of languages and primary methodology.  The familiar problems arise, however: how to you make enough time for it to happen and who will have the expertise to do the teaching? As the report states, subject specialists are deficient in primary methodology, whilst primary specialists are usually very short of foreign language skills.

Further, how do you provide for continuity between primary and secondary cycles, especially in a country like England where there is no agreement on which the best second language should be. As the conclusion of the report states:

"... early language learning can only be effective when there is sufficient time, high-quality teaching and continuity through to higher levels of learning." (p.81)

I remain of the view that, despite the government's recent commitment to modern languages at primary level, the resources, planning and political follow-through will be too scarce to make it work. Sufficient time will only be allocated if CLIL* approaches are used and these demand significant language skills on the part of teachers. Continuity will become harder to achieve as the schools become more autonomous, with access to less local planning. Lastly, in the current economic climate there are no funds for further training and history teaches us that the enthusiasm of politicians for primary languages is ephemeral.
* Content and Language Integrated Learning. This means teaching other subject areas through the medium of the second language, thus killing two birds with one stone.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Médecins Sans Frontières resources

Some time ago Médecins sans Frontières placed some excellent French resources on their British site.

The themes covered, unsurprisingly, are the causes of poverty, the work of humanitarian associations, immigration and medical research. They say:

"The films illustrate challenges facing the global community and encourage the discussion of wider social issues. The resources can be used by schools wishing to promote cross curricular collaboration since there are links to Science, Geography, Maths, RE, English and ICT.
Our aim is to provide authentic sources which will be engaging for students. We would also like to raise awareness of MSF’s work in the field and show young people the circumstances and challenges faced by their contemporaries in the wider world."

There nine short videos in all, each one accompanied by a transcript and exercise.

I had a look at one on AIDS. The images are accompanied by a voice-off narrative, spoken in very clear French read at a perfect pace for advanced students. An interview during the film is voiced over in French. The content is interesting and should open the eyes of the average A-level student.

The transcript is in Word which is great because the teacher can easily edit it, produce a gapped transcript or other exercise. The exercises are also in Word and are well put together, with true/false, notes to take, a brief gapfill summary and essay.

These MSF resources are superb and would complement perfectly a sequence of lessons on poverty, development and the work of "associations humanitaires".

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Rote learning

My name is Steve and I am a barbershop singer...

I mention this because when we barbershoppers learn songs we generally do so by ear. We are provided with learning tracks on CD or MP3, play them on our iPod or in the car and set our parts to memory. For me it would take, say, 100 listens of a short song to memorise my baritone part (often the hardest).

This is a good case of learning by rote. You do repeated practice to set something to memory. My earliest memory of rote learning, forced on me by teachers, would be learning times tables. This was useful and has served me ever since. Another memory I have of rote learning is learning the Greek alphabet from one of those yellow and black "Teach Yourself" books. This has served me little, though oddly I still remember chunks of it showing how effective it can be long term. For O-level Latin we learned by heart enormous sections of Verres in Sicily for the translation paper so that you did not even have to think of the translation in the exam. My friends and I would recite sections to each other at break. Good old days? Sad old days.

Michael Gove reckons that rote learning should play a role in schools. In a recent address he said:

"...memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding.... Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we really have a secure hold on knowledge.
Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity." (The Guardian)

Most language teachers make use to some extent of rote learning. We may get pupils to chant or sing verb paradigms, memorise possessive adjectives (mon, ma, mes, ton, ta, tes...) and we may get pupils to set to memory answers for the speaking test or even whole essays for a written controlled assessment. When you think about how languages are really acquired, however, rote learning plays almost no role whatsoever.

It could be argued that knowing a verb paradigm by rote may transfer across to real speaking situations where you have a choice of endings to recall, but I much prefer the argument of the so-called natural acquisition supporters who claim that second language learning is much like child language acquisition and that internalisation of syntactic rules and vocabulary occurs in a more osmotic way, at an unconscious level.

In Stephen Krashen's comprehension hypothesis it is argued that learning rules and focus on form may act as an aid to accuracy, a monitor, as he calls it, but that it does not lead to comprehension and fluency. We get better at languages by hearing them, reading them and using them, not by learning rules and memorising things. For long term success pupils need to be exposed to large amounts of target language, presented in a meaningful way.

If this is true, why do language teachers persist with some forms of rote learning? Well, setting to memory can be useful for passing exams, especially where mark schemes reward accuracy. It is also the case that youngsters seem to enjoy, as Gove claims, learning certain things by heart. It can provide a sense of achievement, a sense that you have mastered something. In a subject where success takes a long time to achieve, we need to provide children with short term goals.

Most of our young language learners will not continue with languages and do not get enough time and regular contact to achieve any degree of fluency, so we have to use methods which provide success, maybe even an illusion of success. There is value in mastering tasks.

But let's not delude ourselves. It is not memorisation which leads to fluency. Memorising my barbershop song may fulfill a short term goal, but it won't turn me into a musician. We should be aware of the very limited use of rote learning in language teaching.

The song is called Songbird.

Friday, 9 November 2012

New franglais

The French have pretty much gave up defending their language from the influx of English. It amused me to learn in the early 1990s that the Minister of Culture Jacques Toubon, in his failed attempts to stop anglicisms, became known to some as Jacques Allgood.

Even so, I continue to enjoy the range of neologisms, many of which spring up in the fields of new technology and entertainment. Some are French adaptations of English terms, such as réseauter (to network), most just English terms used because they are fashionable in some circles.

I often find the latter in a blog I look at from entitled Têtes de Séries by Pierre Langlais (yes, Langlais). Pierre writes about all the latest news of TV series, especially American and British.

In recent blogs I have found pour le fun, difficile d'en parler sans spoiler, les deux épisodes suivants étaient meilleurs que le trailer, Yahoo lance... une webséries (avec un s), les champions du buzz, le post  (continues to be used despite the new term included in Le Petit Robert billet de blog), son dernier best-of de l'été, un mois de playlist, quel crossover elle voudraient faire, les cinq grands networks, se faire previewer (Pierre admits he has just made that one up).

Then I come across avant que les upfronts ne soient trop dans le rétro (not sure what that one means), on se contentera d'un pitch, des tables rondes et des masterclasses. Le brainstorming and le geek  may not be that new, but quatre acteurs has-been looks more original. Words like remake and casting are not at all new, but I confess I hadn't seen cast before. I should read more.

How about cinq prime-times par semaine? And what about comic instead of BD?

Now, Mr Langlais is not using the language of the French person in the street, but to savvy English-speaking DVD watchers, these neologisms make sense and identify them with a culture they enjoy. Some may catch on.

The latest edition of Le Petit Robert I mentioned above includes these anglicisms:

Le notebook
Le netbook
Le biopic
And lastly, David Cameron's favourite, LOL.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Cheating, bending rules or optimistic marking?

I read chunks of the recent Ofqual report on the English GCSE debacle. The media focused largely on the observation that teachers had a tendency to overmark controlled assessments and to try and get their students just over the C grade borderline. There were some persuasive graphs to demonstrate this. Some talked of cheating, others talked of bending rules and Glenys Stacey herself used the phrase "optimistic marking".

In passing, commentators did point out the obvious fact that it is the exam boards' job to moderate teachers' marking effectively and that over-generous marking should not affect grade outcomes.

Picture: Microsoft Office
In fact, the detailed and, I thought, balanced Ofqual analysis probably emphasised a different point entirely: namely that the whole English assessment regime was flawed and that accountability measures put so much pressure on teachers that they felt almost obliged to mark generously. Evidence from the TES forum was used in the report to support this notion.

Now, my department and I  met on regular occasions after school to moderate our own speaking assessments and some of you may have had the same feelings as us: because we were aware that that the exam board (AQA in this case) gave some leeway in terms of acceptable marks, when we were torn between two marks we would tend to award the higher one. Our reasoning was that we had to be fair to the candidate and we had allow the board to do their job of moderation if it were needed. We also had in the back of our mind that we wanted the best grades for the department. As it happened, our marks were never moderated down or up and we were quite thorough and fair in how we assessed candidates.

Teachers usually, and correctly, err on the generous side and if that generosity pushes a candidate from an expected D to a C, then so be it.

Overall, Ofqual were right to highlight the consequences of high stakes accountability, modular entries and controlled assessment. But controlled assessment was poorly conceived in the first place, unreliable and no great improvement on coursework. That was not the fault of teachers or awarding bodies.

In an ideal world we would let teachers do continual assessment, but if accountability measures are to mean anything, then we will have to, reluctantly, rely on more "objective" terminal examinations. No assessment system is perfect.

I read elsewhere that foreign educationalists marvel at the complexity and rigour of our school monitoring and tracking systems. They must also look disbelievingly at our bureacratic, expensive and unnecessary 16+ examination system.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Independent learning in MFL

I must admit that I have never got my head around "independent learning" when it comes to language learning. As a Head of Department I was encouraged, along with other departments and teachers, to incorporate as much independent learning as possible in lessons. An underlying assumption, I assume, was that students would be less bored when working on their own, more challenged and that knowledge and skills acquired in this fashion would be better embedded.

Trouble is, language teachers know that to get their pupils to acquire language successfully they need to supply lots of language input which means talking to them, asking them questions, playing them CDs or videos. This is the best quality listening input, although we are, for very good reasons, happy to let them work in pairs and groups when the quality of input will be less good.

All this listening means it is harder for the language teacher to create the conditions for independent learning, unless we just mean that the student can control the pace and nature of the input via a listening station or computer. Even this is a little problematic, because language teachers also know that they need to select and grade the language they release to students.

Now, reading is a different matter, as it is possible to set up independent, if guided, reading schemes. You just need the right kind of graded material and this is not easy to source. The old favourite Bibliobus was a good example of useful reading where pupils could go at their own pace and, in a sense, work independently.

What about "project work" using the mother tongue? Alright if your aim is cultural rather than linguistic, but time is limited, too limited, so we have to prioritise practice in the target language.

When it comes down to it, language teaching, to work well, needs to be teacher-led and instructional in the best sense. We are not talking note-taking here, we are talking structured practice, question-answer, drilling, repetition, game playing, singing and the rest. This is why the charismatic, "all singing, all dancing" style often works well and this is what makes language learning demanding and enjoyable both for teacher and student.

My own experience, and maybe a consequence of my own failings, was that students liked and needed to be led, and became unsettled when they they were left too much to their own devices. Homework was the best opportunity to work alone and this was when lots of great, "independent" work was produced.

We want students to become independent users of the language, but paradoxically giving too much independence is not the best way to achieve it.

Do you agree?

What's new on

I've added a testimonials page to the site if anyone is interested to read what some teachers think of the resources. I'll add more comments as I receive them. To accommodate this on the home page contents bar, I've shifted the Spanish resources into the "free resources" menu, so Spanish has not disappeared, it's just elsewhere.

I've also decided to place a few small Google ads on American and Canadian sites as the large majority of my subscribers are British and I am not so sure Americans, Canadians, plus teachers down under, are so aware of the resources. Most of the resources on the site are not aimed specifically at British teachers, although I am conscious of the fact that some of the acronyms for assessments look alien to non-British teachers.

As for new resources on the site, I've added a few more crosswords for KS3 and KS4 (low intermediate), plus a crossword on the subjunctive for advanced students. I have also made a resource about Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes, a sheet featuring a very curious fait divers about a seaman who dies in mysterious circumstances, a useful text for AS level about internet shopping in France and an updated text with exercises on doping in sport, taking into account recent developments on the Lance Armstrong affair.

As always, I am trying to keep up with the latest French teacher blogs and other resources, but I always welcome suggestions from fellow linguists.