Monday, 29 April 2013

In defence of pictures

I had an interesting exchange the other morning on Twitter on the subject of using pictures in modern language lessons. A fellow teacher, Barry Smith, was arguing strongly against the use of pictures, when, in his view, we should be making more use of English to present vocabulary if it is more effective to do so. Barry is not alone in arguing that knowledge of the mother tongue is the biggest advantage second language learners have and that we should not shy away from it for dogmatic methodological reasons. TPRS practitioners are happy to use L1 when presenting new vocabulary and some applied linguists, for example, Wolfgang Butzkamm, have made the same point strongly, for instance here.

Among the arguments Barry listed:
  •  Pictures are patronising - we wouldn't use them with adult learners
  • Translations are clearer than pictures
  • English is in children's minds anyway, so do not shy away from using it
  • Pictures demand too much use of memory which can be threatening - use written words to support listening as much as possible
  • Showing words develops literacy in both languages
  • Showing words enables pupils to see morphological patterns in both languages
  • Creating pictures is a poor use of teacher time - it's inefficient
Barry is right to question the orthodoxy of language teaching. We do need to stop and consider whether our methods are the best.

One of the first course books in the UK to use pictures to any significant degree (beyond pure decoration) was Mark Gilbert's Cours Illustré de Français (1966) which used stick men drawings and simple black and white illustrations of everyday life. The pictures had a purpose and were part of a methodology, the so-called oral situational approach, a kind of structured direct method. The pictures were used as a stimulus for question and answer oral work where the aim was to avoid English as much as possible. Language would be presented orally first, with the written word being introduced at a later stage. Every attempt would be made to explain and demonstrate meaning and structure in the target language. Learning L2 becomes, therefore, something like learning L1 - the classic argument of those who support so-called natural language learning approaches.

This became the orthodoxy which many teachers and some applied linguists have challenged. Why avoid English at all cost? Why not take advantage of what the child knows from their own language if it is quicker and more effective to do so? Why make children suffer with endless target language which often confuses, threatens and subsequently fails?

The criticism needs to be met head-on.

If we use L1 more we may get a quicker immediate understanding of the language, but we lose so much. The process of using TL as much as possible, as long as it is handled in a sensible, structured way, using gesture, pictures, realia and texts, provides the large amount of "comprehensible input" which most applied linguists would argue brings about long term acquisition and internalisation of vocabulary and syntax.

Images, in particular, are an extremely effective way of avoiding the interference of English. (Opponents argue that English does not interfere, it helps.) They can be motivational, suggestive and amusing. Crucially, they attract the eye and help hold attention. They are not patronising at all if you know why you are using them (and maybe explain to classes why you are using them).

In addition, pictures can provide useful cultural input. Like video, they can bring a bit of the traget language culture into the classroom.

Fundamentally, though, they are an important part of a tried and tested method. Opponents argue that results show these methods do not work. I argue, on the contrary, that if pupils get little success in language learning, it is down to other factors such as the general motivation of English speakers, lack of time and frequency of teacher contact, or just poor use of the methodology by teachers.

Yet I would not argue for a total avoidance of L1 in the classroom. Flexibility is needed. When explaining a complex pair or group work task it is often more efficient to give a brief explanation in English rather than a laboured one in the TL. Translating can be convenient, a change, a good challenge. Children appreciate clarity, so if you are losing the class, something has gone awry. Furthermore, learners and teachers vary and may respond in different ways. But if we overuse the first language, there will be a cost in terms of long term improvement in comprehension and fluency.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

On textbooks

I have detected an anti-textbook feeling from some language teachers and I understand where it stems from. Books are not always good, some teachers use them too slavishly and with poor methodology, some have been poorly selected for a department. They seem expensive. It is also true that in some schools teachers cannot trust pupils to take them home or look after them properly.

On one occasion an HMI told me he was pleased to see my department using textbooks when many schools were not. This is why I think he was right:

A textbook is a collection of resources, part of a package of language learning materials which include a teacher's book, repromasters, recorded language and frequently online exercises. It has, in the best examples, been painstakingly pieced together, often refined over many years, to be a coherent, carefully graded, methodologically tried and tested learning resource. It is a reference book for pupils, a comfort blanket, a resource for overworked teachers to fall back on. It's a place where wheels need no reinventing. A fellow skilled professional has been paid to produce something of quality for you to use.

A good course book need not lead you into poor pedagogy and should be a launch pad for effective listening, oral practice, grammar and vocabulary building. It will be a good source of "comprehensible input", contain authentic sources and provide the teacher with creative ideas for lessons. It will come with a ready-made scheme of work.

On the other hand, course books and their peripherals are expensive, but when you begin to calculate the ongoing cost of duplicating worksheets and buying IT packages, and when you bear in mind a course book should last at least five years, they make good financial sense.

So, provided the course is well chosen and not used exclusively, no department should feel any shame in using a good textbook.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Message from

One or two subscribers to have asked if I could add answers to exercises to save time with marking or allow students to self-mark.

With this in mind I have just supplied answers to all the AS Level grammar cloze exercises. These are appended to each A4 page.

I have also, some time ago, provided model answers for the A2 level English to French translation sentences.

I hope these prove useful to teachers and students.

I shall look at other activities where answers might be provided, but given the very large number of resources it is unlikely I shall get far with the task. I would rather be creating fresh stuff!

By the way, it is almost a year since the site became subscription based and I have been surprised just how popular it has been, with a significant proportion of all English secondary schools subscribing, not to mention many teachers from overseas.

The first batch of subscribers are coming up to the renewal date and I am sending reminders out on this. If you renew online and wish to keep the same username you will have to renew after your membership expires - it's a foible of my membership software.

Many thanks for everyone's support.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Sentence starters for advanced level discussion

How about these sentence starters for an advanced level discussion lesson? (from

Quand j’aurai 64 ans…

Je me sens toujours bien quand…

Le meilleur moment de la journée, c’est…

Les professeurs devraient essayer de…

Une chose que je voudrais savoir, c’est…

Si j’étais millionaire je pourrais…

La plupart des gens que je connais…

Je me souviens du moment où…

Je regrette que…

J’apprends le français car…

Ça fait longtemps que…

Un bon ami, c’est…

Je n’ai jamais compris…

Un bon élève ne…

La reine d’Angleterre ne…

J’ai peur de…

Dans la vie, le plus important, c’est…

Un bon cours de langue, c’est…

Un bon prof, c’est…

Le mariage, c’est…

Based on an idea from Dictation: New Methods. P. Davis and M. Rinvolucci (C.U.P. 1988)

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Environment discussion task

Here's some good material for an advanced level discussion on the environment. It would probably fit well near the end of a sequence of work on the topic and covers a wide range of vocabulary. This is taken straight from the frenchteacher site.

Que faire pour réduire les émissions des gaz à effet de serre?

Dans votre groupe discutez les propositions ci-dessous, choisissez celles qui sont les meilleures, puis mettez-les dans un ordre de préférence

1.            Faire construire des parcs d’éoliennes.
2.            Augmenter considérablement les taxes sur les vols aériens.
3.            Démanteler toutes les centrales thermiques en les remplaçant par des centrales nucléaires.
4.            Créer une loi européenne qui interdirait la fabrication d’automobiles traditionnelles dès l’an 2015. Toute voiture neuve devrait être hybride.
5.            Assurer que toute maison neuve soit équipée de panneaux solaires.
6.            Simplifiez les procédures pour permettre à tout individu de faire installer des panneaux solaires et des éoliennes sans autorisation de la mairie ou de la municipalité.
7.            Créer des réseaux de transports en commun gratuits, subventionnés par l’Etat.
8.            Réduire la limitation de vitesse sur les autoroutes à 100km/h.
9.            Limiter le nombre de vols aériens à deux par personne par an.
10.         Augmenter le prix du carburant de 10% par an.
11.         Lancer une campagne de publicité incitant les consommateurs à réduire leur consommation d’énergie.
12.         Obliger tout établissement scolaire à réduire sa consommation d’énergie de 10%.
13.         Limiter le nombre de voitures à deux par famille.
14.         Limiter les émissions de gaz carboniques d’une voiture (il n’y aurait plus de voitures à gros cylindré, par exemple grosses 4x4).
15.         Suivre l’exemple de Londres en créant des zones payantes pour les automobiles dans les grandes villes.
16.         Obliger le public à compenser leurs émissions de CO2 en investissant dans des projets au tiers monde (en anglais: carbon offsetting).
17.         Transformer le système des impôts sur les entreprises en taxant davantage celles qui polluent le plus.
18.         Obliger chaque pays à augmenter sa superficie de forêts de 10%.
19.         Investir à l’échelle mondiale dans des projets qui auraient comme objectif l’extraction du CO2 de l’atmosphère.
20.         Donner à chaque famille un appareil qui lui permettrait de voir à tout moment sa consommation d’électricité.
21.         Subventionner la vente des ampoules à basse consommation d’énergie.
22.         Taxer davantage tout produit alimentaire qui doit être transporté par voie aérienne.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

You can't beat a good teacher

All the international evidence says the same thing.  Forget technology, school structures, iPads, academies and the latest methodology; if you want to raise standards just get a really good teacher in front of a class.

So far, so obvious.

I have just returned from a weekend "retreat" in York with one of my barbershop choruses. We are doing our final preparations in the run up to the national convention in Bournemouth. We are fortunate to have an extremely gifted and experienced chorus director. This is what she does well:
  • She has superb knowledge of her field, so we have confidence in what she tells us
  • She has high expectations but tells us we can achieve them with hard work
  • She models good performance
  • She is passionate and enthusiastic about what she is doing and shares that with us
  • She praises us when we do really well, not just quite well
  • She admonishes us quite agressively when we go wrong, but not in a vindictive way - we perform better afterwards
  • She smiles a lot, is funny and enjoys banter with the chorus
  • She is sensitive to individual abilities and needs
  • She sets out clear goals (short and long term), works hard for us and is well organised
  • She makes us do things repeatedly until we get them right
  • She invites input from the chorus
  • She believes in improvement through both practice and explanation
She would have made an inspiring school teacher.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

50 writing activities for the MFL classroom

Below is a list of common writing activites in the target language which can be carried out in a classroom or in some cases online. Most of these would be done within a sequence of activities, often following oral activities to improve comprehension, embed vocabulary or syntactic rules, and improve accuracy of speech and writing.

Writing in the classroom adds variety, can calm a lively class, especially when the activity is led by the teacher, or can give the teacher a breather in a busy day. Even in our era of an ever-improving Google Translate, writing is worthwhile as it combines with other skills to reinforce overall linguistuic competence.

Much writing will be done at home so as to maximise classroom time for listening and oral activity. Writing should nearly always be in the target language, although there will be times when using English makes more sense e.g. when taking notes on a harder spoken or written passage. The teacher will alsways need to adapt to the needs of the particular class.
  • Copywriting from a book or the board to establish simple spellings
  • Writing down words spelled out orally
  • Writing down answers to oral questions
  • Writing down answers to written questions
  • Filling gaps (with options given or not given)
  • Writing down corrected answers to false statements given orally
  • Writing down corrected answers to false statements written down
  • Writing down the correct one of two or more alternative statements provided orally
  • Writing short phrase statements or just true/false on a mini whiteboard
  • Taking notes to an audio or spoken source
  • Completing an information grid based on a written source
  • Completing an informatiom grid or transcription based on a spoken source
  • Writing sentences or a narrative based on a picture or picture sequence
  • Writing sentences from short notes (e.g. diary entries)
  • Completing a sentence or text with the correct form of a given verb or adjective
  • Transposing sentences or text from one person to another
  • Putting jumbled words into a correct sentence
  • Summarising from an English text
  • Summarising from a target language text
  • Writing down solutions to anagrams (either written ones or ones provided orally)
  • Dictation: transcribing words, phrases, sentences or passages from audio or read by teacher
  • Paired dictation e.g. running dictation"
  • Writing a traditional discursive essay
  • Translating into the target language from a written source
  • Translating into the target language from an oral source
  • Writing a passage from a template
  • Writing lists e.g. shopping lists, desert island game, strip bingo game
  • Word association - teacher gives a word, pupil writes first word to come into head
  • Antonyms - teacher gives a word, pupil writes down opposite meaning
  • Writing short accounts from a given word list. Every word must appear in the account
  • Completing sentence starters from an oral source
  • Completing sentence starters from a written source
  • Starting sentence ends from an oral or written source
  • Noting synonyms or antonyms in a written passage
  • Writing poems or music lyrics
  • Writing calligrammes
  • Writing definitions of words
  • Completing a crossword or acrostic
  • Making up original sentences to show a grammatical structure
  • Completing a vocabulary list e.g. finding words in a target language text
  • Writing for a purpose e.g letter, news article, job application, obituary, diary
  • Transforming a text message into full sentences (or the reverse)
  • Underlining errors in a transcribed text and inserting the correct word or phrase
  • Writing social network messages to a foreign speaker
  • Writing words as part of a game (e.g. baccalauréat - find a word in each category beginning with a given letter)
  • Writing sentences for a game of "consequences"
  • Writing on the board or with a partner e.g. "Hangman"
  • Code breaking games
  • Writing "never-ending sentences"
  • Writing nonsense or silly sentences

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Frenchteacher teething problems

Apologies to any subscribers to who have been inconvenienced over the last few hours. Access to member resources on the web site has been impossible owing to some teething problems following our move to a new web hosting company.

My IT guru is working on this and we hope to have normal service resumed very soon.

Update (Thursday a.m.). There are currently logon problems which we shall fix shortly. Members can mail me directly for any resources they need.

Update: Thursday p.m. All is running fine at the moment.

If there are any further logon issues, members can just mail me and I'll send any documents direct.


The blind men and the elephant

There are some good threads running on the TES MFL forum focusing on methodology, where grammar-translation traditionalists and "communicative" types are crossing swords. It has also been pointed out by an astute PGCE student that there may be a lack of clarity in the training of young language teachers about what constitutes effective methodology.

Trouble is, while there is no prevailing panacea method for teaching languages (grammar-translation, audio-lingualism, strong form communicative approach all having been somewhat discredited), there may be a resulting confusion about what works best. How is a young teacher to know how to teach a language in a primary or secondary school?

It reminded me of something the eminent applied linguist Wilga Rivers wrote somewhere; when we try to describe second language learning we are like blind men trying to describe an elephant. I have recently seen the same metaphor used in two introductions to second language acquisition, one edited by Bill VanPatten, the other written by Muriel Saville-Troike.

The reference comes from an Indian legend reworked in a poem by John Godfrey Saxe.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen! 

So what works?

At the very minimum, in a school context, we something which combines three elements:

1.   A good dose of meaningful target language presented in a structured fashion
2.   Explanation and varied controlled practice
3.   The motivation factor: necessity, good teacher, exam, natural enjoyment

How's that for a start?

Friday, 5 April 2013

Frenchteacher updates

Here's a brief summary of the latest activity on the site.

I've been focusing mainly on resources for intermediate and advanced level, as always seeking interesting texts to design exercises around.

I came across an interview with a TGV train driver in an SNCF magazine which I adapted for GCSE. Not the most exciting of material, but very typical of the GCSE genre! It's also close to my heart ever since my old friend who was a TGV driver allowed me to accompany him on two occasions from La Rochelle to Paris and back in the cab of a TGV Atlantique. Also for intermediate level I've done a text with questions on smiling. Evolutionary biologists think we developed smiling from apes who use it to show they are inoffensive. Works for me.

For advanced level I have done texts with exercises on TV and its effects on children's behaviour, music streaming and how it may take over from downloading, gay marriage (the previous resource on this was getting outdated) and the pros and cons of private schooling.
Finally, I have produced a challenging text and exercises about water shortages in the world and uopdated an older text with exercsies on illiteracy.
I am open to requests from my subscribers for resources on topics they would like to see covered. Just leave a comment or mail me via the frenchteacher site. Have a good summer term! See previous blogs for revision links.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Gove versus Reality

Forgive me for going beyond my usual brief, but I have to write this....

There is a growing tide of rejection of Michael Gove's misguided, rushed and bodged transformation of the English education system. He has misled us about the success of academies, written a much criticised knowledge-based curriculum based on his own prejudices and which, for ideological reasons, only half of English secondary schools have to follow, introduced a performance related pay structure which nobody in the world has shown can raise standards, abandoned healthy food standards in half of our secondary schools, taken a risk allowing the creation of free schools, some of which are already failing to do a proper job, paved the way for profit-making schools for which there is no evidence of higher achievement and destroyed a functioning system of support for school sport.

He has knowingly abused data from international comparisons to claim a justification for some fundamental shifts in policy and he is attempting to introduce a poorly conceived reorganisation of GCSE and A-level examinations.

He has alienated almost the entire teaching profession, ignored the advice of some of the most respected educationalists in the country and deliberately sought to create conflict with the teaching unions. He claims he is freeing up teachers from control whilst telling them how to teach maths, English and languages. Finally, he has lowered the status of the profession by allowing non-qualified staff to teach.

This video, although somewhat melodramatic, sums up effectively what is going wrong. Do have a look.