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Book review: Learning to Plan Modern Languages Lessons

Learning to Plan Modern Languages Lessons: Understanding the Basic Ingredients is written by Cheryl Mackay, a freelance educational consultant who is a former MFL teacher, Head of Department and tutor at St Martin's College in Lancaster (now the University of Cumbria) and Newcastle University. The book is published by Routledge and runs to just over 200 pages of A4.

The stated aims of the book are to provide structured, practical starting points for beginning teachers, deepen understanding about the subject and how it is learned, develop understanding of planning lessons within a cycle and, finally, to enhance understanding of strategies and professional development opportunities to improve further planning abilities.

The book is divided into four parts;

1.  Getting started (with a focus on drilling, target language use and the PPP model).
2.  Planning whole lessons (including structure, objectives, lesson examples and the lesson planning process).
3.  Planning for a balanced language learning experience (including different sorts of lessons, the role of culture, the role of grammar, longer-term planning).
4.  Getting better at planning (including getting feedback, joint planning with a mentor, and interviews with recently qualified teachers).

The introduction makes it clear that underpinning the book is a view of language learning which is based on a communicative, target language approach. By "communicative" here, we are talking about what researchers would call "weak communicative", where communication is underpinned by a considerable focus on grammar and accuracy, possibly even within a grammatical syllabus. Cheryl reviews a number of documents and citations in support of a "no best method" view of language learning, but an approach which includes elements of behaviourism (the need to reuse unanalysed chunks, to review and practise a good deal), a cognitive approach (focus on knowing about the language and accuracy) and a more unconscious, implicit approach à la Stephen Krashen). "Principled eclecticism" springs to mind.

So beginning teachers are being presented with an eclectic view of learning which is reflected in the examples of lessons described later. Absent from the introduction, by the way, is reference to the TSC Review of 2016 and the NCELP, which all new teachers need to be familiar with.

Most teacher trainees may be most interested in the practical aspects of planning described in Part 1, for example. Detailed guidance is offered about how you might conduct whole classroom drills, how to select the language to practise, how to make input comprehensible, e.g. with picture, realia and gestures, along with modifying the language used. The examples make it clear, within this approach, that translation is to be generally avoided. In this regard, the recommendations may seem a little dated to some in a contemporary era when translation has come to the fore in the context of lexicogrammatical/sentence builder and knowledge organiser methods. This is, in my view, a gap in the book.

PPP receives particular emphasis in Chapter 2, with practical planning advice and example of useful techniques, e.g. the "Repeat if true" technique for choral repetition. Cheryl makes it clear that the progress from Presentation to Production is a gradual one.

Along the way the novice teacher will find useful planning boxes and descriptions of specific classroom activities, e.g. guessing games and exercises such as "spot the fib" and class surveys. Stress is laid on the importance of reusing and recycling familiar language. Curiously, the odd error has crept in, e.g. the spelling "guitarre" in the grid on page 48.

A considerable proportion of Part 2 is devoted to descriptions of observed lessons with commentaries and questions to consider. These should prove very useful to teachers. Example are in French, Spanish and German, by the way. A section is devoted to differentiation, which Cheryl says is one of the hardest areas to plan for for new teachers. She mentions in this regard how important it is to observe the class in other lessons. She writes: "...the biggest single thing you can do to differentiate as ML teacher is to make strategic and plentiful use of the TL.... a language acquisition environment which is rich enough to stretch everyone, yet supported enough to ensure that no one feels excluded." (p.85).

There is plenty more I could describe in the book, but let me sum up as follows. The book addresses a clear gap in the market. It is an extremely useful resource for new language teachers who are in training or on school placement. It contains much of practical use, plenty of detailed descriptions of lesson plans,  and some theoretical underpinnings for practice, clearly expressed. It's a book I would have found very useful indeed as a trainee. Cheryl Mackay brings long experience of teaching and observing teachers to the book and an understanding of the messy complexities of language learning.  However, as I mentioned above, there are gaps in the lesson types presented, the book not having taken on board less orthodox, grassroots approaches which have recently found a lot of favour among teachers in England and elsewhere. There is nothing on how to exploit bilingual substitution tables (sentence builders) or bilingual knowledge organisers. There is no great emphasis on the systematic teaching of phonics either, to which the NCELP and many teachers are paying much greater attention. In addition, the bias against translation - one I understand - seems a bit excessive. In that regard, the book feels more 2010 than 2020.


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