Sunday, 31 January 2016

Example of an easy literary text

One of the requirements of the new GCSE specifications is the inclusion of literary texts (adapted and or abridged). Here is an example of an accessible little text + exercise, adapted slightly (mainly from passé simple to present tense).

Le petit prince fait un grand voyage et découvre beaucoup de choses sur l’humanité.

La planète suivante est habitée par un buveur. Cette visite est très courte, mais elle plonge le petit prince dans une grande mélancolie:

- Que fais-tu là ? dit-il au buveur, qu'il trouve installé en silence devant une collection de bouteilles de vin vides et une collection de bouteilles pleines.
- Je bois, répond le buveur, d'un air triste.
- Pourquoi bois-tu ? lui demande le petit prince.
- Pour oublier, répond le buveur.
- Pour oublier quoi ? demande le petit prince qui déjà le plaint.
- Pour oublier que j'ai honte*, avoue le buveur en baissant la tête.
- Honte de quoi ? demande le petit prince qui désire l’aider.
- Honte de boire ! répond le buveur qui s'enferme définitivement dans le silence.

Et le petit prince part, perplexe.
Les grandes personnes sont décidément très très bizarres, se dit-il en lui-même durant le voyage.

* avoir honte = to be ashamed

Vrai, faux ou pas mentionné ?

1.         Le petit prince rencontre un adulte qui consomme de l’alcool.
2.         Le petit prince est content de cette visite.
3.         Apparemment l’adulte a trop bu.
4.         Il y a plus de vingt bouteilles devant le buveur.
5.         L’adulte dit qu’il boit pour oublier quelque chose.
6.         L’adulte dit qu’il est fier de sa situation.
7.         Le buveur préfère le vin rouge.
8.         Après un certain temps le buveur arrête de parler.
9.         Le petit prince passe dix minutes avec le buveur.
10.       Le petit prince conclut que les adultes sont étranges.

Traduisez le texte en anglais.


1. V    2. F    3.V    4.PM     5. V    6. F    7. PM    8. V    9.PM    10.V


The following planet is inhabited by a drinker. This visit is very short, but it plunges the little prince into a great melancholy.
“What are you doing there?” he says to the drinker, whom he finds sitting silently in front of a collection empty wine bottles and a collection of full bottles.
“I’m drinking,” replies the drinker, looking sad.
“Why are you drinking?” asks the little, prince.
“To forget,” replies the drinker.
“To forget what?” asks the little prince who already pities him.
“To forget that I am ashamed,” admits the drinker lowering his head.
“Ashamed of what?” asks the little prince who wants to help him.
“Ashamed of drinking!” replies the drinker who retreats into silence for good.
And the little prince departs, perplexed.
Adults are definitely very very weird, he thinks to himself during the journey. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Intermediate parallel reading on frenchteacher

I've been building up the number of parallel reading texts at intermediate level on my Y10-11 page of Topics covered so far are: zombies (added today), online media habits, superheroes, weird hotel complaints, phobias, Islamic State (ISIL), Maglev trains, dogs who can detect cancer, the amazing story of the rescued Mexican fishermen and "a heroic deed".

As with the parallel reading texts in the Y7 section of the site, you could put these together into the form of a stapled booklet for students to do as independent reading or an an extension task for more able students. Answers to the exercises are given.

I am am always on the look-out for interesting topics for students to read about, so if you have any bright ideas do let me know. My friend Gianfranco Conti recently blogged about how uninteresting much text book material is and I have to agree. I sympathise to some extent with text book writers who are slaves (in the UK) to the demands of public examinations. It's a real creative challenge to come up with material which will stimulate a wide range of pupils and which lends itself to thorough exploitation.

Parallel texts are one way into providing interesting material at the right maturity level but do not always lend themselves to further exploitation and rarely match with the content of exam specifications. just as a reminder, I have lots of parallel texts on my Y7 and Y8 pages. Topics include: robots, my dog, my family, Minecraft, the Tour de France, Cinderella, spiders, sharks, dolphins, meerkats, the blue whale, Brazil, vampires, becoming a vet, the channel Tunnel, the eiffel Tower and ladybirds.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 25 January 2016

The "oral approach"

Henry Sweet was one of the founders of a new way of teaching modern languages early in the twentieth century, a century littered with methodological alternatives to the grammar-translation approach. Sweet, like Gouin in France, believed that speech was more important than the written word and that languages should be taught primarily using the spoken word.

The approach which subsequently developed was not a "direct method" as such since the oral approach assumed careful selection and gradation of target language input. It was strongly teacher-led, discouraged formal teaching of grammatical structures, preferring the notion that students would pick up rules from the skilled presentation and practice provided by the teacher. The approach was also situational in that structures would be practised within a meaningful situational context, for example, family life.

Central to the approach is the use of repetition and question and answer in the classroom, along with contextual clues such as gesture, realia such as classroom objects and visual aids. The IWB may have largely replaced flashcards and the OHP, but the principle is the same. Pair and group work are allowed for, but structured drilling should precede freer practice. The approach retain a connection with grammar-translation in that it is primarily structural rather than communicative, but there is clearly a strong communicative element. It differs from naturalistic and project-based (PBL) approaches in its greater emphasis on language form (grammar).

Does research support the use of the oral approach? Well, to the extent that natural acquisition requires considerable meaningful input in the target language, then yes. And there is some limited theoretical and research support (skill acquisition theory) for the view that conscious practice of structures and vocabulary leads to internalisation of rules.

Children learning their mother tongue do not acquire language in this fashion. Experience suggests, however, that structured practice does lead to progress and that the oral approach works with many learners.The criticism levelled at the oral approach is that it is insufficiently focused on meaning, so potentially boring for most students who are not very interested in grammar-style teaching. Proponents of the approach might say that it is largely about the quality of the delivery and that focus on grammatical form benefits acquisition.

The principles of the oral approach are used, often instinctively, by teachers who did not explicitly learn it. Nowadays, in this "post-methods" era, as it is sometimes referred to, many teachers adopt a pragmatic approach mixing elements of the oral, communicative, natural, audio-lingual and grammar-translation approaches. This probably makes sense, particularly in view of the fact that research into second language learning is still in its early days and that students may learn in different ways. In our forthcoming book A Language Teacher Toolkit we look into the oral approach and skill acquisition in some detail.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The spacing effect and its implications

Research - what there is of it - shows that humans tend to retain information better when they learn in short bursts at intervals rather in one big chunk. This approach has been a mainstay of advice for students revising for examinations for many years, in fact. You may like to reflect on the fact that when you are learning something by heart you are more successful when you spent frequent short amounts at the task, rather than approaching it in one long session.
The phenomenon of the spacing effect, as it is called, was first identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus in an 1885 book Über das Gedächtnis. Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie (Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology). It is the phenomenon whereby animals (including humans) more easily remember or learn items when they are studied a few times spaced over a long time span rather than repeatedly studied in a short span of time (what is called ‘massed presentation’). In practice, the effect suggests that intense, last-minute studying or ‘cramming’ the night before an exam is not likely to be as effective for longer term retention as studying at intervals over a longer time frame. Last minute cramming can, however, be effective for shorter term retention.

In terms of second language acquisition it seems like common sense to assume that regular, short burst of practice are likely to be more successful. At the very least, long learning sessions place greater demands on concentration. But there has been research to demonstrate the beneficial effects of spaced learning. For example, Harry P. Bahrick et al (1993), whilst acknowledging the difficulty of controlling long-term studies, having studied four individuals over a nine year period, points out the benefits of frequent recycling and spacing. Without spaced repetition of vocabulary, students are more likely to forget.  

In school settings the spaced learning effect suggests that timetabling should be arranged for language lessons to be as frequent as possible (so inevitably shorter). Other things being equal, six lessons of 30 minutes might seem preferable to three lessons of one hour. Shorter lessons encourage the teacher to work at pace, they allow for considerable L2 input nearly every day and ensure that students are less likely to get bored. The spaced learning effect should lead to better retention and acquisition.

Regrettably, school administrators rarely take these things into account when organising the  curriculum. Given the inadequacies of many school timetables, for language teachers it strongly suggests that the scheme of work or curriculum plan should incorporate spaced repetition of language, both vocabulary and grammar. Sensible use of regular homework can also favour more recycling. So, if you are hampered by having only one or two contacts with pupils per week, you need to make best use of homework to exploit the spacing effect.


Bahrick, H.P., Bahrick, L.E., Bahrich, A.S., and Bahrich, P.E. (1993). ‘Maintenance of Foreign Language Vocabulary and the Spacing Effect.’ Psychological Science 4/5.

Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Über das Gedächtnis. Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie. (Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Martino Fine Books, 2011.)

Friday, 22 January 2016

Does practice make perfect?

A reflective, speculative piece...

There is a general principle in teaching and learning that you tend to get better at what you practice. In language learning, if you do lots of listening, you become a better listener. If you read a lot, you become a better reader, and so on. By this token, it would seem logical to assume that if you practise speaking, you will become a better speaker. But is this the case?

If you accept the claims made by proponents of the comprehension hypothesis, first elaborated by Stephen Krashen back in around 1980 and still exerting considerable influence today, you would say that you do not get better at speaking by speaking, but by doing more listening and reading. This claim is based on the assumption that acquisition only occurs through receiving comprehensible input and, as far as acquisition is concerned, speaking just performs the role of getting more input from interlocutors. You could put it this way: you cannot become more proficient without getting new input.

Most applied linguists do not accept this claim even though they acknowledge that input is the number one factor in making progress with language learning. I was talking about this with my wife the other day, who is a linguistics graduate, speaks a number of languages and who is a bit sceptical of Krashen's work. She is convinced that the very process of speaking helps you improve. We speculated that, in the process of forming new spoken utterances, partly by engaging unconscious, tacit knowledge of grammar, partly by referring to conscious awareness of rules, you are continually building up connections in your brain which either reinforce underlying mental representations of the language, or forming new ones. What interesting chats we sometimes have!

So, let's say that you have reached a good intermediate or advanced level and are conversing, often struggling to produce fluent and accurate utterances. You are using previously rehearsed chunks of language, successfully applying rules of syntax, grappling with others which are not unconsciously mastered, referring to rules you may have been taught, monitoring what you say, aware that some is accurate, some is not, making the same fossilised errors you always make - all of these processes, as they move from brain to mouth, are establishing more and more connections and, most probably, enabling you to improve over time. In a sense, you are providing your own input, practising it and honing it, with more or less accuracy and fluency.

In this way, you could argue that practising speaking makes you a better speaker. That is certainly the impression that many language learners have and an assumption nearly all teachers make. Some applied linguists (but by no mean all) accept this view and place it within the framework of 'skill acquisition', where language learning is viewed as analogous to the learning of any complex skill - you learn the skill and practise it until it becomes automatised (i.e. part of your underlying, unsconscious knowledge). This is what most teachers assume to be the case and they may well be right. We cannot know for certain.

What do you think?

AQA's new GCSE role plays

In a recent blog I looked at the Photo card question in the recently accredited AQA GCSE Speaking tests. This time, I'll review the role-plays.

The source for these is here:

Foundation tier

This is the format, the example taken from the AQA site:

Instructions to candidates 
Your teacher will play the part of your French friend and will speak first.
You should address your friend as tu.
When you see this – ! – you will have to respond to something you have not prepared.
When you see this – ? – you will have to ask a question.

Tu parles de ton collège avec ton ami(e) français(e). 
• Ton collège – description (deux détails).
• ! Sciences –ton opinion et une raison.
• Projet – septembre (un détail).
• ? Matière favorite.


This marks a return to a format we used to see at GCSE, with the notable difference that the cues for pupils are now in the target language. This was at the insistence of Ofqual/DfE and you can sure both teachers and exam boards will not be pleased with this. Experienced teachers and examiners are well aware that weaker students have difficulty interpreting instructions in the target language and, especially in a pressure situation, will get confused. In this case the test becomes a test not just of oral ability, but of reading and question interpretation. To a certain extent, this invalidates the question. AQA will have done their best to bear this problem in mind when designing questions.

In the example above the cue Projet - (septembre) would cause some pupils difficulty. "What am I meant to say?", some students will think. The challenge for pupils and their teachers will be to do exhaustive practice so that typical cues become familiar.

Look at this further example:

Tu parles avec ton ami(e) français(e) de la vie saine. 
• Manger – sain – quoi (un détail).
• ! Fast-food (ton opinion).
• Pour être en forme (deux activités).
• ? Cigarettes.

I think candidates would have trouble interpreting the first and fourth cues. I am slightly confused by the fourth cue myself. Am I supposed to ask "Do you like cigarettes?"

As for the content of the role play, it is very familiar and is, along with the photo card, often an extension of conversational language. In fact, when you look at the AQA Speaking test in its entirety you will see that all three parts (role-play, photo card and conversation) are mainly based on conversation so can be taught "in the round". This is a significant advantage with compared with draft Speaking tests I have seen form other boards where transactional/situational ("in the clothes shop") role plays are used.

As regards tense usage, the above example can be done using present tense only, although the third cue could elicit the future or near future. Other specimen examples appear to require the present tense only.

Higher tier

The instructions for the task are the same as those for Foundation tier.

Tu parles avec ton ami(e) français(e) de l’environnement. 
• Environnement – initiatives récentes dans ta ville (deux détails).
• Problèmes de circulation dans ta ville (un détail). • !
• Réduction de l’énergie à la maison (un détail).
• ? Action pour améliorer l’environnement.


Leaving to one side the almost comic artificiality of the exchange, my impression is that the level of challenge here is greater than it used to be in corresponding role plays. More than one time frame is required, as one would expect. To an extent, the same reservations apply regarding target language even though Higher tier candidates have less difficulty interpreting TL cues. Once again, it is worth stressing for teachers who are new to this format, that lots of practice will enable most pupils to cope reasonably well.

All in all, if you look at the full range of specimen role plays you will probably feel they are harder than what we used to have pre CAs and certainly a tougher challenge than the current rote-learned controlled assessments. I can recall, back in about 1988, when you could pick up marks in the Foundation role plays for saying "thank you" and "I live in England".

This raised level of challenge was the DfE's intention. To what extent this new format is a return to "spontaneity" is another issue. Students will certainly have to think on their feet a good deal more, but teachers will prepare their students for as many responses as possible. Memorising responses will not disappear completely. How this all pans out in real classrooms and exams we shall have to see.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Easy scaffolded translations for beginners

A while ago I produced a set of seven scaffolded translations from French into English for beginners. The format is as below, with a text in French, followed by a gapped translation into English. This sort of task might fit well towards the end of a sequence of work on the relevant topic. In the case below the topic would be pets. You could, of course, use the source text separately for other types of work such as reading aloud, true/false, questions in French and so on. As a follow-up task pupils could write their own paragraph based on the source material. You can find all seven texts on

Here is the example:

Mon chien s’appelle Bouba. Il a cinq ans. C’est un labrador noir.  On l’a trouvé dans un refuge pour chiens.

Il est énorme et très mignon. Quand je rentre de l’école, il saute et veut jouer dans le jardin. Il adore courir, jouer à la balle et se baigner dans la rivière ou dans la mer.

Il mange beaucoup et en particulier il adore le chocolat et les gâteaux. Il adore monter en voiture avec la famille et faire des promenades à la campagne. Mon père le promène tous les jours.

Quand on a des invités à la maison il s’excite et aboie beaucoup. La nuit il couche dans la cuisine. Quand il va se coucher, il prend toujours un de mes chaussons pour dormir, il s'en sert comme d'un doudou.

C’est un chien vraiment adorable et très affectueux. Je l’adore.

And here is the gapped text:

My dog _______ Bouba. He is ____ years old. He’s a _____ Labrador. We found him in a dog ____________.

He is ____ and very _______. When I get ____ from school he jumps up and wants to _____ in the garden. He _____ running about, playing ____ and swimming in the _____ or the ___.

He ____a lot and in particular he loves ________ and _____. He loves going out in the ___ with the ______ and going for _____ in the __________. My father _____ him every ___.

When we ____  ______ in the house he gets _______ and barks _____. At _____ he sleeps in the ______. When he goes to ___ he takes one of my _______ and ____ it like a cuddly ___.

He’s a really _______  and very ___________ dog. I ____ him.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

A problem with authenticity

Few language teachers would argue with the desirability of using, whenever appropriate, authentic or lightly adapted authentic listening and reading resources. In theory, they should give students an experience of hearing and seeing the language as it is actually used by native speakers and provide students with interesting materials to listen to and read. In addition, students should get less of a shock when they encounter native speaker language "in the field".

One problem which is rarely mentioned, however (apart from the obvious one, namely that authentic resources are often too difficult, therefore inappropriate), is that copyright issues mean that text books and exam boards have great difficulty sourcing them. If you have ever wondered why listening and reading texts in exam papers usually have an air of anaemic artificiality about them, it is primarily because it is really hard to get authorisation to use authentic sources. Occasionally permission is granted, but in most cases, when permission is sought, no reply is received, so writers have to assume that the source text cannot be used. This creates great difficulties for exam boards, as you can imagine, especially when the overarching authority (in England the DfE/Ofqual) are expecting students to use authentic resources.

In the real world, most teachers play fast and loose with copyright, photocopying texts and using them in class, and nobody seems to worry too much. Other teachers and writers, including myself, take authentic reading texts, then either use them as a source of information for a brand new text, or adapt them so significantly that the original text is barely recognisable. In this instance, any claim to authenticity is lost.

In any case, authenticity is probably overrated. As I have argued before in this blog, a text is a teaching tool the aim of which is to build up students' comprehension, grammatical, lexical and speaking skills. A good text is one that does this most successfully, not necessarily an authentic one. The best texts are usually at the right level of difficulty, stimulating, plausible, accurate and suitably idiomatic; they also, crucially, lend themselves to intensive controlled and communicative practice. A text may be authentic, but fail in those respects.

So, whilst I can see the value of using authentic resources whenever possible in the classroom, I would not see it as a failure if you end up using texts created for learning purposes. Part of our craft as teachers is to create, or select and adapt resources which are suitably tailored to our students' needs. It would be poor practice to just choose a resource for its authenticity rather than its suitability.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Photo card questions in GCSE Speaking

Now that the AQA GCSE is accredited we have a very good idea of what the new exam and exam questions will look like when they are first sat in 2018. I have made a little start on one aspect of the papers for the Photo card part of the Foundation and Higher Speaking tests.

You can see the AQA specimens by using this link:

What strikes me, having done GCSE for many years, is that the standard is slightly tougher than what we have been used to. The Foundation Photo card questions are notably more demanding that the type of material weaker candidates had to cope with in the past. I also note that in the specimens at least, the gap between Foundation and Higher is by no means a chasm. When I wrote my own examples (see below), this presented a minor challenge.

Anyway, I did ten Foundation and ten Higher examples, using the same pictures I got from (a source of royalty free images, available for any use including commercial). Here are two examples so you can see immediately what is involved. Remember that the Photo card question is one of three parts to the whole oral exam, the other two being role play and general conversation. No more pre-learned presentations, therefore.

So this is how it works. Here is a picture:

The candidate has to prepare three questions just before the test; the teacher also gets to ask two more surprise questions. (I have added suggestions for surprise questions in italics. These would no doubt need adapting, depending on the student's previous answers.)


Qu'est-ce qu'il y a sur la photo?
Fais-moi une description de ta famille.
Qu'est-ce que tu as fait le weekend dernier avec ta famille?
Décris ta mère.
Qu'est-ce que tu fais à la maison avec ta famille?


Qu'est-ce qu'il y a sur la photo?
Tu t'entends bien avec ta famille? Pourquoi?
Tu es sorti en famille récemment? Où? C'était comment?
Tu te disputes avec tes parents quelquefois? Pourquoi?
Que fait ta mère dans la vie?

Those roughly correspond with the difficulty level of the AQA specimens. Notice that candidates need more than just present tense to cope with the Foundation cards.

The AQA approach views the Photo card exercise as an extension of general conversation, which I like. The subject matter for the photos will be based on the themes and topics laid out in the specification.

In due course, I'll be adding more material which relates to the new specs.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

2016 here we go!

For my first blog of the new year, I am going to think aloud about plans for the year.

The book I have been working on with the indefatigable Gianfranco Conti is now all but finished and we hope to get it out via Amazon in the next few weeks. Our title is The Language Teacher Toolkit and it contains 24 chapters covering methods, target language teaching, developing spontaneous talk, classroom oral techniques, teaching grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading and writing. We also have chapters on motivation, behaviour management, technology, advanced level teaching, assessment/feedback/marking and differentiated teaching. Towards the end of the book we have done a chapter on evaluating and writing resources, along with a number of model lesson plans. We are really grateful to Steve Glover of who has done a very thorough edit for us.

It's been a tricky balancing act selecting and recording research findings whilst offering loads of classroom ideas, but we hope we have got it right and that readers will find the book both interesting and, above all, very practical. It is not just aimed at British teachers and trainee teachers, by the way, so don't expect much in the way of reference to Ofsted, GCSE and A-levels. Nor have we been too prescriptive about methodology, although we have done our best to describe what might work best in secondary school classrooms.

Here is a summary of some general guidelines we came up with:

v  Make sure students receive as much meaningful, stimulating L2 input as possible. Place a high value, therefore, on interesting listening and reading, including extensive reading. As Lightbown and Spada (2013) put it: “Comprehension of meaningful language is the foundation of language acquisition.”
v  Make sure students have lots of opportunities to practice orally, both in a tightly structured fashion led by the teacher and through communication with other students. Have them repeat and recycle language as much as possible.
v  Use a balanced mixture of the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.
v  Promote independent learning outside the classroom.
v  Select and sequence the vocabulary and grammar you expose students to. Do not overload them with too much new language at once. Focus on high frequency language.
v  Be prepared to explain how the language works, but don’t spend too much time on this. Students need to use the language, not talk about it. Research provides some support for the explicit teaching and practice of rules.
v  Aim to enhance proficiency – the ability to independently use the language promptly in real situations.
v  Use listening and reading activities to model good language use rather than test; focus on the process, not the product.
v  Be prepared to judiciously and sensitively correct students, and get them to respond to feedback. Research suggests negative feedback can improve acquisition.
v  Translation (both ways) can play a useful role, but if you do too much you may neglect general language input.
v  Make sensible and selective use of digital technology to enhance exposure and practice.

v  Place a significant focus on the L2 culture. This is one way of many to increase student motivation and broaden outlooks.

In the process of writing I have enjoyed getting back into reading about second language acquisition and I am grateful to Gianfranco for some new insights into recent research about how the brain processes language. If you have not yet read his blogs, they are at Language teachers who link research with classroom practice are very rare on the internet.

As for, I am pleased to say that over 1400 teachers/tutors/departments use the site, including many from beyond the UK. My main focus for the site this year will be adjusting to the new GCSE and A-level specifications. I shall no doubt be adding resources which match the new topics and assessment styles. If I were still in the classroom, however, I would be thinking that the latest changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. At GCSE, they are, on balance, a change for the better - CAs are gone (bon débarras!), but translation is, in my view, a slightly unwelcome gatecrasher at the party. (No, I'm not anti-translation per se, just prefer not to see it in exams.) At A-level, the exam boards have come up with approachable topics, the new AS level is, thankfully, easier than A-level (that was not Michael Gove's intention) and the Individual Research project is quite exciting.

So, happy new year to you and have a great time in your classrooms, wherever you are.