Thursday, 29 January 2015

Derniers baisers

Feeling a bit glum at this cold end of January? Here is a song to get you thinking about summer holidays and romance! A good one for your lower sixth, as a one-off or as part of a holiday theme. It's video listening from

Quand vient la fin de l'été, sur la ______
Il faut alors se _______
Peut-être pour _________
Oublier _____ ______
Et nos baisers

Quand vient la fin de l'été, ___ __ _____
L'amour va se _________
Comme il _ ________
__________ , sur la plage
Par un ________

Le soleil est ____ ____
Et nous n'irons plus ______
_____-__ qu'après ____ __ _____
Notre amour ____ ______

Quand vient la fin de l'___. ___ __ _____
Il faut alors _’__ _____
Les vacances ___ ____
____________ la ___________
De nos ________

Le soleil est plus pâle
Et nous n'irons plus danser
_____-__ qu'après tout un hiver
Notre amour ____ _____

Quand vient la fin de l'été, sur la plage
Il faut alors se quitter
Peut-être pour toujours
Oublier cette plage
Et nos baisers
Et nos baisers...

Avez-vous eu une petite liaison romantique pendant les vacances ? Allez ! Racontez !

Monday, 26 January 2015

Ba Ba Dum

 Ba Ba Dum is from two Polish educational book writers, husband and wife Aleksandra and Daniel Mizieliński. It's a vocabulary game which shows sets of four pictures and invites the viewer to match one of them with words. It can be used in 11 different languages, including French. There are five varieties of the game:

1.  You are given four pictures and a word in the middle in French to match with one of the pictures. the word is read out aloud to you. You choose a picture.

2.  You are given one picture and a choice of four words. When you select a word it is pronounced.

3. You are given four pictures but hear just a sound file. You choose a picture.

4.  You are given a picture and a word to complete beneath. You select from a list of letters to correctly spell the word. If you spell it wrong the programme immediately corrects it for you.

5. This one mixes up the above options; first question might just be an audio file, second a choice of four words etc.

You can sign in to create a free account. If you do, your scores are recorded to enable you to see what progress you have made. You can also compete with users from around the world and feature on a league table.

The programme uses one of those algorithms which note your answers and then adjust which words to present to you in future. When you get one right it is marked as learned. Then the probability of drawing a learned word is much lower. If a "learned" word comes up and you get it wrong, it becomes "unlearned" again, so you will see it more often. There are 1500 words in all. 

The pictures are colourful and clear, leaving little doubt over meaning. The overall presentation is bold and attractive, the concept simple.

Because the words/pictures are presented in a random fashion so you could not use the site to practice a chosen area of vocabulary, so a teacher could use the site from the front of the class, but, given the level of vocabulary, it would need to be at intermediate level at least and might be best used as a fun time-filler. The fact that words may be presented as sound files (well pronounced by the way), allows for repetition work.

The main use for this game (is it really a game?), as for other similar vocabulary learning games and apps, would be for independent memorisation. As such it has severe limitations as a learning tool, but might appeal to some students. The ultimate challenge would be for a student to have mastered 1500 words - quite some achievement, one which some learners might enjoy. Maybe it could be used as part of a lunchtime language club.

The game works fine on PC and iPad. I could not find an app for it, but you don't need one really.

Have a look and see what you think.

They have an interesting statistics page:

Friday, 23 January 2015

How would we change our teaching if there were no exams?

This title occurred to me as I was reflecting on the value of translation in language teaching.

When I taught A-level French, in the second (A2) year I would devote quite a lot of time, especially in the run-up to exams, to translating sentences from English into French. Students usually enjoyed it and felt they were improving their grammatical understanding and accuracy in the process. It also had the advantage of requiring no preparation, not an insignificant point for busy teachers. For me it was quite enjoyable too, all the more so since, with years of experience, I was on top of the material and could deal with almost any question.

But you know, if there had not been an exam to prepare for, I doubt very much if I would have done it. Maybe as a very occasional alternative activity? Maybe. I would rather have used the time for interesting communication in French.

At GCSE we spent a suitable amount of time preparing for controlled assessments, oral and written. Although we did our best to fit them into our existing scheme of work, not wishing the tail to wag the dog, they did force us into practices we would have otherwise avoided. Having students spend hours memorising chunks of language is an example. Showing model essays and listening to model oral responses is another. That's time I would have spent teaching texts, watching video or doing paired conversation practice.

At KS3 we would spend a good few lessons in the summer term helping pupils prepare for end of year exams. This usually entailed a fair bit of grammar bashing to help my class do as well as my colleagues'. This I feel easier to justify, because, although regular revision and unit testing was built into the schemes of work, I could see a case for an annual recap, revision and consolidation. There's no doubt that our pupils were highly motivated by their end of year exams which were awarded high status in the school.

What if these exams had not been there? How else would I have changed my practice?

It's actually a tricky question to answer because we get so tied in to one way of thinking, one way of doing things. But here we go. I would have:

- focused less on writing

- used more imaginative material, more storytelling, less GCSE-style lifestyle material

- done almost no exam technique preparation

- spent more time on teaching texts

- spent more time listening and watching video

- continued to value accuracy, but not so much through translation

- set less revision or "learning" homework, more practice

- set more speaking homework (e.g. recording presentations)

- done more extensive reading

An interesting thing to ponder is whether it would have been possible to motivate students as much without GCSEs. An advisor once told me that she had come to the conclusion that exams were the only way to motivate the least interested students. Perhaps she was right. The post 16 curriculum is so absurdly narrow in England that it does still seem appropriate to me to have a high stakes test at the end of Y11. But if we modernised our A-levels, perhaps we could do away with a high stakes 16+ exam and be like other nations. If we are to trust the PISA tables GCSE does not seem to raise our national attainment.

What do you think?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Listening is the key

If we assume that second language learning has at least something in common with first language acquisition, it is fair to assume that listening plays a major role in learning. We should therefore build in as much listening as possible to lessons. This is why the use of target language is so valued.

It is a shame that public exam markschemes do not value highly enough this skill in their assessment objective weightings. Indeed, the Edexcel exam board do not assess it at all at A2 level, whilst the current GCSE in England and Wales has only given it 20% of the marks, compared with 30% for writing. This is bizarre.

I have become more and more convinced of the centrality of listening. So what types of structured activity can we do alongside the listening we do whilst teaching and practising new material, playing games and so on? Here is a selection:

1. Fill gaps in a transcript (gaps may be letters, parts of words, whole words or longer utterances.

2. Answer comprehension questions in English or the target language. (The latter are also a test of reading comprehension, so less good if you wish to isolate a student’s listening ability.)

3. Correct a transcript with deliberate errors included.

4. Correct false sentences.

5. Do true/false or true/false/not mentioned tasks. (The latter are better since they produce more reliable test scores.)

6. Do multiple-choice questions with pictures, or in English or the target language. (The latter are also a test of reading comprehension, so less good if you wish to isolate a student’s listening ability.)

7. Do matching tasks in the target language.

8. Note-take in English or the target language. (With the latter students can transcribe directly what they hear even if they do not understand it.)

9. Do dictation. (This is more demanding in a language such as French where the sound-spelling relationship is not always obvious. It may be less useful for Spanish and German.)

10. Complete a grid or chart.

11. Tick off statements which are true (a variation of true-false).

12. Do re-ordering tasks (e.g. song lyrics)

13. Agree/disagree statements read out or recorded

14. Interpret from the target language into English

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Teaching in the target language

I wrote this lengthy blog to go alongside the webinar I did on Sunday 25th January at 4.00 (GMT) for ALL (Association for Language Learning) London branch. If you want to see webinar it is on the ALL site here:

Why this topic?

Firstly, language teachers on social media sometimes comment that this remains an issue of uncertainty. Will I lose control of the class if they do not understand? Will it stop me building up a rapport? Should I feel guilty if i use English? Should I write comments in exercise books in the target language? Are my skills good enough? Should I be using 100% TL; if not, what percentage? Is it the best approach anyway?

Secondly, Ofsted, who have an enormous database of observations, have always pointed out that use of target language remains a concern. Essentially, too many teachers fail to use enough high quality target language. In their report Modern Languages: Achievement and challenge 2007-2010

.. the report ... highlights important weaknesses and the barriers preventing good language learning, including insufficient use of the target language in secondary schools. [Page 1]

The key barriers observed to further improvement in Key Stages 3 and 4 were teachers’ lack of use of the target language to support their students’ routine use of the language in lessons, as well as providing opportunities for them to talk spontaneously… In many of the secondary schools visited, opportunities for students to listen to and communicate in the target language were often limited by many teachers’ unpreparedness to use it. Too often, students were not taught how to respond to everyday requests and thus routine work in the target language and opportunities to use it spontaneously were too few.

Good or outstanding progress was characterised by clear links between the teachers' demands and opportunities for the students to speak in meaningful situations. Cues and information gap activities prompted creative speech, gradually moving students towards spontaneity: that is, being able to say what one wants to say. [Pages 23 and 24]

In the best practice: teachers consistently used the target language for managing lessons and because the students had well-developed linguistic skills deriving from their bilingualism, they made excellent progress in listening and were confident speakers with good pronunciation, They routinely used the target language for communication... [Page 24]

Secondary schools should... put much greater emphasis on regular use of the target language in all lessons. [Recommendations, page 8]

Research and methodological justifications

Should we accept that Ofsted are right about best practice? Well, yes. Many will accept that it is just common sense that the best progress will be made if the teacher uses as much TL as possible. If you believe that acquisition naturally occurs through exposure to meaningful language, then you take it as read that an immersion style is the way to go. Does research support this?

This is not the place for detail, but the eminent applied linguist Rod Ellis put it this way in 2005:
The opportunity to interact in the target language is central to developing second language proficiency 
So far, so obvious you might think. The question for most teachers is not the principle that target language use is a good thing, but how much you should use and how best to use it. That's the main focus of the webinar and this blog.

I am going to get straight into the basics of what I see as successful target language use. It's not about comments in exercise books, writing lesson objectives in the TL, posting signs in the TL so children can ask if they can go to the toilet in the TL; it's about skilled classroom interactions through the process of presentation and practice of language material.

Questioning and other interactions
Skilled question-answer technique is a must. Teachers need to be aware of effective questioning, what Americans sometimes label "circling". With beginners and low intermediate students especially, the teacher need a repertoire of question types ranging from most closed to most open:

Yes/No - is this a pen or a pencil?
True/false - he's going to the cinema, true or false?
Either/or - is he going to the cinema or the theatre?
Choice of more options - is she playing golf, tennis or football?
Closed question word questions - where is the station? who is he?
Open question word questions - what is she doing? what do you think about...?

This type of interaction is quite artificial, comically lampooned by Eddie Izzard (google Eddie Izzard French), but is the heart of what we do. When the "strong communicative" approach developed in the 1970/80s it went a little out of fashion since it was not considered real communication, but it allows the teacher and class to develop simple conversation from the very outset. In this way, students learn to develop quick reactions and to expect to hear the TL as the normal way of communicating. It can be fun to do, needs a brisk pace and can benefit from particular techniques:
  • Use an able pupil to get things going;
  • If an individual struggles with an answer, go to a quicker pupil or two, then return to the first one
  • Correct sensitively by modelling good responses;
  • Beware of "no hands up" or "lolly stick" approaches - these can frustrate fast learners, slow down the pace and stop you, as the expert teacher, guiding the right question to the right pupil. We are paid to exercise our questioning skill, not use a randomiser. How about just using "no hands up" as an occasional alternative?
  • Use humour to nudge things along e.g. tricks like exaggerated praise, giving deliberately wrong statements to provoke a response, choosing a student whilst looking in the opposite direction, amusing facial expressions, gestures such as thumbs up to praise, shaking hand gestures to indicate a nearly right response, feigned surprise or annoyance, that finger to lips kissing gesture which chefs make etc etc.
To these you can add a range of drill type interactions. I blogged about this here:

Here are a selection of effective ways of using TL effectively:
  • Whole group repetition (including whispering, singing, shouting)
  • Part group repetition (rows, groups, pairs)
  • Reading aloud individually or as a group from the board (good for sound-spelling links)
  • In pairs taking turns to say a word, phrase or sentence until someone runs out of ideas
  • Playing guessing games in pairs (e.g. Battleships, what did you do last weekend?)
  • Making up false utterances to be corrected by partner or teacher
  • Doing information gap tasks (e.g. completing a diary)
  • Lip reading in pairs
  • Giving a presentation to a partner or the class
  • Singing along with a song
  • Miming guessing games e.g. "dumb customer"
  • Pupils asking the teacher questions
  • Playing aural anagrams with a partner
  • Making up a story one word at a time
  • Playing word association
  • Playing an "accumulation" game ("I go to the market and I buy...)
  • Short term memory oral gapfill led by teacher
For 50 types of oral activity for the language classroom:

So when should I use English? 

Keep to a minimum to keep class on board. Some words are easily explained with gesture, a picture, definition or because they are cognates. Others harder so teacher has to use their skill and be what someone has called a "dictionary designer" - i.e. you use your skill to decide what methods are best to help students understand words or expressions.

Definitions are great because they provide more language input, gestures and pictures are good because they avoid "code switching" from TL to English which may encourage students to get lazy and expect translations. Translation best used in moderation.

Avoid the constant "echoing" technique where you keep adding the English word to help students along all the time. You need to develop a feel for when you need to supply that little bit of extra help. I suggest using English to:
  • Explain complex activities - it saves time and ends up allowing for more TL use.
  • For giving complex cultural information. There needs to be some room for the teacher to tell stories, amuse, explain, and build up a relationship.
  • Deal with discipline issues in most cases.
  • Set lesson objectives, if you do it (you don't always have to). Controversial? This may sometimes be better done in English. You don't want any doubt in the child's mind over this. A class might need need "easing in" to a lesson, depending on their mood. You might make a better connection with the class by saying a few words in English.
  • Put work into context. For example, let's say you are going to work on a text about an issue, would it better to spark the class's interest by briefly dealing with some key points in English or showing a short Youtube video? If this leads to greater commitment to the text later, then it's worth doing.
  • Explain grammar and giving notes. With really smart classes you may be able to do this in the TL.
  • Do certain types of AfL work e.g. looking at model exam questions, target setting, checking how much pupils understood at the end of a lesson and so on.
  • Give complex feedback in exercises books and orally. Is it possible that we make a closer psychological bond with most students by using the mother tongue with them? The exercise book is the the most intimate link you have with a student.
  • Talk to classes about language learning.
  • Set homework (usually) - there must be total clarity for this. maybe do it in TL first, then have a student interpret.

What happens if it's not working for me?

If you know your technique is sound, but you are losing the class and need to resort to translation methods then it's obviously not the end of the world, especially if you translate from the TL. In this instance students are still being exposed to TL. When you have the class's confidence, then try more TL again.

Explain to a class why you are using TL. Let them into your "secret".Tell them about child language acquisition and how you are trying to tap into their natural language acquisition abilities. I used to say:

"When you were tiny you learned to speak and understand English by the age of about 4 and nobody gave you vocab to learn, homework or tests. How did that happen? Can we try and make the same happen in the little time we've got together in class and for homework?"

Try working in bursts of TL for up to ten minutes (no English at all), then release tension by allowing some English.

Be nasty when you have to be! e.g. if TL pairwork is going on, if you start to hear English nip it in the bud, firmly if needed.

Misuse of target language

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), in their latest guidelines to language teachers advocate using about 90% target language.

That sounds about right to me. Why not 100%?
  • Total TL usually puts some pupils off. They often understand less than we think they do. Clarity is vital.
  • As soon as meaning is consistently lost, then students will switch off and, worse, misbehave. Why insist on total immersion, if you can get more motivation and more successful input with 90%?
  • About 90% makes good use of the little time we have with students to get them to progress. To me, it's largely about maximising meaningful input and our main focus should be on this. When we design lessons are we focused fully on what constitutes good input? Do we think of lesson planning in terms of input or output tasks?
For more on input and output tasks:

INPUT (focus on target language input)

Listening to recordings and doing comprehension tasks
Listening to the teacher while doing question-answer or drill style work
Watching and listening to a video
Reading an article or story and doing oral or written comprehension on it
Doing extensive reading
Using a picture for oral discussion led by the teacher
Doing a question-answer sequence when introducing new grammar or vocabulary
Doing a cloze task with the focus on meaning
Playing bingo
Doing a crossword from TL to English or with the focus on sentences in the TL

OUTPUT (focus on activities which supply little or no new input)

Doing a grammar-translation task (e.g. translating from English to French)
Writing a composition "cold", with little help from a source text
Memorising a talk or essay for a controlled assessment
Doing a cloze exercise with the focus on grammatical accuracy
Memorising a vocabulary list for a test
Playing hangman
Solving anagrams
Doing a crossword from English to TL
Practising learned conversations with a partner
Creating a grammar presentation 
Designing a poster

Effective target language teaching will mainly feature input tasks with a focus on meaning.I would think about this during lesson planning. How do I maximise input? If a child hears an item 10 times they are much more likely to remember it than only once or twice.

Effective target language teaching will also feature lots of input at whole sentence or "paragraph" level i.e. chunks of connected language rather than isolated words. This needs building in right from the start.

In the long run, how will some of our students attain proficiency?

Random tips for TL teaching

  • Have some sort of sign or signal indicating when only TL is allowed
  • Apologise to the class for using English to set the right tone and show you are one of them
  • Give rewards to students who never use English
  • Make maximum use of realia and pictures
  • Set challenges e.g. "I am going to talk to you for 3 minutes about my weekend in French/German/Spanish. Write down notes in English and I'll see how much you picked up" (then check understanding in TL - tell me in French/German/Spanish anything I did)
  • If a student asks you something in English, give a quizzical look and say you don't understand
  • Post high frequency phrases around the classroom
  • Use cognates where possible
  • Slow down your speech, but not too much
  • Use LOTS of aural gapfill: "I'm gong to start a sentence, you finish it" or "I'm going to end a sentence, how would you start it?";
  • Don't get obsessed with accuracy. Decide is the aim of your lesson is to focus on accuracy or general proficiency
  • Use phonics style activities to generate a sense of fun with making strange sounds
  • Use mini whiteboards to keep all pupils active during TL work
  • Use pupils as interpreters after you have spoken in TL - why not have a chosen pupil each lesson - "interpreter for the day"?
  • Give points for "spontaneous" TL talk from pupils
  • Use TL task as pupils walk in e.g. counting to 20 (books out by 20), reciting the alphabet, chanting/singing days and months
  • Try to make focus of computer/tablet work on INPUT (e.g. video listening, interactive grammar and comprehension)
  • Test vocabulary in target language if possible - this works for some areas where definitions and gesture can be used e.g. kitchen vocabulary, furniture, clothing. Make sure you warn pupils they are going to be tested this way, or they will think it's unfair.

Awkward questions?
  • Pupils are very easily confused, especially when TL is not used with skill and carefully selected and graded. Weaker pupils struggle with the concentration required. If not supported by explanation in English some pupils may struggle to have a feeling for what they have achieved. What did I learn today? Nature of language learning is accumulative, so it's not always easy to provide steps which are mastered. Returns may be long term rather than short term. This needs explaining to pupils.
  • The theory that acquisition occurs through the natural method of comprehensible input is unproven, though claims are made from research, generally of a very unscientific nature. Does the curriculum provide enough time for acquisition to occur to any great extent? With many pupils probably not. 
  • TL requires great teacher skill and a degree of fluency which not all teachers have. It is surely better to use a method which works for you. Is it better to do grammar-translation well than TL teaching badly? But the teacher is not the only model, of course.
  • Some claim that focusing on differences and similarities between TL and native tongue is an aid to learning, not a hindrance. By this argument it is better to use translation and take advantage of the cognitive skills older children have and which young children do not.
  • The idea that pupils will pick up rules by pure exposure and practice may be fanciful. My experience was that only the sharpest students did this. Most benefit from some explanations in English. Best to give rule fist then practise? Or other way round? Latter feels better, greater focus on meaning, but former may be clearer to pupils. 
  • Students are different. Some may thrive on a strongly TL approach, other may prefer a more "cognitive", problem-solving approach. We should cater for all needs. BUT, they do all that Chomskyan language learning device in their brains. We should exploit it. 
  • "I use TL consistently, but I have colleagues who don't" - this is an issue for the Head of Department to work on through team meetings, CPD and performance management targets. A consistent departmental approach is best. We want students to feel let down if they are not getting lots of TL.

Simple truth?

Pupils get better at what they practise. Do lots of speaking and listening in TL and they will get better at this. Do lots of writing and focus on grammar, they will be better at this.

Other references

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Grammar handouts

This is just to let you know that I have begun to post some French grammar handouts to various pages on These are just reference notes, not practice worksheets (of which there are already many on the site, designed for oral and written work). So far, I have done a handout on the subjunctive and passive for the A-level page, handouts on the perfect tense, irregular present tense verbs, immediate future and direct object pronouns for the Y8 page, handouts on the imperfect and future tenses for the Y9 page and various handouts for Y10-11  - negatives, adverbs, adverbial pronouns, future perfect, pluperfect and using pour, depuis and pendant.

Expect to see more.

The idea is that they could be handed out to students to reinforce classroom practice. Students could stick them in their exercise books or place them in their files. They could be used for display, but don't forget here are already quite a lot of free whiteboard notes on the site. These were written for display. When I taught I tended to stick to simple Word docs rather than fancy powerpoints!

I know there are schools where students do not have access to text books at home, so takeaway notes can be useful.

I have tried to make them as clear and simple as possible. The subjunctive is simplified somewhat for A-level, with just a selection of phrases which trigger it off. The subtleties of the subjunctive are not really needed at that level.

Some basic principles of language learning and teaching

A bit of theory. Stating the obvious maybe?

Second language learning can take place in a variety of ways depending on a range of variables: the teacher (we are all different and need to believe in our approach), the class (age, motivation), the school context(e.g. testing regime), timetable (how many lessons, length of lessons) and so on. It is wise for the teacher, therefore, to exploit a variety of teaching approaches, but within certain parameters. I would not argue for a laissez faire attitude, but for eclecticism within the framework of what we know for sure about language learning. In 1966 J.B. Carroll in "The Contributions of Psychological Theory and Educational Research to the Teaching of Foreign Languages" listed what he called the "facts of verbal learning":

1.  In learning a skill it is often the case that conscious attention to its critical features and understanding of them will facilitate learning.

2.  The more meaningful the material to be learned, the greater the facility in learning and retention.

3.  Other things being equal, materials presented visually are more easily learned than materials presented aurally.

4.  The more numerous kinds of association that are made to an item, the better the learning and retention.

For the languages teacher these points imply to me that we should:

1.  exploit the here-and-now and what is perceived to hold meaning for the learner. (That might include personal information, likes and dislikes etc, but might exclude transactional language like that used for hotel booking or filling a car with fuel;

2.  provide large amounts of target language in a meaningful way ("comprehensible input" to use Krashen's terminology). This will involve:

3.  select and grade the language to be presented and offering as many extra-linguistic clues as possible. It may include exploiting the first language via translation at times, if it speeds up things and allows, ultimately, for more target language to be used;

4.  give explanations about grammatical rules when considered fruitful;

5.  practise using language in a variety of ways (oral, listening, reading and writing);

6.  motivate the students by giving them a sense of progress and range of activities;

7.  keep the learner concentrating by appropriate means to maximise the exposure to the language;

8.  recycle previously taught grammar and vocabulary.

These points clearly suggest a blend of natural, "informal" acquisition and conscious, formal learning for the classroom, with a bias towards the former, especially with more advanced learners. It is the common sense approach which the best teachers use in most school contexts.

Monday, 12 January 2015

#Je SuisCharlie procession

We were showing friends around St Martin en Ré, that picturesque little port on the Ile de Ré, yesterday, when we encountered an impressive procession of several hundred people walking through the streets from the harbour to the main square. We chose to join in and ended up in front of the town hall, where some sang the Marseillaise. It was a calm, dignified march and gathering, with many holding pencils, carrying Je Suis Charlie posters or wearing Je Suis Charlie stickers. The procession was led by local dignitaries wearing tricolor sashes.

A few thoughts went through my head.

Not surprisingly for this part of France, the crowd was almost entirely white French, older than average and, I would estimate, predominantly middle class.That's the Ile de Ré for you.

The association of freedom of expression with national identity was prominent. Quiet good humour was the order of the day. I had a feeling of history being made.

The presence of flags and the singing of the national anthem made me wonder if the recent events and the public reaction to them might be hijacked by the political right at some point as a pretext for more repressive use of the state to weed out potential terrorist fanatics. I read today that Sarkozy has been quick off the mark, arguing for the arming of municipal police. Jean-Marie Le Pen did not dignify himself with his statement "je ne suis pas Charlie" whilst his daughter appeared to try and make some political capital by spreading the word that the Front National had been excluded from the Paris demonstration.

As the dust settles I would expect the debate about this, as well as the place of "laïcité" and integration in French society, to develop. Jews continue to feel threatened in France, with a rising number choosing to leave. France's large Muslim community were horrified by the Charlie Hebdo attack, but many were offended by its cartoons. That tiny minority of excluded, radicalised fanatics may be immune to this national expression of unity in defence of freedom of speech.  I read that 70% of inmates in French prisons are Muslim. I wonder what can be done to tackle radicalisation in gaols.

As for political leadership at this time, François Hollande and Manuel Valls dealt with the crisis with great dignity. I would expect their miserable popularity ratings to rise as a result.  Hollande captured the national mood, as a president should, with his national addresses and personal touch with the crowds. We watched Valls speak eloquently and at length to Claire Chazal on the eight o'clock TF1 news. His sincere, measured, articulate delivery made him sound like a future president to me, although whether committed socialists would see it that way is another matter.

Here are pictures we took in St Martin on Sunday afternoon:

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Latest updates from frenchteacher

Just to keep users of the site and others up to date with the latest resources added to frenchteacher. The emphasis over the last month has been on advanced level material. As always, bags of material for teachers who like their "comprehensible input".

Grammar handout: this is new departure for the site. I produced a set of notes on the subjunctive, coverering formation and use. It is designed as a handout for reference and can be used alongside the practice worksheets on the subjunctive. Y12 (Low advanced)

Video listening. Worksheet linked to 1jour1actu video on freedom of expression, in the light of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Basic video introduction of the basic principles of freedom of expression in a democracy, with an opportunity for discussion. Gap fill and discussion questions in French. Good for upper sixth or good lower sixth (low advanced/advanced). Y12-13 (Advanced)

Video listening. This is a Euronews report soon after the terrorist attack on the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. Questions in French. Model answers given. Free resource. Y12-13 (Advanced)

Video listening. Short interview with the musician Stromae. True/false/not mentioned and short gap fill. It’s fast, but the French is not too hard. Y12-13 (Advanced)

Present participles crossword for Y10-11, or even AS level. Gap fill clues, so meaning needs to be grasped. Y10-11 (Intermediate)

Text and exercises about recent immigration figures for France. A look at recent tendencies. Text, vocabulary to complete, true/false/not mentioned, lexical work, questions for oral and written work, translation and gap fill. The works! This would suit A2 level in England and Wales very well. Y13 (Advanced)

French to English translation. An extract from Candide, ou l’optimisme by Voltaire. Model answer provided. If you,ve never read Candide, it's easy and satirical fun.Y13 (Advanced)

French to English translation. This is from L’Etranger by Albert Camus. It is the famous beach scene, depicting Meursault’s state of mind in the lead-up to his crime. Model answer provided. Y13 (Advanced)

French to English translation. This is a passage from Amélie Nothomb’s 1999 novel Stupeur et Tremblements. Model answer provided. Y13 (advanced)

Friday, 9 January 2015

When to do past practice papers

With the stakes so high in the English and Welsh exam system teachers obviously want students to be as well prepared as possible. With this in mind I would assume that all teachers use past exam papers to help their students succeed. But when and how should they be used?

If students have to do a "mock" or trial exam in December or January, what the French call an "examen blanc", it makes sense to use a past paper and possibly one before the paper for practice. I say "possibly" mainly because past papers take away time for more interesting, communicative work, but students like to have the reassurance of having seen the exam format.

It is possible to concoct an exam paper similar in style to a past paper, but made easier to reflect the students' stage of progress. However, there is a lot to be said for letting students have a sight of the final goal, both for motivation and to make sure they are realistic about where they stand. It can provide a needed kick up the rear (whilst also being demotivating for the weakest students).

After mock exams I would personally leave past papers alone until quite late in the day, say after Easter. I'll explain why.

Firstly, do we want to keep students in a permanent stage of exam stress? Secondly, are past papers, in methodological terms, the best practice to be doing? Their content is often bland and exercise types not always the best to maximise motivation and acquisition. Thirdly, is it not better to have students engaged with communicative, stimulating, target language material as much as possible? Lastly, once you begin past papers in earnest after Easter (often after orals are out of the way), you can really focus on technique and build a momentum as students take on numerous papers and, usually, see improvements in scores.

Students enjoy this repetition, seeing results improve whilst benefitting from short term reinforcement of effective technique. A real momentum can be generated. Students can become greedy for more. Furthermore, in the summer term they may be highly motivated to perform well on exam-style tasks.

I have heard it argued that it is a good idea to use individual questions from papers at various points of the year, but I would not favour this approach. Why? Well, once again, exam material is often dull, and if you do occasional practice in this form, technique develops less effectively. I would not rule it out, especially if there happens to be an excellent text which supports the topic you are studying at the time.

If we move to a two year linear A-level from September 2016, it will be possible to leave past papers quite late. I welcome that. Schools may still choose, as they often did in the past, to set a past paper at the end of Lower Sixth and for a mock exam in January of the Upper Sixth. On balance, I would prefer to set a non past paper in Lower Sixth, since students are not really ready for it.

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Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo

Nolwenn Burkey, a colleague from the MFLResources Yahoo Group, kindly sent me this presentation depicting reactions to the terrible attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. I also created an A-level listening resource based on a Euronews report of the events. It is a free resource on (see the Samples page).

Research access for language teachers

The ResearchEd conferences organised by teacher, TES columnist and "behaviour guru" Tom Bennett and attended by prominent teachers, journalists and academics, notably from the Twitter community, have attempted to raise the status of research in teaching. "What works?" is the question. How do teachers get beyond what they perceive as Ofsted expectations or fashionable classroom approaches?

There has been considerable debate about the value of research. It is well known that empirical research in the social sciences is problematic. In terms of classroom research, the variables involved make research difficult: teacher, school, students, social factors - all of these make it hard to pin down scientifically which classroom approaches work best. Long term ("longitudinal") studies comparing different approaches are particularly hard to carry out.

In short "what works" in one context may not in another.

In our subject area research has failed to demonstrate unequivocally which language teaching method is best. The eminent linguist and teacher trainer Brian Page* once wrote that we shall never have a clear, provable model of how second language learning works best. In these circumstances, most teachers rely on their own experience, what they learned as pupils and what they were taught during their teacher training.

A further difficulty for teachers who would like to take advantage of the latest research findings is the fact that it is difficult, and sometimes costly, to access research journals. It was with this in mind that I put together a list of online research sources for second language acquisition. It can be found on my site ( My own brief forays into research articles have been unproductive: articles are often esoteric, small scale, poorly conceived and of little use to the practising teacher.

A question being asked right now is whether research should be made much easier to access for teachers. I am sure this would be a good idea, but would teachers actually study research if it were more accessible?

My guess is no. My experience of language teachers is that they are generally far more interested in practical ideas and resources for lessons than in methodological issues and research. Furthermore, they are too hard pressed to spend time on reading research which may, in any case, be inconclusive and irrelevant to their particular context.

The idea of "research champions" for schools has been put forward. Each school would have a designated teacher whose job would be to keep up with latest evidence and to disseminate it across the school. This may be useful in terms of generic teaching issues, but would mainly be irrelevant to language teachers. As an example just think of what research may have taught us about questioning techniques: most of it is of little relevance to language teachers who use target language questioning in a very specific, often artificial, way to develop language skills.

There may be more mileage in each modern languages department having a teacher whose job it is to keep up with research and who could organise training sessions based on it. The role could be passed round and would make an excellent performance target for interested teachers. I might add that such a role may fit well wIthin the Head of Department's job description. If that role is partly about fostering a consistent approach across the department, then the Head of Department would do well to have the clearest ideas possible on methodological issues and the evidence of research.

* For more on Brian Page:

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Sunday, 4 January 2015

Crosswords on frenchteacher

I have a considerable number of crosswords on, most of them based on translating individual words. The ones I like most, however, are gapfill-based crosswords since they require greater comprehension skill and place words in context. Students get greater input in this fashion which should lead to more acquisition. Crosswords can also develop grammatical skill, of course, like the example one below which you are welcome to use. It is from the Y10-11 section of the website and would suit reasonably able students between Y10 and Y12 (intermediate to high intermediate).

I make my crosswords using the excellent and free AmoredePenguin site. You can store crosswords on the site for a certain period or download them for unlimited use, including commercial. Very generous.

It is easy to adapt crosswords for less able students by writing in some missing letters, or even writing the answers as a list on a separate sheet from which students can choose. Teachers could also ask students to translate the clues including the missing words.

I never tried this, but you could read aloud answers and get students to identify the clue they should appear in before inserting the answer. This would keep all students working at the same pace, if that is what you prefer. In this case a minor element of listening would be involved, allowing students to develop their sound-orthography sense.