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What's the philosophy behind frenchteacher.net?

I began uploading resources to frenchteacher.net back in 2002, having wanted to share some free resources and taught myself some html from a little book. In 2012 when I retired from the classroom I decided I wanted to continue writing resources, firstly because I enjoy it, secondly to help teachers and thirdly to make some money. (I think I have that order right, though I cannot be certain.)

The nature of the resources I produce is based on a view I hold about the nature of classroom second language learning, one which has evolved over the years and is based on some key moments and milestones of my career.

1. Closely observing my own teachers at secondary school. They were well versed in the oral-situational approach, most associated with the UK and in particular London University. Former teacher Alan Hornsey was a significant influence in this movement, which, as you may know, was a development of earlier direct methods from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The emphasis was on target language and questioning, with elements of translation and drilling.

2. Teaching some holiday EFL with Mary Glasgow when I was a university student (around 1979-81). This experience gave me some early insights into aspects of communicative methods, to which I was already receptive, having been taught through a largely oral approach. I learned the value of games and the information gap principle.

3. Doing my PGCE at London University, or more precisely the West London Institute of Higher Education, as it was then called. Somewhat by coincidence, my tutors reinforced the ideas I had already accumulated as a learner. I was taught in some detail how to run oral lessons using the question-answer approach and visual aids. Sometimes this was taken to extremes. I'll always remember a fellow trainee taking into his lesson an ironing board and iron just to teach "repasser".

Other aids of the time were also demonstrated to us, such as the table sand-pit and the flannel graph, both of which enabled the keen teacher to mover around characters and objects, while asking target language questions. Flash cards and blackboard drawing were de rigueur. Pair work and information gaps were considered a bit gimmicky.

4. Doing my two year part time MA at the Institute of Education in about 1985.

My main tutor was Alan Hornsey, but the key influence of this period was my reading of Stephen Krashen's hypotheses, about which I wrote a fairly detailed dissertation. This enabled me to delve into books and articles about second language acquisition. I was pre-disposed to find this interesting, compelling even (!), having done my BA at Reading University in French and Linguistics and having been taught by luminaries from the field of linguistics such as David Crystal, Peter Trudgill and David Wilkins.

Anyone who has read Krashen will know how elegantly simple and appealing his nativist views about second language acquisition are (in essence, we learn a language by understanding messages). Although I did not swallow Krashen whole, his views did reinforce my own feelings about the importance of comprehensible target language use in the classroom. My reading also gave me a clearer understanding of the history of language teaching and its shifting sands.

5. Retiring and starting to read and think again.

I was always a reflective language teacher but it's only been in retirement that I have been able to reengage with the literature to an extent, clarify my thoughts and share them with other teachers. In addition, I came across Gianfranco Conti's blogs which led us to start collaborating and writing. Gianfranco's emphasis, as you may know, is on language learning as skill development, rather than unconscious acquisition (the nativist tradition). I know he would say both strands are at work, of course. Working with Gianfranco has helped me reevaluate the importance of practice and repetition, though I have yet to be convinced about the value of translation. To me that seems to be something of occasional use in the classroom. It goes to show how we are influenced by our own prejudices.

Now this is where I piece these elements together to humbly offer my view about language teaching.

Being by nature a compromiser I tend to see language teaching as involving aspects of both skill acquisition and natural acquisition through comprehensible input. I see a role for input, some focus on grammatical form and communicative activity. If anything, I lean a bit towards to the natural end of the formal-natural (learning-acquisition) continuum. The oral-situation approach I encountered when young embodies this combination of strands so perhaps it's no surprise that this has been my main influence.

I have over time become less dogmatic about language teaching approaches and now feel that the quality of delivery and relationships as important as one's chosen methodology. That said, I continue to believe in the principles of comprehensible input, target language use, significant focus on form and, in the classroom context, the PPP approach to introducing new grammatical structures (even if I cannot easily support this from research).

So, to return to frenchteacher.net, you'll find that the main emphasis is on reading and listening input, communicative tasks, but with an emphasis both on comprehension and intensive input-output practice (to ensure recycling). In addition I have written many formal grammatical drills, translations and resources specific to the English and Welsh exam system. The latter is a choice I made to help teachers and sell subscriptions. If the exam system were not there I would not be publishing vocab lists, speaking booklets, so much translation or ready-made practice papers. The English and Welsh examination system imposes restrictions on me as well as on teachers and pupils.

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