Thursday, 28 March 2013

Languages Online - visite guidée

Languages Online has long been my favourite interactive website for modern language practice. It's excellent and free, authored by teachers at Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, England.

Andrew Balaam, its creator, writes:
"Languages Online is inspired by our love of producing interactive resources to use with our own pupils. Their positive response has led the whole project. All resources provided on the site were thus initially designed for use by our own classes.
Our aim is to provide an interactive format through which pupils can practise the language we are teaching them in a variety of exercise styles. Many units come with explanations, but it is assumed that pupils should have been taught the material covered prior to attempting a unit. We use our work as reinforcement and consolidation to our teaching. In addition, units are available for pupils to use in their own time."

The site makes extensive use of Hot Potato software and focuses primarily on building up reading and grammatical skill. It is fair to say that, given the exercises were written for grammar school pupils, the difficulty level of many exercises is such that it may not suit the less able learner. Resources are for beginners right up to advanced level. French, German, Spanish, Italian and Latin all feature, but I shall focus on the French resources.

The home page for French points you to primary resources, exercises which match the first two years of the Tricolore series books (Encore Tricolore matches perfectly, Tricolore Total very well), Tricolore Total 4, grammar, vocabulary, topics, AS level (upper intermediate/advanced), A2 (advanced) and crosswords/quizzes.

Most of the exercises use the Hotpot suite of six exercises types, are colourfully and sometimes amusingly presented. Children enjoy the pop-up animals, visuals are clear and colourful, the Comic Sans font is approachable, material accurate and well chosen. The site has also made growing use of Spellmaster and Quizlet software for games, though, as a teacher, I find these less satisfying in their focus on individual items of vocabulary rather than syntax and reading at the sentence and paragraph level.

The strongest sections are the primary one and those which closely follow the first two years of the Encore Tricolore course. Each exercise builds on the last and tends to increase in difficulty. Great skill was employed in the selecting and grading of material. The Hotpot software gives children limited feedback and a percentage score for each page, which some children find motivating. Teachers using other courses should still find these units very useful, especially when easily definable areas are involved, for example topics like weather,. time, clothes, food and grammar such as verb tenses.

The grammar section is quite extensive, covering the main tenses effectively and with plenty of practice examples (something often lacking on other sites). Adjectives and negatives are also covered, but nothing else. At the start of each sequence of exercises there is a grammatical explanation, so pupils should be advised to keep two tabs open so they can quickly refer to verb conjugations and the like. Once again, I would stress the fact that the grading of tasks is spot-on and range of examples extensive. Of note is the fact that accents are easily inserted using a link at the bottom of each page. The exercises allow for no error, but you can take advantage of clues.

The vocabulary and topic units are a pot pourri of material, the best, in my view, being the Y7 and Y8 revision exercises. The World Cup 2010 is now out of date but is still usable.

Within the advanced level sections, I would pick out the excellent range of challenging faits divers with their comprehension exercises and the grammar section on the subjunctive. Colleague teaching Les petits enfants du siècle by Christiane Rochefort will enjoy the quizzes and exercises based upon it.

Users of Taskmagic will also find a section of interactive games. In addition there is a separate page of games for each language. When you choose a game you have to remember to click on the Spellmaster game type at the top the page: jigsaw, pairs, speedword and wordweb. I often let pupils have a go at these towards the end of a lesson in the computer room if they had finished the "serious stuff".

One aspect of the site I appreciate is that the writers are well aware that the Hot Potato exercises do tend to focus on form rather than meaning and indeed many of the gap fill sentences (typically verb manipulation) can be done without understanding the meaning of the whole sentence, BUT many of the exercises have been designed to force students to work out meanings as well (e.g. not only getting a conjugation right, but choosing the right verb in the first place.)

I cannot stress enough what a good site this is, and all freely shared by staff in a high school who have put countless hours of work into it. How can it be free? It is part of the school's ethos as specialist modern languages school to share with other school, there may be ownership issues, but it is also fair to say that use of Hot Potatoes inhibits commercial use.

iPad users should be aware that not quite all Hot Potatoes exercises run properly (those involving sliding words into place do not work), so check it out first. As there is now no technical support for Hot Potatoes 6 this cannot be fixed. As the large majority do work fine, do not let this put you off.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

My favourite zero prep lesson starters

We once called them oral warm-ups. Now they are called, in the UK at least, starters. For me they were a way of grabbing the attention of a class and setting the tone for the lesson. The tone was: we are going to work fast and if you're lucky with a bit of fun. Sometimes they would be simple vocab reminders to make a link with a previous lesson: "Comment dit-on X en français?" or "How many words to do with .... can you remember". I also had a few no-fail fall-back starters. Nothing revolutionary, but they work. For example...

Fizz-buzz: the whole class game where you go round the class counting from 1 upwards replacing numbers with 5 in (or a multiple of 5) with FIZZ and numbers with 7 in (or a multiple of 7) with BUZZ. Where both 5 and 7 are involved, they must say FIZZ-BUZZ. The class has to concentrate hard to keep up and, of course, you get your little cross-curricular mental maths bonus.

Word association: either done as a whole class (better for control) or in groups (if the control is already there). Usually produces some amusement and it goes wherever the class takes it.

Quick grammar drills: e.g. "I give you a sentence in the present, you put it in the past". Give a few examples to make sure they've got it. Lots of TL use plus some grammar analysis and audio-lingualism. Not sure the comprehensible input folk would like it! Too much focus on form.

Aural anagrams: read out anagrams of recent vocab. Class notes them down and first guess wins the round. They get quite competitive with this one. Good for alphabet and listening carefully.

Simple songs: good for beginners and near beginners. Numbers, days, alphabet, months. Brings a class together quickly. Pupils like the familiarity, though learning things in order by rote may not be the best way to develop spontaneity. We don't want children trying to say quinze by counting from un.

Mental arithmetic sums. You read out a sum, they jot it down and figure out the answer. Teach them plus, moins, multiplié par, divisé par. Make them harder and harder.

Maybe these would work well with your classes, maybe not. Depends on your personality, the learning context, the students.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Frenchteacher exam revision resources

Regular users of the site will know that there are plenty of useful resources for GCSE, AS and A2 exam revision. In case you are not familiar with the site contents, here is a summary. If you haven't signed up yet, don't forget it's only £20 a year, not much more than a single text book. Instant online sign-up with Paypal or card.


  • Reading booklet with a range of comprehension and translation into English tasks
  • A set of higher tier reading comprehension passages with questions in English
  • 400 French signs in Word or Powerpoint (foundation/higher tier)
  • A large range of reading texts with various exercises for vocabulary building (foundation/higher)
  • A higher tier vocabulary list with translations based on the AQA board
  • A set of listening tasks based on the Encore Tricolore course for use in class
  • A set of gap fill reading tasks for higher tier
AS level
  • A total of 500 cloze test sentences (50 per sheet) written in the AQA style (verbs and adjectives)
  • A large range of texts and exercises for comprehension and vocabulary building
  • Detailed booklet for the oral exam (based on AQA specification)
  • AS level vocabulary booklet (AQA, but useful for all boards)
  • A model essay on sport
  • A good range of grammar practice worksheets
  • Essay writing guide
A2 level
  • Lots of sentences for translation into French with model answers (can be done in class or just handed out for revision)
  • Large range of texts and exercises for comprehension and vocabulary building
  • Stimulus cards for the oral exam (based on the AQA specification)
  • Translation passages to and from French
  • A2 vocabulary booklet (AQA, but useful for all boards)
  • AS/A2 vocabulary booklet
  • Examples of cultural topic questions (AQA)
  • A model essay on literature
In previous posts I have listed a range of online interactive revision resources for revision.

Monday, 18 March 2013

MFL Sunderland - visite guidée

One of the very best free sites for modern language teachers is MFL Sunderland, soon celebrating its ninth birthday and which offers over 4000 practical and accurate resources for French, German, Spanish and Italian. It is curated by Clare Seccombe who worked in the secondary sector, then more recently in the primary languages field, although the resources are written by a wide range of contributors.

The sitemap is a good place to navigate from, although there are also separate contents pages for each language.

The French section is divided into pages by the English and Welsh Key Stage system, from beginners up to advanced level.There are also separate pages for games and puzzles, Christmas, starters and plenaries, thinking skills and sound files. The bulk of the resources are aimed at younger and intermediate learners, the A-level resources being relatively limited in scope.

In the primary section the usual areas are well covered, including colours, greetings, family, en ville and food. Resources are a mix of Word documents, pdfs and powerpoints. There are some really practical hands-on activities for young learners, including "mini books", cards to make, boardgames and dominoes to play. The powerpoints are clear, not gimmicky and practical. There are flashcards for teachers too. Note that there are also sound files for the classroom and detailed lesson plans which would be really useful for less experienced teachers. The primary section of the site is real strength.

The Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) section is divided into grammar, texts, audio-visual and worksheets/OHTs. Within the grammar sections past, present and future worksheets can be found, alongside a range of other simple grammar areas. Resources are largely Word docs with clear and practical exercises which would work very well with a range of aptitudes, though perhaps least well the very able.

The worksheet section is comprehensive and includes handouts on school, clothes, weather, numbers, places in town, shopping and daily routine, as well as resources specifically for revision. the large range of printouts should mean there is something to please most teachers.

The audio-visual page has links to short home-made movies (wmv files which play in Windows media Player). I looked at the road safety one, which pupils would find simple, useful and amusing, especially as the female lead appears to have no feet. Kids would like that.

The Key Stage 4 resources are divided into the same categories as those in KS3. The grammar and text resources are generally more limited in range, although the audio-visual page has a goodish range of Word docs and powerpoints, including "Millionaire" games (à la game show). The best page has a lengthy list of worksheets, including a good number which I know from my own experience are very useful for exam and coursework (controlled assessment) preparation. This, along with the primary section, is another strength of the site. Once again, although the range of abilities targeted is wide, the most able might find a lack of challenge here.

Just to briefly mention one or two other great pages: the Christmas page is super, especially for younger learners, with handy wordsearches, mini-books, calendars and much more. Have a look if you don't know what a mini-book is. There is a useful page of classroom display resources and a super page of puzzles and games.

If I tell you that the range of Spanish resources is nearly as extensive and that you'll also find plenty of German materials, plus a smaller selection of Italian resources (mainly KS3), you'll have an idea of what a treasure trove this site is. Plus I haven't mentioned the special pages for foreign language assistants, international education (with information about Comenius and partner-finding, for example) and Clare Seccombe's blog.

So, chapeau! to Clare and the contributors for giving up their time and energy to produce such a brilliant free site. If you want to contribute to it, Clare is currently running her 70 day challenge: 70 resources in 70 days. Do send her something, but it'll have to be good!

Friday, 15 March 2013


Here's an interesting and ambitious crowd-sourcing venture. It's called Duolingo and it's from a team of computer scientists, designers and linguists based at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA . You sign up for free - no ads, no later subscriptions, and you learn a language by translating it into your own at a level that suits you. Languages available include French, Spanish, Portuguese and German. In so doing you also help translate the web for the good of everyone in the world.

They say:

"The Service allows users to learn or practise a language while they translate content from the Web. Users are presented with different types of educational activities; while they perform these activities, they also generate valuable data such as translations of Web content."

Here is their short video which explains how it works.

There is an iPhone app so you can use the method on the go. They have had an independent eight week study done by two academics in December 2012  which shows how effective it can be.

How is it free?  They say: 

"Some language learning websites claim to be free, when in fact they are only free to use for a limited time. Duolingo has a different philosophy. Our language learning tools are completely free, because while you are learning you are also creating valuable translations for the world. This unique setup means that Duolingo is offered without ads, hidden fees, or subscriptions—Duolingo is 100% free, today, tomorrow and forever."

(Update: in a Guardian article the makers explain how they are motivated by providing free access quality education to all, irrespective of income).

They have benefited from some external investment and I suppose they will be able to sell the fruits of learners' labours. I do note that they will have information about you when you register. Am I just being too suspicious?

Anyway, this looks very good for adults, and maybe it could be recommended to students. They only have to sign up. Here is more information if you are interested. Here is a revie from PC Mag. And here is one person's experience.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling)

 If any practitioners using TPRS read this, I would be grateful for any feedback if I have got anything wrong!

I must confess when I came across this, I first confused it with TPR (Total Physical Response), the second language teaching method promoted by James Asher in the 1970s. Indeed, the confusion is compounded by the fact that both TPRS and TPR both draw their inspiration from "natural" language learning, namely the idea that second language learning works essentially like child language acquisition.

Both methods posit that second language acquisition occurs when the focus is on comprehension and can therefore compared with Stephen Krashen's comprehension hypothesis.

Whereas the stress in TPR is on students carrying out instructions given by the teacher, with the imperative form of the verb plus vocabulary being the key, TPRS depends strongly on presenting vocabulary first and giving students comprehensible input through storytelling. It is an approach popular with many language teachers in the USA.

According to Wikipedia, with the TPRS approach there are three steps:

1.  Establish meaning of phrases, typically no more than three, using the mother tongue where useful and exploiting the learner's knowledge of their own language. Practise the phrases, then ask questions using them (these are known as PQAs - personal questions and answers). These questions may then form the basis of a dialogue or scene, known as extended PQA. the classroom atmosphere should be relaxed and supportive

2.  In step two a story is read to the class incorporating the previously practised language. Wikipedia explains it thus:
"The teacher does not so much tell the story as ask the story. The teacher will usually use a skeleton script with very few details, and then flesh the story out using details provided by the students in the target language, making a personalized story for each class. Using the circling technique, teachers can ask for these new details while still keeping the target language completely comprehensible. Advanced TPRS teachers are able to improvise, creating stories solely based on student answers to questions about the day's vocabulary structures. The focus is always on the target structures, allowing the details to support those structures.

The actions in the story may be acted out by volunteers from the class. The teacher will usually try to select actors who won't be intimidated to keep the atmosphere as relaxed and fun as possible. When the teacher makes a statement that advances the story plot, the actors will act out that statement and then wait while the teacher continues with the circling questions. Ideally, the actors will act in a humorous, emotional, or otherwise memorable way. This helps students to make visual and emotional connections to the new language structures they are hearing."

3.  Reading. This may include reading the story already told, or a similar story incorporating the same target structures.  The teacher may read aloud, or student may read aloud in pairs, or quietly.

A vital part of the whole technique is good questioning, known here as circling. Circling means just using the full range of question types about the same information (yes/no, either/or, question word questions, giving false statements etc). It is also recommended to use cognates and proper nouns to help students understand. Various other assessment for learning techniques are recommended to check that students have understood. these include using time-out signs, students holding up a number of fingers to show how much they understand and checking comprehension by asking in English "what does ... mean?".

Grammar may be referred to briefly, with rapid explanation, but, as with comprehensible input theory, the stress must always be on meaning and comprehension.

So, what we have is a method with the stress on comprehensible input, repeated practice for mastery, little emphasis on grammar, a warm, relaxed atmosphere. Relevant theoretical basis for the approach is the Krashen input hypothesis (now called the comprehension hypothesis) and the "affective filter" hypothesis, proposed by Dulay, Burt and later Krashen. The latter hypothesises that people acquire language more effectively when they are in a relaxed and willing state of mind.

So what are we to make of this?

I like the stress on comprehension and target language and I have no particular issue with using the mother tongue when necessary if it facilitates, ultimately, greater use of the target language. I also like the stress on stories, which children like and which are sadly lacking in many courses. I like the emphasis on skilled questioning, something vital also to the traditional British oral/situational approach. I like the use of AfL techniques, though I am not sure if the Americans refer to them as AfL.

In reality, I would be surprised if the method is used exclusively by teachers, because I would argue that it is dangerous to lay so little stress on grammatical explanation and practice. The comprehension hypothesis is exactly that, a hypothesis, and there is no certainty that a focus on form as well as meaning does not generate acquisition.

The emphasis on reading is fine, as long as their are suitably graded reading resources available. I would also hope that, at the dialogue/sketch stage, that good use is made of information gap activities, as these are surely one of the best things to emerge from the communicative movement.

So to me it looks like a useful weapon in the language teachers' armoury, but not something to be taken as a panacea.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A2 French revision links 2013

Here are some great links for A2 Level French revision. I would not overload students with long lists of links. These are fine.

First stop
(a mine of all sorts of material: essay planning, vocabulary and vocabulary)
Interactive grammar



Essay writing (model literature essay with tips)

There is also plenty of free reading material with exercises on, bien sûr.

AS Level French revision links 2013

Here is a handy list of revision links for students preparing for AS level French examinations in England and Wales, though I daresay it would be useful to students preparing for other assessments. I particularly recommend MFL Online from Jim Hall. Nearly all the links are free.





(not error-free, but very useful examples)

Speaking test

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

GCSE (intermediate) interactive revision links 2013

In England and Wales, when those blessed controlled assessments are over, you can focus totally on comprehension and vocabulary building for the remaining exams. Here is a handy list of some good interactive revision links for this level. These links are also good for intermediate exams in Scotland, Ireland and other English-speaking countries. You could copy and paste this to print off for students.

I do recommend the free print-off from (see Reading link below). I designed it for pupils working at the grade A-C level at GCSE. Good for individual work and students like the booklet format.

The URL for the BBC learning Zone is very long, so I have posted that as a link.

By the way, a decent app for students to download would be the Cramit one which is pretty good for vocabulary, but frankly, the mobile offerings are generally not up to much. For listening, you could suggest Coffee Break French from Radio Lingua Network.

Listening (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher)

Reading (Foundation/Higher) - look in Y10-11 section for GCSE reading booklet to work through and common signs to interpret.

Vocabulary - good for vocabulary building (Foundation/Higher) (Higher)

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

We don't want outstanding schools.

Just as I dislike British Rail's use of "standard class" rather than SNCF's more honest "seconde classe",I have always been reluctant to buy into the DfE's misuse of the word outstanding. Teachers and schools now commonly mistakenly employ the word when talking about "outstanding" lessons, "outstanding" teachers and "outstanding" schools.

Just in case anyone has forgotten, here are some definitions of the word outstanding:

  • Standing out among others of its kind; prominent (American Heritage Dictionary). 
  • Superior to others of its kind; distinguished (American Heritage Dictionary) 
  • Superior; excellent; distinguished (Collins) 
  • Prominent, remarkable, or striking (Collins) 
  • Exceptionally good (Oxford) 

You will note that the word not only denotes excellence, but almost always superiority and difference. Logically, only a minority of schools can be "outstanding" and I am sure this is not want the DfE or anyone wants.

You might argue that I am nit-picking here, but my fundamental misgiving is the fact that the DfE have created a language of their own about schooling which teachers and commentators have uncritically accepted and taken on board. Why should we go along with this?

Let's take this a little further: teachers will know that when you get into the documentation about lessons and schools, there is reference to being above "average". To be "good" (in DfE speak) you have to be "above average". So, if every school were good, they would not be good since they would not be above average. You see my point - a point which many teachers have spotted.

Then there's the word "satisfactory" which has come to mean inadequate, or at the school level, "requires improvement". Managers and teachers will commonly talk about a satisfactory lesson, knowing very well that this means the lesson was really unsatisfactory.

It's all about striving to raise standards, of course. The only way to improve is to set the bar high and aim for the very best. But it's a bit of a con, isn't it? What's more it aims to put a convenient labels on every aspect of school. It's as if teachers were being constantly graded and judged like students. It's fundamentally humiliating.

We do not want outstanding schools and teachers. In fact, we cannot have them since this would mean that the majority were inferior. We just want them all to be excellent.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

frenchteacher updates

I've been focusing in recent weeks on beefing up the resources in the beginner to intermediate sections of the site.

In particular I've produced a set of texts with questions in English for intermediate level. Now, I have to say that this exercise format is by no means my favourite, since it focus uniquely on comprehension and does not therefore exploit all the possibilities a text offers for effective acquisition. If you use true/false/not mentioned, or multi-choice in the target language, or matching tasks, or questions in the target language, you can raise the level of challenge, incorporate more target language input and, ultimately, improve acquisition.

In this case, however, I am reacting to the prevalence of this type of assessment in examinations. If you look at English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish intermediate level reading exams you will find questions in English to be the most common form of assessment. It even crops up at advanced level.

I came across the new French site Eduscol which posts an archive of baccalauréat exam papers. Go and have a look at the English papers set for the bac. They are very traditional, seemingly anachronistic, in their choice of literary text, challenging questions in the target language (English), reflective essay and translation into French. No concessions to what 18 year-olds might actually enjoy reading. It's as if language teaching had not moved on since the 1950s! Now, I wouldn't advocate that kind of assessment at all, but at least they have maintained use of the target language for questioning.

So, to return to my texts - topics include coca-cola, Louis Braille, air guitar, giant pandas, melting ice caps, driverless cars and dolphins. I have also added some more signs in powerpoint for GCSE/low intermediate and an elaborate game called Call My Bluff, based on an old BBC panel show.

I've also just added a task for AS level (upper intermediate/advanced). Students have to match faits divers headlines to English summaries, then do a creative written and oral task.

Here it all is

I'm pleased to note that there are now almost 1200 subscribers to, most from the UK, but others from as far afield as Hong Kong, Dubai, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.

There will be lots more good resources during 2013.