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So what's changed in MFL teaching in 32 years?

The end of a teaching career is very close for me now, so I am bound to reflect on a few issues. How is French teaching different now compared with when I began teaching at Tiffin School, Kingston-upon-Thames in 1980?

The resources at our disposal as language teachers are far better than they were. Course books are better, less dogmatic in their underlying methodology, more colourful, more pupil-friendly and supported by a wide range of resources: repromasters, CDs, assessment packs and online resources. There is an enormous range of freely shared and commercial resources available online through support networks such as the TES and mflresources, as well as superb individual web sites such as My own web site has made a useful contribution, whilst forums and Twitter have made the sharing of ideas ever easier.

I have gone from cassettes, to CDs, to online resources. I have gone from recording broadcasts from long wave radio to using a vast range of readily available online recordings. Authentic reading in 1980 was provided by literature or occasional access to French newspapers and magazines. Unreliable language labs using reel to reel or cassettes were in use, reflecting the fashion for the audio-lingual approach.The internet now provides masses of excellent authentic material.

Methodology has moved on. Having been taught at Gillingham Grammar School by Colin Wringe and others using an enlightened oral approach, based heavily on the question and answer, and trained in London using the same methodology, I have gradually been influenced by the communicative movement and made more and more use of information gap and pair work. In addition, I have always been happy to embrace a significant does of grammar-translation, particularly at A-level, although this has mainly been with the exam in mind. It is notable how A-level has clung on to testing styles inherited from the the 1950s and earlier, when universities set the agenda for A-level content.

I have been influenced by question-answer, audio-lingual, grammar-translation and communicative methods. Functional/notional syllabuses never made sense to me and they were thankfully a passing fad. We now seem to be in a "post methods" era, where we use an eclectic mix of approaches. Grammar has made a bit of a comeback, but lack of time in many schools makes it hard to embed.

In very recent years the influence of assessment for learning techniques has made a slightly stronger mark, though has changed things relatively little. Pupil voice has been more influential. When I began my career it would have been unusual to ask students what they thought of their own progress and the quality of their teaching. In general terms we communicate far more effectively with students than we used to, although my impression of pupils is that they have not changed very much. Being more attentive to their needs has probably made them less conspiratorial.

Examinations have moved on. In 1980 an O-level paper featured translation both ways, picture composition, multiple choice reading comprehension and listening comprehension, with the teacher reading aloud. GCSE was a positive step forward in 1987 and since then it has evolved sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Controlled assessment has been a retrograde step and an aberration for reasons which are well known to MFL teachers. At A-level we have moved away from the detailed study of prescribed texts (essentially a preparation for university languages courses), to a more relevant and palatable mix of cultural content (including film, history, geography and the arts), usually chosen by the teacher. Oral work and listening has been given a greater priority, though still not enough in my view.

We have always taught strongly to the test, but we are forever more accountable for our students' results. Freely available specifications and model answers have led us to prepare our students more and more thoroughly for the exam. No wonder grades tend to go up. In MFL, though, there has been less grade inflation than in some other subject areas and MFL remains a tough GCSE and A-level subject. It has been frustrating to see the GCSE grading goalposts move around as the exam boards have tried to cope with rising (from 1987), then falling (from 2004) numbers of candidates. I can assure you that it is harder in 2012 to get an A* grade than it was in the early nineties. At A-level an A grade is still hard to get, but weaker candidates find it easier to pass.

We mark just as much, but there has been more and more pressure to produce inventive and varied lessons. We are observed, managed and graded far more. In general I would say this has been a necessary and useful development, but it has no doubt led to greater levels of stress in the profession. We have also been encouraged to measure our pupils against national standards, using over-elaborate systems of levels and sub-levels. I have resisted this obsession with levelling as much as possible. I cannot see how it has improved standards in language teaching.

Report writing has changed a good deal. In 1980 the sheet of A4 was standard with room for a letter grade, percentage, rank order in the class, effort grade and brief comment. Rank orders are gone - good riddance. Parents deserve a little more detail than they got years ago, but modern reports risk being too descriptive and insufficiently analytical.

Timetabling in my schools (Tiffin, Hampton School and Ripon GS) has always been sensible for language teaching. In many other schools the move to one hour lessons and two week timetables has done languages a terrible disservice and many students do not have a chance of developing competence on such a limited diet. Many school leaders do not get the principle of little and often so MFL has suffered accordingly.

In my little area of selective schooling French has remained a quite desirable subject, all the more so as students travel far more regularly. Parents and pupils generally see the worth of language learning and I have very rarely experienced genuine antipathy to the subject.

I shall miss the classroom, my colleagues, trips and exchanges; the marking... not so much.


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Here is Professor Macaro's review:
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