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Showing posts from June, 2013

20 reasons to learn a language

Now I know you often find lists such as these, but I did this one specifically for my students at school, so it's aimed at youngsters. It's on the Y9 page of, but I'll post it here as some may find it handy:

1. If you ever move abroad you will be able to talk with local people.
2. You may need the language for your work in the UK or abroad.
3. You will find the language useful when you go on holiday or travel through the country.
4. You may wish to study abroad one day.
5. You may need the language for study or research in another field.
6. You may need it to learn about the culture, civilisation or history of another country.
7. Maybe you just like the challenge of learning another language.
8. It may help you look at your own language or culture.
9. You may just enjoy using different sounds and words. It’s fun.
10. Perhaps you enjoy solving grammar problems and translating.
11. It will make you seem clever – people think learning languages is hard!

Teaching the most able

I spent my career teaching students of above average aptitude in two grammar schools and one independent so I modestly put forward some thoughts on how to get the best out of the most able students. What I have learned comes from my own practice and from watching other teachers at work. Of course, some of the strategies I enumerate below will apply to a wide range of pupils. Where can you draw the line between AGT students and others?
Generally speaking "gifted and talented" linguists have certain characteristics. I would pick out:
1. Good powers of concentration2. A desire to learn and work hard3. An openness to language learning4. An ability discriminate sounds and reproduce them quite accurately5. An ability to see patterns in language6. In many cases a strong sense of competitiveness7. A desire to be accurate8. Very good memory skills9. High expectations of themselves10. High expectations of their teacher

With these characteristics in mind I found that the following strateg…

Battleships game with a twist

Maybe you like to get students to play battleships to practise verb conjugations. It's a simple and enjoyable information gap game which gets students communicating in a structured fashion. Students get to say verb forms repeatedly and improve their language skills as a result. However, you could criticise the game for focusing almost entirely on form at the expense of meaning, so why not try this variation which will get students to produce longer utterances and be creative, with a greater focus on meaning.

Suppose you are working on the perfect tense with a grid made up of pronouns down the left and infinitives along the top. Normally you would get students to play the game by giving just pronoun and verb e.g. tu as dansé. Instead of this require students to add an extra element to the verb, so a students might say tu as dansé avec ton ami. At some point during the game you can then require students to make up sentences with a verb + two elements e.g. tu as dansé dans ta chambre…

Should MFL teachers show films at the end of term?

I gather that some schools and departments have a policy which forbids teachers from showing films to classes at the end of term.

I used to have slightly mixed feelings about this issue, but on balance I believe that showing a movie in the foreign language with subtitles, even without any attached work, is a valid activity. Pourquoi?

If a class has been working solidly for a year on comprehension, speaking, new vocabulary and grammar, it is quite possible that intercultural understanding may have been a little neglected. A good choice of film provides students with an excellent route into the target language culture as well as a pretty good source of authentic language, spoken at natural speed. I say pretty good, because ideally, the language would be basic enough and spoken at such a pace that students could understand it fairly well. This is not the case with movies, but even so, if the film is well selected, pupils will pick up bits and pieces of language, hear the language in real…

Au revoir to levels

The DfE announced this week that national curriculum levels are to disappear and it will be for schools to decide how to track the progress of students. There will still be KS2 test scores, GCSE results and A-levels to allow for school accountability and comparison.

I was never a believer when it came to levels. I disliked that they brought out the sceptic in me. In general, the older staff at my last school who had learned their trade without national curriculum levels were non-believers, whilst younger teachers tended to be believers or agnostics. My experience was that science teachers were greater fans than teachers of arts and social science subjects, most likely because scientific subjects lend themselves to clearer definitions of attainment at any point. My colleagues in the history department regularly complained how hard it was define levels in their subject.

If levels had remained, as intended, descriptors of attainment to be used at the end of a key stage, that might have b…

How to ensure grammatical rigour without resorting to translation

So, this post follows on from the previous one about translation.

To recap: in essence, my view is that translation (both from and into the target language) can have a valuable place. Translation into the target language has a particularly beneficial effect on accuracy and can be a concise way of practising and testing a range of grammatical structures. Translation from the target language is a good source of comprehensible input and ensures students look at the detail of a text, but it is, it should be added, too much about the accurate and idiomatic use of the first language.

The cost of translation, particularly into the target language, is that it takes away time from target language input which, I maintain, remains the principal way of bringing about comprehension and fluency. So can we kill two birds with one stone? Can we have foreign language input whilst ensuring grammatical rigour?

I would answer with a clear yes and it involves a tried and tested approach of selecting and g…

Is translation making a comeback?

The recently published subject document for GCSE modern languages includes, as did the KS3 programme of study, a reference to translation, this time specifically translation from English into the assessed language. The KS3 document could arguably be taken with a pinch of salt, since the national curriculum does not apply to academies, free schools and independents, and since there are no high stakes tests at KS3. However, the inclusion of translation in the GCSE document has greater significance as it means that we shall, in all likelihood, see translation into the target language as part of a high stakes assessment, namely GCSE.

Now, it remains to be seen what form, if any, this translation takes. It could be in the form of sentences or a short passage to translate (as in the O-level of the 1950s and 60s). It could be "translation-lite" whereby bullet points in English form the basis of a piece of composition. It could be some form of "retranslation" where student…

Commentary on new GCSE subject content document

Page 3 Subject aims and learning outcomes

I note the greater emphasis placed on production (speaking and writing) rather than reception (listening and reading). This bias is corrected in later sections. Emphasis on spontaneity, fluency and independence. As at KS3, notable reference to "literary texts", which are subsequently (page 4) defined to include letters, excerpts from literature and essays, poems, short stories, novels or plays. This is a change of emphasis, reflecting the content of KS2 and KS3.  I welcome this in general since it should allow for more imaginative and creative work, but in reality, we can assume that there will be little study of novels or plays at KS4. Intercultural understanding is given some prominence (more so than KS2 and KS3). Bilingual learning is referred to (CLIL).

Page 4 Stress on progression from earlier key stages. I remain unsure quite what "…


Here is a nice little filler game for advanced students. It comes from BBC Radio 4's long-running panel show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. They sometimes naughtily call it Swankers. Maybe "boasters" would be clearer to students. In French? 
Students work in small groups or pairs. One person boasts about something they have done recently. The next person, or partner, then engages in one-upmanship, and so it goes on around the group or between partners. It might go something like this:
Je suis allé en Australie en vacances l'année dernière.Ah bon? Moi, je vais en Australie tous les ans.Moi, je ne vais plus en Australie. J'en ai marre. Nous allons faire un voyage en Antarctique l'année prochaine.Moi, je suis déjà allé au pôle sud; je vais faire un voyage dans l'espace. Nous allons à la Lune l'été prochain.La lune? Nous, on va aller à Mars.Mars? C'était beau quand on y est allés, mais on aime mieux Jupiter.Toit ça, c'est bien, mais nous, on pr…

Frenchteacher updates

Following the recent survey I did with users of the site, I have added quite a few new answer sheets to go with A-level grammar exercises. I shall add some more in due course.

Other recent additions to the site:
Some silly Tommy Cooper jokes to translate back into English from French. (To save time I used Google Translate for my first shot, then imporved the translations myself. This usually saves time.) See Y10-11 section.A place mat with beginners' phrases for the classroom. Teachers could edit it if they have other expressions they prefer. There are two columns: phrases the teacher will use and phrases the pupil will need to use. See Y7 section. This was also offered as a free sample.A near-beginners' worksheet to practise time expressions with je vais/tu vas and au/à la/aux etc. I like sheets like this. You can use them for repetitive oral practice, then students can make up their own examples and write some up. This sheet could be displayed on the board.A crossword with ru…

All about linguistics


Back in the 1970s I did my first degree in French and Linguistic Science at Reading University, at that time the leading institution for the study of linguistics. Staff there included some big names in the field, such as David Crystal, Frank Palmer, Peter Matthews and Peter Trudgill. During my teaching career I would do a session on linguistics almost every year with Lower Sixth students. They were pretty enthusiastic about it and a few were even inspired enough to choose to study it at university.

When I did my degree linguistics was pretty much a fringe subject and we had the impression we were studying something different which would perhaps become more mainstream. Well, my impression is that this never really happened. Whilst you will find linguistics frequently offered as an adjunct to other courses, usually modern languages, it remains a relatively obscure corner of academia.

One reason for this is that school students rarely get a chance to engage with the s…

Skill building versus comprehensible input

In what Krashen calls the "skill building hypothesis" a language is viewed as a complex system which has to be gradually mastered by learning and practising all its complex elements. Emphasis is placed on conscious knowledge of how the system works, cognitive analysis and repetitive practice. There is a strong focus on form. It was the basis of most language learning approaches of the past, including grammar-translation, audio-lingualism and the oral-situational approach.

On the other hand what he calls the "comprehension hypothesis" assumes that language acquisition occurs best when learners are presented with language they understand. In this view second language learning is likened to child language acquisition. The focus is on meaning and much less on analysis, repetitive practice and form.

The terms learning and acquisition have often been used as shorthand descriptions of the above two hypotheses.

It is hard, maybe impossible, to prove which model fits best …

Recorded sounds lesson

Here's a simple idea for a lesson, or part of a lesson for intermediate or advanced students. You could possibly combine it with the tired daily routine topic. Get a digital recorder or use your phone and record as many sounds as you can around the house. Here are a few you could easily record:
running a tapflushing the toiletboiling a kettleusing a can openerpouring a drinkopening a bottle of fizzy drinkpulling a wine corkrunning the washing machine or dishwasheropening the fridge dooropening and closing doorshooveringusing the microwaveclosing the oven doorlaying the tablescraping a chair across the floorswitching the radio on or offtyping on the PCswitching on a lightusing a whiskcracking an eggopening a packetcutting with scissorsdropping ice into a glass blowing your nosechopping or peeling vegetablesclimbing stairsdropping an object (e.g. cutlery or unwanted crockery!) You could play the sounds in sequence whilst students note down in the target language what is being done. …