Monday, 31 August 2015

A weekly online reading or listening task

You know how we often ask A-level students to "read around" the subject? And you know how many don't do it? How about this for your AS-level and A-level groups this year? Each week you ask students to read a target language article online. They can choose any topic they like. You could suggest some useful sites to get them going. There are plenty of suggestions for French on the links pages of

It could work like this : you tell your students to copy and paste the piece on to a sheet of A4 and get them to add a 15 word bilingual glossary (words they did not know before) and a short summary in English. They hand in the sheet on a set day each week. You simply read, tick and hand back the sheet. This is to check that students have done the task. You do not need to mark it, that's not the point. In any case, you have more than enough marking already. You could leave a comment if you wish. Students could do all this electronically if you and they prefer.

You need to insist on deadlines and correct format to get your students into good habits.

A handy spin-off, by the way, is that you might find that students come up with interesting material you could use later in lessons.

Don't worry too much about the subject matter students choose. If they like football or fashion reports every week, that's fine. The point is for students to read for pleasure, be exposed to more input and acquire new vocabulary. You might suggest your students keep a reading diary if they choose to go beyond the assigned task. You will probably find students end up doing a fair amount of browsing of TL sites in the process.

A variation of the task would be to ask students to design a worksheet around the text they choose.

As an alternative you could occasionally ask your students to seek out some listening. In this case they could just summarise what they heard and add a glossary. This is harder to monitor accurately and sources of the right level are more difficult to locate, but it can be done. The site France Bienvenue is a good starting point.

By the end of the year your students would have read at least 30 articles for pleasure.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 28 August 2015

Choral repetition from pictures. Is it useless?

I had a little Twitter disagreement with a couple of colleagues today regarding the common use of PowerPoint pictures for choral repetition. The teachers in question described such practice as "mad" and "useless". I must be mad, therefore, and wasted my time waving flashcards or showing images on the board with my classes for many years.

Actually, however, I think I had some justifiable methodological reasons for presenting single word vocabulary with flashcards or PowerPoint minus spellings. Namely...

Research and common sense suggest that images are an aid to memory so I see good sense in presenting new words along with a simple, memorable visual aid. This could be in the form of a flashcard or with a picture displayed on the board with a slide show or on a simple Word doc. You can quickly move from simple repetition (using normal voice, whispering, singing and even shouting) to easy guessing games, picture hiding, gradual reveal and so on. These techniques alleviate any potential boredom. I think it goes without saying that knowledge of individual words is useful.

Secondly - and this applies in particular to French  with its relatively poor sound to spelling relationship - I preferred in the early stages for pupils to hear the word without seeing the spelling. My feeling was that the spelling might encourage poorer pronunciation despite my efforts to model accurately. Once pupils has imitated the sounds accurately I was then happy to show word spelling so they could see the correspondence between the phonology and orthography of the language. This is in line with the structured direct method approach (an "oral approach") which goes back to Harold E. Palmer and others in the 1920s and is explained here.

I was always keen on pupils reading aloud words, phrases and sentences from the board since I felt it was, in the long run, important for pupils' "bottom-up" reading skills to be able to hear the sounds in their heads and see how words are made up of smaller bits including syllables and morphemes.

As with all pedagogical practices it's clearly important not to overdo the same procedures, so if you spent very lesson on choral repetition from pictures it would indeed be boring, if not useless.

Single word repetition has its limitations, of course, and makes more sense with beginners. If done with skill pupils can find it motivating. Just think of the range of simple flashcard games you can play.

So, in sum, I would refute the claim that choral repetition of single words with pictures is mad, useless or ineffective. As part of a much wider diet of classroom activities it has its place.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Migrant traffickers in Calais

Here is a text I put together based on a TV5monde report on migrant traffickers in Calais. I had not realised how much British criminal interests were involved.

On I added some questions to go with this text which is aimed at Y11-12 (high intermediate).

Parfois en réseaux structurées, parfois opérant à titre individuel, les passeurs de Calais dictent tous les mêmes règles aux migrants vers la Grande-Bretagne: des prix qui n’arrêtent pas d'augmenter, pour rétribuer les risques liés au renforcement constant des mesures de sécurité sur ce site-frontière.

Le combat contre ces filières criminelles de passeurs est un des objectifs de l’accord signé entre le ministre de l’Intérieur Bernard Cazeneuve et son homologue britannique Theresa May en août 2015.

Mais ces passeurs, il faut d’abord les identifier. « Nous avons le plus grand mal à faire la différence entre un migrant et un passeur. Ils se fondent parfaitement dans la masse », confie une source policière locale.

Postées à l'entrée du camp, les voitures de luxe immatriculées au Royaume-Uni sont preuves d'une organisation méticuleuse. « Dans ma ville les trois quarts des passeurs sont anglais », affirme le maire Franck Dhersin. L'argent serait blanchi, par exemple par les chefs de filière dans des boîtes de nuit anglaises.

Certains passeurs, les moins riches, opèrent à titre individuel, dans le but de financer leur propre passage. « Tout se monnaye: du contact téléphonique d'un autre passeur pour une dizaine d'euros au trou d'une cisaille dans un grillage pour 100-150 euros », explique un habitant du "New Jungle" qui abrite la plupart des 3.000 migrants estimés dans la région.

Cibles privilégiées des forces de l'ordre, particulièrement la nuit où les passeurs font monter les migrants dans les camions depuis des parkings, aires industrielles ou d'autoroutes, les filières plus organisées gagnent des sommes considérables.
Le voyage proposé depuis l'Albanie coûte entre 9.100 et 9.800 euros par personne.

Les prix varient selon l’offre - de 500 à 700 euros pour le passage d’Érythréens à partir de Calais jusqu'à 20.000 euros pour un voyage "all inclusive" depuis l'Asie via des réseaux vietnamiens avec avion et prise en charge de l'hébergement.
Les tarifs sont plus chers pour les Syriens, réputés plus riches: avocats, ingénieurs, médecins. Ils peuvent payer le double.

Les mesures de sécurisation à coups de fils barbelés, grilles de 4 m de haut et caméras de vidéosurveillance du port de Calais depuis début juin, ont cependant rendu le voyage de ce côté-ci presque impossible. Restait alors l'option tunnel sous la Manche mais, ici aussi, la sécurisation du site de 650 hectares et ses 28 kilomètres de clôture a été renforcée.

Les organisations criminelles s’y adaptent vite en proposant des formules de passage plus sûres mais de plus en plus chères.

Face à une sécurité accrue, certains réseaux commencent à abandonner Calais.
Un nombre croissant de migrants sont chargés loin de la cité portuaire, parfois dès la sortie de Paris mais aussi dès la Belgique ou les Pays-Bas.

Et de nouvelles pistes mènent notamment vers le port de Zeebruge dans la Belgique voisine. « Un petit afflux" est également observé du côté de Ouistreham (Calvados), sur la côte normande, d'après le maire Romain Bail, qui se dit « très attentif ».

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A modern language teacher toolkit

Gianfranco Conti, who writes the blog The Language Gym, and I have decided to put together a handbook/toolkit for modern language teachers. Gianfranco teaches languages at the Garden International School in Kuala Lumpur, previously worked in the UK and has spent a good deal of time studying second language acquisition research. My background is teaching in the UK, some research and a long-term interest in pedagogy.

Why are we doing this? Not for financial gain! We both wonder whether language teachers coming into the profession, or even existing teachers, are well informed about the best research we have into what works. We also wonder if, in this "post methods" era of what has been called "principled eclecticism" (Pachler et al, from their useful and widely used book for PGCE students) how clear the "principles" are. We feel that many teachers are unclear about their principles with regard to language teaching and learning and that they may, therefore, engage in practice which is less productive than it might be.

We do not start from a fixed view of language acquisition. Having studied the field we are reasonably pragmatic, realising that context is key and that language acquisition can occur both through unconscious "natural" means and through explicit instruction and controlled practice.

We are acutely aware that teachers are not agreed on what works best and we do not wish to write anything too narrow or prescriptive. We would like to encourage teachers, however, to avoid practices which may be fashionable or superficially attractive, but which do not lead to effective language acquisition.

Some of you will know that I have already put together a concise free handbook, available on the Samples page of What we are proposing will be much more detailed and include some theory and research as well as practicalities.

There seem to be a number of books for language trainees, but I have yet to see one which really gets into the nitty gritty of classroom techniques. We hope, in the coming months, to put together something which will be of great practical use to language teachers. We have so far sought via Twitter views about what teachers might like to see in such a book. We have had quite a bit of feedback, including a few recurring points. This is what came up, more or less verbatim.

Systematic planning.
How to motivate and research on motivation.
Lazy teacher's handbook!
More advice on teaching specific areas of language, sequencing and lang to use.
How to design good worksheets.
A framework for planning lessons to consolidate knowledge.
How to situate planning within wider vision over time.
Scaffolding, vision, what would pupils find hard.
Setting cover work.
Creative, seamless backwards design across key stages.
Working with SEN.
Evidence based ideas on what works.
Minimum input, maximum output list.
Stuff on memory, memorisation, sequencing.
No/low prep activities.
Fun ways of doing listening.
How to teach grammar points.
Ideas for teaching grammar in engaging and memorable ways.
Ideas for teaching basic sentence building.
TL phrases for teacher and pupil use.
Ideas for group activities
Procedures not rules: how to explain and model-rehearse-reinforce and reteach.
Transferring vocab/grammar to different situations.
Ideas for games.
Minimal planning games, transferable across topics.
Give teachers a big toolbox of practical techniques and strategies to keep students talking in TL.
An accessible literary review of relevant research.
Range of activities which should work based on research and why.
Historical overview of nonsense as a warning against bandwagons.
How to turn SoW into clear lesson plans.
How to use flashcards.
Cautions about ICT.
Page of one liner pieces of advice from ML teachers.
Starter list of websites apps.
Using tech to enhance learning, not just for sake of it.
Medium term planning.

We cannot guarantee to deal with all of these, but I can imagine many will be covered.

At the moment our initial plan, which may change as the project evolves, is to have three sections. The first would look at some theory and research and what it suggests about best practice. You have to bear in mind that second language learning research has, so far, produced little which can recommend a "best approach". This is the case with all educational research which as to take account of so many variables: teacher, class, school, social context. It can give us some useful pointers though.

The second section will focus on practical ideas for the classroom based on what research suggests, along with what our combined 60 years of experience teaching and observing teaching languages tells us. We shall cover a wide range of techniques and practices, embracing the four skills, technology, games, planning, assessment, worksheet design and use, teaching grammar, working with texts, marking, homework and much more.

The third section would be a set of model lesson plans, maybe lesson sequences, either in English and thus adaptable to all languages, or in French, German and Spanish.

Anyway, do let me know if you think of any specific areas a trainee or more experienced teacher might like to see. This should be fun!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Pros and cons of being a native speaker MFL teacher

As the supply of "home grown" language teachers continues to dry up the UK is depending more and more, as in other fields of employment, on imported labour. I don't know if anyone keeps records on these things, but it is fair to say that a very significant and increasing minority of our French, German and Spanish teachers were born outside the UK.

Although not a new phenomenon, free movement of labour in the EU guarantees a reasonable supply of native speaker teachers and in general this is to be welcomed.

Native speakers have the enormous and obvious advantage of being fluent speakers and writers. This should not be under-estimated. Fluency makes the job of language teaching easier and students are exposed to excellent models of language. At A-level in particular, where great exposure to comprehensible input becomes possible, native speakers really come into their own. Fluency also encourages a teacher not to rely excessively on teaching about the language rather than through it. Some non native teachers are forced into dubious methodologies because they just don't have the language skills they need to do better.

Furthermore native speakers bring a detailed and usually up to date knowledge of their cultures to our classrooms and are able to share this not only with students but with their non-native colleagues.

But being a native speaker is not without its issues. If the teacher's command of English is suspect, this can cause issues with relationships and classroom control. Children require clarity and can be quick to pick on weakness.

In addition, not having gone through the process of learning the target language as a non-native may mean that it is harder to put yourself into the shoes of the learner. This may be exacerbated if the teacher has not had a grounding in the grammar of their own language. Fortunately, for teachers from mainland Europe, this not usually the case. French natives will have learned their "passé composé" in a not dissimilar way to British children.

Furthermore, native speakers will be less familiar with the routines and traditions of schooling in the UK. This counts. In all sorts of ways teachers are working within a long-standing educational culture the rules of which it is useful to know: ways of marking, common teaching methodologies, school behaviour policies, the tradition of collegiate working in the UK, staffing hierarchies, homework policies and general expectations. Understanding the fine detail of these is vital for any teacher and if a native speaker fails to adapt to these students' progress may be harmed.

On the other hand, native speakers bring a fresh and somewhat more objective view to UK school practices. Some may find some of our teaching less rigorous than they would like, for example.

As teachers we are formed to a considerable extent by our own school experience. I, like many, learned a lot about teaching languages from my own teachers who, as luck would have it, were strong on methodology. Native speakers may, I stress may, have a different background in that regard and have a narrower, more traditional methodology. Effective training through PGCE, Teach First or other means is meant to give students a sound methodological foundation. Evidence suggests this is inconsistent, however, so native speakers, along with non natives, may not have a full repertoire of effective techniques.

I was fortunate to work alongside a number of very good native speaker practitioners who brought a lot to our departments. One or two struggled somewhat, as did non-natives. I believe we should try to put to one side any possible prejudices we may hold in this area. Headteachers can be reluctant to employ native speakers as they are something of an unknown quantity, but these days we need to welcome them with open arms, help and encourage them as much as possible. Without them we are sunk.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 14 August 2015

Parallel texts on fair trade

Here is a parallel text exercise I put together with Y8 or Y9 in mind. Remember that the thought here is that parallel texts are a way of dealing with the disconnect with students' reading interests and their linguistic skill. By offering a translation in English alongside the French passage you are allowing students an easy route in to the content. You can then use other exercises to reinforce the target language input and build vocabulary.

This one is about fair trade. It could be further exploited, for example, via gapped translation or a part of a CLIL project on fair trade.

French text

Le commerce équitable

Beaucoup des petits producteurs et ouvriers des pays du Sud ne peuvent pas vivre dignement de leur travail car ils sont exploités ou pas suffisamment payés.

Le commerce équitable est une forme de commerce mondial qui assure aux producteurs des prix justes et des meilleures conditions de travail , tout en garantissant aux consommateurs des produits de bonne qualité, et dans le respect de l'environnement.  

Le commerce équitable respecte et récompense les femmes. Elles sont toujours payées pour leur contribution dans le processus de production et sont impliquées dans les organisations.
Il respecte aussi la convention des Nations-Unies sur les droits des enfants.  

La production des produits équitables ne vont pas á l'encontre de leur bien-être, leur sécurité, leur conditions éducatives et besoin de jouer.

Que peux-tu faire ?

Demande à tes parents de choisir des produits comme du café, du thé, du jus d'orange ou des céréales pour le petit déjeuner qui portent le label du commerce équitable.

Tu peux aussi demander des jouets qui sont aussi distribués par les boutiques du commerce équitable et ainsi participer au commerce équitable tout en jouant !

English text

Many small scale producers and workers from southern hemisphere countries cannot make a decent living from their work because they are exploited or inadequately paid
Fair trade is a form of worldwide trade which assures producers fair prices and better working conditions, whilst guaranteeing consumers good quality products the production of which respects the environment.
Fair trade respects and rewards women. They are always paid for their contribution to the prod!uction process and are involved in the running of organisations.
It also respects the United Nations convention on children’s rights. The production of fair trade produce does not harm their well-being, their safety, their educational conditions and their need to play.
What can you do?
Ask your parents to choose products such as coffee, tea, orange juice or breakfast cereals which bear the fair trade logo.

You can also ask for toys which are sold in fair trade shops and so contribute to fair trade through your play!

Cochez les phrases correctes seulement
1.         Beaucoup d’agriculteurs sont mal payés pour leur production.
2.         Le problème concerne l’hémisphère sud du globe principalement.
3.         L’hémisphère nord est très affecté par ce problème.
4.         Beaucoup de fermiers de l’hémisphère sud sont exploités.
5.         Le commerce équitable garantit des prix justes.
6.         Le commerce équitable garantit des produits de mauvaise qualité.
7.         Ce type de commerce ne respecte pas l’environnement.
8.         Les femmes et les enfants sont respectés par le commerce équitable.
9.         Le commerce équitable va à l’encontre du bien-être des enfants.
10.       Pour encourager ce type de commerce tu peux demander à tes parents d’acheter des produits avec le label « Fair trade ».
11.       Il n’y a pas de céréales produites par le commerce équitable.
12.       Il existe du thé et du café « Fair tade ».

Complétez la lsite de vocabulaire

producteur (m)



juste, équitable

produit (m)

to reward

bien-être (m)

jouet (m)

Est-ce que votre famille achète des produits issus du commerce équitable ? 
Lesquels ?

Thursday, 13 August 2015

A-level French entries and results

Here are grades and entry numbers for A-level French from 1993 to 2014.

Source: and JCQ figures for 2014 and 
2015 (

French entries
            A*    A    B    C    D    E    N   Entries 
  2015      8.1 29.2                           10328
  2014      6.6 31.0                           10433                                     
  2013      6.5 32.0 30.3 17.9  9.1  3.4       11272
  2012      6.8 32.6 29.4 18.5  8.8  3.1       12511   
  2011      7.7 32.4 29.3 18.0  8.7  3.0       13196
  2010      7.7 31.4 28.5 18.2  9.6  3.7       13850
  2009          38.6 27.6 18.3 10.5  4.1       14333
  2008          37.3 27.7 18.9 10.6  4.3       14885
  2007          36.3 28.0 18.2 11.6  4.6       14477
  2006          34.7 27.4 19.5 11.8  5.3       14650
  2005          32.9 27.5 20.0 12.4  5.6       14484
  2004          33.4 26.8 19.8 12.6  5.8       15149
  2003          31.4 26.4 20.0 13.3  6.6       15531
  2002          29.3 25.2 20.9 13.8  7.7       15614
  2001          24.7 20.5 19.4 16.0 11.2  5.5  17939
  2000          23.5 21.5 20.1 16.3 10.5  5.6  18221
  1999          23.2 20.4 20.1 16.4 11.3  5.7  21072
  1998          21.6 20.7 19.6 17.3 11.6  6.2  23633
  1997          20.2 19.9 19.6 16.7 12.1  6.9  25916
  1996          20.9 18.0 20.3 17.3 12.5  6.9  27490
  1995          20.1 18.3 19.3 17.7 13.4  7.1  27563
  1994          19.9 17.7 19.0 17.4 13.4  7.8  28942
  1993          18.6 17.3 19.5 18.5 13.6  7.6  29886

In 2015 the issue of scarce A* grades was addressed to some extent, 
in effect by adjusting the balance of A* and A grades to a small degree. 
A* grades are still a little thin on the ground when compared with some 
subjects, notably maths. Modern languages remain amongst the hardest 
subjects in terms of grade outcomes relative to prior attainment.

The number of candidates for French continues to decline a little. How 
much further down can the figure go? German also declined, but Spanish 
saw an increase which more than compensated for the French and 
German figures. Overall MFL entries rose slightly, therefore.

It is hard to foresee any significant change in entries unless the government 
gets behind languages in the same way it has done for STEM. If languages 
become compulsory at GCSE, which now seems probable, we may see a 
modest increase in take-up at A-level. The revised A-level specifications are 
unlikely to make any difference to the popularity of MFL. Indeed, if AS entries 
fall as expected, there may even be a negative outcome.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Dolanguages by Steve Glover


Steve Glover has been producing super web resources for language teachers for many years. In the relatively early days of the internet he produced the interactive Really Useful French Teaching Site, unusually good for its time, before going on to write online resources for Digitalbrain.

In more recent times Steve has focused on writing A-level and GCSE resources.I blogged nearly three years ago about Steve's A-level site called ALF (A-Level French). Since then he has been working on more resources for GCSE and A-level, covering French, German and Spanish.

His most recent project is Dolanguages, a really useful source for A-level French, German and Spanish film and literature. Teachers preparing for the new courses starting in September 2016 would do well to bookmark this site whether they be experienced practitioners or new to teaching film and literature.

The site is still in development, though existing resources are already available from his other sites ALF, ALGIE and SAL. The main new elements here are the detailed matching of resources with the exam board lists, the expanded range of materials and the fact that you will be able to source all your needs in one place. Whichever board you opt for you will find what you need.

Dolanguages is very clearly laid out and easy to navigate. Steve links to the draft A-level specifications which list the films and texts on offer from the four main exam boards. He links to the draft specifications for your convenience and has even done a mapping document allowing you to compare boards on one sheet.

Teachers already familiar with ALF, ALGIE and SAL will know what works are already covered. Expect more resources to follow as the sites develop and when Steve is certain what texts and films are on the exam board prescribed lists.

For each of the literature titles on offer there is a full page-by-page vocabulary list, detailed summary of text with verbs to complete,  gapped summaries, questions on each chapter or scene, powerpoints and character study guides.

For films you can expect to see gapped summaries, questions for every section, character profiles, translation, contextualised grammar exercises, essay planning activities and model essays.

There is a useful brief summary of every film if you need a brief overview to help you with your choice of work.

Resources can be printed off, or used digitally, including the possibility of sharing them on a school intranet. You can access materials directly online or Steve will send you a CD. He is happy to provide samples and provides a variety of ways you can contact him.

Any resource a department buys is a one-off purchase, with no annual subscription. Each resource currently costs between £15 and £25, which represents very good value given how long it takes to prepare a book or film. It is unlikely a bought resource would cover every need for a term's work, but it would certainly play a significant role.

I would thoroughly recommend Dolanguages to help you with your preparations for the new specifications which should soon be published in their final versions. Teachers from other countries may also find the resources valuable.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The MFL Teacher review

The MFL Teacher is a new subscription site for teachers of French and German written by Kirsten Ross and Sally Barfoot, with the help of other experienced contributors.

They write:

Our team of contributors are all very experienced MFL teachers (Lead Practitioners, SLEs and former ASTs) with a proven track record for achieving outstanding results in the classroom. They also deliver regular CPD sessions both locally and nationally. We hope that this website will become a place where fellow language teachers, who are just as passionate about teaching as we are, will gather resources, access CPD training and use the 'Member Support' page to share and discuss ideas, thoughts and concerns. 
This is a new site, which will be evolving rapidly over the next few months and we would welcome ideas and suggestions, which would help us meet your needs.

The site has over 1500 resources as well as training materials, with more being added all the time. I can only report on the free samples they make available.

There are a series of "lessons" in the form of sets of pdfs, Word and Notebook documents and powerpoint presentations. I looked at these lessons on the topic of school, written by Kirsten Ross. The free downloads are an empty timetable proforma, a template for a speaking task, a template for a likes and dislikes class survey, a simple matching task (word to pictures), a colourful information gap pair work task and a Notebook file with an introduction to school subjects.

The following lesson contains a powerpoint on subjects and opinions which is workmanlike, clear, accurate, partly based on translation and with hardly any pictures. This lesson also has a simple gap fill task. The third lesson on school reuses earlier material in a different way. A later lesson contains a daily routine text combining school vocabulary with time expressions with a grid to complete, "find the French", a matching task on high frequency words and a paragraph building exercise involving translating the high frequency words. The worksheets could be displayed or printed off. They are clear and sound, if unoriginal.

Another resource I looked at was a powerpoint which consisted of a typical set of pictures with phrases about household chores. A further powerpoint consisted of a grid of numbers which could be edited to get students to build sentences.

As someone coming across the site for the first time I would have welcomed more samples. The ones I looked at were solid - very much in the mainstream - but you could find at least as good on free sites such as Light Bulb Languages, Languages Resources or the TES. There was nothing there particularly creative and the worksheets do have a home-made look, but the resources are organised in sequences so the site has the potential to replace text book materials. I saw no evidence of listening resources. It would be interesting to know what the balance of French and German resources is. German teachers in particular may welcome this site, as they are generally less well served online. It is also worth noting that I saw nothing that would limit the resources to UK teachers.

As far as subscription prices are concerned, the Bronze plan gives you the free samples (maybe some more?), the Silver plan gives access to most resources at £59, the Gold plan gives unlimited access to resources, training materials and the Community section.

Whole department subscriptions cost a good deal more, climbing to as much as £689 a year. This most expensive option provides 10 Gold logins so might suit a large department.

It's early days for The MFL Teacher. When there are lots of good free materials out there how do you persuade hard pressed departments to part with a significant sum every year for something similar? It may be that behind the paywall there is enough to make the cost worthwhile, so the writers might do well to make more available in the early stages to get teachers on board. Once the customers are hooked, they might stay.

I would urge you to go and have a look for yourself.

Gianfranco's recommendations for teaching listening

Like some of you I have enjoyed Gianfranco Conti's blogposts in recent weeks. His blog is, a far as I know, unique the MFL world in presenting a mixture of detailed research findings and practical implications for the languages classroom. I suggested he might do a compendium of his classroom advice, divorced from the research, but he is too busy writing interesting new blogs so with his permission to quote I am doing it myself!

The following are very slightly adapted extracts taken from Gianfranco's blog. The focus is in LISTENING. Gianfranco believes that listening in classrooms too often takes the form of comprehension tests from an audio sources, divorced from a teaching sequence and during which students do not get the opportunity to develop detailed listening skills by doing "top-down" and especially "bottom-up" processing activities. I think he may be right.

This is what he has written. You'll see some very good ideas, some of which you probably use.

Teaching listening skills

Listening activities should feature in most lessons, the long-term goal being: students listening to L2 audio material for pleasure and/or personal enrichment at home or in class.

Listening activities should focus on bottom-up processing skills through:
  • Phonological awareness tasks.
  • Word (meaning) recognition tasks. This could start from simple matching tasks (e.g. match picture to word) to translation tasks (e.g. teacher says word/lexical phrases and student writes meaning on mini whiteboard/iPad).
  • Metalinguistic awareness tasks (e.g. identification of what word-class lexical items fall into).
Teachers should practise top-down processing skills through:
  • Jigsaw listening or ‘predict what comes next’ activities; 
  • Explicitly modelling of and practice in effective inferential strategies (e.g. using context and key-words identification to infer meaning; contextualized brainstorming before listening). Comprehension tasks can be used here. Challenging listening comprehension tasks should come at the end of a sequence of listening (or listening + reading/speaking/writing tasks). 

Good questions to ask yourself
  • Am I actually teaching listening skills through this task or am I merely testing students on their inferential ability?
  • What skills am I teaching: top-down / bottom-up or both? How? 
  • How can I make sure that as many of my students as possible will succeed at the task I am planning?
  • What are they going to find difficult about this task and how am I going to prepare them for these challenges? 
  • How can I exploit the full potential of this text for learning?

"Micro-listening enhancers"

These are for use with beginners. The reader should note that these activities are not always applicable to all foreign languages (I mainly use them in teaching French and English). One particularly useful application of these activities is with students who need remedial pronunciation instruction.It should also be noted that the content of these activities should be semantically related to the lesson focus and not include just random words (as some of my examples below may seem to suggest).

Broken words: the students are given words with missing letter clusters (missing ‘bits’ may be provided aside) . Ideally, the instructor will remove more problematic sounds or sounds which are the focus of a specific lesson. The words chosen should belong to the same semantic field
Example (French) :  man_ _ _  ;  ch _ _ _ ;  _ _ _ mpignon;  b _ _ re;  v _ _ ; Options:   oux – cha – oi – in – ger – eu – ie – eux.

Spot the ‘foreign’ sounds : in this activity, the students are provided with a list of words or a sentence, and as they hear the teacher or the recording, they have to highlight any sound that does not exist in English, by underlining/circling the relevant part of the word. This activity is very useful in order to enhance learner awareness of how the graphemic (written) system and phonemic (sound) one relate to each other in the target language. Example:  sœur ; père; famille; grandparents; moins .

Spot the silent letters : the students are given a list of sentences like the one below and hear them uttered by the instructor. The task is to highlight the letters that have not been pronounced by the teacher – as they are silent in the target language.
Example: je suis étudiant dans une école internationale en Malaisie. 

Listen and re-arrange : this activity is for absolute beginners. Students are provided with series of four or five words or short sentences. The teacher will read the words in a different order to the one given to the students who need to rearrange the words accordingly.
Example: (student’s series)  Chambre, Lit, Armoire, Tapis, Mur (teacher’s series):  Mur, Armoire, Chambre, Tapis, Lit .

Spot the mistake: students are provided with series of words like the one above. The teacher pronounces all the words correctly but one. The task is to spot the mistake in each word series

Minimal pairs: this is a classic. The teacher pronounces two words containing very similar sounds or which students may mistake for homophones and the students need to spot the correct spelling.
Example:   moi  / moins   ;    bon / bonne ;   achète / acheté.

Rhyming pairs: the students are given a list (on paper/whiteboard/google classroom) of five words all with different endings, chosen based on their difficulty or simply because they contain sounds they may need to pronounce during the planned lesson. The teacher then reads out six or seven words (the extra one or two are distractors), five of the words rhyming with the five words provided initially (see example below). The task is for the students to identify which words rhyme with which.
Example: (student’s words)  moi – ville – famille – travailleur – brillant (teacher’s words – which the student cannot see)  bois – mille – peur – soleil – ailleur – dur – jouet – cédille – mer – souriant 

Gapped sentences with multiple choice: this is a classic word recognition task. The teacher utters sentences and the students need to fill in selecting the correct word from a choice of three or four provided aside. Using tongue twisters for this kind of activities can make it more fun. Songs can be used too, as motivation enhancers.

Transcription tasks

The following are three transcription tasks I use quite a lot. Teachers should note that for the first two it is preferable not to use lengthy texts. Moreover, as I am sure it is evident, teachers should use easy texts to start with and may want to carry out vocabulary building pre-transcription tasks involving the language items found in the target text – especially the more linguistically challenging ones.

  • Pure transcription of video or audio recording – students simply transcribe the passage they hear, writing down every word. This is more suitable for highly motivated and able groups.
  • L1-scaffolded transcription – students are provided the L1-translation of the to-be-listened text on the left-hand side of a piece of paper and, whilst listening to it, they write out what they hear in the target language on the right-hand side. The rationale for providing the L1 translation is that it gives the learners some badly needed support when they struggle with more challenging words.
  • Partial transcription tasks – the students are provided with a gapped transcript of the recording. The gaps involve entire sentences. This type of transcription task is useful in that the sentence preceding each gap helps the students in the decoding of the missing sentence, thereby eliciting the application of inference strategies.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The pros and cons of teacher-led question and answer

I am returning to an issue I have blogged about previously, but one which merits careful consideration by young teachers since it is such an integral part of teaching and can reflect a teacher's views on language learning and teaching pedagogy.

Some teachers make great use of whole class questioning, others try to move away from it as soon as possible. What issues are involved in our choice of oral dialogues in the classroom?

In favour of question-answer

  • It allows the teacher to carefully control the input students receive.
  • It provides a lot of listening input, released in small manageable chunks. So question-answer should not just be seen as oral activity, but, more importantly, a listening activity.
  • It is part of a whole pedagogical approach which assumes grammar and vocabulary can be internalised by controlled practice.
  • It can be effective as a class-controlling activity. The teacher controls the pace and is the only person talking.
  • It can be entertaining and motivating for pupils when done well.
  • It can be an effective way of differentiating between faster and slower pupils. With a "hands up" approach, the teacher can direct harder, more open-ended questions at faster pupils, easier closed questions at slower pupils.
  • Cleverly scaffolded question sequences can encourage pupils to infer language rules on their own.
  • Many pupil enjoy taking part in whole class question-answer, Younger ones especially often enjoy showing off what they can do.
  • A "hands down" approach should encourage all pupils to listen intently and be ready to answer.
  • At higher levels it allows the teacher to adapt instantly to student answers, challenging them further and taking conversation in interesting directions.
  • It is highly adaptable. You can do all kinds of variations on question-answer e.g. giving false statements, seeking questions to answers, getting a pupil to play teacher at the front, doing true/false or instant multi-choice and so on.
  • It is a useful starter or what used to be called oral warm-up. It brings the group together and allows the teacher to review previous work, giving the class confidence in what they have already learned.
  • Although an artificial form of communication, pupils are willing to play the game, especially if you explain to them why you are doing it.
  • It can be part of a multi-skill activity e.g. teacher asks question, pupils answer orally then write down the answer.
  • Skilled question-answer allows you to keep the class running in the target language.
Against question-answer
  • When used to promote oral practice it has limitations. Only one person can speak at a time so it is highly inefficient. Pair work is far more productive.
  • It places high demands on concentration so can be hard to make work with some classes. It can be boring.
  • Although the teacher is in control, it places demands on the teacher's energy and, at higher levels, oral skill. If the teacher's skills are limited the quality of input will be low.
  • You can never be certain if pupils are actually listening, even with a "hands down" approach. Students would appear to be very inactive most of the time.
  • With both a hands down and hands up approach it puts pressure on pupils to perform in front of their peers. Many students dislike this and some argue that it hinders progress. We learn less well when anxious. Many pupils prefer pair or small group work where there is less pressure to be correct.
  • Some classes may be less well-behaved during question-answer than is pair or group work situations.
  • If the main role of question-answer is to promote listening comprehension then there may be better ways to do this. Question-answer exchanges are usually very artificial in a classroom setting. "Where is the pencil"? "It is on the table." (It's pretty obvious where the pencil is, so it's a redundant question.)
  • Some would argue that the "accoutrements" of question-answer (powerpoint slides, flashcards etc) are an unnecessary and inefficient way to improve students' skills. Translation, they might argue, is more effective.
Perhaps you can come up with other arguments. 

As with many MFL classroom activities, much depends on how well the task is managed. Some teachers may be very skilled with question-answer, they may thrive being the centre of attention and their classes may enjoy the process. Others may be more comfortable and successful developing listening in other ways and promoting oral fluency primarily through pair and group work.

Remember, of course, that these approaches are all rooted in your explicit or tacit view of how languages are learned. Some practitioners believe proficiency/fluency only emerges through receiving lots of comprehensible input. American fans of the TPRS approach (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) value question-answer, or "circling" as they call it, because it provides lots of meaningful input, not because it provides opportunities to speak. They believe that spoken fluency does not improve by the process of speaking itself, but rather just by listening and reading. Most teachers do not hold this view and assume that practising speaking makes pupils better speakers.

From a personal point of view I usually liked my lessons with younger pupils especially to contain variety so included chunks of whole class oral work, chunks of pair work (not group work since this seemed less efficient and controllable to me), chunks of "pure listening" (playing CD or video) and small chunks of reading and writing. As students grew older I would do less whole class question-answer and more pair work. 

At A-level I would return to considerable amounts of question-answer/discussion as classes were smaller and it was a chance to provide large amounts of high quality comprehensible input, thought-provoking questions and responses to student answers. (I was fortunate in being quite fluent so this approach seemed natural to me.) 

On mature reflection, I believe that the primary role of question-answer is to develop listening skill and to be a route into a whole range of multi-skill tasks. My hunch is that fluency emerges over time thanks to exposure to large amounts of controlled and less-controlled input.

What is CLIL?

This post is about CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning).

The information here comes partly from Learning to Teach Foreign Languages in the Secondary School by N. Pachler, M. Evans, A. Redondo and L. Fisher (Routledge, 2014).

CLIL is defined by Coyle et al (2010)* as follows:

A dual-focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of both content and language.

When you think about it, it's what you often do when you teach A-level MFL, where the language becomes little more than the medium through which you teach about a topic, film or literary text for example. I often thought of A-level as "general studies through the target language". So, with that in mind, many language teachers are already familiar with CLIL.

With younger classes, at KS2,3 and 4, the CLIL approach is used more rarely, but does have its fans. How does it work and what are the implications of the approach?

Firstly, CLIL is attractive because of a problem which language teachers often recognise: the discrepancy between students' cognitive levels and the level of their target language. Put simply, it's hard to find material which is both easy enough and really important and engaging. Do we really want to talk about pencil cases and daily routines? So CLIL offers a number of advantages:
  • It provides contexts relevant to students' needs and interests.
  • It can allow language lessons to be integrated with the wider school curriculum.
  • It can be explicitly linked to literacy.
  • It promotes both linguistic skill and general knowledge.
  • It may allow for more creative use of language than with traditional approaches.
  • It may offer genuine opportunities to interact face-to-face and through using technology (e.g. via international projects).
  • It may provide particularly good contexts for widening students' understanding of their own culture and those of others.
The most common way CLIL is put into practice in schools is through interdisciplinary modules where language teachers work alongside colleagues in teaching a topic, partly through the medium of the target language. The project may be led by the language teacher, whereby students see the work as primarily linguistic, or by another department, whereby the language work may be perceived as an add-on.

As a practical example of a CLIL-style project with the focus more on the language side I refer you to the work of Chris Fuller of Route 39 Academy in Devon. He describes his work here. If you scroll down his blog you'll see some detailed resources for a project he has done in Spanish on drugs legislation in Uruguay. It looks very interesting and is just one of a number of cross-curricular MFL projects he has developed.

A second example is that of French teacher Noémie Neighbour who has done a French/History project on the French revolution with Y9 pupils. Her detailed scheme of work for the project is here.

Pachler et al report that the approach adopted by most teachers in the UK seems to be a "weak" version of CLIL, where lessons still adopt a traditional Presentation-Practice-Production model with some focus on forms and structures. (This is the case with Noémie Neighbour's project, for example.) But the focus tends to be more on vocabulary and learning strategies rather than grammar.

This, of course, is the stumbling block for most language teachers who would hesitate to take on the CLIL approach. It is not easy to combine it with a syllabus design built on grammatical, "lock-step" progression. Teachers are used to using artificially written texts (audio and written) which allow for selection and grading of language material. The kind of resources you might use in CLIL are more likely to be authentic or adapted authentic, with a far less tight control of grammatical and lexical input.

Does this matter? Well, that depends on your view of language acquisition! If you believe that meaningful, motivating input is the key to acquisition you are likely to be more sympathetic to CLIL. If you believe that focus on grammatical form, selection and grading are vital, you may be more sceptical.

My own feeling is that, in the secondary school context, the traditional, form-focused approach may make more sense for most pupils if you are aiming at long term proficiency. We know that that approach works with many students with the right timetabling and good teaching. I do think, however, that even within that paradigm you could build in some CLIL. At my former school we regularly included in our scheme of work an end-of-Y9 project on the developing world and charitable associations using, as our starting point, the excellent 24 heures dans la vie d'un enfant (alas no longer available online). Activities included web searching, researching about child sponsorship, comprehension questions from charity websites and fund raising.

I can also envisage CLIL being a useful model for those pupils who are unlikely to continue with languages for very long and for whom the traditional drip-feed, form-focused approach is futile. Why not let the focus be on interesting content, vocabulary building and a more bilingual approach?

Teacher commitment to the approach is another vital ingredient. I would imagine that most language teachers, brought up on form-focused, PPP approaches are a little uncomfortable with CLIL, feeling that it is wishy-washy and distracting from the main task of serious language learning. Maybe those teachers could take a few more risks. After all, as I mentioned at the outset, it's what we do at A-level. Could we bring a bit more of that focus on really interesting content into KS2-4?


Coyle, D, Hood, P. and Marsh, D. (2010) CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning. Cambridge, C.U.P.

See also the FLAME (Future for Language as a medium for Education) inititiave from the Association for Language Learning..