Friday, 27 December 2013

New year plans for frenchteacher

In recent months I have focused on adding listening resources to the site. These have been worksheets which link to online videos. I would hope that these would make listening less of a chore since they incorporate a visual element. My main focus has been on advanced level and there is now a good stock of listening resources to complement the huge array of reading, speaking and grammar resources.

This year I would like to increase the number of listening resources at near beginner and intermediate level. Up to now I have done less on this for two reasons. Firstly they are harder to find and secondly popular course books have plenty of audio material already. However, it remains true that video is less common, so there is a demand for listening with video. The recent Peppa Cochon video worksheets are a good example of approachable and stimulating intermediate resources.

A second task for this year will be some spring cleaning of resources which have become outdated. I have been posting texts since 2002 and some have already been removed, but I am aware that others may be getting past their sell-by date. I have already, on a small scale, updated some advanced texts. That said, if a long-standing resource is removed and you still need it, just mail me and I can send it to you individually.

A third development for this year will be the addition of more translation resources at all levels. Although, in principle, I do not favour doing too much translation into the target language since it reduces the time devoted to "comprehensible input" ( I still can't resist putting this in quotation marks!), I know that teachers do enjoy setting translation (both ways) and it is also the case that in England the new national curriculum refers explicitly to translation which means it may feature, in some form, in new GCSE exams to be taught from September 2016.

So there we are. My retirement hobby is doing very well with well over 1200 member schools, teachers and tutors from all around the globe. Thank you to all subscribers and I wish you a happy new year.

Friday, 20 December 2013

The grammar school debate

When I am not thinking about language teaching stuff, I do keep an eye on the educational agenda in general. A recent report in The Sunday Telegraph suggests that Thetesa May is looking at allowing the creation of more grammar schools. Allow me to reflect on this one and see if you agree!

This is the issue that refuses to go away, isn't it? I know a bit about grammar schools, having taught in two over a period of nearly 30 years. But anecdotal evidence, which is what we mostly get to hear in the comment pages, is not really enough.

The case for grammar schools has recently centred on the issue of social mobility. Some would have us believe that the grammar school was the route up the social ladder for bright, working class children. They believe that ambitious, able, working class kids are held back by less motivated children in mediocre comprehensive schools. The same people would no doubt argue that comprehensive education has led to a decline in excellence, a boost for private schools and selection by postcode as parents seek more selective schooling or the "best" local comprehensive.

What is the empirical evidence for grammar schools being a promoter of social mobility?

Sir Michael Wilshaw argued powerfully against grammar schools, stating that the proportion of children in them on free school meals was very low when compared to schools in general. Wilshaw stated that grammar schools were "stuffed" with middle class children. He is no doubt right in general. According to the Sutton Trust fewer than 3% of grammar schools entrants are entitled to free school meals, compared to 18% on average.

I am not surprised by this. First and foremost, if one accepts that there is a correlation between social class and IQ (see a list of academic of papers on this here), then we would expect to see a skew towards the middle classes in grammar schools. Secondly, the predominance of children from higher socio-economic groups in grammar schools is probably exacerbated by coaching and by wealthier or more aspirational parents moving to grammar school catchment areas.

All this is regrettable, I would argue, since it increases social segregation, reinforce academic differences and potentially reduce the aspirations of non-selected students. Remember that around 7% of children are already effectively removed from the mainstream through private schooling.
Was there more social mobility in the grammar school era?

This metastudy from 2010 found no increase in social mobility for grammar schools. Anecdotal evidence will always produce cases of working class people who believe a grammar school education gave them an invaluable start in life, but there is no evidence to support the claim that selection at 11 increases social mobility for working class children.

What about the claim that grammar schools raise attainment?

The former education journalist Chris Cook studied figures from the national Pupil Database to investigate differences in attainment between areas with selection and those without. Assuming all the areas that still had grammar schools were put together into one example 'region', The research compared how the pupils performed at GCSE level, compared to how they should perform given the area they're schooled in. His analysis revealed that children from deprived backgrounds performed worse than their counterparts in areas without selection.

Does the OECD and the PISA analysis have anything to offer on this? Well, it is the case that the highest performing systems do not operate selective systems, and certainly not Finland which does not even have private schools.

When I think about this, and given that data in this area is hard to pin down, it seems plausible that children in grammar schools might do better than expected since they are in a hothouse environment with pupils of similar ability. One might also surmise that secondary modern schooled children (the other 75+%) might do a little worse without the presence of the most able children to spur them on and raise the expectations of both teachers and pupils.

The remaining 164 grammar schools are great in many ways for the children who attend them - the two I taught in were good examples - but they are not a good solution for the country as a whole and it would be wrong to further mess around with school structures when we know that what really counts is good teaching.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Textivate revisited

Textivate has been around for a while now, so I am having another look at it, having previously reviewed when it first came out around the summer of 2012.

If you are not familiar with the concept, you can create tasks such as jigsaw reading, gap fills, matching, re-ordering tasks, filling in letters and separating continuous text into words. Exercises can be stored online if you register, or stored "locally" on your own computer.

It is a further development of the original Fun with Texts programme from Camsoft which was the most popular text manipulation computer programme of its time in the early days of what was christened CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning). An Ofsted report from 2002 stated:  "Text manipulation packages are being used more often. (Fun with Texts) was originally designed for less sophisticated technology some ten years ago. This is still one of the most effective, particularly with able pupils, but also with the less able, including those with SEN".  In this context Textivate can also be seen as a legacy of the pioneering CALL work done by the late Graham Davies who set up Camsoft in 1982.

Textivate may not be revolutionary in that the exercise types are  familiar to anyone who has used Fun with Texts or Taskmagic, but this latest incarnation of the Fun with Texts is flexible, instantly accessible, easy on the eye and very functional.

It is a very useful tool for developing reading comprehension, grammar, written accuracy and vocabulary. It also has that great advantage of self-authoring tools in that you can adapt it precisely to the needs of your own class and instantly make it available on line for class or homework. In addition you can print off worksheets which can make homework setting very easy..

Whilst you can use Textivate resources created by others for free (if you have the URL), nearly all the benefits of using it come from three levels of paid subscription which make much more sense if you want to use it for classes. A student individual login allows a pupil to do what used to access resources, textivate "on the fly", save to their computer, but not not upload. What is, effectively, a whole school subscription costs £100 a year. This provides:
  • up to 1000 shared logins for students, with 10 teacher logins
  • up to 1000 resources storable in the cloud
  • you can embed your resources on a website, blog or wiki
  • upload public resources, which can be shared via a url or embedded in other web pages, or accessed via the public resource browser 
  • upload shareable resources, which can be shared via a url or embedded in other web pages, but are not visible in the public resource browser
In an era when there are probably too many gimmicky uses of ICT in MFL, this is a package which will stand the test of time, provide a good mental challenge and support any language course you can imagine. It appeals to the teacher who values analysis in language learning, but also provides good comprehension material which you can grade to the needs of your class. Crucially, it is a super time saver, being quick and easy to use, even for any technophobe teachers.

You can probably guess that I recommend it highly.

Try it here:

Saturday, 14 December 2013

frenchteacher updates

First of all, if you are a regular user of the site, I wonder if you could spare a moment to send a brief comment for my Testimonials page. I have quite a lot of comments there already, but I haven't refreshed it in some time. You could either leave a comment here or just send to It would be good if you could mention who you are, your role and where you teach or tutor.

I have already blogged about the new 63 page handbook for language teachers. This can be found on the Free Samples page. It is a compendium of material from and this blog, plus some new material and amendments.

There has been a steady stream of new teaching resources in recent weeks and, as since the start of September, I have been focusing on listening. I discovered the Peppa Pig videos on Youtube and have designed a few resources for low intermediate and intermediate level. I am sure they would amuse youngsters and, more importantly, the language is very clear, as are the visuals. Authentic resources are problematic, as you know, because their language level does not match the maturity level of second language learners, but in the case of cartoons and fairy tales, familiarity and a certain timelessness make them quite usable.

I also posted a useful "Why Learn French?" video with a worksheet. It isn't new, but it has not dated and it would be a useful reminder to intermediate and advanced students why they might be using their time well learning the French language!

I also wrote an article on elephants after reading bits of the Independent newspaper's campaign to protect the species. This would make good higher tier GCSE material,. It focuses on what elephants have in common with humans.

Other additions include a video + worksheet from Nottingham High School in which two assistants talk about Christmas in France, a crossword on the perfect tense and a lesson plan based on miming to teach the dreaded daily routine topic.

I always put together my worksheets while thinking: "Would this work well in class?" Although, as I often mention, school contexts vary, I am confident the resources, whilst challenging, would work well with many students.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Which languages are most useful for British students?

There have been two quite widely reported recent surveys on the issue of which languages are most useful. The first, from 2012, was a CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey of 542 employers entitled "Which languages do UK managers value?" You can find the headline figures here. French and German dominate, followed by Spanish, then Mandarin, Polish and Arabic. This should come as no great surprise since we do so much business in Europe with fellow major economies, the largest being Germany and France. To me it is a slight curiosity that Italian features nowhere.

The second survey from the British Council, published this year, called Languages for the Future is here. This survey uses 10 indicators to establish a pecking order of languages: export trade, language needs of business, UK government trade priorities, emerging high growth markets, diplomatic and security priorities, the public's language interests, outward visitor destinations, the UK government's international Education Strategy priorities, levels of English proficiency in other countries and the prevalence of other languages on the internet.

Clearly, this second survey is not just about the current needs of business, but delves into future needs and government policy too. Its hit parade is topped by Spanish, followed by Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. One can see, given the indicators chosen, why these languages might feature.

Where do these two surveys leave schools in terms of which languages to prioritise?

Interestingly, one indicator which is not mentioned anywhere is ease of learning. If this factor were prioritised, then the non-European languages would fare worse. If teacher supply were factored in, then the same would apply. I am left thinking that the current focus on French, German and Spanish is not an unsensible one. These languages are favoured by business, they are spoken nearby so are likely to be of more use on holiday. What's more the cultural similarity - in terms of literature, film and history, for example - of these countries makes them more attractive languages to many learners. As business and cultural contact with China develops it is easy to envisage a slow growth for Mandarin.

The more languages we can learn, the better!

Monday, 9 December 2013

A handbook for MFL teachers

I posted some time ago on a handbook for language teachers. It is a kind of "best of" 68 page compendium of material I have written over recent years and which appears, in slightly different form, either on or this blog. It can be found on at the top of the Free Samples page. It is a Word document which you could easily edit.

I believe it would be particularly useful for teachers relatively new to the job, but experienced teachers will no doubt find useful ideas in the various checklists of activities. Some departments may find it to a useful support for their departmental schemes of work.

It is far from exhaustive. For example I have not written about teaching primary French or teaching the least able as I have no experience in that field. I do have a section on teaching the most able and I have found sources to put together a page on teaching children with special needs.

Some teachers will also find things to disagree with, although I have tried to give a pretty balanced and pragmatic view of language teaching. Needless to say, my own methodological bias will come through at times. The latter is partly the result of my own training at London University in the late 1970s and my experience teaching generally more able students. I remain a strong supporter of structured "comprehensible input" target language teaching, underpinned with grammar.

There is some basic theory in the handbook, but most of the material is practical advice based on experience. There are plenty of activity types listed, with a few specific examples featuring my main language, French. The handbook is, however, aimed at teachers of all modern languages.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Peppa Pig videos

I've just come across some Peppa Pig videos in French on Youtube. Here is one below with exercises I designed for a free worksheet on .I like the length, clear language and visuals. I have lots more video + listening exercises on the site if you like this sort of thing.


Cochez les produits qui sont mentionnés

des tomates                     des spaghettis                    des glaces     

des chips                         du pain                               des oranges 

du jambon                       une pastèque                      un gâteau      

des citrons                      des fraises                          des pommes  

des oignons                     des bananes                       du coca          

Vrai oui faux ?

Peppa aime faire les courses         

Peppa n’aime pas s’asseoir dans le caddie

Peppa est trop grande pour le caddie

Il y a 5 aliments sur la liste

Peppa met 4 tomates dans le caddie

Georges n’aime pas les spaghettis

Ils ont 5 paquets de chips à la maison

Peppa met quatre oignons dans le caddie

Une plante verte est sur la liste

Maman a mis le gâteau dans le cadeau

Comment dit-on ?

They’re over there !


Follow me!


Here’s the checkout


Oh yes! I remember now.




Thursday, 5 December 2013

Pourquoi apprendre le français?

This is a good video from 2007 to show to intermediate (higher GCSE) or even advanced students. Nice propaganda, with a chance of discussion for advanced groups. I am putting a worksheet based on it on (in the Y10-11 section). I can imagine using this at the start of a year with a very good Y11 class or Y12.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Ofsted and target language

Since writing this, Ofsted has just released (20 December) its latest guidance for MFL teachers. In the section Quality of Teaching, under the heading Good, they say:

Teachers routinely use the target language for classroom communication and generally insist on pupils responding in the language.


I hope Barry Smith doesn't mind me using this picture of a letter he posted on Twitter today.

I think MFL teachers may feel a little confused about the messages emerging from Ofsted at the moment (see above). Previous Ofsted reports have commented on the lack of teacher and pupil use of target language. It has been a consistent refrain over the years.

Here is some recent (August 2013) Ofsted guidance on how language departments could evaluate target language use. Teachers may find it useful to read these.


Teachers use English where the TL could be used to an unnecessary or excessive extent. Teachers use some TL for praise and greetings and for the occasional instructions, but switch rapidly and frequently between the TL and English.Teachers provide insufficient opportunities for learners to use the TL for meaningful communication.

Requires improvement

Teachers use the TL for organisational matters and for praise.They resort to immediate English translations by themselves or learners which reduces the impact. Learners are given opportunities to participate in conversations in the TL, but expectations of the spontaneous use by learners are too low. As learners move through the school, teachers expect them to use an increasing amount of target language.There are inconsistencies in the quality and quantity of the use of the TL across the department.


Teachers provide a consistently fluent and accurate model of the foreign language for learners to emulate. English is only used where appropriate. Students are encouraged to ask questions and seek clarification in the TL during teacher-led sections of the lesson.

So, on the one hand, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Ofsted are saying that departments can use any methodology they wish, provided pupils make good progress, whilst on the other they clearly state that, in good practice, "English is only used where appropriate".

What should teachers make of this apparent contradiction?

My guess would be that the prevailing view from inspectors, especially specialist linguists, is that target language should dominate the large majority of lessons. I support this view because it is only by providing large amounts of target language that students will make long term progress with their comprehension and, ultimately, oral skills. If I am right, this DOES imply the support for a certain general methodology, contrary to what may come from Sir Michael Wilshaw's office.

Do we really want a free-for-all in languages classrooms? Would it be acceptable for teachers to use English much of the time? Back in 1990 the National Curriculum stated that the target language should be the "normal" means of communication in the classroom. It was right then and is right now.

For the record, the last time my department was inspected by Ofsted (a lead inspector and linguist), teachers and pupils used the target language nearly all the time and most lessons were judged to be "outstanding". I doubt very much that would have been the case if we had used significant amounts of English.
Here is a paragraph from Ofsted's guidance to inspectors in which it is made clear that a wide variety of styles should be accepted. the bottom line is whether long term progress is good. For this the data tell a story.
Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time. It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.

Monday, 2 December 2013

The new P8 accountability measures and MFL

The table below was published by Phillip Collie of It summarises the current state of play for GCSE. It is reproduced with permission.

Performance Eight (P8) is the new value-added accountability measure on which floor standards are to be based. Students and schools will be judged on their performance across eight subjects, each one having a specific weighting. It is not yet clear which subjects will still be offered as GCSEs.

P8 weighting
(total = 8)
Exam time minimum
Included for all students
3.5 hours
English Lit
One of
Speaking, but not as part of grade
3.5 hours
English Lang
2 (if Lit is counted as 1  - below)
3.5 hours
(single award
to be scrapped)
1 each (DA=2)
Three of
Eg DA science + geography
French, Spanish and history
3 hours
6 hours (DA)
Computer Science
3.5 hours
3.5 hours
3.5 hours
1 each
3.5 hours
Other subjects (inc Eng Lit)
Three of
RE: 5%
3.5 hours

For us as linguists, a few points come to mind.

At present it is still the intention not to have separate tiers as we do at present. There has been talk of extension papers for the most able, but, as far as I understand it, this has not yet been decided. If there is no separate provision for the less and more able student, I believe this would be a mistake. I still cannot see how one could provide an exam paper appropriate for the whole ability range.

In terms of accountability, MFL remains an EBacc subject, but Ebacc has now become a "soft" accountability measure. P8 will become the key measure schools are judged by. This means that schools will take it less seriously, so any recent gains in take-up brought about by the EBacc are likely to be temporary. On the other hand, the fact that a language is to be weighted the same as a science may encourage schools to raise the status of languages. Ofqual have also said that they are looking at taking account of the relative severity of grading of subjects when drawing up the final details of the P8 measure. This could work to the advantage of languages, but I wouldn't hold your breath on that one.

You will also note from the table that the amount of time for exams (3.5 hours) will increase when compared with the pre-controlled assessment regime. If you compare with the controlled assessment era you could easily argue that assessment time will be considerably reduced. Currently students do a listening test of 40 minutes, a reading test of 50 minutes, at least two hours of writing CA and who knows how many minutes of speaking CA? The new exams are likely to include at least 30 minutes of listening, 50 minutes of reading, possibly combined with over an hour of writing. The set-piece oral will most likely take at least 20 minutes including preparation and will be marked, it seems, externally.

All this is somewhat speculative, but we have been told that the weighting of skills will return to 25% per skill (writing thus continuing to play too great a role, in my view.) The SPaG percentage for MFL is given as 5, which would presumably be covered in the writing mark scheme.

What should be welcomed is the fact that teachers will be doing less assessing (good for teacher workload and good for the reliability of marking, notwithstanding the failings of exam boads in this regard). Gone too will be endless CA retakes, back will be full scale mock exams.

On the other hand, the new system may work against girls who, it is often claimed, do better on coursework, and the less able. The latter are likely to do less well on written papers which rely on quick thinking, sound technique and memory. Mark schemes will need to take this into account. In MFL, orals will have to be carefully structured to allow weaker pupils some success and to allow the most able to extend themsleves. Again, tiering or extension would make sense.

Just as a reminder, the teaching of the new GCSE is due to begin in September 2016.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

20 criteria for assessing an MFL course package

Most course books/packages have a shelf life of, say, 10 years at most, then need replacing. It's one of the big financial and methodological decisions an MFL department has to make and should be taken carefully, involving all members of department. I know from my own experience what it's like to be lumbered with an inappropriate course which forces you to write new materials and dip into other sources.

A good course book, kept individually by students, is a great asset which should save the teacher a huge amount of time and provide a very useful resource and comfort blanket for pupils.

So what criteria should be used when weighing up the options? Here are 20 for your consideration:

Is the language material in the courses rigorously selected and graded for difficulty?

Does the course have the right balance of grammatical, functional and situational material for your needs?

Does the course have a sensible grammatical progression with built-in revision? (Check for spiral curriculum structure year on year.)

Is there sufficient cultural content?

Is the difficulty level right for your school or classes/ability sets?

Is there a sufficient range of materials for all the skills, possibly including good online content?

Is the content relatively timeless? i.e. will it still look up to date in ten years?

Does the teacher's book or support resources have creative and practical ideas for lessons?

Does the course prepare students effectively for examinations?

Does it have the right amount of target language?

Is the pupil book clear, with a grammar section and verb tables?

Is the reading and listening material interesting for students?

Could your department all work with it?

Do the exercises in the book or worksheets have enough examples to allow for rigorous practice and are they pitched at the right level?

Are tasks and pages clearly numbered for easy reference?

Does the course have a built-in assessment pack?

Are listening resources clear and at the right speed?

Do nearly all exercises look usable?

Is it clear from the course what underlying methodology it is based on?

Is the online content easy to access in school and at home. Is it stimulating and ungimmicky?