Thursday, 29 December 2016

My five most viewed blogs of 2016

It's gratifying to me that this blog has been read more and more this year with the total number of page views exceeding 1 million in December. Content has ranged from reviews, information and reflections to resources and marketing blogs. The blog has been a continued focus for me, along with, The Language Teacher Toolkit, my new soon-to-be-published handbook and the TES units of work co-written with Gianfranco Conti.

The five most read posts of 2016 are listed below.

1. Learning strategies.

This was actually the third in a series of five posts about Learning Strategies, based on material which we could not fit into The Language Teacher Toolkit. This post was shared by the British Council so picked up over 22,000 views.

2. What about natural aptitude for second language learning?

With over 14,000 views, this post looked at the background and history of research into language learning aptitude. All teachers know how much variation there is between pupils, but how much is down to ability, how much sheer hard work? Research into aptitude has become rather neglected, but occasionally surfaces, with some scholars even suggesting a strong genetic element in language learning capability.

3. What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit.

This was a marketing blog which listed many of the complimentary reviews Gianfranco and I have received about our handbook. We are delighted that the book has sold over 1500 copies around the world in nine months. If you haven't got it yet, check out the reviews!

4. Three AQA A-level courses compared.

This post combined three individual reviews of new A-level French courses from OUP, Hodder and Steve Glover (online). The two books are a good deal better than the previous crop of A-level courses, while more teachers have been moving to Steve's Attitudes 16 downloadable course. I enjoy reviewing text books and books on language teaching methodology.

5. New GCSE resources on

This one had 4500 views and was just a summary of the resources I had written at that stage in the year for the new GCSE (intermediate) French course. This, along with A-level, was the main focus for the website this year. For GCSE I added my own example exam papers, speaking and translation material.

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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Book progress report

I blogged a while ago about the book I'm working on for Routledge. It's to be called Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher. Following the success of The Language Teacher Toolkit written with Gianfranco, Routledge approached me out of the blue to write a book in their series "Becoming an Outstanding...". I had not been intending to write a second handbook, but on reflection I did see how I could put together something which would be distinctive from the first book and original in its own way. The target readership is teacher trainees and other interested teachers aiming to refine their practice. Since most of the examples I use are in English, so as not to confuse teachers of particular languages, the book may appeal to ESL/EFL teachers too.

The typescript is almost complete now. There are fourteen chapters covering areas such as running a classroom, teaching texts, listening, vocabulary, task-based teaching, writing and speaking, as well as a final chapter featuring case studies of unorthodox approaches which can achieve success. Reference is made to aspects of particular current interest: translation and advanced level essay writing. In that last chapter I focus on the work being done at the Michaela Community School (a strongly bilingual approach) the TPRS (storytelling) method and AIM, the mainly Canadian approach, with its emphasis on gesture, plays and acting out.

The unique aspect of this book is the way I give detailed descriptions of lesson sequences. Some chapters offer blow-by-blow accounts of sequences based on the oral-situational/communicative approach which was my own bread and butter. I describe, with inexperienced teachers in mind, how to run specific lessons based on visuals, tasks, aural and written texts, and games. I concentrate on the very specific interactions which occur between teachers and students, and between students themselves. The subtleties of such interactions are at the heart of good teaching, I would suggest.

This book is barely referenced at all, being based largely on personal experience and observation over many years. The general approach will not be everyone's cup of tea, but I do emphasise that there is no one best method. I hope my case studies chapter reinforces that point.

Readers familiar with the Toolkit book and my blog won't be surprised to find that the lessons reflect my belief in those two strands of thought in second language acquisition research: the key role of comprehensible input and the importance of acquiring skills through meaningful presentation and practice.

Once again I have to stress that the book is not about theory and research, but about what you actually do in the classroom to make lessons work, maximising input, practice and motivation. This includes, by the way, references to technology. Most of the chapters will include a number of tech tips for beginners (as well as experienced teachers less familiar with digital tools. Most of these tips are not from my own practical experience, but from what I have seen recommended by many teachers in their blogs and on their websites.

After more proofing the typescript goes off to Routledge and, if all goes well, the book will be published sometime later in the year.
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Sunday, 11 December 2016

Which skill is most neglected in languages classrooms?

Out of interest I posted a poll on Twitter with the question "Which skill do you think is most neglected in MFL/WL classrooms?" The four options were listening, reading, speaking and writing.

The responses (320 of them) were interesting and as follows:

Listening 47%
Reading 7%
Speaking 40%
Writing 6%

I have usually written that listening is the most neglected skill and this accords with what the respondents to the poll thought. I wonder if this is because of the way we perceive "listening" in language teaching and the way it is assessed.

One of the unfortunate by-products of the GCSE exam system in England and Wales, introduced around 1987, is that listening is seen as a separate skill, assessed separately and therefore to be taught separately. (For readers outside England and Wales, about half of our 15-16 year-olds do a high-stakes, national exam called GCSE which has always assessed (reasonably discretely) listening, reading, speaking and writing.)

This had tended to encourage teachers to divide up planning and lessons into these four skills. As a consequence, listening sometimes (by no means always) ends up being practised in the form of separate exercises or tests which typically consist of short snippets or longer extracts of recorded speech accompanied by various question types - true/false/not mentioned, matching, gap-fill, ticking correct statements and questions in English or TL.
In addition, teachers wisely spend a good deal of time doing practice exam papers to help their students prepare for exams. This reinforces the notion of listening as a test.

As Gianfranco has written in his blog, and as we wrote in The Language Teacher Toolkit, teaching listening therefore becomes testing with the emphasis on right/wrong answers and a certain degree of resultant stress for students. Students often express dislike for listening.

But actually, when you think about it, much of the listening students do takes place during classroom interactions when they hear either the teacher or a partner speaking. This can be enhanced by the use of well-chosen recorded extracts involving manageable, scaffolded tasks which need not be in the form of testing questions.

Don't forget (if you did) that teacher-fronted question-answer work and other forms of interaction are as much, if not more, about developing listening skill as oral skill. If we neglect such teacher-led work we deny students the chance to develop their confidence with listening skill and confidence over time.

Poor practice would be to teach some grammar, teach some vocabulary, do a few practice tasks then move straight to an audio recording of paragraph-length speech. Better would be to engage in lots if interactional activities, all carefully scaffolded, using the teacher's voice as much as possible, along with the voices of fellow students, before moving to short recorded snippets, then longer recorded sections which link with previously learned material.

Over several years this type of approach will produce more confident listeners. Of course, you'll never remove the stress of doing listening exams altogether. By their very nature (total concentration is needed, you only hear the material twice) listening tests will always cause difficulty. But if you let listening become a very large part of every listen by doing "multi-modal" tasks, to use the jargon, listening skill will develop more organically.

So I would argue that you should not worry about talking a good deal in TL to classes, as long as your talk is supported by all the aids needed to make your self understood. Similarly, allowing students to do well-constructed pair or group tasks and combining listening with reading and writing via transcription, gap-fill, reading aloud, note-taking, writing answers to oral questions and so on, will help develop confident listeners.

Do have a look at Gianfranco's blog for some great ideas on developing grammar through listening:

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Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Peppa Pig - la Visite du Père Noël

Here is a nice video listening task from The video lasts just over 5 minutes. You could use this with a very good Y9 class, or more likely a Y10-ll group for a bit of useful listening fun and vocabulary building. The class could do the task independently in a computer room or on tablets (if you have the bandwidth).

The URL of the video is below, but you can find it elsewhere, e.g. on Dailymotion, with a Google video search.

Apologies for any formatting issues - you could copy and paste into Word.

Regardez, écoutez et complétez cette liste de vocabulaire que vous entendez

Christmas Day - __ _____ __ ____              nanny and grandad - ______ __ ______

Father Christmas has been! - __ ____ _____ ___ p_____

bubbles - b_____ (f)                                      cartoon book - b____ d________ (f)

too early - t___ t__                            all hands on deck! – t___ __ m____ s_ __ p__

plate - a________ (f)                                     glass - ______ (m)    

empty – v____                                              has disappeared - __ d_______

a few crumbs – q_____ m______                doll – p_______ (f)

to unwrap – d________                                 crackers – p________ s________ (f)

crown – c_________ (f)                                whistle – s______ (m)

riddle – d___________ (f)                             a “helibike” - ___________ (m)

to make a wish – f_____ __ v____               yippee! – y_____!

race – c_____ (f)                                           logically – l___________

the only one left - __ s____ q__ r______      she cries - ____ p_____

must have forgotten me - _ d_ m’o___  my round is finished – m_ t______ e__ t____

last toy – d______ j______ (m)                     my sack - m_ h______

chimney = c_________ (f)                            delay – r______ (m)

to taste – g______                                         fulfilled – exauc_


Christmas Day – le jour de Noël                   nanny and grandad – mami et papi

Father Christmas has been! – le père Noël est passé

bubbles - bulles (f)                                         cartoon book – bande dessinée (f)

too early – trop tôt                                         all hands on deck! – tout le monde sur le pont

plate - assiette (f)                                           glass - verre (m)        

empty – vide                                                  has disappeared – a disparu

a few crumbs – quelques miettes                   doll – poupée (f)

to unwrap – déballer                                      crackers – pochettes surprises (f)

crown – couronne (f)                                     whistle – sifflet (m) (serpentin sifflet)

riddle – devinette (f)                                      a “helibike” - vélicoptère (m)

to make a wish – faire un voeu                     yippee! – youpi!

race – course (f)                                            logically – logiquement

the only one left – le seul qui restait             she cries – elle pleure

must have forgotten me – a dû m’oublier     my round is finished – ma tour est terminée

last toy – dernier jouet (m)                            my sack – ma hotte

chimney = cheminée (f)                                delay – retard (m)

to taste – goûter

The immersion effect

Apart from being very well taught at school for seven years, three formative experiences stand out in my mind when I recall my own experience of learning French as a young person.

The first was doing an exchange aged 16 with a lad called Eric, the son of a solicitor. Quite at the last minute, when the local girls' grammar school needed a boy to make up the numbers, I dashed over on a train and boat from my terraced house in not-so-well-off Gillingham to the rather grand home of my partner in Solesmes, near Cambrai, northern France. I just about recall ivy on the walls, high ceilings and the unfamiliar odour of green beans cooked in garlic and butter. After a week in Solesmes we spent a week at their beach house in Brittany.

The second experience was a immersion course in rural Sussex, where about 30 sixth-formers gathered in an enormous house for an intensive weekend of French language with a virtual "no English" rule. Immediately after I had a practice oral exam and my teacher was impressed with my fluency.

The third was one of the best times of my life when I spent the third year of my university course as an English language assistant in Montauban in the Tarn et Garonne. I committed myself to 10 months largely uninterrupted use of French, joining a local choir, playing drums in a band and going tenpin bowling with French antique dealers in Toulouse. "Félix Antiquaire" was our team.

During and after each of these experiences my French came on in leaps and bounds and remains pretty fluent to this day. My French immersion experiences helped form my personal view about second language learning. While I believe that the traditional skill-acquisition model can, when well executed, be effective enough in school settings, it fails to take enough account of the huge value of general exposure to the target language and what goes on at the (for want of a better term?) sub-conscious level.

Many of you will have had the same feeling as me, and observed it in students too after they've done an exchange. It's as though the mechanisms of first language acquisition kick in, comprehension and fluency improve rapidly and motivation rises exponentially. You listen and listen and listen. You speak much less. Then you gain skill in as if walking up stairs, occasionally going back down a step. Good days, then not so good ones.

To me this is when the naturalistic hypotheses of Stephen Krashen and others start to make most sense. Acquisition occurs through understanding messages, he says. It is appealing in its simplicity.

But while most of us would value immersion so highly, is it the way to go in the classroom? Can we recreate to some degree the hugely beneficial effects of the linguistic bath? I think we have to try, while working within a structured "bit-by-bit" approach. Second language learning to my mind is both about learning and practising skills, paying attention to rules and form, and (perhaps more so) about being exposed to language in meaningful settings so that that uniquely human ability to sub-consciously develop highly complex, automated and creative speech can occur.

But, to be fair, the growth of neuroscience has meant that the pendulum in the theory books has swung a bit towards skill-acquisition of late. Some are now even questioning whether Noam Chomsky was right about "universal grammar" and our "Language Acquisition Device" which seems, almost magically, to produce fluent speakers by the age of five. Is learning a language, first or second, really magical or is it just like learning any other complex skill like playing the piano?

I really don't know for sure and no one does, but my sense is that the experience of language immersion suggests there is much more to learning a language than practising skills.

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Friday, 2 December 2016

Using literary texts at KS3

I have been reading a brand new book called Success Stories from Secondary Foreign Languages Classrooms (Models from London school partnerships with universities). It is edited by Colin Christie and Caroline Conlon and published by UCL/IoE Press. The book consists of eight chapters written by various academics and teacher trainers working on PGCE courses in the London area.

I'll blog a bit more about it in due course, but here I'll focus on one chapter written by Fotini Diamantidaki and entitled Using literature in the key stage 3 modern foreign languages classroom.

Fotini begins by putting the topic in context, referring to the latest DfE national curriculum for MFL and its inclusion of the directive that pupils should "read literary texts in the language... to stimulate ideas, develop creative expression andf expand understanding of the language and culture."

A general justification is then provided for teaching literature. Fotini says that literary texts

1. are authentic (another requirement of the national curriculum);
2. provide a more intimate insight into the lifestyle of the target language country by exploring characters' thoughts and feelings as well as the customs of the country);
3. provide a rich source of vocabulary;
4. motivate pupils by engaging imagination and creativity.

A project is then described of which the aim was for teachers to identify and use texts with KS3 classes in the London area. Feed back from teachers and pupils is referred to, along with a few examples of texts used mainly poems). the feedback was mixed, with more than one teacher reporting that the classes responded poorly, mainly because the texts were too hard.

This is not surprising, is it? One of the fundamental principles of language teaching, in my view, is that the language presented should not be too much higher than the level the pupils are working at. If your text contains too much new language (both grammar and vocabulary) it will be off-putting and inappropriate for target language interaction. It's not surprising that most teachers in the project described above went for poems. Let's look at one quoted in the chapter by Paul Eluard, used by a teacher in the context of the Dans ma chambre il y a... topic:

Dans Paris 

Dans Paris il y a une rue;
Dans cette rue il y a une maison;
Dans cette maison il y a un escalier;
Dans cet escalier il y a une chambre;
Dans cette chambre il y a une table;
Sur cette table il y a un tapis;
Sur ce tapis il y a une cage; 
Dans cette cage il y a un nid;
Dans ce nid il y a un œuf,
Dans cet œuf il y a un oiseau. 
L'oiseau renversa l'œuf;
L'œuf renversa le nid;
Le nid renversa la cage;
La cage renversa le tapis;
Le tapis renversa la table;
La table renversa la chambre;
La chambre renversa l'escalier;
L'escalier renversa la maison;
La maison renversa la rue;
La rue renversa la ville de Paris.

Now, I have to ask what the point is of using this text. If the aim is to practise grammar we have, as well as il y a,  the use of demonstrative adjectives and the past historic. The vocabulary includes a limited range of rather random words connected with house and home. Do we want to confuse pupils with the past historic at this stage? Are there better ways of introducing and practising demonstrative adjectives? (You could ignore it, or just deal with any questions from pupils about it.) Is the content stimulating for pupils? Does the fact that it is authentic make it more motivating? "Here's a real poem by the writer Paul Eluard". Pupils just love poetry, don't they?

If you take the view that the poem can lead to an interesting discussion about cause and effect and the humorous nature of the poem, I would suggest that this could be done in a minute and provide little of use in terms of communicative possibilities, practice or linguistic progress. Okay, no doubt you could do some phonics work, but you can do this with any text. You might argue that we have a duty to open pupils' minds by exposing them to poetry, but I would respond that our main aim is to teach a language in the most effective and interesting way possible. I'm not sure this is.

With any text I always ask: what can I do with this? To me the above looks like a classic case of shoehorning a text into the scheme of work just to tick and box and follow a DfE directive.

The chapter provides precious few examples of prose being used in classes. This is not surprising since it is too hard and brings into focus why the DfE requirement for literature at this level is misguided. One example from French is quoted - the oft-used Le Petit Nicolas. The lessons described revealed nothing new: teacher reading aloud, pupils reading, looking at drawings for support, discussing a summary of events in English with a partner (is this really useful?), a booklet of oral and written activities delving more into the detail of the language and translation of sentences.

I must say that, having taught from Le Petit Nicolas once, I never did so again. The humour of the text just does not get through to pupils, even quite able ones. Once you have to explain it, the point is lost. What's more, the content is out of date and deals in caricature and stereotype. Why would you use it?

This chapter left me no more convinced of the value of teaching literary texts at KS3 (or KS4 for that matter). If you work in an academy, independent or free school you could (bizarrely) choose to ignore the DfE instruction. However, you know that eventually, if your pupils take a GCSE they will have to deal with very short extracts of literature in the reading paper. This becomes, de facto, the national curriculum. Bear in mind that there are few marks for these bits of the GCSE and that the questions can be answered using generic linguistic skill. There are no marks for interpreting meanings beyond the purely linguistic. If I were still leading a department I would suggest to my team that they pay little attention at all to literature at KS3 and not much more at KS4.