Friday, 29 August 2014


Nicolas Rochas sent me a link to this free service which looks very interesting indeed if you are interested in establishing links with other schools, teachers, classes or students. Your school leadership may be keen if they are interested in the global dimension or world citizenship. At its most basic level it may be an opportunity for pupils to communicate with other young people from a different background. They say:

Skolinks est un portail destiné aux jeunes de 8 à 21 ans et aux enseignants du monde entier qui souhaitent nouer des relations et développer des échanges dans un esprit amical et partenarial.

Skolinks is a project from Skolidarité, a non-profit organisation which supports schooling in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its stated aims are:

- promouvoir la fraternité et la solidarité entre les jeunes

- lutter contre le racisme et les discriminations- sensibiliser sur les Droits de l'Enfant

It began with correspondence in 1999 between a young French person and young Congolese. In 2009 Skolidarité was formed. Probably best to quote their own words. Given the current state of parts of the world the aims seem particularly relevant.
  • Pour que la jeunesse soit au coeur de la mondialisation !
La mondialisation ne doit pas se résumer aux seuls flux de marchandises et
de capitaux. Les relations humaines et la mobilité des citoyens doivent
être encouragées et facilitées.

En facilitant la rencontre de jeunes d'autres pays et la mise en relation
d'enseignants pour développer des projets pédagogiques, Skolinks permet à
chacun de devenir un citoyen du monde.

  • Pour la découverte et le respect des cultures
La compréhension des cultures, religions, coutumes est essentielle pour construire un monde plus tolérant, encourager le dialogue interculturel et ainsi lutter contre les extrémismes politiques, religieux...  
  • Pour une ouverture sur le monde et une meilleure compréhension de celui-ci
En échangeant avec d'autres jeunes, vous allez découvrir leur quotidien,
les richesses de leur pays mais aussi leurs difficultés. Vous
comprendrez ainsi les enjeux géopolitiques auxquels les nations et les
peuples sont confrontés au XXIème siècle.
  • Pour une plus grande solidarité
Au-delà des échanges que vous pourrez entretenir avec d'autres jeunes, vous
aurez peut-être l'envie d'aller plus loin en menant des projets de
solidarité et verrez ainsi que chacun à son échelle peut agir pour
construire un monde plus équitable.

You need to sign up to look for links with other schools, teachers or students. In the sign-up process you can describe what type of link or project  you may be looking for. This looks well worth exploring if you are interested in a class link or individual links for your students, or maybe even yourself.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Peppa Pig on frenchteacher

For me, listening is the number one language learning skill and should be at the heart of everything. I'm a bit of a "comprehensible input" fan and do believe that, in the longer term, for pupils studying a language over at least five years, a big diet of listening input is crucial. So I am always on the look-out for stimulating listening material for

Finding advanced level material is easy, but sources of authentic near beginner and intermediate level French listening are harder to locate.

For intermediate listening, the Peppa Pig videos in French work well and I know that teachers out there have been using my worksheets on these.

Not all the Peppa Pig videos work, though. You have to be selective and choose ones where the range and speed of language are approachable. It helps that many students are already familiar with Peppa Pig, so they should be well disposed to tackling a listening task based on it.

The episodes I have designed worksheets for so far are:

Papa Cochon accroche une photo (home life/DIY)
Papa Cochon fait de l'exercice (health and sport topic)
Une chasse au trésor (home life)
Polly va en vacances (holidays)
La fête de l'école (school)
A la plage (holidays)
Peppa Pig fait les courses (shopping/food)

My worksheets usually involve some vocabulary input, true/false, ticking correct sentences, correcting false sentences etc. They are aimed at very good Y9 to Y11 standard. You can easily edit worksheets as they are in Word.  Here are the exercises I did for La fête de l'école. Apologies for any dodgy formatting.


to meet up with – r_tr___v__                          face painting –  m_qu____age d_ v______ (m)

bouncy castle – l_ ch______ g__fl____          to have fun – s’am_______

see you later – à t___ à l’h_____                   unfortunately – m__heur__se_____

absolutely – abs___um_____                        of course – b___ ent______

a tiger – u_ t_____                                         drawing – d______ (m)

to make up – ma________                            woof woof – ou___ ou____   

if you want – s_ t_ v____                                without a noise – sans f____ de br____

to jump – s_______                                        to lick themselves - s_ lé____

fur – f___ rr____ (f)                                        happy – c__t____

to purr – r__r_______                                    to go and find – a_____ ch_____

yippee! – y__p_ !                                            kangaroo – k__gour___ (m)

lion – l____ (m)                                               parrot – per_______

I’m sorry – j_ re______                                  to make – fab_______

Corrigez ces phrases fausses? (Cross out the wrong words and put in the right ones)

1.         Aujourd’hui c’est la fête du village.                                                     de l’école

2.         Les amis de Peppa sont quatre animaux différents.                             _________

3.         Suzy Sheep préfère le château gonflable.                                            _________

4.         Georges aime le maquillage le plus.                                                    _________

5.         Papa Pig propose d’acheter un dinosaure.                                         _________

6.         Madame Rabbit maquille les enfants en lion.                                      _________

7.         Peppa voudrait être maquillée en dinosaure.                                       _________

8.         Georges voudrait être maquillé en tigre.                                             _________

9.         Les tigres s’avancent avec beaucoup de bruit.                                   _________

10.       Les tigres ronronnent quand ils sont tristes.                                        _________

11.       Papa veut aller chercher un ballon avec un tigre dessus.                     _________

12.       Peppa voudrait un ballon avec un dinosaure.                                      _________
© 2014

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Guessing games

One of the best things to come out of the communicative movement in language teaching was the notion of the "information gap". Give pupils a reason to communicate and they will, the theory goes. So if you design a task for pairs where one person has information the other needs to find out, you should get communication. The best books to exploit this idea in French were the Tu Parles and Tu Parles Encore by Vee Harris and Liz Roselman. Alas they are no longer in print, but should be slightly updated and reprinted.

A really simple way to set up minimal preparation information gap tasks is to do guessing games. We know how much children of all ages like these - just think how much mileage you can get out of "guess the flashcard" routines and "battleships". Here are five reinforcing/revision guessing games for pairs.

1.  Weekend dernier

For low intermediates. Get each partner to write down five invented activities they did over the last weekend. Each partner has to guess what the other person did by asking yes/no questions. Encourage students to come up with original or wacky ideas. Good for practising the perfect tense.

2.  Liste d'achats

For near beginners. Each person writes down a list of ten items they are going to buy at the supermarket. Each partner has to guess the other's list.

3.  "Dumb customer"

Any level. Again, based on a shopping list or just a list of words. Each partner has a list and has to explain what is on their list by using gesture, no words. Good for revising vocabulary at various levels.

4.  Projets de vacances

Intermediate. Each partner lists ten things they are going to do during the next holiday. Partners use yes/no questions to work out the other person's list. Good for future or immediate future tense.

5. Proverbes

Advanced. Display, in two columns, a list of, say, 16 proverbs or sayings in the target language on the board. Alternatively provide a handout with the proverbs written in two columns. Make sure students understand them, preferably by explaining them in the TL. You could translate them if you want to get on to the pair work quickly. The advantage of using the TL is that students already hear a model of how to explain the sayings.

Then, each partner chooses five proverbs or sayings which they attempt to exemplify or explain whilst the the person tries to guess what they are. Partners could prompt each other for further information. Good for general creative use of language at a higher level.

You could easily come up with other guessing games. They are great for filling in some time, plenaries or revision. They often give useful practice of question forms too.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Teaching school subjects to near beginners

Here is an easy and familiar lesson plan for teaching school subjects, along with practising je préfère and some simple question variations (inversion and word order variations). There is a cross-curricular aspect in that the students may make easy use of Excel. You may have taught and practised school subjects in a similar way.

1.  Teach the school subjects using a simple powerpoint with pictures, flashcards or just an English-TL list on the board. Use group repetition. If you have a list on the board in two columns, at some point hide the TL words and test memory from the English words. Perhaps use the "I'm thinking of a subject - which one?" guessing game. (10 minutes)

2.  Write up these three variations of a simple question. In French:

     Quelles matières préfères -tu?
     Tu préfères quelles matières?
     Quelles matières tu préfères?

If you are working in another language these variations may not apply and you could just skip this.
Do group repetition and explain how the inversion question is a bit more "correct" or formal, but that they are all used. You could even do a little pronunciation work at this point, stressing the different sounds produced by "e acute" and "e grave". Exaggerate the sounds of préfères to make the point. Leave the questions on the board for reference. (5 minutes)

3.  Explain that the class is going to do an opinion poll (sondage or enquête) on what subjects their friends prefer. For the sake of speed and clarity with most classes I would do this bit in English.) They are to stand up, walk around and ask as many people as possible in ten minutes what THREE subjects they like most. (Using three normally ensures no subjcet is left out completely - you need to watch this as the class may have a teacher or subject they uniformly dislike.) The pupils can draw their own little table in their rough book, or you may have prepared a simple sheet to fill in. They could use codes for subjects or tick columns if you have prepared a sheet for them.

Pupils simple note the name of the person and the three subjects they say they prefer. (15 minutes, including explanation and handing out of sheets or preparing of rough sheet).

When this active section of the lesson is underway stop it immediately if students are using English. Insist on TL use and police behaviour carefully. A few minutes in, do a quick recap on pronunciation of questions and subjects so no bad habits become embedded.

4. When pupils are sat down again, ask them to tally up their results. Calculez les réponses. then get some whole class feedback with question: Quelles sont les trois matières les plus populaires? Note them against a list on the board, reinforcing and correcting pronunciation where needed. (10 minutes)

5. This could be a homework, done in the ICT room or on a tablet/laptop. Students enter their results in an Excel spreadsheet, then turn them into a bar chart or pie chart (in French camembert). They can then print them off for wall display or to stick in their exercises book. They could write in the sentences: les matières les plus populaires sont... and les matières les moins populaires sont.... (20 minutes)

You will need to ascertain before the lesson from the ICT staff whether your class can already do spreadsheets and graphs. If they cannot, you can take them into an ICT room and teach them. If you cannot do this, then they could draw a graph by hand in their exercise books, or you could even arrange for an ICT person to come and show them how to do it in your class.

The oral part of this lesson can be squeezed into a 40 minute session with a fast class, during which time nearly all the communication will have been in the target language. The writing up section will get students focusing on accurate spelling. By the way, don't worry if your subject does not come out near the top! I often found that technology and PE were popular with younger pupils.

In a primary school setting, you will slightly adapt this lesson plan to take account of the different curriculum.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

GCSE results and entries 1993-2014

               A*   A    B    C    D    E    F    G    U   A*-C    A*-U
       2014   9.6 14.2 19.3 26.6 19.5  7.3  2.5  0.8  0.2  69.7  168042
       2013   9.8 15.0 19.8 25.6 18.3  7.3  2.9  1.0  0.3  70.2  177288
       2012  10.7 15.6 20.9 24.5 17.1  7.2  2.9  0.8  0.3  71.7  153436
       2011  10.2 16.6 21.9 23.8 15.9  7.4  2.9  1.0  0.3  72.5  154221
       2010  10.9 15.8 20.1 25.1 16.6  7.3  3.0  1.0  0.2  71.9  177618
       2009  11.2 15.1 19.2 24.6 16.8  8.1  3.5  1.2  0.3  70.1  188688
       2008  10.3 14.7 18.8 24.5 17.3  8.7  3.9  1.5  0.3  68.3  201940
       2007   9.7 13.5 18.6 24.7 17.2  9.1  4.7  2.0  0.5  66.5  216718
       2006   9.6 13.2 17.7 24.2 17.5  9.7  5.1  2.4  0.6  64.7  236189
       2005   8.5 12.3 16.3 23.2 17.9 11.1  6.7  3.1  0.9  60.3  272140
       2004   7.4 10.7 14.5 21.1 18.1 13.0  8.9  4.9  1.4  53.7  318095
       2003   6.6 11.3 12.7 20.6 20.1 13.7  8.8  4.7  1.5  51.2  331089
       2002   7.4 10.9 13.5 21.8 18.6 13.6  8.8  4.6  0.8  53.6  338468
       2001   7.2 10.8 13.3 22.1 18.3 13.6  9.3  4.8  0.6  53.4  347007
       2000   6.6 11.6 14.0 20.5 18.1 14.2  9.7  4.7  0.6  52.7  341004
       1999   6.4 11.7 14.4 19.9 18.7 14.5  9.5  4.3  0.6  52.4  335816
       1998   6.3 11.9 13.9 18.6 19.2 15.1  9.7  4.6  0.7  50.7  335698
       1997   4.1 15.1 14.9 17.2 18.5 13.4 10.8  5.2  0.8  51.2  328299
       1996   4.4 14.8 14.6 17.2 18.2 13.5 11.1  5.5  0.7  51.0  342751
       1995   4.3 14.3 14.0 17.4 17.8 13.7 11.9  5.7  0.9  50.0  350027
       1994   4.1 14.9 14.0 16.6 18.3 14.2 12.1  5.1  0.7  49.6  324343
       1993       18.6 14.0 16.1 16.4 13.4 12.9  7.3  1.3  48.7  315246
You will see that entries remained stable from 1993 up to 2004. When languages became optional from 2004 entries fell rapidly, the decline being halted by the effect of the EBacc accountabilty measure. The latter did not see a continued effect this year. The fall in entries in 2014 is at least partly explained by the fact that the cohort overall was smaller. Entries may, therefore, have stabilised for French. Spanish has seen an increase over the years and is now clearly taking linguists away from French and German. The rise in top grades over the years is explained by the fact that the average ability level of candidates has risen substantially. Whether the top grades have risen enough is questionable. MFL is still subject to "severe grading". The exam boards and Ofqaul are trying to mainatin the same standard over the years and now take into account the general ability of that year's cohort (based on KS2 results). The slightly lower top grades in 2014 may be explained by this fact It is easy to conclude that entries for languages are generally disappointing nowadays. They have certainly declined rapidly since 1993, as they have done at A-level, but it would be interesting to know how they compare with entries to the old O-level and CSE back in earlier times. Historically it is possible that entries are not that bad at age 16. There remains a fear, however, that we are returning to an era when languages were for only the brightest and, alas, the middle classes.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Does progressive mean communicative?

I was reading a very politicised article by John Bald who is an experienced languages and literacy consultant who writes a blog, has advised the DfE and who writes for the Conservativehome website. He was arguing that the new national curriculum offers a fresh start and a chance to reject the "progressive" view of language teaching - what he also calls "left" language teaching. By progressive I take John to mean "communicative" or "naturalistic" i.e. the general approach wherby target language dominates and which, in his view, literacy is relegated to a secondary role. I hope I have not misrepresented John too much.

I must confess that I had not really made the link between the communicative approach and "progressivism" in language teaching. Perhaps I should have.

John wrote:

I’ve seen the results of the progressive approach at first hand and discussed them with pupils.
Almost all dislike it and many hate it. It involves equal confusion for all – “It’s as if it’s all one word,” as one pupil put it, and even one of its advocates, at a school with an excellent reputation, told a conference at Wellington College last year that, “We have a lot of tears in the first term.” The long term consequences are the collapse of language learning at A level – German has ceased to be provided in large areas of the country, and had only 3000 entries at A level last year – slower export growth, and impaired international relations.

A little further down he wrote:

The fact that progressive influence in language teaching has led to failure, misery and decline does not put its proponents off for a minute. They continue to use their influence to promote mixed ability teaching and to block research designed to identify effective teaching.

We all come at teaching languages from a particular perspective and with varying experiences, but I have to say that I barely recognise John's assessment.

A bit of context: the communicative approach is said to have a strong and a weak form. The strong form, as I understand it, values near total target language use, little focus on grammar and writing, greater focus on the functions of language. The weak form is the one which many teachers prefer. It still values target language use, but with significant focus on grammatical explanation and written accuracy. It is, if you like, the equivalent of Blair's "third way" in language teaching. You can have your cake and eat it by providing lots of Krashen-style comprehensible input together with a focus on grammatical accuracy and traditional forms of learning and memorisation.

I have the feeling, reading what John wrote, that he is really criticising the strong communicative approach, which may have taken hold somewhat in the 1980s. (I recall an awful textbook which was widely sold at the time called Avantage, which focused relatively little on grammar, more on "functions" and "notions" in language. It was hard to use in class forced the teacher into using too much English.) I have read some research which suggested that pupils were put off languages by teachers using the communicative approach. Perhaps it was done badly, just as grammar-translation was often done badly. I hope that few teachers these days stand by an extreme form of the communicative approach, endeavouring to explain and practise grammar and writing where appropriate.

What concerns me a little is that if you caricature current language teaching by suggesting that it creates "failure, misery and decline" and that it is the "progressive" approach which has led to the collapse in A-level take-up (a faulty assessment in my view and one not supported by the recent JCQ report on the issue), it gives you a pretext for reverting to outmoded methods which failed for many in their day. I believe we have seen evidence of this in the new GCSE curriculum with its inclusion of translation and in the proposed A-levels which lay greater emphasis on the use of English and grammatical analysis.

John's belief is based on research he cites, for example brain research, along with his own experience of success using particular methods. That's fine. We can be pragmatic, but it is quite possible to have the best of both worlds. We can do communication, target language and have literacy and rigour. No tears. Traditional? Progressive? Left? Right? I'm not sure those labels are very useful in the debate.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Reading aloud

Do you ever get pupils to read aloud in class? In font of the whole class? Or in pairs or groups?

Does reading aloud have any value as an activity in the ML classroom?

I occasionally got students of all ages to read aloud in front of the class, but I confess that my reasons for doing so may not have been as clear as they should have been. What are the pros and cons of reading aloud to the whole class?

  • It's a scary activity for most pupils and may put undue pressure on them. It is often claimed that we learn a language (or anything for that matter) best when we are comfortable and not under threat.
  • It may open a pupil to ridicule from their peers.
  • When one pupil is reading the rest of the class may be doing nothing. This becomes apparent when you ask questions after someone has read. I found that the person quickest to respond was the student who had just read. Their mind was more focused than the that of the rest of the class
  • It provides an inferior model to the rest of the class when compared with the teacher (usually). It is therefore relatively poor comprehensible input.
  • It is an artificial way of communicating in the classroom.There are far better things you could be doing.
  • If you want students to read let them do it in pairs. There is more participation and performance may even be better.
In favour
  • It allows the most confident students to perform. Some enjoy showing off what they can do and this may reinforce their motivation.
  • It is an acceptable source of comprehensible listening input to the reader and the rest of the group.
  • It makes a change from the teacher talking or reading aloud.
  • It provides an opportunity to focus on aspects of pronunciation and intonation. I found getting students to read was an effective and fun way to practise French intonation patterns
  • It is a good activity for class control. I found that classes would listen respectfully to their peers reading aloud.
  • It allows the student to focus on pronunciation and lets teacher correct and perfect it.
  • It helps develop a student's confidence in speaking in front of others. It is a good life skill.
  • It is a challenge. Why not challenge students in the classroom to overcome inhibitions?
  • It is an AfL opportunity. After someone has read others can comment on what was good about it. This works when handled carefully.
As far as reading aloud in front of the class goes, therefore, I think you can make a case for it. I suspect it is very much down to the class you have in front of you and whether some students at least would be up for some reading aloud. I don't see an issue with putting students "on the spot" to some extent and if it is sensitively handled (e.g. inviting sensible applause after someone has read) it can be motivational. You would avoid putting the very shy student on the spot. The issue of the rest of the class being inactive can be overcome if you warn them that anyone can be chosen at any random point, or if you get them to follow the text with their finger or a ruler.

You may decide that reading aloud should have a very specific purpose e.g. focusing on pronunciation or intonation patterns. In French it is useful for teaching the final syllabus stress and rising pitch pattern. You may also prefer students to read quite short sections of text.

Getting students to read aloud "around the class" in a predictable order is probably poor practice, but is not totally without merit. It may have been favoured at one time because it meant that at some point in the term everyone would get a go. In a sense, it also resembles random "no hands up" questioning in that it is not the best students who get to speak all the time. But students calculate when they will have to read, get anxious and may not listen to the person currently reading. Some will work out that they will not have to read at all and may put their feet up. There is no expectation that you may have to perform at any moment.

Reading aloud in front of the group may be a stepping stone to paired reading aloud, which has other advantages: everyone is active, students can assess each others' reading and there is no need to feel inhibited, so performance may be better. Paired reading aloud is great as long as the quality is good. If you let pupils perform badly errors will become fossilised.

What do you think? Did I miss anything?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

General studies in the target language

Spoiler alert: this is about A-levels! Please read on.

Back in the early 1970s an evolutionary new textbook called Actualités Françaises changed the way we taught French. Firmly rooted in the structural, audio-lingual approach, it took texts about contemporary French culture and exploited them with questions, copious grammar drills for oral and written practice and some translation. It was quite a contrast to the books which had preceded it, notably those by Whitmarsh and collaborators which took texts, often literary, and exploited them with some comprehension questions, grammar explanations and lots of translation both ways. The newer course shifted the emphasis strongly towards topic-based oral work within a strong grammatical framework.

I wrote evolutionary above rather than revolutionary, because the newer course still placed the emphasis on grammar and, at the very least, paid lip service to translation (partly because translation featured in A-level exams, as it still does).

Actualités Françaises and its German equivalents set a trend which would last up to today. (Spanish was not widely studied at that time.) The topics to be taught would hopefully be (a) of general interest to sixth formers and (b) of general importance in society. Book 1 of Actualités Françaises had enough material for a whole A-level course and included topics such as: education, leisure and sport, transport, housing, industry and women at work. Sounds familiar?

Since then the emphasis in the topics may have changed somewhat, and we now place greater emphasis on the communicative functions of language, less on repetitive practice of grammar points. But what has not changed is that we still choose topics which fit those two criteria mentioned above: general interest and importance.

This notion of "general studies through the target language" remains a sound one if our main aim is to get students communicating at the right level in the classroom. We need sources, written texts and listening material in the target language, which will stimulate students to engage in classroom discussions. One way we achieve this is by trying to engage with the personal interests and views of the students. When preparing lessons my first thought tended to be: will they be interested in this? Will it get them communicating?

Alas, the general topic strands and individual themes being proposed by Ofqual/DfE, based on the ALCAB report from the Russell Group universities fail rather miserably to take into account what will produce engaging lessons stuffed with communicative activities. Indeed, they explicitly reject what they dismissively refer to as "lifestyle" topics. I have blogged previously about the "indicative" list of French topics. German topics include: three state systems (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), Germany's relationship with Europe (they meant the rest of Europe), ideals and realities of the DDR, the world from the perspective of von Humboldt, Freud and Viennese Burgtheater. Gems from the Spanish list of topics include: Nobel prizes in the Spanish-speaking world, Argentinian cinema, the generation of 1898, leaders and dictators in Latin America and the Cuban Revolution.

I can hardly believe I just typed those topics. Can you imagine designing engaging, communicative A-level lessons based on them?

I pity the exam boards who will have read the Ofqual draft content with horror. From conversation with a senior administrator at an exam board I know that this is not what they wanted and I know that they will struggle to make the general topic strands approachable.

This is why teachers and associations need to let Ofqual know that what ALCAB have proposed is totally wrong-headed. Ofqual may not know much better. They were under orders from Michael Gove to implement what his Russell Group committee proposed. I do hope a clear message is sent to Ofqual from schools and exam boards that we have been landed with something quite unfit for purpose.

"General studies through the target language" was the right idea in the 70s and it is still the bets apprioach.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

No preparation multi-skill lesson

As a teacher I liked effective lessons which took me little or no time to prepare. Here is one I would use with pupils from Y8 to Y10 (low intermediate).

When teaching the topic of "en ville" I would at some point near the end of the teaching sequence spend a lesson preparing pupils for a piece of connected writing called Ma ville.

The lesson would mainly consist of my asking easy questions in the TL about where the pupils live. We would focus on "il y a" and "il n'y a pas".

Il y a une gare?
Il y a des écoles? Combien?
Il y a des magasins? Quelle sorte?
Qu'est-ce qu'il y a pour les visiteurs?
Quels services est-ce qu'il y a?
Il y a un camping? Oui ou non?
Il n'a pas d'hôpital. Vrai ou faux?

On eliciting answers I would write up partial answers on the board while students took notes. You can write incomplete words or sentences which students can complete either immediately or at home. This part is crucial as it keeps all students engaged, listening, thinking and writing.

Once this section was complete, I would get students to report back to me what they had noted. This allows slower students to fill in some missing gaps. I would then get students into pairs to give each other facts about their town, or to make up true or false answers for their partner to solve.

Homework would be a write-up of the notes with the suggestion that some students may like to find extra information (differentiation by outcome).

All in all, what you have is a lesson almost all in the target language, with listening, speaking, some reading and writing. The written essays will be largely correct and quick to mark. Students will have the satisfaction of an accurate piece of work and a good source for later revision. The best students will have stretched themselves further with their own, original input.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Response to ALL on new MFL A-levels

For readers outside the UK the ALL is the Association for Language Learning.

After blogging several times on the issue of the new A-levels being proposed by Ofqual, based on the ALCAB report carried out by a panel of Russell Group university academics, this is my feedback to the ALL. It partly draws on the ALCAB report and partly on the recently published report by the JCQ into why fewer and fewer students are choosing languages at A-level in England and Wales.


This is a more considered response to your invitation for feedback on the new MFL A-levels. I sent a brief response about three weeks ago, before I had seen the JCQ report. Here are my observations on what is being proposed by Ofqual:

  • The ALCAB report states that it is in the context of falling numbers at A-level that they produced their recommendations. The JCQ report (Chapter 2) notes that one reason given by teachers for students rejecting languages at A-level is that they are perceived as too hard and suit only gifted linguists. What Ofqual and ALCAB propose is clearly harder. In the IPSOS MORI survey for the JCQ 83% of teachers felt that students thought that it was impossible to gain proficiency without a special aptitude. Making A-level harder will not attract more students.
  • The JCQ report notes that in MFL the gap between GCSE and AS level is considered too wide. Students say they find it wider than for other subjects. This may dissuade them from taking languages. Languages are considered a "risky" option, reports the JCQ. What Ofqual/ALCAB proposes will make the gap far wider. The current AS level acts as a bridge between GCSE and A2 level. The new decoupled AS level is as hard as A-level, but with less quantity, so is bound to deter students from doing it in Lower Sixth. Currently many students opt for MFL for one year in Lower Sixth. Some of the who had not originally intended to do MFL to A2 level change their mind and do so. The current AS level is therefore advantageous to our subject area. Content is a rather subjective matter, but it seems a natural progression to have some overlap between GCSE and AS level. A2 is markedly more "grown up" and currently suits the students we have, not all of whom are "natural linguists". The Ofqual/ALCAB subject matter categories are unlikely to appeal to many potential students.
  • ALCAB/Ofqual claim that the current A-level lacks cognitive challenge and is inherently less interesting than other subject areas. I disagree. There are different types of cognitive challenge. Language acquisition is a controversial area, but most would agree that the key element is for students to get as much target language input as possible. What is proposed (e.g. translation and essay in English) will reduce the amount of target language used.Indeed, allowing students to write essays in English is less of a challenge than having them write only in the TL as we do now. In addition, the topics currently covered at A-level do challenge students to think about issues which they find inherently interesting, which are important and which may relate to their personal experience. I believe the traditional approach of  "general studies through the medium of the target language" which goes back to the 1970s remains the best.
  • The JCQ report (Chapter 2) finds that students are not dissuaded from doing A-level because of subject matter taught. Amongst other things (grading and the gap after GCSE) it is their previous experience of GCSE which plays a greater role. There is no need to fix the content of A-level fundamentally.
  • Ofqual/ALCAB say that we need to award more marks for cultural content and grammatical accuracy. By allocating 20% of marks to cultural content (film and literature) this inevitably devalues skills such as listening and speaking. The JCQ report notes that students would like to see a greater emphasis on speaking and conversing. Students are right. These skills are not inherently easier than grammatical accuracy; indeed some might argue the opposite. The Ofqual/A:LCAB proposal runs counter to what students and teachers would like to see. In the JCQ survey teachers said they would value greater emphasis on written skill, but not at the expense of orals skills.
  • The JCQ study does report that students would like to see more appealing topics at A-level. Interestingly, prior to the 2000 reforms, the AQA did a good deal of focus group work which informed the current specification. The challenge remains to keep content engaging. What is being proposed by Ofqual/ALCAB does not seem to me to be appealing to the average sixth-former.
  • Ofqual/ALCAB are right to note that there is a vagueness in the current arrangements with regard to cultural content. There is no compulsion for boards to set prescribed texts (although WJEC do). This leads to inconsistencies across schools. There may be an argument, therefore, for more prescription with regard to cultural content, but I am not totally persuaded. The current freedom given to schools allows teachers to select material they think classes will find motivating. Teachers may also play to their own strengths when choosing material.
  • Ofqual/ALCAB proposes only literature and film within the cultural content. Why this bias? The current arrangements allow teachers and students to cover a wider ran ge of topics including art, music, history and geography. It is true that some of these area are covered elsewhere in the content, but there is a bias towards what university academics enjoy studying and researching.
  • I welcome the idea of individual research projects. They are a challenge for students, but can produce excellent results and allow students to pursue their own interests. However, assessing them purely through the oral may leave students thinking why they should take enormous time and care over accuracy of written material.
  • The proposed assessment weightings favour reading and writing too much when the focus should be on the more useful and valued skills of speaking and listening.
  • The JCQ report notes that teachers feel that courses should be attractive to a wider range of abilities. I am extremely concerned that the Ofqual/ALCAB proposals will only appeal to a minority of already able linguists.
  • If, as students report, students value speaking so highly, we need to have topics about which students wish to talk. The categories being proposed would present a serious challenge to teachers wishing to plan communicative lessons. French mathematics? Surrealism? Dreyfus? The Algerian War? This is the most deficient area of the whole ALCAB/Ofqual proposal.
  • The ALCAB report claims that in practice the intention to promote accuracy is not carried out in practice. I reject this claim. Current mark schemes do reward accuracy. If anything, we still have a traditional academic bias towards written accuracy at the expense of language fluency. There is no need to reinforce accuracy and, as the JCQ survey notes, students find the stress on written accuracy off-putting. Now, of course, what students find off-putting need not be the key criterion in designing a course, but it is of great significance in the current climate of drastically falling numbers.
  • One of the key changes put forward by Ofqual/ALCAB is the awarding of marks (20%of them) for cultural content, which was rejected in 2000. This is a genuine dilemma. All teachers value cultural content. It is a major part of what we do. At GCSE there are no marks for it. Why should we start to award them at A-level. As long as teachers are guided to use resources relating to the target language culture, then cultural content will be covered.
  • ALCAB regrets that language is currently seen in terms of its immediate practical use. They wish students to develop a "more searching understanding of linguistic systems". I disagree with this. The focus should remain on developing linguistic skill, not analysing structure and focusing too much on declarative knowledge of grammar. It is competence which counts.
  • ALCAB claim translation is a key skill which should be taught. Translation both ways does, of course, already feature at A-level. I would argue that we do not need to do much translation to develop range and accuracy. Including it in any specification means that teachers may focus unduly on it at the expense of target language communication.

What should be the purpose of an A-level in MFL? We need a course which can stretch the best, but  attract students of a reasonable range of ability, which promotes above all the key skills of speaking and listening and which aims above all to focus on the use of language as a practical tool. It is not there primarily to prepare students for university (the large majority of A-level linguists do not continue beyond A-level). It should be opening minds to the target language culture, but allowing them to involve their personal experience.It should to some extent be related to the world of work (an area neglected by ALCAB). It should follow a natural progression from GCSE. It should see the language as a living entity to be used, not an object to be dissected.

They current generation of A-level linguists is small but very talented. In many ways they are up with the best of the past. In some ways they are better. We just need more of them.

Monday, 11 August 2014

One approach to teaching texts

I wrote this a while ago for the A-level page of I thought less experienced teachers may appreciate some advice on how to deal with texts, the "bread and butter" of language teaching.

1.  Pre-reading. Where possible arouse the interest of students for the task with simple questioning, a related vocabulary game, a brief oral presentation in English or French, or even showing a short Youtube clip.

2.  Read aloud the text (good for listening comprehension input, sound-spelling relationships, controls the pace of student reading - they shouldn't skim through too fast). With some, less focused younger classes get them to follow the text with their finger. (With weaker classes you could even give an instant translation of the entire text into English for their benefit, the aim being to maximise their understanding and maintain their interest for later - akin to a parallel reading task.)

Although you can get classes to read in silence and then complete a gapped vocabulary list, I generally prefer working through the text with them. By doing this you are also providing listening input and can, to an extent, aid comprehension with your intonation.

3.  Get individual students to read aloud. It is noteworthy that the ones who read aloud are often the best at answering questions about the text later. Weaker groups can read short chunks of text, faster classes can read at greater length. Even better get pairs of students to read aloud to each other, possibly assessing each other's performance - a great AfL task.

4.  Exploit the whole panoply of whole class questioning techniques (true/false, traditional question-answer, giving false answers, aural gap fill, defining words in TL, finding synonyms, "Comment dit-on en français" and so on). Use hands up and some no hands up. Differentiate questioning. Use quicker students as models.

5.  Get the class to turn over the text and, as a whole class activity, fill gaps orally from memory. The teacher can adapt this to the speed and memory of the class. Students like this sort of instant memory test.

6.  Do written exercises of various types - matching, true/false/not mentioned, questions, gap fill, jigsaw tasks, giving definitions, simple composition, translation. These may be better left for homework so as to maximise time in class devoted to oral and aural practice.

You will note from the list above that the focus is largely, though not exclusively, on comprehension and target language.Using questions in English may have a place in terms of clarity and distinct focus on meaning, but target language exercise types give you more comprehension "bang for your buck" (i.e. even more comprehensible input, both reading and aural), so I would generally avoid English.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

How could the exam boards make the new A-levels palatable?

Soon after this post was written I saw that Labour have said they would put A-level reform on hold if they came to power in 2015.... They have the reform of AS level particularly in their sights, but this would inevitably make intended changes to subject content unworkable.


If you have followed my series of blogs about the new MFL A-levels to be taught from September 2016, you will know the three categories on which exam boards must select their themes for study. At AS level three themes must be covered, one from each category. At A-level six must be done (two from each category?). The ALCAB report designed their syllabus so that AS and A-level may be taught concurrently.

Here are the three general categories again:
  • social issues and phenomena
  • politics, current affairs and history
  • intellectual culture, past and present
Now, once the consultation is over in September and once the final guidance emerges (I would not expect much change) the exam boards will be thinking "How can we make this palatable to students and teachers whilst remaining within Ofqual's guidelines?" They will have looked at the indicative lists provided by the ALCAB report and thought that many of the themes would be too challenging or off-putting for students. They will also be aware that they are in competition with other boards to produce a specification which schools will wish to follow.

They may also feel that the three categories are ill-conceived in the first place. When you begin to come up with themes for each category you soon realise that the first category is far more productive than the others. This may be why the ALCAB report came up with themes, for French, such as existentialism, French mathematics and surrealism in the intellectual culture category.

So I was wondering what I would like to see as a (former) head of department and suggest the list below (for French). I am keeping in mind that the themes need to fit the categories, be challenging, interesting, important, relate to the target language culture, engage the personal experience of students and, crucially, be capable of generating interesting lessons where communication in the target language predominates.

Here is my shot:

Social issues and phenomena

La famille et les relations en France (marriage, relationships, living alone, parenting, conflict, changing modes of family, changing roles in the home, separation, divorce in France, benefits, poverty)
L'immigration et l'intégration en France (free movement of labour in Europe, multiculturalism, integration, racism, benefits and problems of immigration, experience of individual immigrants in France, experience of victims of racism, anti racism organisations)
La vie active en France: (employment, unemployment, full and part-time work, work patterns, reasons for unemployment and its effects, types of work, social effects of unemployment, benefits)
L'école en France (educational system, success and failure at school, curriculum, universities, selection, private schooling, secular schooling)
La publicité en France (role and purpose of advertising, trends in advertising, advertising techniques, benefits and drawbacks, laws on advertising in France, internet and social media, describing French language adverts)
Les Français et l'environnement (policies, effects of environmental changes on daily lives, French environmental groups, renewable energy in France, climate change policy, local environmental initiatives)
Jeunesse et vieillesse en France (youth culture, retirement, employment, demographic change, caring for the elderly, assisted dying)
Services publics en France (transport, infrastructure, health service, privatisation, social security, housing policy, suburbs)

Politics, current affairs and history

(Note that "current affairs" is problematic since, by its nature, it is ephemeral - surely it was a mistake to include it. This general category is also one where it is hardest to find topics that engage students' personal experience, making communicative lessons harder to plan.)

La vie politique en France (left/right, electoral system, parties, policies, contemporary political issues, personalities)
La France en Afrique (colonialism, francophonie, life in francophone African countries, Algerian War, development)
L'histoire de l'émancipation des femmes en France
L'actualité dans les pays francophones
Le rôle de la France dans la deuxième guerre mondiale (occupation, resistance, post war revival)
La France et la Belgique dans l'Union Européenne (history of EU, role of France and Belgium, attitudes to European integration, the euro, European institutions, implications of European policy for the economy, environment and employment, views on the EU and sovereignty)
La Grande Guerre (context of First World War, events, battles, life and experience of soldiers, literature, legacy)
Les jeunes et la politique en France (voting patterns, political causes, how to engage young people, single issues, voting age, policies of French parties, left and right)

Intellectual culture, past and present

Le paysage médiathique en France (channels and radio stations, financing, programme types and trends, overlap with internet, benefits and dangers of watching television,new technologies)
Le cinéma en France depuis 1970 (importance of cinema industry, film types, directors, festivals, films, movements, new film technologies, a good French language film I have seen, role of cinema in popular culture)
OR La nouvelle vague du cinéma français* (context, techniques, films, describing films, directors)
La peinture impressionniste (context, techniques, painters, biographies, describing individual works, legacy)
Sciences, technologie et médecine en France (GM foods and genetic research, nuclear energy, cures for diseases, new technologies, dealing with climate change, ethical issues)
La musique populaire dans les pays francophones (music types, music industry, radio, law on French language music, changing trends, music I like)

* Although arguably more interesting from an intellectual standpoint, the films of the New Wave may appeal less to students than many films from 1970 onwards.

I maintain a faint hope that teachers will respond in large  numbers to the consultation and reject outright what the Russell Group and Ofqual have proposed.