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The 'Michaela method' revisited

In March 2017 I had the pleasure of visiting Michaela Community School, observing two French lessons and chatting with the French staff. I wrote about their approach, originally developed by Barry Smith, in this blog and in a chapter in my book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher. The main reason I chose to include a section in my 'case studies' chapter was to demonstrate that quite diverse approaches can be used to achieve great results.

Many other schools have picked up on the Michaela way of teaching MFL, either copying or adapting their approach. It's not everyone's preferred method, but it has clearly inspired other departments to change or adjust their practice.

I was always curious to see if their approach would be validated by GCSE results. (For readers outside the UK this a high stakes exam taken usually after five years of learning a language at the sage of 16. It assesses all four skills in quite a rigorous fashion.) Yesterday, having seen their headline figures for French, it was clear that the students at the school did extremely well, apparently doing much better than the average for pupils in other schools with similar intakes. 99% of pupils achieved grades 9-4 and, as far as I can see,  the French department appears to have outperformed most other subjects, including maths and English. (That in itself is some achievement.)  So the results are really outstanding. I am not overly surprised, having observed the quality of their teaching and the impeccable behaviour and work habits of the students.

What's more, I understand that a dozen pupils have opted to continue with French at A-level, which is a high number for a school of its type and catchment.

The points I originally listed below in my original October 2016 blog remain valid. Seeing Y8 and Y9 classes in action was illuminating. Pupils were very attentive, joined in extremely well and showed quick reactions, very good pronunciation and a good memory for the language they had learned. Both the Y7 class and lower set Y9 had very good spoken and writing skills and manipulated complex language, almost always prompted by English cues. The focus on reading aloud and call-response translation into French was very strong. English was liberally sprinkled throughout the lessons, but the amount of built-in repetition of French was impressive. Not a moment was wasted and pupils maintained high levels of concentration throughout the lessons. Both lessons were entirely teacher-led with lots of hands up. There was almost no French-French question-answer except in relation to descriptions of grammar and spelling.

Below is what I first wrote and which formed the basis of what I wrote in Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher.

Michaela Community School is a ‘Free School’ set up in 2013 and which has gained some notoriety, partly owing to a news story which made the national press and partly because it is evangelical about its ethos, spreading the word via blogs, conferences and a book which is about to be published. 

It’s an all-ability school in an inner-city area of north-west London. Its motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’, the curriculum and leadership being highly influenced by the ideas of E.D. Hirsch Jr of "cultural literacy" fame. It has an above-average percentage of students on free school meals, an indication of its social context.  A significant number of students arrive at the school with literacy problems. Students are grouped by general ability at an early stage. Michaela has become best known for its ‘no excuses’ discipline policy, and the high achievement and immaculate behaviour of its students. Anyone who visits the school notes how happy and polite the students are and how well-ordered and aspirational the environment is. I suggest you look at the video in my previous blog to get a flavour.

Its team of language teachers, Jess, Barry and Fadila (note: Barry and Fadila have moved on and Becky Staw is now Head of French) adopt a rather individual way of teaching French. They might sum it up as follows: “Teach like a linguist. Think for yourself, make everything totally transparent, no guesswork, focus on accuracy and ignore orthodoxy.”  Below are the main features of the approach they use with near-beginner and low-intermediate students (Y7 to Y9).

  • Focus strongly on reading from the start (in line with the whole school policy).
  • Teach from the front; make little or no use of pair or group work.
  • Do lots of fast-paced choral and individual ‘call and response’ activity ( a phrase in English and getting the answer back in TL).
  • Don’t use pictures, since focusing on words improves literacy and leaves no room for doubt.
  • Use plenty of TL, but don’t be dogmatic about it. Students will often ask complex formulaic TL questions in class which they have practised repeatedly.
  • Use plenty of translation, especially from English into the TL.
  • Place a strong focus on phonics teaching, making links between sounds and spelling very explicit. They spend a lot of time working on letter combinations and how they relate to sounds: “yeux”, “deux”, “feu”; “boit”, “noir”, “oiseau”, and so on.
  • Don’t worry too much about grading the difficulty of language; expose students to complex language from the start, e.g. beginners will quickly learn examples of the subjunctive in set phrases and be urged to use them.
  • Get students to read aloud a lot; correct them very clearly.
  • Read aloud a lot to the class and be the sole source of listening input, at least in the first two years.
  • Insist on accuracy at all times.
  • Avoid text books and published materials; write amusing texts.
  • Include plenty of writing but especially later in the lesson.
  • Do no creative writing in the early stages (since students can go wrong too easily).
  • Use lots of memory tricks to help students retain language.
  • Explain French usage by giving literal translations in odd English: “I have a question important”.
  • Make very little use of technology since it’s likely to waste time and be less productive. Avoid PowerPoint.
  • Emphasise the simplicity of the language at all times; do this by giving clear rules and using English where needed; leave no room for guesswork or uncertainty.
  • Make frequent use of parallel texts so students know at every point what the TL means.
  • Do lots of ‘low-stakes’ tests, e.g. vocab recall.
  • No games; a key point for Michaela teachers is the notion of ‘return on investment’ or ‘opportunity cost’ – which activity will produce the most learning? Games are rejected as a point of principle.
  • Use a mix of hands-up and no hands-up ("cold calling").
  • Make lessons fun through the pleasure of learning together, not by doing ‘fun activities’; develop strong relationships.

I would pick out in particular the large amount of translation used in order to make everything totally meaningful along with a strong focus on accuracy. Traditional immersion-style TL use is rejected since it is deemed to be confusing and off-putting for students, encouraging guesswork which is discouraged. Similarly, there is no pair or group work since this could lead to guesswork and poor modelling from students. There is little emphasis on creative use of language; even so, a good deal of TL is used and recycled which clearly helps the students remember. Michaela does not use text books for French so all listening is sourced from the teachers. 

The decision to avoid visual aids is pretty unique and based on the assumption that pictures are confusing and showing English words aids general literacy. Reading is king!

Technology is avoided since the teachers believe it adds nothing to learning and leads to time-wasting.

The approach is strongly in the skill-building/lexicogrammar camp, but is a bit unusual in that language is not closely graded by difficulty, moving from the smallest, easiest language features to the more complex. Pupils are exposed to complex structures from the start, including the subjunctive. Observers are struck with how much students can do from the early stages and how much the pupils adore their teachers.

Achievement and motivation are very high. I also have the feeling that the approach depends to some degree on having charismatic teachers with excellent language skills. Some teachers just could not work in that way. (I think Michaela would contest that point.) The method also works because the whole school ethos is absolutely consistent, so pupils come along to lessons with the expectation of reading a lot, being taught from the front and being academically stretched. I would also add that timetabling is generous enough a d there is a focus on excellence in one language (French).

This is one reason, in fact, why it's hard to judge the methodology in isolation. While I might criticise the overly analytical approach with its constant comparison with English, the focus on accuracy over fluency, the ideological objection to pictures and relative lack of opportunities for pupil-pupil interaction and compositional writing, my guess is that the pupils will go on to achieve very well at GCSE. (Note: they did.) Why? Because essentially they have talented teachers who believe passionately in their approach, the pupils are working very hard and recycling a lot of language in the process.


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