NCELP (National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy) is the body set up and financed by the DfE in England. based at the University of York and headed by Emma Marsden and Rachel Hawkes. It works through a number of hub secondary schools which, in turn, work with a small group of other schools. Their mission is, broadly speaking, to spread the research findings and principles as laid out in the Teaching Schools Council (TSC) Review of MFL Pedagogy from 2016. By sharing a selected body of research, considered relevant to secondary MFL in England, and creating schemes of work and lesson resources across the hub schools, they hope to spread so-called best practice around the country.
As I write this, schemes of learning and lesson resources have been written up to the third term of Y8 for French, German and Spanish. I've been watching with interest as these resources have been built up and in general my view has been that the research resources are very useful and informative (if somewhat selective), but the that the lessons have been disappointing.
In this blog, as a sort of thought experiment for myself, and to share with you the reader, I shall examine in detail one set of slides offered as a lesson resource. From the outset I should make clear that the three main pillars of the TSC/NCELP methodology are a planned approach to phonics, vocabulary and grammar. Secondly, any views I express here are influenced by my own experience as a teacher, my reading over a long period and my personal bias. Essentially, when I look at a resource I think about two things:
(1) what theory or methodology underlies the materials?
(2) would this work in class? In more detail:
- would pupils enjoy it?
- would it be productive?
- would it enhance long-term acquisition?
- would it build pupils' self efficacy?
- would I want to work with it?
The title of the lesson is highly significant and shows what the intent is. That intent is to teach the perfect tense with the more difficult nous, vous, and ils/elles forms. We can assume that the je, tu and il/elle/on forms have been covered before. This shows me that the pedagogy sits in a long tradition of the grammatical syllabus where teaching is strongly led by syntactic form. It also tells me that, in line with tradition, the focus is on regular -er verbs first, implying that grammar should be taught sequentially with the most productive and regular forms coming first. So the question is, how will they go about this?
1. As is the case with other lesson, the resource begins with a focus on phonics, what they like to call SSC's (Sound-Spelling Correspondences).
Pupils hear and repeat a number of words (I don't know if they are all yet known). Work is done on this slide, then a second one on the 'eu' phoneme (in its shorter and longer forms, e.g. peu versus peur). As you can see, in the traditional way, the key spellings are highlighted in a different colour and images give meaning to the words.
There is a follow-up practice exercise which reinforces the SSCs and vocabulary knowledge.
My concern here is the use of isolated words to practice the sounds. There is scant, if any, communicative value in this sort of repetition. The words are not set in any meaningful, communicative context. Although reading aloud and practising sounds and their associated spellings are really important, there are alternative, more communicative and enjoyable ways of doing it. (If you have read Breaking the Sound Barrier, you'll know what I mean. Another approach is the one used by Michaela Community School and others with their Knowledge Organisers where phonics is taught in the context of whole sentences.) But in general, we are in the realm here of isolated words, when we could be using more communicative chunks which make more efficient use of working memory and build other skills such as grouping words together for deeper processing of vocabulary.
2. The next section of the lesson focuses on vocabulary - specifically the meanings of words. We have seen pictures used so far, now it's translation which is used to give meaning. Here is a slide:
Pupils listen to isolated words and have to mark them in the correct order.
I could not use this for the same reason as the previous phonics slides. I think a class would find this boring. Why? Well, again there is no communicative intent involved. Although there is transparency in the knowledge needing to be learned, and a certain puzzle-solving element (having to get the right order), it's just not a very enjoyable task.
3. After the phonics and vocabulary parts to the lesson (remember the three pillars of phonics, vocab and grammar?) we go on to the main course of this lesson - the grammar. Curiously, the perfect tense is introduced with the verb commencer (which has that peculiarity of the ç in the first person plural (nous commençons) I would have avoided this verb to start with since the spelling distracts from the main point, which is the structure of the verb (auxiliary and past participle). In cognitive science terms we are "dividing attention" by choosing this verb by getting students to worry about a little extra detail. The added ç and e in -ger verbs is a tiny spelling detail which can be left until later.
The following slides lay out all persons of the present and perfect tense for the verb commencer.
This has the merit of providing complete sentences and a chance to match form (the verb) with meaning (the time adverbial). You could make it more engaging by talking about your own experience or relating it to the pupils' school life.
I would avoid this completely. This sort of declarative knowledge is beyond the needs and level of Y8 pupils. It will only be internalised by a small minority of pupils over a long period and with lots of input.
- It lacks communicative intent and communicative tasks, such as guessing games, question-answer, information gaps, phonological awareness/phonics games.
- It lacks believable contextualisation of phonics, grammar and vocabulary
- It lacks storytelling - where is the fun content which appeals to Y8s?
- It is sometimes too hard
- It dwells too much on areas of little importance
- It lacks receptive input and a carefully scaffolded sequence to allow a degree of automatisation
- It focuses too much on isolated words at the expense of chunked language
- The content seems quite random - if you abandon the idea of topics, how do you make content relevant and interesting?