Skip to main content


GCSE modern language specifications are rather boring, aren't they? It seems like the people who decide what kids should be learning at KS4 can't get beyond the paradigm of the last twenty years. At KS3 there has been a willingness to think outside the box a bit and to give teachers more freedom to do what they wish, not that that's been reflected hugely in the course books I see.

So why are our books dull? Well, we are generally working with a grammatical progression imposed on a series of worthy topics which are deemed to be of interest to our students. You know the sort of thing: holidays, town and country, health, hobbies, food and drink, friends, shopping etc. Every now again our books are spiced up with something more "relevant", so now it's all internet, emails, web sites and mobile phones. None of it is what you might call attention-grabbing. I've nothing against grammatical progression, but the topical contexts it is set in could be better.

One thing that's missing is stories. Back in the days of Mark Gilbert's Cours Illustré de Français, which I have discussed here before, it was nearly all stories. Every day family stories, stories about monkeys in trees, stories about Christmas truces during the war and so on. Many of them were mundane and dull, some were mildly amusing, but the reason they were used was to try and fire the imagination of youngsters and to provide a framework for productive oral and written work through question and answer. Stories lead to greater creativity of thought, along with a range of written and oral tasks.

let's say you were revising clothes and accessories in Y10. As well the fashion show or the pictures of people dressed up in the book, why not have a story, or cartoon story, about a murder at a fashion show, or about a French teacher who falls in love with a fashion model, or a story of jealousy between two fashion models? OK, so they aren't brilliant, but you get the point.

I haven't seen course book in years which tries to use stories effectively. They do appear sometimes. In the Tricolore series (Y8 book) we read about Inspector Louis Laloupe and I find those cartoon stories very usable for teaching purposes as well as a bit of fun for the kids. If I were publishing language books I would hire an imaginative children's writer to produce some simple stories which could be simplified in the target language. I'm not sure the current crop of linguists who produce courses are up to writing somrthing good enough. In any case, the latest exam board demands may stop them doing so. One could even start with simple versions of classic, familiar tales, written in the perfect tense.

So, if greater numbers of students are going to flock back to MFL at KS4, let's make sure that the lessons are not, as OFSTED recently put it, too dull.


Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…