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An NCELP lesson resource analysed

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?
So with that preamble out of the way, let's have a look at this lesson. I'll combine description with my own commentary in bold.

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.

I was a little surprised to see this, since NCELP in their research summaries are a bit wary of presenting whole verb conjugations in this fashion. Although the layout clearly demonstrates the formation of the verb in all its persons and has the potential to produce some 'declarative knowledge', it's a major leap from this to the kind of 'procedural knowledge' (actually being able to use the verbs in context) that we want pupils to develop. I recall text books in the 1960s avoiding this type of presentation in the early stages, based on the belief that it's better for pupils to successfully internalise one or two forms first before attempting to internalise all of them. I think they were right. The types of slide you see above are best used, in my view, much later in a teaching sequence.

Let's move on.

The next two slides are set in the context of talking about food banks.

I don't know how this topic is contextualised for pupils, but it seems to come in rather randomly here. I'm not convinced the content is very interesting or made relevant to pupils here.

You can see the aim here - to associate grammatical form with time (through the adverbs). This takes advantage of what called the 'noticing hypothesis' - basically getting students to map form against content.

Personally, I'd rather be relentlessly getting pupils to hear and see input flooded with examples of the perfect tense at this stage, rather than analysing differences between past and present. I'd leave this until later. For me, this material is far too lacking in receptive input at this stage. Comparing and contrasting present and perfect tense forms may well leave some pupils confused at this stage. I'm not convinced either that some of the vocabulary choices are great, e.g. emprunter and possibly pauvreté. If the focus is to be on the form of the perfect tense, I'd sooner not divide attention by using potentially awkward vocabulary at the same time.

Moving on...

The language practised in the previous slides is now recycled in the text above.

My view is that this text (worthy, but not being very appealing to Y8s), contains such a range of verb forms, mixing up both different subject pronouns and tenses, that it's bound to sow confusion to all but the very best pupils. It sort of assumes that pupils will carry forward what they learned in the previous slides and be able to transfer that knowledge to this whole paragraph. Would they do that?

NCELP believe in the idea of firm foundations for grammar and automatising knowledge, yet this lesson sequence doesn't give the quantity of practise and processing needed to allow the beginnings of automatisation to occur (by this I mean that you have to hear, see and practise structures LOTS of times over a period of weeks or more for language to be automatised).

Slide 16 is a tense/time frame recognition exercise which provides more listening input with adverbs.

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.

The next slide considers adverb placement.

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.

The next few slides plug away at adverbs and adverb placement, for example:

I find these tasks doable, but just not particularly engaging. As I mentioned above, the content is not very communicative. It's superficially and unbelievably contextualised (as if Léa would really write a letter to Amir!). My view is that adverbs are frequently occurring words with a high surrender value, but that they come up in all sorts of contexts over time and are acquired that way, perhaps with some occasional need for focused practice. Treating them through these slides in such a focused way, forces you to invent implausible content and artificial exercises. What's more, the perfect tense is such a hard area for learners, that I don't think I'd want to dwell too much on another area at this point.

Interestingly, NCELP make the point that if you want learners to focus on verb forms marking time, you shouldn't also provide extra time clues via adverbs. Providing time adverbs means that learners don't have to pay attention to the verb form to work out meaning.  (This is part of the Input Processing hypothesis, supported by Emma Marsden and another researchers such as VanPatten and Benati.) The resources in this case don't seem too worried about this issue - and actually, I wouldn't be too worried about it myself.)

The lesson sequence changes tack now. Note that all this work is apparently planned for one week. the previous slides are described as Lesson 53.

Frankly, this is far too much material for pupils to assimilate in a lesson.

We start by recycling the phonics of the previous lesson, then some quasi tongue-twisters are provided for practice.

I don't see much value in these sentences. The content is so random. The last example says "take fish" - is this an error, or is the artificial translation of "prendre" chosen deliberately? Probably a native speaker error left unedited.

The next slide recaps vocab from the last lesson. Isolated words again, note.

Incidentally, vocab learning homeworks are built into the scheme of work, along with tests and Quizlet resources. This reflects the NCELP focus on vocab as one of the three pillars.

Note: you can focus on vocabulary without having lots of single word retrieval quizzes on it. A lot of teachers find this type of vocab learning dull. I think many pupils do as well. I'd be focusing on contextualised vocab in texts and chunks.

The next slide reviews adverbs from the previous lesson, then something new is introduced.

It's an interesting little point of vocabulary. Would I bother with it at this point or at this level? Probably not. The point being that I'd want to keep my eye on the main prize, which would be providing loads of comprehensible input with perfect tense and adverbs. I'm not seeing a whole lot of chunked input and communication (e.g. question-answer, gamified pair work, information gaps, milling around tasks and what not.)

The next slide is like the previous one in this respect and, I think, the sort of thing you cover with the most able groups.

The following slide build on the previous one.

The next few slides dwell on the problem of how we translate the perfect tense into English as either, for example, 'I talked' or 'I have talked'. For these slides the first and third singular are used, a chance to recycle these from earlier lessons. Here is an example activity:

Now, it's true that this is an area of confusion for learners and that one-to-one translations form French to English are tricky. But, you know, this is the type of thing I would rather mention in passing: "Have you noticed how we can say I have talked, I've been talking, I talked, I did talk, but in French we do all these using the perfect tense, which looks most like I have talked?" I wouldn't be devoting whole chunks of lessons to the point. Again, this may fall into the category "acquired over time through input and practice".

We then have a couple of writing tasks which return to the issue of present versus past tense. They both require translating sentences. For example:

I think many pupils would find these hard, unless they were heavily scaffolded. It seems to me that a whole series of other chunked reading to writing exercises are needed before you get to translating full sentences (if you need to at all).

The final, 38th slide is this:

How can I sum up?

Well first, the resource writers have put a lot of work into this material, so I am acutely aware that criticism can seem hurtful and it's not meant to be. I'm sure NCELP want their resources to be as good as they can be and welcome suggestions. In addition, as I said at the outset, my views are my own, I have my own prejudices and research bias. Some readers will strongly disagree with me. Some of you may also have used the NCELP resources and enjoy them. Others might like them in bits. The writers are working, no doubt, to a kind of template or recipe based on those three pillars of phonics, vocabulary and grammar. What emerges seems to have the following characteristics:

  • 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?

You can do phonics, vocab and grammar in better, more enjoyable ways.

Comments are very welcome.


  1. "It seems to me that a whole series of other chunked reading to writing exercises are needed before you get to translating full sentences (if you need to at all)"

    I'm interested in the bit in brackets - would you say that pupils never need to translate whole sentences?

    1. Hi. In Y8 you might want to do whole sentence translation, but I don’t see it as a priority. I favour other writing tasks myself. I don’t mind a bit of translation per se, but there are other ways to do it than giving sentences.

  2. Natalie from NCELP17 February 2021 at 18:42

    Hi Steve

    Thanks for taking the time to review this resource in such detail. You are right that NCELP very much value feedback and use it to inform their development, and I read this post with interest.

    It is true that the resource is content-heavy and you are not the first to flag this timing issue. We are currently in the process of reviewing the amount and spread of new content across this resource and others in Year 8, with a revised SOW accounting for these changes due for release end of March. In the case of this resource, I agree that the quitter vs parler contrast could be introduced at a later stage in the programme to keep the focus on adverbs.

    One thing to note is that this is the 5th week (and so 10th/11th lesson) in the NCELP SOW to focus on the perfect tense. I appreciate you have reviewed this resource in isolation, but do feel it is important to bear the wider context in mind when evaluating the choice of grammar presentation techniques. I absolutely agree that students need to successfully internalise, and indeed revisit, the basic perfect tense structures before we can introduce verbs with spelling irregularities, full tense paradigms and word order issues such as adverb placement. So, I hope situating the lesson in the context of the wider SOW reassures you on these points. The lesson aims to revise and then build on 10 hours' previous work on the perfect tense before introducing two new elements only - plural forms in lesson 1, and adverb placement in lesson 2.

    1. Hi Natalie. Thanks for reading and responding. Good luck with future developments.

    2. @JMHopper (Jenny Hopper)18 February 2021 at 13:38


      As a teacher in an NCELP hub school currently using NCELP resources in French, German and Spanish, I was really interested to read your recent blog on a specific Year 8 French resource. Your view on there being too much content in the lesson you reviewed is a point my colleagues and I regularly evaluate. After all, this is a pilot project. Individual lessons within the SoW can sometimes have too much material, and they need adapting for different classes, settings and individual learners, not to mention within the current COVID environment. Such adaptations include alternative or additional activities to recap, practise and consolidate or the same activities at a slower or faster pace, depending on the needs of the learners.

      Despite the challenges of pace, some key things we've found with the NCELP approach across all three languages are:

      -a sense of confidence with the sounds of the language, which is a real motivator for students at all levels and abilities. (This applies not just to the KS3 classes the resources are currently aimed at, but also for our learners at all levels through to GCSE and A level.

      -a systematic approach to vocabulary learning. The regular revisiting of vocabulary within and across lessons really does support retention. The fact that the vocabulary is largely within the top 2000 high frequency words in the language means that the students really can then use these words in different contexts. I agree, it looks and feels different from the standard topic based approach to vocabulary, but I think the students are more confident in using the vocabulary in different contexts, and, based on our experience with the approach so far, we're anticipating fewer instances in the GCSE exams where students get caught out as they can only recognise vocabulary that appears alongside other words from the topic in which they learnt it.

      - the approach to grammar contrasting pairs of features - the explicit contrasting of pairs of features which are then succinctly explained, presented in listening and reading and practised in mixed modalities - has proved accessible and rewarding to learners in a range of different contexts across the 5 schools in our hub. The fact that the explanations are built upon incrementally and the information (eg whole paradigms) is not all presented at once allows for effective practice and consolidation. And the Y7 and Y8 language guides supporting the lessons maintain the succinct approach with grammar points and core vocabulary laid out.

      As I said at the start, it's a pilot, and hence a learning and feedback process for us all. Our experiences in the classroom (together with those of other hubs) are regularly discussed with NCELP, and are reflected in revisions to the SoW since the initial launch back in 2019.

    3. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. One thing which stands out to me from all the resources I have looked at is this question of "communicative intent". By that, I mean the actual quantity of language being used to interact with the teacher and other pupils through question and answer, information gaps and guessing games, for example. I am not seeing much evidence of that. It feels like; "here is the body of knowledge (phonics, vocab, grammar) and this is how we'll practise it".

      Second, the question of the interest level of the texts. I'd love to see more little stories or little texts, maybe set in a topic-based context. I know TSC/NCELP is not mad on topics, but if you don't have topics I wonder how the content gets organised. In that particular lesson it felt a bit random.

      Thirdly, I would like to see more vocab presented in chunks rather than with isolated words.

      Anyway, I hope you are your classes are getting on with it. It must be really tricky just now. I don't envy you.

  3. I am afraid I absolutely agree with you. The fun elements are not there. It is too complex and lacks context. We have to catch the attention of our learners as they pass through and engage them to have fun while they are learning. Motivation is the main thing, in my opinion, while I have a lot of respect for the efforts the authors have put in here.


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