Wednesday, 30 January 2013

frenchteacher updates

It's been quite a busy January at frenchteacher towers. There are a good number of new resources on the site.

I don't normally post other people's resources since there are other repositories for sharing and, frankly, I like to keep a tight control on quality, but Paul Haywood of the Henrietta Barnett School offered me some very good sheets on Louis Malle's touching Au revoir les enfants. I have posted these as free samples for others to use. It's a tremendous film which can form part of topics such as racism, occupation and the second world war. If you have never seen this movie, do so!

I am making a conscious effort to build up the resources for younger learners, so, with that in mind, I have added some wordsearches for Y7 (numbers, days and months). I am not a huge fan of wordsearches, but pupils like them and they do get children to look at spelling. You'll also find new worksheets on numbers (Y7) and partitive articles (Y8). There is also a text and lesson plan based on Marie-Hélène, a member of my Y7 family.

I have rather got carried away with my signs for GCSE, having added another 100 of them in Word format. There are now 400 on the site. They could be used in various ways, but the simplest would be to get students to explain them in English!

For older learners there are articles and exercises on the new HS2 high speed railway line, integration in France and a pairwork task based on the Cinderella story.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Accuracy versus fluency

One of the best things to happen in language teaching over recent decades is the movement away from accuracy at all costs to a greater emphasis on listening skill and fluency. In the heyday of the grammar-translation era, accuracy was paramount and class activities focused on the precise translation to and from the mother tongue, along with detailed comprehension of written texts.

With the communicative movement of the 1970s onward the focus rightly shifted towards the use of language for practical communication. Mistakes were tolerated as long as they did not interfere with getting the message across. We soon got used to the notion of the "sympathetic native speaker" when assessing what a student had said or written.

But of course we would like accuracy too and as teachers we should aim for it without hindering communication.

With this in mind, I rather like the idea of planning lessons with the main focus on EITHER accuracy OR fluency. You can even share this with classes: "Today I don't want you to worry about being absolutely correct, just have a go!" "This is a fluency activity, folks, make as many mistakes as you want!"

Fluency activities might information gaps, dialogues, guessing games, "who is the first who can't something", general oral discussion. In these cases the teacher would be a listener, rather than a correcter. The teacher may even back off completely, take a well earned rest and let students get on with just the occasional reminder if they go off task.

In contrast accuracy activities would include question-answer to practise a grammar point previously presented, structured drills, written grammar exercises, repetition, pair work tasks with a focus on grammar, such as battleships or paired dictation. In these cases the teacher would correct where necessary.

I do not wish to set up a false dichotomy here, but it is worth mentioning that there is a theoretical basis for making the accuracy/fluency distinction, if you accept the natural acquisition hypotheses and the notion that the focus on accuracy merely helps students develop their ability to monitor their own accuracy and to self-correct. Worrying about getting things wrong sets up an affective barrier for students and inhibits their language acquisition. Comprehension and fluency tasks remain the heart of language acquisition.

My hunch would be that many teacher linguists still tend to focus on accuracy too much. Why? Firstly because they are good at it themselves and sometimes come from an era when it was highly valued. Secondly, in school getting things right or wrong is still a basic fact of life and thirdly assessments, for all sorts of reasons, still place an undue emphasis on written skills where, despite mark schemes which reward successful communication, accuracy still counts.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Design a worksheet homework

Here's an idea for you if you haven't thought of it already.

Pupils design their own worksheet based on a text.

This could work well with intermediate (GCSE) or advanced students. For intermediate students I would probably supply the text myself, to make sure it's at the right level of difficulty. With advanced students I would suggest they search out their own (short) article. A site such as 1jour1actu would do the job for AS level, something more meaty for A2 level.

You would suggest to students a menu of exercise types to use. They will probably have a good idea of these from their experience with previous resources. Suggest: questions in French, true/false/not mentioned, find the vocabulary, questions in English (last resort, but would suit some students).

Once their sheet is completed, they could be marked by the teacher or, much better, copied and shared amongst pupils for them to do, with the creator of the sheet doing the marking.

This task has many merits which must be obvious, but I'll spell them out anyway!
  • Students get to read carefully and, in some cases, choose their own content
  • Students get to surf for good texts, so have contact with a range of texts and new ideas
  • Students get to think about language teaching pedagogy; they get into the mind of the teacher and therefore take a more active and aware role of both parties involved in the learning (this could even lead to discussion about the nature of language acquisition)
  • Students get to be (buzz word alert) creative e.g. with exercise type or invention of amusing true/false/not mentioned sentences
  • Students get to see other students' work and thus assess where they are themselves
  • Students practice particular grammatical forms e.g. questioning
  • Students are active, teacher does less
  • Students enjoy the task!
You can envisage variations on this theme. One that springs to mind is students simply designing their own grammar practice worksheets, once a point has been presented and practised.

Another one for advanced students would be for them to use their worksheet for some micro-teaching. A good student could lead the class and play teacher. This would work well with most advanced students.

Have you done any variations on this?


Just to mention that Paul Hayward of The Henrietta Barnett School sent me some very good worksheets to help with the teaching of Au revoir les enfants, the fabulous Louis Malle movie based on his own childhood experience in a boys' boarding school during the occupation. I never taught ht film myself, but I enjoyed showing it to students from Y10 up. Anyway, the sheets are posted as free samples on the site.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Proposed changes to A level exams

Here is the full text of Michael Gove's letter to Ofqual regarding changes to A levels.

I note that he records that university modern language staff complain of students' lack of skills after A level. I wonder how anecdotal and widespread this evidence is. My feeling, backed by over 30 years A level French teaching experience, is that A level has become only marginally easier and that A grade students are pretty much as good as they ever were. They probably have better listening and oral skills than those of the 1970s and, possibly, slightly worse grammar skills than students from that era. Nearly 70% achieve A*-B grade* (more than previously because A level linguists, along with mathematicians and scientists, tend to be relatively more able than most students).

Secondly, Gove writes that private schools routinely teach beyond A level to give their students an advantage. I taught in both the state and independent sector and my feeling is that this is probably not often the case in MFL. Evidence for this may include the fact that take-up for the Pre U examination has been woefully small.

Thirdly, and this perplexes me most, Gove writes:

"I would like the AS level to be as intellectually demanding as an A level, covering half of the content of a full A level and delivered over either one or two years, so that institutions could decide what is best for their students."

This makes little sense in MFL. AS level is now considered an extension of higher tier GCSE and a suitable stepping stone to A2 level. A2 is currently significantly harder than AS and the current system furnishes an appropriate rate of progress for the large majority of students. If AS were to become as intellectually challenging as A2 it would put off prospective students who already find AS enough of a challenge.

I question whether this has been thought through for all subjects. My hope and assumption would be that, during the process of designing new specifications for MFL and of drafting specimen exam papers, common sense will prevail and AS will remain easier than A2. The leap from GCSE to AS level is already tough for many students; making it tougher will, at best, only benefit a minority of students.

If AS level is to be a stand-alone exam, not part of A level, then schools may be tempted to ignore them and we shall be back to where we were before Curriculum 2000. On the other hand, the search for school value added and the desire of students to beef up their CVs, or just explore their interests, may give AS a boost.

* If you follow this link you will see that there is some evidence of grade inflation in French since 1993 (though less than many other subjects), but do not forget that the cohort of students taking languages at A level has changed considerably and is now, on average, a good deal more able.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

What happened to authenticity?

Back in the 1980's, if my memory serves me correctly, "authenticity" was a major buzz word in language teaching. An excellent newspaper for MFL was even established at Dublin University called Authentik, which was filled with real texts from various sources, accompanied by effective exercises. (It has now evolved into a range of magazines and interactive content to be found here.)

We don't seem to hear the "a" word much now. Is that because authenticity in language sources (texts and conversations) is taken as axiomatic? Or is it that we have realised that authenticity has its limitations?

Authenticity came, like plenty of other language teaching innovations, from the ELT world. It is easy to see why it became fashionable. Traditional grammar-translation (Whitmarsh), audio-lingual (Longman) and oral approach methods (Gilbert) had all used, to a large extent, home-made texts or, occasionally at A-level, texts adapted from literature.

The limitations of these methods, notably (and forgive me for simplifying here) in terms of their lack of real-life communication, the artificiality of the texts and the oral communication practised together with, arguably, their extreme emphasis on grammar acquisition, led to acceptance of alternative approaches (communicative, functional and notional).

Along with the partial rejection of grammar as the prime goal went the partial rejection of artificial texts and recordings and the search for "authentic" sources. If only the internet had existed then, teachers would not have been reliant on the occasional newspaper brought in by a thoughtful student and poor quality long wave radio broadcasts! I recall, back at Hampton School in about 1986, designing a listening task for Year 8 pupils using a recording I had made of some visiting French pupils. It seemed exciting at the time - a real conversation with real French children! It was at best a partial success, because the recording quality was barely adequate and the french children used some language forms which did not fit with the structured language our students had learned.

I think I learned a lesson, and my MA tutor of the time Alan Hornsey, a wise former teacher, then teaching PGCE and MA at the Institute of Education, said something I never forgot. What counts in a language source is not authenticity, but plausibility.

The trouble with authentic texts is that they rarely meet the criterion of hitting that sweet spot where you want learners to go, a bit beyond where they are now. It's a basic principle of education which I believe also applies to second language learning. There is no point giving students material which is way beyond them and nearly all authentic sources are beyond the means of many students, especially beginners and intermediate learners. Further, for those who believe in natural acquisition theories, authentic texts and recordings frequently fail to meet the needs of the "comprehension hypothesis", since the input they provide is not comprehensible or compelling.

What works better are "plausible" texts and recordings, which can be based on authentic sources or written by the teacher. Key point: these allow for selection and grading of language which means they become accessible to students and, hopefully, more enjoyable. They take the student that extra step forward.

These days you rarely find authentic texts in intermediate text books and even those in advanced level books are usually quite heavily adapted. Exam listening tasks in England and Wales, even those at A2 (advanced) level, have become more and more artificial over the years, and certainly do not sound authentic.

So, in answer to my questions above, I would tentatively suggest that, at school level, we have quietly consigned pure authenticity to the dustbin and sensibly sought a compromise between authenticity and the artificiality of older courses.

On ne cultive plus l'authentique?

Thursday, 17 January 2013

BBC French resources

The BBC is a mine of free resources for French, drawing on its archive of television programmes over the years. Cutbacks have curtailed more recent programming, which is a pity, but they have made a good job of giving easy access to older material.

So, here we go - the quick guided tour.

Here is a good place to start. Absolute beginners could try this starter page, an introductory guide to the French language, including simple phrases to listen to and repeat.

For beginners and near beginners the Talk French course is good, featuring short video clips which can be used in class to support your existing scheme of work. There are accompanying transcripts, worksheets and fact files.

The French Experience is for intermediate learners and was really aimed at adult learners, but if you search around you will find useful material for youngsters. Topics include travel, hotels and campsites, health and fitness, shopping and working life. The source material is a bit dated, but still useful. Transcripts are available for all programmes.

Ma France is primarily for adults, but there is nevertheless good material for children and I made good use of this series with Key Stage 4 pupils (intermediate). I recall enjoying the Unit 10 videos about eating out, for example. The series comes with an A-Z vocabulary list which you can also listen to. Some of the video material is re-used in a set of mini lessons which could be used for intermediate listening, either presented to a class or for independent listening.

Next up, some interactive crosswords which may support advanced level. Some good reading input here, with clues in the form of French definitions. Topics include cinema,tennis, winter sports, the Tour de France and Christmas holidays. It's a bit of a hotchpotch, so probably only to be used in support of a topic you are doing already.

To support very young learners as a parent or teacher The Lingo Show from the CBeebies channel has some simple, colourful videos which children can join in with. Topics include colours, food, clothing and numbers. For slihghtly older primary children there is a set of dedicated topics, probably best used presentationally by the teacher.

Then, at intermediate level, we have the Bitesize revision resources, which are for GCSE and Scottish Standard Grade. The interactive listening and reading tasks (tiered for GCSE) are considered useful by students. Good for homework or a session in the ICT room.

Want to learn some slang? Well, you can use Cool French. You can listen to and read phrases which are classified as familiar, very familiar, vulgar or verlan. This material is taken from the course French Steps which is no longer available.

Finally, you can have students test their own French at three levels: beginner, post beginner and intermediate. At each level there are 16 tasks which could be done in a computer suite for general revision before exams. I never used these with classes myself, but they look very usable.

Another way of accessing the video resources mentioned above is to do a search using the Learning Zone clips pages. Just search your topic and you'll see what the BBC has. Among the clips you'll find snippets from Jeunes Francophones, a decent series no longer available.

My favourite BBC programme over the years was the series Le Café des Rêves ("Serge, c'est pas moi!") for which there are worksheets on If you can cope with old-fashioned cars, it still stands up quite well, but alas, is not available online. Plenty of schools still keep it on video or transferred to DVD if you can get a copy.

Friday, 11 January 2013

frenchteacher updates

Just to keep you up to date with recent additions to the site.

I have just added a resource for the teaching of simple prepositions using a simplified class plan as the visual aid (inspired by Mark Gilbert, 1966!). I have added a suggested plan for using it, particularly for less experienced teachers. A good chance for teachers to practise their questioning techniques! In general I am hoping to produce relatively more resources this year for the beginner and intermediate levels.

With this in mind I have made a crossword on weather expressions, probably suitable for Y9, but could be used for revision with older students. there is also a new resource called La maison de la famille Leblanc. It's a text with vocabulary and ideas for exploitation. Good for practising il y a and il n’y a pas de.. Goes with another resource on the site, introducing the Leblanc family.

The issue of food wastage has been in the news lately, so I constructed a text based on a BBC report in English. To save time I began with Google Translate, then corrected, adapted and edited the text. I find Google Translate to be a useful tool, but it needs skill in the adaptation. With the text there is a familiar mix of exercises for advanced level. The topic supplies some useful discussion material.

A few days ago I worked on a biographical text on J K Rowling, for high intermediate level. This could be used with as good Y11 class or maybe Lower Sixth.

Finally there is a crossword on the present tense for AS level. I used the EclipseCrossword free software for this. teachers may use this software for any purpose, including commercially. It works well, but does not format neatly on to one side of A4.

One of the challenges with texts is that they should, of course, be interesting. If students want to read, they will be stimulated and acquire language more quickly. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, so what one student or teacher might find interesting, another will not.

Added on 17th January: online shopping task at Decathlon, plus various wordsearches.

So it's a fairly busy new year in frenchteacherland!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Want to maximise progress? Do an exchange.

The classroom is a good place for beginners to learn a second language. The teacher can control the content, simplify language, use the mother tongue where necessary to help things along. By the time a student has reached a good intermediate level they can benefit greatly from an immersion experience to maximise the language input they receive. Language acquisition is all about the input!

The exchange is a tried and tested way of providing students with a (relatively inexpensive)week or two of full or part immersion and if language teachers are serious about providing the best conditions for progress they should seriously consider making an exchange available to as many students as possible. If you have run an exchange or taken part in one as a student you will know how much of a boost it gives to the language learning process.

Exchanges do not always run perfectly smoothly, but if care is taken over getting the right school, over matching students by age and interests, and if staff do their best to build up relationships with parents and colleagues, the rewards are great and measurable. My experience over many years was that the most apparent gain is in listening skill, with exchange pupils raising their scores significantly. More importantly, a positive attitude to learning ensues* and classroom tasks take on a greater significance as students realise their learning has a point.

Teachers also gain by improving their language skills and by building up friendships and greater knowledge of the target language culture.

To me, therefore, it has always seemed obvious that for a student to achieve their best they need to get to the target language country. Any minor improvements we make to the classroom experience pale into insignificance when compared to the benefits of living abroad.

Impossible to organise an exchange? Then how about a study week abroad (much more expensive, less immersion, so less good) or an immersion week in school?

 * Dulay, Burt and Krashen refer to the "affective filter" which can seriously limit a student's progress. Put simply, students have to be motivated and want to learn for acquisition to take place.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Stephen Krashen on language acquisition

In my experience modern language teachers are not terribly interested in theories of language acquisition; they prefer practical ideas and solutions for the classroom. They eagerly grab the latest games, realia, worksheets or lesson plans to stimulate their classes and/or themselves. This is entirely understandable, because teachers are pragmatic and, in any case, aren't too sure about how second languages are acquired. Who can be sure what works best?  So the best solution is to use, from experience, what you think works.

I believe, however, that language teachers should have some theoretical underpinnings to their practice, even if there is no certainty about what happens in the brain. One applied linguist who always seemed certain about how languages are picked up is Stephen Krashen. I studied him in the 1980s and have always been influenced by his model of second language acquisition, even though I have some issues with it. I have just come across two talks he gave back in 1982, just after he published his seminal works Second Language Learning and Second language Acquisition (1981) and Principles and Practice in Second language Acquisition (1982), both available to read online.

The two videos last nearly half an hour in total, but if you have time, I recommend them. They will make you think, they may make you object (e.g. at about 12m 20 into the first video!) and they may even influence how you teach.

One thing that strikes me is how fresh the ideas still seem and how little we have moved on since the 1980s. See what you think.

Vous aimez le français? Vous aimez les sciences? vous propose des vidéos (une par semaine) sur des sujets tels que: la biologie, la génétique, l'énergie, l'environnement,la médecine, l'histoire des sciences,les maths, la chimie, la physique et beaucoup plus. Ces vidéoclips viennent de sources très diverses, par exemple l'Inrap, Ifremer, FranceTVéducation et l'Inserm. Certaines sont sous-titrées en français.

Au programme en ce moment c'est la rubrique Voyage en science fiction. A la une il y a une vidéo où l'on explique le concept du warp de Star Trek (la déformation de l'espace qui permet de voyager au-delà de la vitesse de la lumière).

Le site fête ses trois années d'existence et plairait à des élèves avancés qui s'intéressent aux sciences et qui voudraient perfectionner leurs compétences à l'écoute.

Je recommande par exemple les vidéos sur les robots humanoïdes (voir une fiche sur et la déforestation. Il y a une série de dessins animés muets sur la déforestation où les élèves pourraient faire des commentaires oraux.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The tech package language teachers need

Computers and other new technology have been tremendous for languages. Ever since the reel-to-reel tape recorder and slide projector language teachers have led the way in schools in the use of the latest technology to enhance the quality of lessons. Language laboratories, cassettes, television, VCRs, CDs, interactive boards, mobile devices and networked computers have all provided us with new tools to make lessons more accessible and interesting. Some have even created new approaches to language learning in their own right.

And yet... we still await the total package which would fulfill all our needs.

For presentation, enhanced powerpoints (e.g. Boardworks) are good. For advanced grammar explanation we have Le Français Interactif. For grammar practice, interactive web sites such as languagesonline do the job. For interactive listening we have the likes of the Ashcombe School video quizzes, the BBC, Audio Lingua and a wide range of online and published resources. For comprehension we can dip into online sources such as MYLO, PolarFLE. For vocabulary learning there's Vocab Express. For games there's Taskmagic. For language in context and cultural content we have the BBC. For assessment we have Exampro. At the more gimmicky end of things we have the likes of Voki and Goanimate.

What we do not yet have is a teaching package which can combine everything we would like in a stimulating and challenging way for students.

Such a package would allow teachers to present and practise material and for students to work independently with instant feedback and without distracting each other. These could be some of the elements:

  • Presentational material e.g. flashcard/powerpoint
  • Interactive textual material
  • Interactive listening material (mainly video)
  • Interactive grammar practice
  • Teacher and self-assessment resources
  • Interactive games
  • Voice recording and feedback capability
  • Intercultural content
Now, there have been attempts to do something along these lines, for example the AQA Nelson-Thornes Kerboodle packages (the clue is in the title), but they have been, to my mind at least, unimaginative (dull interface, short of creative tasks, boring texts), short on investment (e.g. lack of video, lack of games, patchy exercises) and not cheap for language departments strapped for cash.

The problem may be partly one of imagination, but the real issue is money. The market for a total package of this type is relatively small, since the product would need to cater for specific syllabuses and would probably not cross continents. The investment would need to be large, so the cost would be prohibitive. It would take the likes of the BBC to be able to produce something with the scale and quality required. Their Learning Zone Class Clips gives an idea of what can be achieved with an existing archive of material. But look out for Pearson who, drawing on their American experience, will look for lucrative opportunities to make the most of the English market for ready-made teaching and testing resources.

PS - Anneli Mclachlan has pointed out Pearson's ActiveTeach to me. Is it good?