Monday, 31 December 2012

How can you have accountability without prescription?

Professor Bill Boyle of Manchester University wrote on the 26th December of his wish that in 2013:

"those involved in policy decisions which affect learning opportunities and progress, and ultimately, life chances of pupils, address the issue of deregulation: deregulating teachers from delivering test-preparation focused lessons, and deregulating pupils from being passive recipients, both required to deliver acceptable prescribed outcomes for measurement purposes."

The regime of prescription and testing which has become part of the British and American educational culture, what Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons, describes as GERM (Global Education Reform Movement), is widely criticised because it creates a "mug and jug" view of learning - filling students with knowledge to be regurgitated in tests which form the basis of high stakes school accountability. I'm sure Michael Gove, despite his affection for knowledge-based curricula, is fully aware of the dangers of a return to excessive rote learning and he often talks of freeing up teachers from prescription and bureaucracy, but the results of his policies will surely put teachers in even tighter straitjackets.

So how could we permit necessary accountability without high stakes testing and the gaming and prescription which ensues from it? How can we free up and trust teachers more?

Here's a thought: keep a strong focus on inspection and self-evaluation, with the stress on lesson observation and behaviour, but without the obsessive analysis and publication of data. Let inspectors evaluate progress in lessons, but put the focus on inspiration, relationships and originality. A major step forward would be a removal of 16+ examinations, which could be achieved with a broadening of the post 16 curriculum. Without measurements of GCSE performance we would at a stroke remove the target-driven culture and the constant focus on testing which stifles teacher and pupil creativity.

Since we know that high quality education derives primarily from high quality teaching, we can ensure the latter is achieved by continued internal and external evaluation. Sensible internal assessments, overseen by middle leaders and senior leadership teams, vetted by Ofsted, can ensure quality. If teaching quality is high, if teachers are given some space within a limited national curriculum (for all schools, not just maintained ones) and if evaluation and a culture of self-improvement is strong, students will achieve well. You can have accountability without constant testing.

I know this is a difficult circle to square. One could object that without a focus on data, we have no objective means to measure progress across the nation. It is a recipe for a kind of wishy-washy deregulation without accountability. But the inevitable consequence of a target-driven, exam-driven culture is what we see now: the testing regime leading and damaging teaching. A further consequence of the GERM culture is an over-emphasis on what can actually be measured, which contributes to the lack of esteem for subjects like art, music and drama.

Maybe the pendulum has reached the limit of its swing and we shall see smarter ways of raising motivation without stifling the ingenuity and imagination of teachers.

Friday, 28 December 2012

How well was MFL taught?

Just came across this YouGov survey which asked people in different age groups, regions and social classes how well they thought various school subjects were taught. You might find it interesting.

The subject which emerged as the best taught was English with 87% of respondents saying the subject was well taught. In second place was maths (80%), then geography (76%), history (75%), PE (67%), biology (65%), chemistry (64%), physics (60%), art (59%), MFL (55%) and music (52%).

Figures are also supplied for how badly the subject was taught and these show a similar order.

A closer look at the MFL figures shows that the most happy respondents are those in the 25-39 age group. Younger and older respondents were considerably less happy. Conservative voters were a little happier than Labour voters, with Lib Dem voters the happiest. ABC1 class voters were happier than C2DE by a margin of 10%.

What could this all mean?

Here is my shot:
  • Languages (along with art and music) are specialist subjects which have always attracted a minority of fans. These subjects are a harder sell for teachers and this may affect the perception of the quality of teaching.
  • Languages are actually harder to teach, because they are perceived as harder and the methods needed to teach them are more demanding of teachers.
  • Maybe, though this seems less likely, language teachers are generally less good than teachers of maths, English, humanities and science.
  • Middle-class children are more likely to enjoy languages and have a better perception of their teachers.
  • Older respondents may have more negative feelings if they were taught via traditional (grammar-translation) methods.
  • The youngest respondents may be less happy than the 25-39 age group because their experience is more recent.
It is quite possible for languages to be perceived as well taught. In many schools, and I may say Ripon Grammar School was an example, teacher quality was the key factor in the pupils' perception of a subject. This might suggest that modern language teachers are, on average, less good than most. On the other hand, Ripon is a very white, quite middle-class school with many well-travelled children, so that was also a factor in perceptions of the subject.

Here is an interesting academic study which looks into pupils' and teachers' perceptions of teaching methods. The study notes some serious disconnects between teachers' and pupils' views of effective language acquisition pedagogy. One conclusion is that teachers would do well to explain to pupils why they are using certain methods. As teachers we know that lots of target language and authentic communication is generally a good thing, but the perception of a child who values clarity and successful task completion, maybe with a grammatical aim, may be different.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

To grade or not to grade?

The arguments for not writing grades on pupils' homework are generally familiar. They include the fact that pupils tend to look at their mark and ignore other corrections and feedback, that poor marks can be dispiriting and that high marks can encourage able pupils to coast. Teachers these days are encouraged to always get the pupil, whatever their ability, to realise what they need to do to improve and to set short term and longer term targets.

We used to discuss this in our department quite often and, in the end, decided to keep a system of grades in place, along with occasional targets for improvement and written feedback in English (we felt this carried more weight with students and was a more personal form of communication).

So why did we keep grades and what form did they take?

Pupils usually like to see a grade and it can be argued that attaining a good grade is motivational. The very able student is keen to keep getting A grades and the average student will be pleased to get above a C. True, many students take a quick glance at their grades and then close their exercise book, but this is easily overcome if you simple tell them to spend two minutes reading corrections and comments.

The most important aspect of any homework task or classroom assignment is that pupils take it seriously and work at it. If they know it will be graded it is likely they will take it more seriously.

The clever, conscientious student will usually do their best and, if occasionally they do not, you can always pull them up on the bit with a mean mark. Next time they will do much better to impress you.

But we also decided that we wished to reward effort as well as quality of work. To do this we used to write in an effort grade next to a letter grade for the quality of the work. A good teacher will nearly always know if the student has made a good effort (by the quality of handwriting, attention to detail, presentation of the heading). I would automatically knock off a mark form the effort grade if the heading was not underlined or the date was missing.

We used to ask students about the issue of grades and they definitely wanted to see grades, although they also appreciated useful feedback. Let's not forget, of course, that a grade is a shorthand way of giving feedback and is therefore a great time saver. Teachers do not have the time to put detailed feedback on every piece of work and many routine tasks just require ticks or can be marked in class.

Just for the record, this is what our students had to stick in their exercise book:

A          Excellent work. Amongst the best we would expect to see at RGS. Accurate and, where
A-         relevant, a very good range of language.

B          Good or very good. there may be some mistakes but the work was well understood and
B-         had, where relevant, a good range of language.

C          Reasonable work. there might be quite a few mistakes, but the task was understood
C-         on the whole.

D          Work not properly understood. Too many mistakes.

E          A very weak attempt at the task.

Effort     1 = very good     2 = good     3 = mediocre     4 = poor     5 = very poor

Pupils were also told that if a homework was not done they had one "life". For a second no homework they would get a departmental detention and for a third a school detention. The record was wiped at the end of each term. I would run these lunchtime departmental detentions which was one way for me to monitor pupils who were not working. Repeat offenders would get a letter home.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Bûche de Noël

Voici une recette facile pour les fêtes de fin d'année. A mon avis notre chef aurait pu s'habiller d'une façon plus appropriée pour la cuisine. Elle aurait pu porter un tablier par exemple.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Zero preparation lesson plan

We all know that listening is the number one skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehension input I would sometimes start lessons with this kind of listening task:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own true/false statements. This can be further extended by getting students in pairs to recount your weekend from their notes and/or their own weekend.

In a French teacher's busy life it's always good to have some nil preparation activities up your sleeve!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Performance Related Pay

I read the Teachers' Pay Review body report the other day. It recommends a diluted form of performance related pay for teachers (PRP). In essence, what is likely to come to pass is a national framework for teachers' pay, with maximum and minimum bands, but an end to automatic annual increments and the flexibility for head teachers to give rises to staff within the bands. The unions reject this formula out of hand whilst the DfE is reported to be on a "war footing" in anticipation of strikes.

The report argued that the new framework would make teaching a more attractive career, would allow heads more flexibility to retain the best staff, would help attract good teachers to the most difficult areas and, ultimately, would raise standards of learning.

Firstly, it is widely accepted (and indeed the pay review reports the fact) that there is no international evidence that PRP improves teaching or outcomes for pupils. Teachers are not motivated to perform better by the prospect of more money; the large majority, in my experience, do their best all the time. For every teacher who may get a psychological boost by getting a rise, there will be more who will feel demotivated and unfairly treated by not being rewarded. I have seen this first hand.

It follows that for PRP to operate successfully staff have to have faith in their management and the system used to evaluate them. We have more data than ever, more student feedback, Ofsted, Ofsted-style observations, learning walks, departmental evaluations and so on, so we are certainly better placed than ever to evaluate a teacher's performance, yet personal; preference still comes in to play, budgets are limited and data can be used too rigidly to come to decisions (for example, pupil progress targets may not be reached for all sorts of reasons: taking over a class who have underperformed in the past, teacher illness or maternity, pupil absence, poor timetabling).

Furthermore, we know very well that there are finite sums of money to be dished out, with no prospect of significant national rises in the near future, so if some teachers are to get rises, plenty more will find themselves stuck on the same salary for years, with minimal nationally negotiated rises, probably below inflation. Is this a recipe for attracting more good people to the profession? A better way to attract top STEM subject graduates would be to offer them a generous starting salary.

On the other hand, the current system of TLRs does not afford heads enough flexibility to reward teachers who are clearly high performers or who go the extra mile by running extra-curricular activities. (Interestingly, back in the 1980s, when we had "scales" heads were able to push staff up the scales if they were excellent teachers or did after school activities. No data was used; heads took decisions on gut feeling, hearsay or personal knowledge.) The TLR system, although transparent, could be tweaked to allow heads more freedom to reward teachers who offer to do extra.

In addition, there are under-performing teachers who some say may not deserve automatic rises, but they won't get better by being penalised in their wallet. They may get better with help and training.

It is also true that the current system does not permit heads to pay more to attract staff to more difficult areas. We do need to find ways, à la Teach First, to get high-performing teachers into the toughest schools.

Fortunately, the Pay Review did not go along with Michael Gove's desire for high levels of deregulation and local or regional pay. But from what I can see, the proposed system will not attract more able people to the profession (higher pay might), will not raise standards, will undermine the essentially collegiate nature of teaching and will be simply unfair in its application. Gove is picking a totally unnecessary fight and would do better to focus attention on improving teachers' everyday performance through CPD.

I have little doubt that underpinning the reform is, of course, an ideology founded on deregulation, school autonomy, creeping privatisation and weakening the teachers' unions.

If the reform goes through, despite the inevitable industrial action, one can only hope that heads will exercise their additional power judiciously.

Diane Ravitch (from The Guardian two days ago) says:

"School authorities in the US have tried performance pay plans for almost 100 years. They have never worked. They don't work because teachers don't want to compete with one another for cash prizes. They don't work because teachers are already doing the best they can, and the lure of a bonus doesn't make them work harder or better."

"When performance pay is determined by the principal rather than test scores, that breeds resentment among teachers. They suspect favoritism."

"The ranking and grading of teachers is inherently insulting and demoralising. They are professionals. Professionals work best in collaboration, not in competition. Politicians believe they will get better results by offering bonuses to teachers. What they get instead is narrowing of the curriculum to what is tested, score inflation, drilling to the test, and cheating. What they don't get is better education."

Monday, 10 December 2012

Dom's Unbelievable Truth

Dominic McGladdery had the idea of using the concept behind the Radio 4 comedy The Unbelievable Truth as a way of getting students to listen or read carefully. The idea is that you give an account with a number of deliberate errors in and the other students have to spot the deliberate errors. (In the radio prog, it works in the opposite way, with the contestants having to smuggle through truths among all the errors.) So, with this in mind, here is the story of Cinderella, written (not very authentically) in the perfect tense and containing 10 deliberate errors. You could give this to an intermediate level group. It could be read aloud if the students are clear enough, or done as a reading exercise.

You could make it competitive, using two different texts of similar standard, by seeing which partner can spot the most errors. I am sure students would enjoy this.

Il était une fois une belle jeune fille, orpheline, qui habitait dans une grande maison avec son père remarié. Sa belle-mère avait deux filles, belles et méchantes.

La belle-mère et les deux soeurs obligeaient Cendrillon à faire tout le ménage à la maison. Elle devait faire la lessive, faire la vaisselle, faire le repassage, jouer sur la console et préparer tous les repas. Chaque jour elle devait aussi enlever les cendres dans la cheminée, alors on l’appelait Cendrillon.

Un jour,le fils du roi a organisé un concert pour trouver une fiancée. Toutes les filles du pays étaient invitées. Ses deux demi-sœurs, aidées par leur mère, ont fait tous les préparatifs pour le bal. Cendrillon, contente, n’a pas osé demander la permission d’y aller. Elle a ri si fort, que sa marraine, la fée, l’a entendue et est venue. La fée a utilisé sa magie pour transformer Cendrillon en une belle jeune fille. Elle a créé une belle robe et un vélo pour la transporter et elle a transformé des chevaux en souris.

Ainsi, Cendrillon a pu aller au bal, mais elle a dû promettre de rentrer avant une heure. Arrivée au bal, sa beauté a fait l’objet de tous les regards admiratifs. Le jeune prince l’a invitée à jouer aux cartes. A la fin de la soirée, elle était si contente qu’elle a oublié l’heure. Dans sa hâte, elle a perdu son gant de verre.

Le prince a voulu absolument retrouver sa bien-aimée, alors il est allé voir tous les fils du royaume et il leur a demandé d’essayer le soulier. Il a promis d’épouser la fille qui était capable de porter le soulier.

Ainsi il a retrouvé Cendrillon.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Comprehension and how to improve GCSE

In my last post I reflected on how, because teachers love to teach to the test, the test has to be good and has to encourage the right methodology. What is wrong with the current GCSE exam and how could we go some way to fixing it so that it reflects sound teaching methodology?

Currently 30% of marks are awarded for speaking and 30% for writing. In addition, these skills are tested by controlled assessment which, notwithstanding its benefits, encourages the rote learning of chunks of language, focus on technique and takes time away from enjoyable, communicative lessons, filled with target language.

Only 40% of marks, therefore, are awarded for comprehension of the language.

Now, I have previously written about how I have some admiration for the Comprehension Hypothesis advanced by Stephen Krashen. Without getting too airy-fairy about this, he claims, somewhat uncontroversially in fact, that acquisition occurs when learners are given access to "comprehensible input". If a student hears and reads language he or she understands, acquisition will take place at a subconscious level. Even traditional supporters of the oral approach, with its insistence on structured practice alongside authentic communication, most probably assume that long term acquisition occurs because of lots of contact with meaningful target language. (I used to say to classes that if they listened carefully, nature would take its course.)

If we are to encourage the use of comprehension-based activities in the classroom, then the final exam should reflect this by rewarding comprehension more and accurate writing and speaking less. Therefore, the current allocation of marks is the wrong way round and we should be rewarding listening and reading to a greater degree. If we did so, teachers would inevitably spend more time on target language comprehension and the horse would now drag the cart.

I would go further: if we spent less time on grammar drilling, learning oral and written chunks by heart, vocabulary learning and more time on communicative tasks with the focus on comprehension of interesting topics, students might feel less threatened and enjoy languages more.

So, when the GCSE is revised, I hope that we allocate no more than 20% of marks to writing and at least 60% of marks to comprehension. I have wondered if we should still award as much as 30% to speaking, since speaking is a highly valued and clearly important skill, but if we believe that the key to good practice and effective acquisition is comprehension, then I would be happy to see it devalued a bit.

If you like the theory stuff, here is a link to an article which summarises the case for comprehension:

It isn't long.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Cart before horse

British teachers, like most others, teach to tests. It is vital, therefore, that the test be a good one. If the test is good, it will reflect good classroom practice.

So let's look at A-level and GCSE for a moment.

At A-level in MFL I would contend that there are major elements in those papers which do not necessarily reflect good classroom practice and which are the remnants of tradition and the influence of universities. I am talking principally about translation, especially translation into the target language. You see, once you include a significant number of marks for translation sentences or passages, teachers will spend a good deal of time working over practice sentences. They would be foolish not to if they want their students to get the best results. Now, time spent on going through English sentences and grammatical analysis is time taken away from high quality immersion or "comprehensible input". This means that progress in comprehension and oral fluency will be compromised.

The solution is to remove translation into the target language papers from the exam and to replace it with other tests of grammar and vocabulary set in the target language.

Why has this not already happened?

My guess is that tradition plays a major role, along with the view that translation is somehow more intellectually taxing and serious than other forms of assessment. It may also be felt that it is a concise way of assessing a range of syntax and vocabulary. I would not argue that there there is no place for translation, but if you put it in the exam, teachers will spend too long on it in the classroom.

The same backwash effect is apparent at GCSE, where the insistence on discrete skill testing of speaking, listening, reading and writing has led to forms of assessment using too much English. (Curiously, this insistence does not apply at A-level - logical?) If you set listening and reading tests with questions in English, then teachers will use English in lessons and text book writers (who are in league with the exam boards anyway)will publish books littered with English. (Just take a look at the AQA/Nelson offering, for example.)

So, if the cart is to come before the horse, it has to be a well-designed cart which works in harness with the horse.

Was harness too much there?

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

frenchteacher updates

I am pleased that there are now 1000 subscribers to In reality there are many more users as only one subscription is needed per school.

When I decided to transform the resources into a subscription site I had no idea how many would sign up, but I did deliberately set the price low to attract as many users as possible. There were two reasons for this: firstly, my living does not depend on it and secondly, I like the idea that as many teachers as possible are using the resources, especially as I enjoy writing them.

So thanks to any readers who have signed up and if you haven't, take a look at the samples.

My web designer Harry Green, who is a student at Newcastle University, is working on a redesign of the site to make searching for resources easier and to bring some aesthetic improvements.

Recent additions to the site include dice games on the perfect tense (Y9 - low intermediate), talking about TV (Y12 - high intermediate) and simple revision questions (Y7 - near beginner). I have also done a resource on the death penalty for A2 (advanced). I quite like that one - there are two lists of arguments, one pro and one against the death penalty, to which I have added some discussion and comprehension tasks, as well as some essay work.

There is also a new crossword on places about town for Y7; this one requires reading comprehension of simple definitions.

Monday, 3 December 2012


Here is an interesting twist on the online dictionary. Lingro offers the traditional, Wordreference-style dictionary, but also has the facility to translate individual words on any website page you choose. You just enter the URL of the web page, then the Lingro allows you to see instant translations as you click on words. These pop up in a little window near to the chosen word.

This is a very good tool for the non-specialist linguist, though skilled linguists might also make some use of it from time to time.

By the way, the Lingro bilingual dictionary is very fast and quite detailed. It claims to be the fastest on the web.

However, I have not yet come across anything that will take me away from Wordreference, with its detailed (if not infallible) translations and useful forum.