Skip to main content

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.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Guilty. Confirmist. But not to the old paradigm!

  2. There'll be another one coming soon! The another...

  3. Well said. I have suffered a lot from this.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Tell stories


How can we make listening more enjoyable and effective for pupils? How can we turn it from a potential chore to something more memorable (and therefore more likely to stick in their long term memories)? I am of the opinion that since humans are "wired" to engage in personal listening and speaking (the expression "social brain" has been used in this context), they may be more interested and attentive when the message comes from a real person rather than a disembodied audio source. (This may or may not be relevant, but research has been carried out which demonstrates that babies pick up phonological patterns better when they listen to a caregiver rather than listen to a tape or watch a video - see here for summaries of research into this area by Patricia Kuhl.)

One easy way to make listening stimulating for pupils is to tell them easy stories in the target language. I was reminded of this while reading Penny Ur's book 100 Teaching Tips (reviewed here

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"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." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

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’( The point i…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…