Tuesday, 27 October 2015

York PGCE A-level and GCSE languages presentations

These are two slideshare versions of the PowerPoints I am using at York University tomorrow. I am working with the PGCE modern language trainee teachers on GCSE and A-level. You might find it useful for presenting to colleagues on new GCSEs and A-levels.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The best of both worlds

If you are a regular reader of my blogs you'll know that I have always been interested in both ends of the second language acquisition spectrum: conscious (explicit, learning, skill-building etc) and unconscious (natural, implicit, comprehensible input, acquisition etc). The more I have looked at the theory and research over the years, the more I think this particular debate about acquisition is a little futile. Because we cannot be sure what is happening in the 'black box' of the brain, if we make sure we provide meaningful, repetitive, structured exposure to language, plus some explanation, practice and communicative interaction, learning will occur.

Now, the rate at which learning will occur depends on a range of factors, including, crucially, motivation, plus lots of others such as aptitude, teacher quality, number and frequency of lessons, amount of homework, spacing of lessons and quality of input. Anything which can be done to optimise these factors will improve the pace of acquisition.

Given that we cannot yet be certain to what extent second language learning is like first language learning (it seems very unlikely they are identical), then maybe the sensible course is to exploit a mixture of principled approaches based on what we know about language learning and learning in general. There is no need to get hung up on one particular method, defending it against all others. If the method provides the elements above - input, output, repetition and reinforcement, interesting material, explanation and so on, it should be fine.

It is also possible that this kind of eclectic approach may make sense given the variation we witness in our students. Some seem to value more highly nativist, communicative methods, others seem to like a degree of formal explanation to supplement the input. Some like to listen a lot, others like to read, some prefer talking, others writing. That's fine.

Not only do students vary, so do teachers. Whatever approach, or mix of approaches, is adopted, the teacher needs to believe in it and execute it efficiently. I would estimate that an excellent all-round teacher will get better results with a suspect method, than a poor teacher trying to use an ostensibly better method. We know that in our business so much is about classroom relationships and behaviour management.

So why not take the best of both worlds? Naturalist, comprehensible input and form-focused, skill-building both have their supporters and probably with good reason. An approach with strong elements of each should be fine. This is not being wishy-washy, it's sound common sense.

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Thursday, 22 October 2015

Storytelling strip bingo

This lesson idea comes via teachers Martina Bex and Kristin Duncan. Martina can be found at martinabex.com. Thanks!

It's a variation on the listening/vocab 'strip bingo' game where students write a list of topic words on a strip of paper, you read out single words and each time they hear a word at the top or bottom of the list they tear it off. About 10-15 words works well. The first student to tear off all their words is the winner. The game takes about 15 minutes.

In this version, instead of reading out single words, you slowly read a story, or other text, and students have to identify their words in context. This is a harder, but superior version of strip bingo. I would say superior because listening to longer chunks of text gives students more opportunities to pick out words in the continual stream of speech, an absolutely key skill in listening comprehension. It has a heavier 'cognitive load'.

It also, by the way, fits well within the paradigm of that TPRS approach favoured by many (mainly) American teachers who are devoted (I choose that word carefully!) to the hypotheses of Stephen Krashen. If you didn't know, TPRS stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. The approach leans heavily on the use of comprehensible input, question and answer ('circling', they call it) and infrequent reference to explicit grammar explanation. It is a 'natural' approach which strongly favours meaning over focus on grammatical form.

Instead of telling a whole story, you could use sentences. One slight downside I could pick out with the storytelling version is the possibility that students will be so fixed on identifying the words that they might not focus on the story (meaning) itself. I would still give it a go, however. You could write up your list of words on the board, students copy them in their own order, then you read the story, maybe picking out in an exaggerated fashion the key words as you recount the text.

Not quite zero preparation, but if you use an existing or recently used one, it would certainly be 'minimal preparation'. We all like that, don't we?

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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Project-Based Learning

This is a draft extract from the forthcoming handbook and is a joint blog written with Gianfranco Conti of thelanguagegym.com.

Project-Based Learning (PBL)

This is akin to task-based learning and what is known in the UK as CLIL (Content and Language Integrate Learning).  Terminology varies in this field, but the following definition of CLIL from Coyle et al (2010)* is handy:

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 at advanced level where the language becomes little more than the medium through which you teach about a cultural topic, film or literary text for example. At this level much basic grammar and high frequency vocabulary is already quite familiar to students and the focus becomes the content more than the language itself. With that in mind, many language teachers are already familiar with something loosely resembling  PBL or CLIL. If there is a difference between PBL and CLIL, it is that the former has a specific task to perform involving a student presentation of some sort. Whatever the terminology employed, the main point is that content takes precedence over language.

With younger classes in schools the PBL/CLIL approach is used more rarely, but does have its fans. How does it work and what are the implications of the approach in terms of incorporating culture into lessons?

American teacher Lisa Lilley describes the key components of a PBL task thus:

1. A need to know.
2. A driving question.
3. Student voice and choice.
4. Twenty-first century skills (the only time you will read this phrase in our book).
5. Inquiry and innovation.
6. Feedback and revision.
7. A publicly presented product.
8. Teachers significant content.

Now, it is possible to view a project a little less prescriptively than this, but the guidelines are handy if you decide to plan your own activity.

PBL/CLIL is  attractive because of a problem which language teachers often recognise: the discrepancy between students' cognitive levels and the level of their L2. Put simply, it is hard to find material which is easy enough for classes yet really important and engaging. It could therefore be seen as an antidote to lessons about pencil cases, daily routines, holidays and hobbies. In the context of culture, PBL offers a number of advantages:

It can provide contexts really relevant to students' needs and interests.
It promotes both linguistic skill and general cultural knowledge.
It may allow for a more creative use of language than with traditional form-focused approaches.
It may provide particularly good contexts for widening students' understanding of their own culture and those of others.

A common way PBL  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 L2. The project may be led by the language teacher, whereby students see the work as both linguistic and cultural, or by another department, whereby the language work may be perceived as an add-on to the main content.

Other ideas for a more content-orientated, which do not always have to culminate in  a presented ‘product’, PBLL approach might be:

Using the Google Art Project website as a basis for a topic about art. You could talk in L2 about particular pictures, stimulate L2 discussion about them and get students to conduct personal research on a particular style, artist or period. You may be able to collaborate with the art department of your school. The aim of the project could be to produce a guide for younger students.

Using websites of L2 charitable organisations, students could summarise the work of charities and voluntary organisations. The focus would be on reading, note-taking and summary with a particular project in mind, for example, sponsoring a child in the developing world. Students could produce a PowerPoint or Prezi, for example.

Using the websites of well-known sports clubs or sports people, students could use L2 material to produce pen portraits. At a simple level you could scaffold the activity by producing gap-fill templates or information grids to complete. At a higher level students could write imaginary interviews with sports personalities. One outcome might be an imaginary journalistic interview in L2.

As part of a topic on healthy lifestyles students could use health and nutrition websites to find health statistics for a country and summarise healthy living advice. For French a good place to start is the site mangerbouger.fr. They could produce a guide or oral presentation for healthy living for younger students. Again, lower level students can be supported with scaffolding resources.

British teacher Chris Fuller has done a project for low intermediate students in Spanish on drugs legislation in Uruguay. At the time of writing, the details can be found here: chrisfuller.typepad.com;Another British teacher, Noémie Neighbour, has worked with her low intermediate students on the French revolution.

American French teacher and blogger Don Doehla has used this project based on restaurant menus:

Students  play the role of a restaurant owner who needs to develop and create a menu for their restaurant established in one of the L2 countries. Their menus must have at least five categories, and twenty-five items, all authentic dishes of the L2 culture. They must decide on an appropriate name, create an address, phone number, website and twitter account name, consistent with examples they find online from authentic restaurants. Their menu items must be priced in the local currency. The students then do a speech either in small groups or for the whole class in which they speak  as the restaurant owner, suggesting good dishes, specialities, etc. They must say at least 15 sentences, and can either present live or on video. You can supply as much linguistic support as the class needs.

Your class could produce an L2 newspaper, blog or website rooted in the L2 culture. You could provide L2 input in the form of example features (weather, horoscopes, crosswords, news items) then students could work in groups to produce their own material to be shared with other classes, younger students or a partner class abroad.

Your class could take part in a letter, email or social network exchange with a partner class. The aim would be to exchange information on aspects of daily life with the goal being to produce a comparative presentation in L1 or L2. You would provide support and guidelines for the exchange. For example, would the students communicate in L1 or L2? Would the emphasis be on reading comprehension or written output?

You could get intermediate and advanced students to research an L2 singer or group. They would listen to songs online, research the artist's website and produce a PowerPoint presentation about the artist with examples of lyrics and song videos in L1 or L2.

It is worth reiterating that projects of this type are time-consuming and you need to be clear what your aims are when setting them up. Is the language emphasis on input or output? The former may end up placing more stress on the content and be more motivational for students. If students have to produce L2 material, although the task becomes more challenging, many will find it hard, time-consuming and may lose interest in the project content itself. As a teacher, you do not necessarily have to judge the success of a cultural project by the spoken or written outcome. If a good deal of interested listening or reading has been done, this is still valuable; indeed some would say all the more valuable. So, in short, consider the ‘surrender value’ of PBL tasks, as with any language learning activity.

* CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning, Coyle, Hood and Marsh, Cambridge, 2010.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Progress report on the MFL handbook

So far we have about 20 draft chapters completed, most of which need some more work.

Chapter titles include teaching listening, teaching reading, teaching writing, classroom oral techniques, teaching spontaneous speaking, teaching advanced level students, differentiation, target language teaching, games, behaviour management, technology, subject knowledge and assessment.

We are trying to produce something very practical for modern language teachers around the world. This poses one or two challenges in terms of the language used and how the debates are framed in various English-speaking countries. You need to know to tell your mark schemes from your rubrics!

We are anxious not to be too prescriptive or too wedded to one particular approach, but I can reveal that we are leaning towards a pragmatic approach based on elements of skill-building (explanation with practice, rather like the traditional presentation-practice-production model so many teachers favour) along with an acknowledgment that target language input is crucial. We will be favouring explanation, practice, interaction, anything which gives students a chance of retaining vocabulary and improving their skill with grammar. We shall, predictably, argue against explicit instruction for its own sake.

We shall bandy around terms like synthetic, analytic, implicit, explicit, input, output, interfaces, listenership and even 'writership' (one of Gianfranco's terms).

Most chapters will include reference to the prevailing views from academic research together with abundant practical ideas for the classroom. It has to be said that most evidence from research is still provisional, but there is enough on which to base some sensible principles. We shall not shy away, either, from offering some of our best homespun wisdom to young language teachers starting out.

Our aim all along has been to share what we know about research and what we have learned from our own experience over many years. We are avoiding making the book too academic in tone, despite the fact that we both enjoy reading about second language acquisition research. There will be some references and ideas for reading for those teachers who find themselves wanting to explore the field further.

It is also important to us that inexperienced teachers have enough pedagogical and theoretical knowledge to be able to separate out the effective from the merely fashionable or gimmicky. We hope to get that across clearly in the book without, we hope, being patronising in content or tone.

At the moment we are considering publishing the book ourselves, perhaps using the Amazon publishing platform called CreateSpace, unless, I suppose, some publisher came along and twisted our arms once the text is complete. Does it work like that?

On a personal note I have enjoyed getting back into reading the kind of literature about language learning which I enjoyed reading for my MA about Stephen Krashen and the "input hypothesis" many years ago. The more I read, however, the less convinced I become about any one panacea approach to language teaching. Research in this field is so hard to do given the multiple variables involved. Brain research is also in its infancy and offers us little so far. It's interesting how relevant common sense still is.

Hopefully we shall have this project done early-ish in the new year. In the meantime keep looking at Gianfranco's blog where he likes to put to the sword practices he finds less than effective. He is much harsher than me.

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Thursday, 8 October 2015

Five zero preparation writing activities

This is another brief extract from a draft chapter on writing from our handbook. The latter is gradually taking shape. Gianfranco and I have so many ideas to share! If you have any, do let us know via Twitter or email via frenchteacher.net.

With intermediate groups you can lead a question-answer sequence on a topic, e.g. ‘Describe where you live’ or ‘My school’. As students give answers you can write up partial answers on the board. Students can copy these, filling any gaps as appropriate. If they do not have time they complete the sentences at home. They end up with a reasonably or wholly accurate piece of writing which they can use later for oral practice or exam revision. This makes for a multi-skill lesson with all students actively engaged.

With all levels, when you have worked orally on a text you can improvise questions to which students have to give written answers. You can offer a little support by starting answers for them when needed.

With intermediate students and above you can make up L1 sentences which the class has to translate. These could be delivered orally or written on the board. You could give partial answers if needed.

For intermediate students give students a title to write about, without a dictionary. Give a time limit and reward students who write the most in the time limit (say, 20 minutes). Titles might include ‘Last weekend’, ‘My summer holiday’ or ‘My favourite foods’. If you choose a topic students have recently worked on, they should have material to write.

Do classic dictation based on your current topic. Make sure that it is not too difficult and that it comes towards the end of a sequence of lessons. You can assess the dictation by counting mistakes or by taking the number of errors of a total, for example 50. Dictation is much easier in German or Spanish than French. In France dictation is frequently practised by young native speakers.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Five zero preparation speaking activities

For all levels, play 'one word at a time'. You begin a sentence or story with a word and then go round the class eliciting one word at a time to continue the sentence or story. Students could then play the game in groups. This can be amusing and forces students to monitor their grammar.

For intermediate and advanced levels play 'Just a minute'. Students have to try and speak about a topic for one minute without pausing badly or coming to a halt. If they do, another student 'buzzes in' to continue until one minute has elapsed. You can do this as a whole class game or, better, in small groups. The teacher can model the task first.

For advanced students, play 'Alibi'. You tell the class a crime was committed last night by two suspects in the class. Two volunteers go out and prepare their alibi - something they did together last night. They then come back in and are interrogated by the class in turn. While the pair were outside you will have prepared questions with the rest of the class. After questioning the class vote on whether they were guilty or innocent; if there are significant inconsistencies between the stories they will be guilty. This is a fluency and listening task, but you can focus a bit on past tenses, offering occasional correction with recasts.

With all levels, do simple transformational pattern drills. These make effective starters. A simple example is to give a sentence which students have to make one or two changes to. These could be a change of noun, tense or adjective. You could go from positive to negative too. These work well as students appreciate the simplicity and clarity of them. They are a great way to stay in the target language. Ignore the naysayers who question the value of drilling!

For all levels, keep a small repertoire of tongue-twisters. These are great for developing phonemic awareness. Vary the way you use them: go from very slow to fast, try whispers, singing them to a familiar tune, doing them in pairs with one word at a time.

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Five zero preparation reading activities

For advanced students, write up some figures taken from a text at random on the board. Ask the students to work in pairs to find the figures in the text and then explain to each other what they refer to, using their own words where possible. When they finish, tell the students to turn over the text so that they cannot look at it. Point at the figures on the board and ask the students what they refer to.

For intermediate and advanced students, write a random list on the board of some key words or ideas from the text, choosing one item per paragraph. Ask the students to sequence them according to the article.

Ask intermediate or advanced students to design a worksheet based on a text. This would be a good chance to talk about assessment and question types. The task also puts students in the shoes if the teacher, thereby helping them develop their own reading strategies.

For all levels, when you worked on a text for some time, ask students to hide the text. You then read aloud the text, pausing to leave a gap. Students have to put up their hand to supply the next word or words. Alternatively they could write them down on mini whiteboards. You then give the correct answer and move on. You could warn students earlier in the teaching sequence, to focus their minds, that you are going to do a memory test later.

For all levels. Do an improvised true-false reading comprehension. Look through the text yourself and find a fact. Paraphrase it in your own words, either accurately, or else changing some small detail so that it is not the same as in the text. Ask the students to scan the text to see if your statement is true or false.

With thanks to Paul Emerson for three of these.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Five zero preparation listening activities

With intermediate classes talk to them for about three minutes about what you did over the previous weekend. Ask students to make notes in English. Then, get them to feed back to you in English or preferably the TL How much did they understand? You could adjust tne task by talking to them, then doing an instant true-false task: Did I...?

Instant true-false. With beginners simply make a series of, say, twenty statements in TL associated with the topic you have been working on. Tell students only half of them will be true. Who can identify them all? You could use really simple, potentially amusing statements: "Paul is a girl. The computer is on the ceiling. My name is Barbie."

'Say the next word or sound'. For near beginners or low intermediates, simply read aloud a text you have been working on. When you pause, either at the end of a word, or in the middle of one, the students have to call out or whisper the next word or sound.

'Describe a picture'. With intermediate or advanced students you simply think of a picture in your mind's eye, describe it slowly and meticulously to a class who have to draw the picture. The best picture could win.

'Guess the next word'. For all levels. You make up an account or description, but pause at certain points and students have to guess which word you were going to say next. They could write this on a mini whiteboard. They hold up their board and you provide instant feedback. They could calculate a score as they go along.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Do you have to be such a slave to the syllabus?

If you are a language teacher working in a school you almost certainly have to follow a syllabus, such as, in England and Wales, the GCSE or A-level. Because of a real or perceived lack of time and an understandable sense of duty to the students, you probably stick fairly closely to the programme for fear of missing anything out.

The only problem with this approach is that you might spend too long on boring topics and deprive yourself of doing subjects or tasks you and the students would enjoy more. For instance, when I taught AQA AS-level one of the "sub-topics" was sport and I didn't feel it generated that much communication so I would pay lip service to it by doing a text on drug taking in sport and a discussion sheet to cover key vocabulary and likely exam oral questions. I ignored all the material in the bland text book we had available. This left time to look at different issues, show a movie, read a short story, do a task-based activity or play some useful games.

Similarly, if I came across boring or hard to teach sections of the KS3 and KS4 text books I would happily ignore them and do my own thing. It's about having a sense of what students will be motivated by, not about following the syllabus at all cost.

The thing is, much of the most useful high-frequency and salient vocabulary crosses topic areas so you should not feel you have to teach unstimulating material when you see it. You can choose to be more independent. What's more, events almost force you to move away from the set programme - it could be an election, a terrorist attack, a major scientific discovery, a sporting event or a natural disaster.

An AQA Chief Examiner once gave some good advice at a meeting I attended. Just imagine, he said, that A-level is general studies through the medium of the target language. Be prepared to do your own thing. The same should hold for the new A-levels from 2016. Not every topic you teach need to be rooted in the target language culture or the set themes. Be yourself, have confidence in your own judgment and teach what stimulates you and your classes.

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Friday, 2 October 2015

The Handbook of Language Teaching: a review

As background reading for the handbook Gianfranco and I are writing, I have been reading The Handbook of Language Teaching edited by Michael Long and Catherine Doughty in 2011. Long and Doughty are academic researchers in the field of second language acquisition. As a consequence the focus of their book, a collection of articles from a range of SLA researchers, is on the academic and theoretical rather than everyday classroom practice.

It is a bulky and thorough tome, covering a wide range of issues. There are 38 chapters divided into eight parts. Several of the chapters are summaries of the best and most recent research into second language learning and teaching. Chapter titles from the section on teaching and testing include Methodological Principles, Teaching and Testing Listening Comprehension, Teaching and Testing Reading, Teaching and Testing Speaking, teaching and Testing Writing and Task-Based Teaching.

Each of these chapters takes you on a tour of the research, all referenced in great detail, and its implications for classroom teaching and second language teaching in general. Because the chapters are written by a range of leading scholars, there is no obvious bias towards a particular approach. Indeed, with many issues, because the research is patchy or inconsistent, you are left with the feeling that either this field is still in its infancy, as Michael Long points out, or that we shall never really get to the bottom of works best on every occasion, in every classroom, with every student. I suspect the latter is true.

Any reading of the research leaves you feeling both enlightened, yet more confused than ever!

Michael Long's chapter on methodology is a good read. Whilst he lists a set of general organising principles ( MPs) he is at pains to point out that these are provisional, based on the best research so far, but open to modification. For the record, his MPs include: MP1 a use task not text as the unit of analysis; MP6 " Focus on form" - use some explicit explanation and controlled practice when needed; MP7 - provide negative feedback (i.e. correct); MP10 - individualise instruction.

He suggests, however, that teachers provide their own PPs (pedagogic procedures) to implement the principles, since only they can really know how to fine-tune lessons with the particular class in front of them. He insists that this is not a "free for all" and attacks the idea of eclectic approaches, not founded on a set of organised principles.

Long clearly has it is for the traditional grammatical syllabus, claiming, along with many other researchers, that what we teach is not what students learn, since their own internal syllabus develops in its own way, only partially, if at all, influenced by the order we teach things. He also attacks what he calls the synthetic, "focus on forms" (with an s) approach whereby the grammatical forms lead the teaching, often at the expense of meaning, motivation and acquisition. He leans towards an "analytical" approach where bodies of language or actual tasks lead the course design and lesson planning.

Some chapters are clearer than others. Martin Bygate's chapter on speaking came across as a bit obscure to me, whilst others, including Larsen-Freeman's on grammar teaching and Larry Vandergrift and Christine Goh's on listening were lucid and, to a degree, practical.

That said, this book leans much more towards theory and research than practical classroom advice. Some teachers, less interested in second language acquisition theory, will find it heavy-going and frustrating. I would hope, however, that they would persevere with this sort of reading, especially early in their training when they might have more time, since I have the impression that most language teachers receive an inadequate grounding in pedagogical principles, even if there are no panaceas or even a strong consensus about what works.

One if the ideas behind the book Gianfranco and I are drafting is that teachers should look to develop their ability to evaluate and justify activities they undertake with reference to theory and research, rejecting tasks which are superficially attractive but which may waste time and fail to develop acquisition. Our book, while referring to research, will focus strongly on practical advice based on our own experience and observations. The Long and Doughty book, though short on the practical tips which teachers crave, is tremendously helpful in providing the detailed scholarly background they should at least be aware of.

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Correcting students' errors

I am currently reading The Handbook of Language Teaching edited by Michael Long and Catherine Doughty. It's an excellent summary of research into many aspects of second language learning and teaching. Some teachers may find it slightly heavy-going, full, as it is, with detailed references to research, but I recommend it to you if you are looking for some serious methodological underpinnings to your work as a language teacher.

Diane Larsen-Freeman, a major name is second language acquisition research writes an interesting chapter about teaching grammar, part of which is devoted to error correction.

She begins by saying that the value of correction is hotly debated and that research offers no clear guidance on the best approach. That's useful! Some researchers feel that correcting at all is a waste of time since it makes students anxious and doesn't actually improve acquisition. Most researchers, however, take the view that giving correction in a supportive way is of value.

As with other areas of grammar instruction, you can correct explicitly or implicitly. In the latter case this takes place through means such as asking for clarification, confirming what the student has said, and by using recasts. She gives this example of an interaction between teacher and student:

Student: I was in pub
Teacher: In the pub?
Student: Yeah and I was drinking beer with my friend.
Teacher: Which pub did you go to?

Recasts are attractive because they are barely intrusive and take place within a meaningful exchange. However, some students seem to ignore them, at least in the short term. Perhaps there is a case, therefore, for being more explicit about when a student has made a mistake.

Another appealing approach is to use a prompt, such as repeating the student's error verbatim with a rising intonation, witholding approval and waiting for the student to "self-repair".

Sometimes explicit negative feedback might pay dividends, especially where there is a clear contrast between the first and second language. Without specific negative feedback the student may never actually realise they are making mistakes.

Larsen-Freeman says, and she is no doubt right, that error correction may be variously effective depending on the setting, the student, the age of the student and the type of error being made. There is probably no one best method for all occasions and as a teacher you may need to exercise very subtle judgments.

What about correcting students' written work? She does not refer to this, but once again, research does not give us definitive answers. Most teachers like to supply explicit corrections and some evidence supports this approach. Other studies, however, have shown that when two groups are compared, one whose written work is left uncorrected and the other supplied with corrections, there is little if any difference in the performance of the two groups.

So could it be better to offer implicit, or indirect correction, i.e. where errors are underlined but corrected versions not inserted. Gianfranco Conti, in a detailed blog on this issue (https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/why-teachers-should-not-bother-correcting-errors-in-their-students-writing/) points out the difficulties of this approach, e.g. the fact that students may not know the right answer.

So there are few unambiguous answers in this field. As always, it is really hard to set up rigorous, long term studies which isolate one approach over another. So teachers are left with their gut feelings and sense of duty. My own inclination during oral work was to ignore error or use recasts far more than provide explicit negative feedback. On paper I would use a mixture of explicit correction, some indirect correction (underlining) and, with the weakest students, I would sometimes ignore minor error for fear of plastering too much red ink over their work

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Thursday, 1 October 2015

What happened to climate change?

One of the notable gaps in content in the new draft MFL A-levels is the environment, notably the issue of the climate crisis. This point was earnestly raised by a teacher at a recent A-level launch meeting I led for AQA. He felt that to omit the number one issue facing humanity was, at the least, surprising.

To be fair to the exam boards, it was not entirely their fault. When Michael Gove's ALCAB panel, led by Russell Group academics, looked into A-level, this is the list of topics they put forward for French.

Republican values
Provinces and regions
Québecois culture
Les grands projets
Freedom of expression

The French revolution
The French empire and decolonisation
The Algerian war of independence
The occupation
The Dreyfus affair
Right and left in politics
The revival of antisemitism

The new wave
Popular music
Contemporary television
Impressionsist painting
French mathematics
Science and technology in contemporary France

Now, thankfully, as I have pointed out before, the exam boards all tried to make the best of ALCAB's slightly ridiculous list. French mathematics! Only OCR decided to include aspects of science and technology in their themes, whilst none at all incorporated environmental issues.

It may be that they were in part responding to teacher feedback, the "not the environment again!" reaction I have occasionally heard. It may also be that the boards felt it was difficult to produce environmental topics which would be both rooted in the target language culture and fit the bill of "social issues and trends" imposed by ALCAB and the DfE.

The boards could have done better and put forward topics such as: tackling climate change, air pollution, energy production and conservation in French/German-speaking/ Hispanic countries. These are surely social as well as scientific questions and they can easily be given a target language country slant. To omit climate change in this day and age seems somewhat irresponsible on ALCAB's and the exam boards' part. It is, however, revealing of society's generally complacent perspective on the climate.

The teacher in my audience was absolutely right to point out a significant flaw in the new A-levels.

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