Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Get it right from the beginning or get it right in the end

Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spader, in their very readable book How Languages are Learned (OUP, 2011, third edition), make the distinction between two ways of looking at second language teaching. The label the first "get it right from the beginning" and the second "get it right by the end".

The "get it right from the beginning" position, they say, characterises a great deal of second language teaching practice. It is typical of the grammar-translation and audio-lingual approaches, but still features strongly as part of weaker communicative approaches. The idea is that you design your tasks with accuracy in mind, tightly control the input, moving from "easier" to "harder" and building up skills and knowledge as you might complete a jigsaw. Some writers call this (usually disparagingly) skill-building. You hope that these explicitly taught rules become internalised and enable students to produced spontaneous language.

Research suggests that many adult learners, notably those with good metalinguistic knowledge of their first language, enjoy this type of structural approach. Lightbown and Spada note, in addition, that learners' beliefs about the best type of instruction can influence their motivation and success. However, the authors also note that there is little classroom research which shows that students of varying motivation and aptitude in typical school classrooms benefit from this approach more than others. (Bear in mind that very able students will tend to make progress pretty much whatever the method.)

One reason that many students fail to make great progress with form-focused, accuracy-based methods of this type is that they feel inhibited and are reluctant to take chances when trying to communicate. Studies show that students benefit when they get a chance to communicate more freely. Other reasons, as critics of the approach point out, are that the language system is just to large and complex to be acquired in this fashion and that pupils are often not ready to internalise the items which we choose to teach them; they might understand structures, apply them in the short term, but then fail to make them part of their "mental representation" of the language. It is also fair to say that students are rarely given enough time and frequency of exposure to allow acquisition to occur at a high rate.

At the other end of the spectrum, proponents of the "get it right in the end" approach, although usually recognising that an attention to accurate form has a role, don't make the assumption that everything has to be "taught". They believe that many language features will be picked up naturally through exposure to meaningful language input. They view comprehension-based, content-based or task-based instruction as the crucial elements in teaching, perhaps aided by some focus on grammatical form and corrective feedback.

Lightbown and Spada go on to list research studies which aimed to support the "get it right at the end" position. They conclude that these studies "provide support for the hypothesis that form-focused instruction and corrective feedback within communicative and content-based second and foreign language programmes can can help learners improve their knowledge and use of particular grammatical features". They add a caveat, however, that the effects of the instruction may not be long-lasting.

Later on, in their summary, the authors reach the conclusion that a mixed diet of communication, focus on form and corrective feedback is superior to an approach which relies on comprehension, accuracy or fluency alone. This should not come as a surprise to most teachers working in school settings in the UK who attempt to provide that eclectic mix of communication and attention to grammar. How successful they are depends on their skill at implementing the approach, the amount of time they get to spend with students and the motivation of the students themselves which may depend to an extent on factors beyond the teacher's control.

When you teach, do you think you are lean towards the "get it right form the start" or "get it right by the end" position? For myself, and as we exemplify in The Language Teacher Toolkit, I would be happy to accept elements of both approaches. You can provide plenty of meaningful input in a structured fashion, with varying degrees of focus on form, thus, in a sense, killing two birds with one stone. In my own teaching I had the feeling that the more tightly "get it right form the start" approach worked better with beginners and low intermediates, whilst with advanced students I felt happier to accept that acquisition would occur more naturally provided the students received large amounts of input at or just above their level (think of Krashen's i +1).

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Drôle de monde

This is a review of Drôle de Monde written by Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri, sung by Archipol and Judith Charron.

Drôle de Monde is a song-based package to support GCSE/intermediate level students. It is available via Linguascope and consists of a CD and Cahier d'activités. You purchase each resource separately.

https://linguascope.com/shop/products/114/438 £19.99 for the workbook
https://linguascope.com/shop/products/114/436  Audio CD £19.99

The CD contains 12 songs, each one matched with a GCSE theme. Themes covered include family, work, weather, media, tourism, customs and festivals. The songs are written by ArchiPol, a Breton singer-songwriter from Rennes. They feature him singing, mostly accompanied by Judith on vocals, with guitar, cello, keyboard and percussion. Vocals are clear, the songs are fun, varied in pace and style and all clearly in the time-honoured French singer-songwriter style. The recording production is highly professional.

The work book is an 80 page, spiral-bound A4 affair, perfect for photocopying. Each song is transcribed with a vocabulary gloss covering a double page.

The vocab gloss is detailed and includes genders and different verb forms. If the lyric contains a conjugated verb it is translated and the infinitive given as well. Follow-up tasks include gap-fill with words to choose from (sometimes chosen to practise specific grammatical structures). This is thorough, well thought-out material.

After the gap-fill there are a range of useful activities, for example matching tasks with images:

There are sentence production tasks from grids, definition tasks for vocabulary building, grammar tasks covering areas such as adjective agreements, reflexive verbs and imperatives, to name just three. Other exercises types include gap-fill for comprehension, paragraph writing, questions in French and drills. there is a useful answer key at the back to help teachers or pupils.

I like this resource very much. If you are following a text book course this would make an excellent supplementary resource for occasional use. I would have purchased it. You can use the units in any order to match your topic or the grammatical structure you wish to focus on. The songs may not be in the pupils' usual comfort zone, but give them an insight into a different musical style. The linguistic level is appropriate, perhaps mostly for potentially Higher Tier candidates.

It may also be noted that the new requirement to include literature in your course is covered to a degree by a resource like this, even if the exam boards appear, so far, to be limiting themselves to older literature (for copyright reasons). Extracts could be translated into English as well, which ticks another box.

I like the the Unit 8 song Radio, texto, dodo which offers an alternative approach to daily routine, while the final song Le Tango du calendrier introduced a cultural element less evident in the other songs.

Steve and his collaborator Nathalie bring a wealth of experience to to this resource, as you would see form the tried-and-tested exercise types and all-round thoroughness of execution. The purchase price for a resource you would use for several years is very reasonable indeed. Highly recommended!

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’ (http://pdcinmfl.com). The point is this: it’s all very well saying there are no ‘methods’ for teaching a foreign language any more but it can’t then be a free-for-all with teachers doing exactly what they want to do. As much as I believe in teacher professional autonomy, language teaching is so complex that you have to have a series of guiding principles.
 So “make sure students receive plenty of meaningful input in the L2” – absolutely! I’ve never come across a successful classroom that doesn’t provide plenty of that.
“make sure students have lots of opportunities to practice orally” again totally agree but I would go a step further and say that they have to take risks with saying things they are not sure are correct. Take a look at “Steve’s tips for developing spontaneous talk’ on page 85, he brings the notion of risk-taking in very nicely but it should be part of the actual principles in my view.
“be prepared to explain how the language works but don’t spend too much time on this” – this is really key! I always use the expression “at what cost?” At what cost, given the amount of teaching time you have,  are you explaining the difference between the perfect and imperfect tenses, in the L1, when they could be doing something much more skilled-based.
So I think the 12 principles are sound (is there some reason there are 12?). I think the last one about ‘a significant focus on the L2 culture’ needs some more unpicking. Exactly what culture are we talking about? Smith and Conti are teachers of French and Spanish I believe. Well ok we can have some notion of the culture of the people who speak those languages and it is possible to give learners some insights into them but we have to be careful a)not to trivialise the culture and b) not to centre it on some European (‘metropolitan’ as the French would say) idealised culture. And then of course if you are a teacher of English as an L2 the notion of culture enters a completely different theme park!
 Anyway take time to read Smith and Conti’s book. It’s packed with lots of interesting and not too ‘whacky’ ideas.
 Ernesto Macaro
Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Oxford

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Social forums for language teachers

It goes without saying that social media allow teachers to exchange ideas, activities, lesson plans, problems and successes so much more easily than in the past. The opportunity to pick up ideas beyond your own school or department is fabulous and means that no teacher should feel they are working in a vacuum.

Social media forums change over time. The prime platforms form exchanging ideas are currently Facebook and Twitter. In the UK teachers seem to have moved away from other forums such as TES, although the Yahoo group MFL Resources maintains a healthy following with well over 3000 members.

UK-based Facebook groups include Secondary MFL Matters, MFL Resources and Ideas, Secondary MFL in Wales, MFL Teachers, MFL Teachers' Lounge and Languages in Primary Schools. My impression is that the first of these closed groups is becoming to most popular. Teachers on these closed FB groups are courteous and helpful and trolling (which became an issue on TES) seems to be absent. Having attentive moderators helps with this. The same goes for MFL Resources, better for teachers who do not use Facebook and who are happy to receive emails or check digests of email messages.

Twitter has the largest number of teachers and enables you to connect with teachers all around the world. I find it fascinating to read about language teaching issues from other perspectives and even the different language used to talk about the same issues. Twitter can be confusing, however. For one thing, there is no established protocol for the content of tweets. Some "tweachers" post a lot of social chit-chat, mixed with professional tweets. Others stick to the purely professional, whilst others only tweet socially. This means that, if like me, you are most interested in professional tweets, it can mean trawling though a mass of irrelevant tweets. I confess I would like to see more tweets about pedagogical/professional issues. If you are new to twitter you could check out the the hashtags #mfltwitterati (UK based) and #langchat (mainly American).

On Twitter, one useful form of exchange is the Twitter chat, where a topic is chosen, moderated by a teacher and last, say, an hour. American teachers go in for this more often than British, from what I can tell. You tend to find that relatively few teachers take part, although a good deal more may just be lurking and observing. the format is usually very structured, with the moderator asking a series of questions labelled Q1, Q2, Q3 etc, and answers are pre-fixed with A1, A2, A3 etc. Good moderators make sure people stay on topic and remain courteous.

In general the tone of debate between teachers on Twitter is positive and supportive, although the occasional "twitter spats" are observed. This is sometimes hard to avoid when views are strongly held and, to be fair, language teachers are not the most vociferous educators on Twitter. Joe Dale (@joedale) keeps a list of MFL Twitterers for newbies who may want to know who to follow. It's become a cliché to describe Twitter as the biggest staffroom in the world and the best CPD, but there is a lot of truth in the claim. (I say this as a former Twitter sceptic.)

Blogs are another means by which teachers share their ideas and these allow for more detailed descriptions of lessons and pedagogy. Most allow you to leave comments and engage in some dialogue. The borderline between a blog, website and wiki is pretty hazy these days, by the way. Wikis (where you can contribute resources) are quite rare, but you occasionally come across good ones such as the ALL literature wiki.  Many teachers use the Wordpress platform to produce their own sites or blogs, others find the free Blogger platform (like this one) simpler for straight blogging. I have a lengthy list of French teacher blogs around the world on frenchteacher.net.

All in all, it's fair to say that it is easier than ever to get new ideas, help and support. But beware, it's all too easy to get addicted! You are almost certainly short of time already, so you may need to pick and choose how to interact online.

Picture sequence example lesson

This is a slightly adapted short section from our chapter about using pictures in The Language Teacher Toolkit.

Visit to Paris

Above is a sequence of about 15 simple pictures depicting a visit to Paris. They show times, places, means of transport and activities. Arrows indicate arriving and leaving, going up and coming down. They could all be displayed at once or presented one by one in a PowerPoint presentation.

Typical questions would be:

                At what time did you leave the house?
                Did you go to the bus station?
                Where did you go?
                At what time did the train leave?
                Did the train leave at 9.00?
                When did you arrive in Paris?
                Did you go to Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower?
                Did you take the bus to the Eiffel Tower?
                How did you get to the Eiffel Tower?
                How long did it take? 20 minutes?
                And so on.
                Now, who can recount the first three pictures for me? The next three?                    The whole story?

With this sequence as a stimulus, you can get students to recount a set of several pictures at once, allowing them the chance to produce longer utterances. This creates a sense of achievement and allows you to differentiate by aptitude.

Once you have worked in the first person (often the best place to start) you could then retell the story in the third person, perhaps in a subsequent lesson, thus recycling previous work and improving the students’ mastery. We would stress how important it is to return to previous work in a sequence of lessons (recycling language), adding something new on each occasion.

A sequence of this type offers many opportunities to develop oral and listening skills. The main aims would be to practise the use of time expressions, places and past tense.  At the end of a sequence of oral work, students could write up an account in the first or third person to reinforce their oral and listening work.

It is easy enough to design picture sequences yourself. You can even do them quickly on the board by hand. Remember that the key aim is clarity and ease of exploitation, not to produce amusing pictures which may be attractive to the eye but of limited use in terms of exploitation. The same is true of PowerPoint presentations. You will find many of these freely available online. They should be carefully assessed for their efficacy rather than their attractiveness. You can also present picture sequences with text or gapped text to scaffold language. 

Monday, 21 March 2016

Frenchteacher.net subscriber survey

Every few months I do a quick survey using Surveymonkey to get feedback about how the site is being used by subscribers.

This is the link:


I am keen to see which areas of the site are most used and what improvements or additions subscribers would like to see.

One of my main areas to focus on over the next few months will be resources for the new GCSE and A-level specifications, even though there plenty of resources already in place.

I have already produced GCSE role play and photo card resources and a set of literary texts with GCSE-style exercises. I shall be making sure that any topic and exercise type gaps are filled.

For A-level I have been focusing on making sure themes are well covered and will add further resources on summary writing and translation.

As far as users who live outside England and Wales are concerned, do let me know if there are any assessment-related resources which could be useful. A small but important proportion of subscribers do work in countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Scotland, to name a few.

Despite being somewhat distracted by co-writing a book in recent months (!), I am committed to improving frenchteacher.net and to attracting as many subscribers as possible.

By the way, recent additions to the site are:

A text and exercises on poverty for intermediate/GCSE level.
That set of 10 literary extracts I mentioned for intermediate/GCSE level.
A video listening task on bullying in schools for low advanced/AS level.
A text with exercises about sugar for intermediate/GCSE level.
A text and exercises about key dates in the history of the EU - advanced level.
A video listening task on jihad for intermediate/GCSE level.
A text with exercises about online bullying - for advanced level.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

How will you plan your A-level course?

A new specification is clearly an opportunity to revisit not just themes and exercises types, but the overall structure of the course. At the moment is is unclear how many schools will enter all or some of their candidates for the new standalone AS level, or how many (possibly for reasons of cost) decide to abandon AS levels altogether. Anecdotal evidence suggests schools will react in different ways in the first year or so of the new spec.

The traditional approach to a course is to tackle each sub-theme in turn (e.g. family, volunteering), bolting on grammar in a sequenced fashion, beginning with revision of simpler grammar and moving to harder. Text books often reflect this approach. Each unit features a mixed diet of listening, reading, speaking, writing and structured grammar tasks. The study of a text or film, in this scenario, would be done, in most cases, during the spring term of an AS course, or the autumn and spring terms of an A-level course. recall that for AS students have to study a book or film, while at A-level they have to study a book and film, or two books.

With the new A-level there is also the Individual Research Project to factor in. It would make sense to do this largely in the second year of the course, possibly even in the spring term so that it is freshest in the students' minds for the speaking test during which it is assessed.

There are alternative approaches you might consider. One novel approach which is being suggested by AQA is to use the whole of the first year to work on a film and build the grammar study around this. The study of themes and development of skills such as translation, essay writing and summary would run in parallel.

Another that some schools seem to use in my experience (this goes back to the days of grammar-translation) is to divorce topic/communicative teaching from grammar and have dedicated grammar-translation lessons, say one a week. I have to say that this does not appeal to me, having been brought up with the notion of building grammar practice into communicative lessons.

There may also be schools who decide to have dedicated listening, reading, speaking and writing lessons. This feels artificial to me and would not encourage mixed skill lessons featuring a variety of tasks.

How you plan the two years also depends on your staffing. If the class has two teachers, you may allocate different topics to each teacher and let them both incorporate grammar content. This can work well with little overlap between the two teachers. One teacher may focus on specific skills such as translation, summary (new to A-level) and essay writing. One teacher may be responsible for the teaching of texts and films.

For the record, if I were using the AQA A-level French specification over two years (not yet accredited, but with topics not going to change), I might adopt this broad-brush approach:

Autumn 2016   Sub-themes: Family, cyber society, heritage
                         Grammar: present, perfect, imperfect, future, conditional
                         negation, relative pronouns, adjectives
Spring 2017     Sub-themes: Cinema, contemporary francophone music
                         Grammar: pluperfect, future perfect, conditional perfect,
                         subjunctive, adverbs
Summer 2017  Sub-themes: Volunteering + other topical material
                         Grammar: revision
                         Focus on summary, translation, essay writing
                         End of year assessment/exam (AS-level or similar)
Autumn 2017   Sub-themes: Positive aspects of a diverse society, life for the
                         marginalised, teenagers and political engagement, immigration;                            revisit AS topics, study of film or book (1)
                         Grammar: general revision via translation or other tasks
Spring 2018      Sub-themes: How criminals are treated, demonstrations and                                 strikes; study of film or book
                         (2) revisit two AS topics, individual research project.
                         Grammar: general revision via translation or other tasks.
                         Focus on exam technique, including oral. Mock oral.
Summer 2019   Specimen/made up paper practice, timed practice in class, oral
                         practice, translation practice, essay practice

I would also add there there should be time to deal with other topics not referred to in the specification, for example topical issues when they arise. You would probably have an end-of-year exam at the end of the lower sixth and a mock exam in December or January of the upper sixth. If you do the IRP during the spring term you would have to a mock oral later. I would choose to do the IRP relatively late on so that it is fresh in students' minds at the time of the speaking test in April/May.

Friday, 18 March 2016

A reflection on language teaching

We rounded off our handbook for language teachers with a final reflection which attempts to encapsulate our general feeling about the craft of language teaching. This is a slightly adapted version of that afterword.


If you read our blogs (frenchteachernet.blogspot.com and gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com) you'll know that we are interested in both ends of the second language acquisition spectrum: conscious learning (explanation and skill acquisition through practice) and unconscious (natural and with the focus on meaningful input). The longer we have taught and examined the theory and research over the years, the more we think that there is strong merit in both these perspectives on language teaching. Research into second language learning is still young. Although progress is being made, we cannot yet be sure what is happening in the 'black box' of the brain, but if we make sure we provide meaningful, repetitive, structured exposure to language, with explanation, practice and communicative interaction, learning will occur.

Now, the rate at which learning occurs depends on a range of factors, including, crucially, motivation and student aptitude for language learning, then others such as teacher quality, the 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 the sensible course is to exploit a mixture of principled approaches based on what we know about both language learning and learning in general. There is no need to defend one approach against all the others. If the approach provides the elements above - input, output, repetition and reinforcement, interesting material, explanation and so on - it should work.

It is also probable that this kind of eclectic approach makes sense given the variation we see in our students. Some seem to thrive on more highly natural or communicative methods, whereas others enjoy a degree of formal explanation to supplement the input. Some like to listen a lot, others like to read; some prefer talking, others writing; some want to become fluent speakers, the majority may just want to get by with some simple situational or conversational language.

Not only do students vary, so do teachers. Whatever approach, or mix of approaches, is adopted, you need to believe in it, understand the rationale behind it and execute it efficiently. We believe an excellent all-round teacher will get better results with what might seem a dubious approach (such as grammar-translation), than a less gifted teacher trying to use an ostensibly better method. We know that in our business so much is about classroom relationships, being able to adapt to the moment, having a feel for what students enjoy and, of course, behaviour management.

At the start of our handbook we refer to the idea of ‘principled’ eclecticism. Why not exploit a range of principled approaches? Naturalist, meaningful input and form-focused, skill-building methods both have their supporters and with good reason. An approach with elements of each is most likely to be a firm foundation on which to build as a language teacher.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Where to do GCSE listening exams

There has been a Facebook thread in the Secondary MFL Matters group about GCSE listening exams. The issue is whether tests should be done in a large hall or in classrooms. We had this conundrum in our school and I foolishly allowed listening exams to take place in the school gym for a year or two. We did our utmost to provide adequate playback devices with the right tone settings (treble up, bass down) and generally sound was adequate. I would walk around the hall to test it when the pupils were all there.

However, I thought better of the situation and soon insisted that classrooms be made available. This became all the more important when language teachers were no longer allowed to invigilate exams. We ended up using a group of classrooms, close together, and I would go round, before the exams, checking that all the CD players were correctly placed and set up for volume and tone. This was a better solution.

Even so, on one occasion, I discovered afterwards that one invigilator had turned round a Coomber player so that it was facing in the wrong direction.

Sound quality is, needless to say, crucial in tests which demand quick comprehension and which pupils often find challenging. All language teachers should be using high quality playback devices with tone controls. Boominess and excess bass are to be avoided and a little hiss allowed if treble sounds are to be emphasised. As any hifi buff will tell you, rooms with "bouncy" acoustics should be softened, as far as possible, using curtains, blinds or wall decoration. The pupils themselves do most of that job when they are in the room.

Using a large hall means to have to increase volume and this may be at the expense of a clean sound.

So, if your exam office or SLT are reluctant to do room changes, just remind them how important the issue is and how it will have a small effect on GCSE scores. You could even invite them into the exam hall and demonstrate what the sound is like.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

One key to student progress: recycling language

This is a brief extract from The Language Teacher Toolkit and part of a chapter about the importance of recycling language.

Recycling in one lesson or sequences of lessons

In our opinion the best way of building in recycling opportunities within lessons by using the same language in different, varied activities. Within the PPP model (Presentation – Practice - Production) this is easy, as you provide examples of new language through listening or reading, practise them though controlled oral and written exercises, then further recycle them in free writing, for example as a homework task. You would return to the same language, and maybe a bit more, in a subsequent lessons, either re-using similar activities (because familiarity is important to students) or with new ones (because students also enjoy variety).

Here is one example of a range of tasks which could be used within a lesson when presenting and practising the past (preterite) tense. Each task might take only a few minutes. You will note how the same language is recycled multiple times, even though the precise activity changes.

  •  Listening to teacher while watching a sequence of pictures (or flashcards) depicting activities (e.g. I played tennis, I watched a movie, I listened to music, I sang a song) .
  •  Repeating the same language while watching the pictures.
  •  Hiding the picture while students guess what it was, re-using the  language  already heard.
  •  Revealing the written version of the language used. Having the whole class  read it aloud together.
  •  Putting the whole sequence together and reading it aloud.
  •  Hiding the language, then the teacher reads aloud the sequence with gaps  for the students to complete orally or in writing.
  •  Revealing the written version once more and giving false statements about  it for students to correct.
  •  Asking questions about the sequence in L2.
  •  Hiding the language and dictating phrases for students to write on paper or  mini whiteboards.
  •  Revealing the text and asking students to try to explain in L1 how the verbs  are formed.
  •  Then give students some new verbs which follow the same pattern and ask  them to make up new phrases or whole sentences.
  •  Present a longer narrative with further meaningful examples of the verb  forms.
It is worth noting how tightly controlled the release of language is, how carefully the language is selected and graded for difficulty. By limiting the focus in this way, the cognitive demand for students is reduced and they can focus on the key elements being taught.

Recycling over the whole course

A well-planned course will have built in numerous opportunities to recycle language, especially high frequency language. In the so-called spiral curriculum model used by many text books, an area of vocabulary or grammar will be revisited at least once a year, perhaps more often. One criticism levelled at this model is that the gap between each ‘revisit’ is so long that many students have forgotten what they previously learned, so, in effect, you need to start teaching the whole thing again. This is a common complaint of language teachers. 

The solution is to ensure that from week to week you attempt to incorporate key language as often as possible in new contexts and also to recycle it in classroom talk by, for instance, asking students in L2 what they did at the weekend in order to revise the preterite/perfect tense. If you do not do so and just move on to a new topic, leaving the previous one behind completely, students are more likely to forget what they have done.  If you have your own classroom, retaining key elements of each point taught throughout the year on a ‘teaching wall’ could enable you to ensure that knowledge is retained.

GCSE French literary extracts

I have just finished working on a set of ten short literary extracts with exercises. these are designed to resemble the examination questions which you'll see in specimen papers and actual exams from June 2018. I'm sure subscribers will find them useful. They could be done individually or given out as a booklet for practice in the run-up to exams. I've included pieces by Camus, Balzac, Ionesco, Sartre, Saint-Exupéry, Pagnol, Hugo, Zola, Sagan and Maupassant.

Writing these has reminded me of what a cul-de-sac this inclusion of literature is. Someone high up decided that it would be a good idea to get pupils reading more literary texts as part of work from KS2 through to KS4. This implied that such texts have high value and can contribute to a more rigorous approach to language teaching overall.

In practice, however, you soon discover the limitations of working with authentic or abridged/adapted literary texts. These are the issues:

  • Texts are nearly always too hard, unless you adapt them. They usually go against the bets principles of teaching reading comprehension.
  • Extracts in isolation, even with a brief contextual introduction, don't make much sense to students and are unlikely, therefore, to be engaging.
  • It is very hard to design interesting communicative lessons (stress communicative) based on literary extracts.
  • Exercise types are constrained when you use literary texts. You end up doing what the examiners and textbook writers do: questions in English (mainly) or true/false, gap-fill and selecting true sentences (essentially the same as true-false).
  • Narrative texts usually use the passé simple, which will need some teaching. For this reason AQA (the only exam board to have their specification accredited at this stage) have cunningly avoided it by using dialogue, texts using the imperfect or passé composé (e.g. Camus' L'Etranger).
I believe that what will happen is this: text book writers and teachers, fully aware of the above constraints, will pay lip-service to literature and include a few isolated exercises just to make sure that students have prepared for the exam assessment types. Some teachers, notably those working with high ability pupils, will take on more meaningful and engaging activities, such as reading short stories or even easy plays.

In any case, this apparent attempt to reintroduce work of the Whitmarsh-style type (take a look at some old O-level books), imposed on us from a central authority, is a bit of a blind alley.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Conforming to the paradigm

Something bugs me from time to time. I'll call it "conforming to the paradigm". This is what I mean:

In education an expert, educational body or government quango will come up with a new framework for looking at language teaching or education in general. Teachers, who are generally an obedient and occasionally unquestioning lot, take on board this new framework and buy in not only to its tenets but to its language.

In England the obvious example is Ofsted-speak. Teachers now describe lessons as "outstanding" without using the quotation marks. They post requests on social media for ideas for an "outstanding" lesson, as if anyone (including Ofsted) knew what such a thing actually were. A school is described as "good" as if we knew and all agreed what this actually means.

In the USA, since 2012 when the ACTFL published its guidelines for language teachers, teachers now refer to "interpretive" listening (without the quotation marks) and "presentational mode" (without quotation marks). (The ACTFL uses the term interpretive to mean, in effect, comprehension.) The ACTFL, in their justifiable desire to push for a greater emphasis on fluency and communication ("proficiency") produced a neat framework (they could have done it differently) which many US teachers now seem to view as gospel.

These two examples may not, in themselves, be particularly harmful, but in language teaching conforming to the paradigm can be more damaging. The history of language teaching is littered with methods which, whatever their limitations, well-intentioned teachers have taken on board and swallowed whole. Pure audio-lingualism and some versions of communicative language teaching spring to mind.

What bugs me, just a little, is the fact that teachers buy into a new lexicon and, by using it without the quotation marks, are failing to question its whole validity and, by implication, closing their minds to other perspectives.

We do need ways to talk about the craft of teaching. Frameworks are useful. I wouldn't mind betting, however, that in twenty years we shall no longer be talking about "outstanding" lessons or "interpretive" listening. Perhaps the ephemeral nature of a lexicon reveals its true validity.

In the meantime, we might consider not playing the conformity game, think for ourselves a bit more and try to choose a more objective discourse about education and language teaching.

Addendum: it has been pointed out to me that the ACTFL was using its categories back in 1998.

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Wednesday, 2 March 2016

A departmental library for teachers

I wonder if your languages department has a library of books for teachers. Such a library could contain a number of resources, including books on general methodology, games, grammar reference and fluency activities.

Here are some recommendations from my own knowledge. Used editions of some of these can be found for very little money on Amazon.

Discussions and More - Penny Ur (2014). This contains ideas for mainly task-based fluency activities for mainly high intermediate and advanced level. Penny has worked for many years in the TEFL field, but her experience and ideas deserve an audience in the modern language teaching community. This book is an updated and broadened version of her book Discussions that Work.

Fun Learning Activities for MFL - Jake Hunton (2015). This is a very usable set of games or game-like activities for helping pupils develop their vocabulary.

Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching - Jack Richards (2014).  This is a "big picture" book which very clearly describes a range of language teaching approaches which have been influential over the years. This book should help any language teacher put their practice into context.

The Language Teacher Toolkit - Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti (2016). Well, I would mention this, wouldn't I? This book aims to bridge the gap between research and classroom practice, but with a genuine focus on the practice. Many handbooks, especially those written by academics, neglect the classroom practice side.

Grammar Practice Activities - Penny Ur (2009) . Another Penny Ur book, full of practical activities for the classroom.

A Course in Language Teaching - Penny Ur (2010).  This book has been around for a good while, but provides excellent ideas.

Games for Language Learning - Andrew Wright, David Betteridge and Mike Buckby (2006). A useful compendium.

Target Language Toolkit - Allison Chase (2015). This slim volume provides departments with useful approaches to implementing a target language policy.

Action Grammaire!: New Advanced French Grammar - Phil Turk and Geneviève Garcia Vandale (2006). There are many grammar reference books on the market. This one is well reviewed. If you prefer an online source then I could recommend Tex's French Grammar from the University of Texas at Austin.