Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Plans for frenchteacher 2015

Happy New Year to readers and frenchteacher subscribers. Thank you for using my resources and for the kind comments some of you send me.

I expect 2015 to be another busy year of writing new materials for Having developed a number of areas over the last year, notably primary/Y7 parallel reading comprehensions, video listening and adult student resources, what will 2015 have in store?

I am bound to be influenced by changes to British GCSE and A-level exams, which may involve my producing (reluctantly) more translation resources and reading resources with a more story-telling emphasis. I like my resources to be based on what I consider to be sound methodology, but I also have to bear in mind what my subscribers may need to help prepare pupils for public examinations.

As I shall be doing some work for AQA on the new A-level specifications, my frenchteacher work may reflect what I learn from that process. As I have written before, there is no certainty that the new A-level French will be taught from September 2016, so I cannot yet take a steer from this as far as the website is concerned. Things will be clearer after the general election.

I would still like to add more video listening resources, especially for younger learners. The latter are hard to source online, however, so I would not expect to be able to create that many.

I would like to develop further my handbook for language teachers, in particular with a section on target language teaching which I shall put together to accompany a webinar I am doing for the ALL (Association for Language Learning) on January 25th at 3.00 pm (UK time).

I would also like to produce some more model lesson plans to help young teachers develop their practice.

Expect to see plenty more reading comprehension at all levels, including parallel reading for near beginners.

I shall also be increasing the number of A-level translations and grammar manipulation worksheets with model answers.

In addition I shall be making sure all my reading comprehensions are up to date. This may involve deleting the occasional resource.

I have no plans to change the price of a subscription. To start with, I want the resources to be as widely used as possible; secondly, I am aware many teachers and schools are repeat subscribers so £20 a year builds up for them and me! I believe that the resources are good, based on a sound methodology for many students. I believe they contribute to good French teaching practice.

The large majority of my subscribers work in the UK, but I would like to attract more customers from North America and "down under" so I would welcome any ideas on topics and exercise/assessment styles which might appeal to Canadian, American, Aussie and New Zealand teachers. Contact me if there is material you would like me to work on.

Finally, I shall try to keep my links pages up to date. Do let me know about any really good online resources. I am happy to review new materials as well.

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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Another look at Languages Online

The interactive web site we used far more than any other at Ripon Grammar School was Languages Online. It is free, full of content and pitched at a good level for the relatively more able student. It is the work of Andrew Balaam and his colleagues at Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, England.

The site makes extensive use of Hot Potatoes to produce a range of accurate interactive grammar and comprehension tasks for all levels. Material is most wide-ranging for French, but Spanish, German, Italian and Latin are well represented. Material includes simple games which can border on the gimmicky, but these are useful to give as a reward to students who finish tasks quickly. A useful feature of the activities is that they supply some feedback and give success scores - students are often motivated by this.

Hot Potatoes was designed before the advent of hand-held smart devices, so Andrew and his team have recently had their work cut out to adapt and recategorise the numerous exercises. For most exercises you can now opt for PC or mobile device use, both Android and Apple, which means that all exercises run properly. This is the case for exercises marked "refreshed" in the menus.

An attractive feature of the site for students has always been the colourful, clear interface and its use of appealing pictures to add flavour to the pages. This makes a real difference. It is a shame the site is now a little cluttered by the presence of adverts, but if the school can now make some money out of its work it is well deserved after offering it free for so many years. I hope any income goes straight to the MFL department. I doubt if many of the ads will appeal to the target audience, though. Monetising the site through subscription would be difficult, given the school's mission to share its work freely and, no doubt, because of copyright issues.

It is great to see the constant refreshing of the site. In the last year new additions have included a major World Cup section for French, German and Spanish, updated German listening resources, new German grammar pages and Spanish AS level material.

How can the site fit into your scheme of work? One way is to use it in primary, Y7 and Y8 is to build in a lesson in the ICT rooms towards the end of each unit of work. This makes for a perfect fit with the Tricolore course. With older students you can choose exercises to go with the grammar or topic being practised at the time. Don't forget that there is even useful material for A-level. The site is strong on tense usage and is careful to include tasks which require a grasp of meaning as well as form. Users of other courses would be able to pick out relevant exercises pretty easily. Schools with multiple iPads or similar would find it easy to include sections of lessons with Languages Online.

Using online language learning resources involves sorting out the genuinely useful from the superficially appealing, but ultimately unproductive. Languages Online is actually superior to the average worksheet owing to its interactivity and attractive appearance. If you have overlooked it in the past, I recommend it strongly as a great source of comprehensible input and structured practice.

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Monday, 29 December 2014

Universities maintain their grip on A-level languages

The recently revised framework for A-level modern languages has seen the universities maintain their conservative influence on the curriculum. Since A-levels began, languages courses have been based on a watered-down version of an undergrad degree, with the inclusion of traditional essay, literature (later film, history and other areas) and, of course, translation.

The relatively heavy bias towards reading and writing has remained throughout and even if listening and speaking have gained some ground in the assessment regimes, they are not given the emphasis they need and students want.

There was a period from around the 1980s when schools reversed the trend and began to set the agenda for undergrad teaching. A-level style mixed skill lessons were taught with an emphasis on communication, but the most recent reform has seen a return to the traditional "top down" agenda setting. This was due to Michael Gove's decision to allow the Russell Group universities to largely dictate the shape of A-level MFL. At least the recent consultation prevented the return to a 1960s/70s style essay in English.

How refreshing it would have been to take a completely different approach to A-level languages, one which took much more account of what might stimulate school students and encourage higher take-up of languages. This year's JCQ/IPSOS report suggested that students would be far more attracted by a course which emphasised the practical, face to face skills of listening and speaking.

It would not be hard to design a course with a rough balance of skills as follows: listening 30%; speaking 30%; reading 20%; writing 20%. There is nothing "dumbed down" about this; it is merely a change of emphasis. In any case, we know that students often find speaking and listening, with the great demands they place on internalised language and quick reactions, the hardest to master. The focus should be placed firmly on using the language for practical communication and understanding. It should be less "academic". We are still coloured by the perception that reading and writing are somehow more serious than listening and speaking.

A fresh approach might see the abandonment of whole works of literature, which are off-putting to many potential students. This would gain us time for a wider range of stimulating topics, a greater focus on the world of work, on the target language culture beyond literature and film, more personalised reading and listening, more immersion, more discussion, and, yes, more grammar (though not much via translation). There would be more situational and task-oriented activities. Communication would take priority over grammatical rigour. How often do we say to students that making yourself understood and having a go are the most important? So why do we still fret so much about accuracy? The answer to the last question is probably that we teachers were good at it and taught in old-school ways.

In my experience A-level students enjoyed their work and it was a good preparation for university. But nationally, the number of language students has fallen disastrously and shows no sign of recovering. The decoupling of AS level will probably exacerbate the situation. Languages have become an area of study for an even smaller, mainly middle class elite. This has implications for the economy, but more importantly means too few of our citizens reap the personal rewards of long term foreign language skill. This should be considered a serious issue by government, but in reality it is not.

The latest reform to A-level has, in my view, been a huge missed opportunity.

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Sunday, 28 December 2014

What makes a good language teacher?

This is a tricky post to write and one I have avoided in the past, perhaps because it seems arrogant to propose a model for others, but having read "What makes a great teacher?" from the headguruteacher blog byTom Sherrington I'm going to have a crack. I write this having taught for 34 years and observed a good few talented colleagues at work. The qualities and abilities I describe are in no particular order. Some are generic teacher qualities, some specific to language teachers because there is inevitably a large overlap. Statements may be hedged with words like "probably" because there is no one way to be an excellent language teacher.

Subject knowledge.

This comes in two forms in our subject area: linguistic skill (range, fluency, pronunciation) and "declarative" knowledge of vocabulary and grammar - namely, being able to explain to pupils how the language works. Most non-native speakers are better at the latter than the former. For me, the former is more important. If you believe that providing lots of good target language input is important then the teacher will be better if he or she can help provide it. Although we have plenty of other audio and video sources of input, the teacher is the one who can fine-tune it best. This needs a good deal of fluency, good pronunciation and accuracy to do well. A teacher lacking this skill will be hampered. Good language teachers improve their skills and keep their language fresh by listening and reading to as much target language as possible.


The best language teachers drive their classes as far as possible, often working at pace, often expecting quick responses. They correct by giving good models, but not in a way to discourage students. They set work at a challenging level, focusing a good deal on comprehension and skilled manipulation of structure and vocabulary. They set plenty of appropriate homework because they know that maximising input is crucial and that practice makes perfect. They do not set work which needs masses of corrections. They have a clear sense, derived from experience and/or by asking for student feedback, of what students find hard. They know when it is important to stress accuracy or fluency. They are very intolerant of lazy work and may simply ask for it to be repeated. Good student behaviour is assumed and low level disruption not tolerated.


These come in all sorts of forms, but the best language teachers establish a relationship which encourages students to concentrate, work hard, want to please and to take risks. This can be through a caring, warm, nurturing style, or by something more formal and businesslike. There is no one recipe for this. They may well have a good sense of humour, appreciated by the class. They probably praise, but not excessively. They probably admonish rarely, but effectively. They raise their voice rarely. They have a very good sense of what makes each individual pupil tick. They share their enthusiasm for the subject. There is a trusting and usually warm rapport between students and the teacher.


As in all teaching, the best practitioners plan ahead, have clear lesson objectives, arrive on time, plan lessons well (usually building in a variety of tasks), keep good records, file efficiently, revise from one lesson to the next, probably do not just stick to published course materials, assess regularly, give feedback, mark promptly and on a regular basis. They plan homework carefully to reinforce the work done in class. They follow up students rigorously if work is incomplete or behaviour unsatisfactory. They prioritise the important stuff. They play an active role in the department, supporting its ethos. They take part, wherever possible, in trips, study trips or exchanges. They encourage contacts with students abroad and other native speakers.

Good assessment for learning.

They might not call it this, but they share short and long term objectives with classes, respond sensitively to the needs of individuals, have a good sense of what children find difficult (or just ask if they are not sure), use data to set goals (not just numerical ones). They may explain to students why they are doing particular tasks. Their students should know what they need to do to improve. They may use a mixture of "hands up" and "no hands up" work. They will use subtle differentiation during interactions with pupils. They prepare students thoroughly for tests and exams, whilst not being scared of doing non exam-related activities.

Sound methodology.

They have some idea of how language learning takes place, believing that target language input is the key to acquisition. They use effective questioning and drilling, choose input at an appropriate level, find interesting content, know when to use games, pair work, group work, computer-based work, avoid time-wasting tasks. They do not take on new fashions unquestioningly, but are willing to experiment and fail. They believe that "practice makes perfect". They have a good repertoire of activity types. They explain the language clearly, in a way students understand, but know that progress comes more from practice than explanation. They work very largely in the target language, but know when this is unproductive. They have a keen sense of when students may be getting bored and when it is time to switch to plan B.

When I trained as a teacher a tutor once told us that there was no recipe for good teaching, no list of "tips for teachers". I would only partly agree with this. There may be no one recipe, but there is plenty of good advice.

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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

On vocab learning

I don't remember if I had to learn lists of words at school, but I have the feeling I didn't. My teachers used a target language, structured, oral approach (Cours Illustré de Français) where vocabulary was limited to frequently used words, systematically practised in context and regularly revised.

I sometimes think teachers learn a lot about methodology from the way they were taught themselves, so when I began teaching my gut instinct was that vocabulary was best picked up "naturally" and that vocab learning was boring - there were better things students could be doing in class and for homework.

I was also aware that because learning vocab was dull for most students, they would avoid doing it, or do it in a cursory fashion on the bus to school. Some children with poorer recall find it really hard. You had to really raise the stakes of the test to make sure it was done well.

I'm sure there are students who enjoy the rigour of vocab learning and whose proficiency is improved by it. They may have very good memories. I would surmise that adult learners respond quite well to this type of learning. The current popularity of online programmes and apps such as Vocab Express and Memrise may be giving a boost to learning individual words. Is this a good thing? Is this an example of technology leading a dubious methodology? It's cheap and relatively easy to design vocab apps, much more expensive and difficult to make interactive comprehension material (e.g. Mylo, which cost a fortune). So my doubts remain...

If you have a limited time to acquire some skill in a modern language I would rather students were working at the level of whole sentences/utterances/ paragraphs. It's in this way that they develop their comprehension and, ultimately, fluency. Learning words is fine, but there are so many more interesting things they can be doing.

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Monday, 22 December 2014

ALCAB's response to the A-level consultation

The very brief summary of the A-level consultation on new MFL A-levels and ALCAB's response is to be found here:

I have already blogged about the revised subject content here, but you may be interested, as I certainly was, by what emerged from the consultation.

Of the 74 individuals or bodies who responded to the question "is the draft content appropriate?" only 18 agreed.

Three recurring points to emerge from the consultation were:
  • The amount of assessment in English should be reduced to allow for a greater focus on teaching foreign language skills (39% of respondents)
  • The themes suggested by ALCAB should be amended to make them more engaging and appealing for students at this level (24% of respondents)
  • ALCAB should reconsider the compulsory study of literary works to broaden the appeal of the qualification (15% of respondents) 
They all ring true from my point of view, particularly the first two. I am slightly surprised that even more teachers did not raise these issues.

So how did ALCAB react? Well, as we now know they did respond to point one by requiring that the literature/film essays be written in the target language. The new wording of the subject content does make it clear that essay titles will have to be more demanding than they are now. They clearly remain concerned that content may not be sufficiently "cognitively challenging".

With regard to the second point, they have reduced the number of general themes from three to two. They have also amended their list of "indicative themes". The new list, which looks much like the July version, is here: Much of it remains barely teachable if you want stimulating, communicative lessons. At least they removed "les mathématiques françaises". I really don't think ALCAB get the point about what constitutes a good A-level lesson - they are not secondary teachers. (Note that they add that it is up to awarding bodies to choose topics within the general themes - let's hope the exam boards interpret the indicative lists freely.)

I suppose that we should be grateful that ALCAB met teachers part of the way in terms of the English essay, but in my view, it remains the case that the new A-level is highly unlikely to attract more linguists. It is still too biased towards literature and film (ALCAB's concession to include biography, journals, diaries and letters is next to useless), still stuck in the past in its reaffirmation of translation and essay, as well as its neglect of listening (you need to look at the assessment objectives to realise this). This still looks too much like an undergraduate modern languages course and not something fresh which will attract more customers to A-level MFL.

Final note: if the government changes in 2015, this new A-level will be put on hold or may never even see the light of day. Fingers crossed.

Friday, 19 December 2014

How might an exam board work with the new A-level topic themes?

When the July draft of the new MFL A-levels appeared I came up with one approach an awarding body (exam board) might interpret them in an actual specification.

I am going to have another go at this now, given that there are now only two, renamed themes, not three. This is largely a copy and paste job.

I can then envisage that the challenge would be to design a linear course with "easier" topics at the start, combined with easier lexis and grammar, with "harder" ones in the upper sixth year.

An alternative, probably less desirable, and one which would go against the grain of recent courses, would be to design the syllabus around grammar (easier to harder) with material in each unit coming from a range of all the themes.

It will be fascinating to see how the awarding bodies deal with this and how much variation there is between boards. Will they vie to be the most "academic" and "rigorous", or will they try to make the topics as approachable as possible to attract most schools?

Social trends and issues

La famille et les relations en France (marriage, relationships, living alone, parenting, conflict, changing modes of family, changing roles in the home, separation, divorce in France, benefits, poverty)

L'immigration et l'intégration en France (free movement of labour in Europe, multiculturalism, integration, racism, benefits and problems of immigration, experience of individual immigrants in France, experience of victims of racism, anti racism organisations)

La vie active en France: (employment, unemployment, full and part-time work, work patterns, reasons for unemployment and its effects, types of work, social effects of unemployment, benefits)

L'école en France (educational system, success and failure at school, curriculum, universities, selection, private schooling, secular schooling)

La publicité en France (role and purpose of advertising, trends in advertising, advertising techniques, benefits and drawbacks, laws on advertising in France, internet and social media, describing French language adverts)

Les Français et l'environnement (policies, effects of environmental changes on daily lives, French environmental groups, renewable energy in France, climate change policy, local environmental initiatives)

Jeunesse et vieillesse en France (youth culture, retirement, employment, demographic change, caring for the elderly, assisted dying)

Internet en France
Social networking, freedom of expression, censorship, child protection, pornography, French online businesses

Services publics en France (transport, infrastructure, health service, privatisation, social security, housing policy, suburbs)

L'émancipation des femmes en France (history, equal opportunities, famous French women, women in the world of work, women in the arts and sport,  role of women in the household, violence against women)

Political and/or intellectual and/or artistic culture

Le paysage médiathique en France (channels and radio stations, financing, programme types and trends, overlap with internet, benefits and dangers of watching television,new technologies)

Le cinéma en France depuis 1970 (importance of cinema industry, film types, directors, festivals, films, movements, new film technologies, a good French language film I have seen, role of cinema in popular culture) OR

La nouvelle vague du cinéma français* (context, techniques, films, describing films, directors)

La peinture impressionniste (context, techniques, painters, biographies, describing individual works, legacy)

Sciences, technologie et médecine en France (GM foods and genetic research, nuclear energy, cures for diseases, new technologies, dealing with climate change, ethical issues)

La musique populaire dans les pays francophones (music types, music industry, radio, law on French language music, changing trends, music I like)

La vie politique en France (left/right, electoral system, parties, policies, contemporary political issues, personalities)

La Grande Guerre (context of First World War, events, battles, life and experience of soldiers, literature, legacy)

La France et la Belgique dans l'Union Européenne (history of EU, role of France and Belgium, attitudes to European integration, the euro, European institutions, implications of European policy for the economy, environment and employment, views on the EU and sovereignty)

La France en Afrique (colonialism, francophonie, life in francophone African countries, Algerian War, development)

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Final subject content for MFL A-levels published

I'd been awaiting this for a while. The DfE have published the final subject content for the new MFL GCE A-levels.

For reference and comparison, here is the July draft:

This follows a consultation period which ended in September. The new courses are due to be taught from September 2016 for first examination in Summer 2018. If there is a change of government in May we are told this will no longer be the case.

So what has changed as a result of the consultation?

The headline change is the abandonment of the essay in English on the novel or film. The essay will be written in the target language. This change is very welcome as the essay in English may well have encouraged poor classroom methodology, in particular a move away from target language teaching. We should be pleased that ALCAB/Ofqual have responded to teachers' views on this.

The second most obvious change is the reworking of the content themes. There are now only two, not three (these do not include the study of film and literature). They are: (1) social issues and trends and (2) political and/or intellectual and/or artistic culture. It is right that the category current affairs/politics/history has gone - it was a misguided idea to begin with to include current affairs as it is impossible to write exam papers based on genuinely current issues. Politics has migrated  into the second category and history has disappeared from the themes, although we read this reference: "themes relating to the society and culture, past and present", so sources with a historical emphasis could be used and they could feature in a student's personal research project.

There are some specific requirements with regard to the second theme. To be precise, at A-level ( I am assuming few students will do AS level):

Students must study two themes e.g, one theme from political culture and one theme from either intellectual or artistic culture, or one theme from intellectual culture and one theme from either political or artistic culture.

Slightly confused? For some reason they have something against artistic culture, it seems!

The requirement to do a personal study remains. This is desirable, but will prove a challenge to weaker candidates. One presumes that the assessment of this study will be done in the oral exam. Is this sufficient? Will students feel that the amount of work they put in is adequately assessed? Further, how will the content of the research be assessed if it is not from a prescribed list of sources?

Returning to the essay in the target language on film or literature, the final subject content references to this differ from the draft published in July. Because the ALCAB essay in English has been dropped, the new document is more specific about the content of the target language essay, attempting to ensure that students write to a challenging level. It is now stated:

At A level, students must develop a more detailed understanding of the works, showing a critical appreciation of the concepts and issues covered, and a critical and analytical response to features such as the form and the technique of presentation, as appropriate to the work studied (e.g. the effect of narrative voice in a prose text or camerawork in a film).
By the way, it is worth noting that the insistence on a prescribed list of texts and films remains.

Overall, the subject specification remains very conservative with its continued reliance on the essay and translation (both ways) to assess knowledge and skills. The essay will remain problematic in terms of assessment reliability, whilst translation will encourage over-use of English in the classroom. I have said it many times, translation is a specialised, enjoyable activity, but you do not need to do it to develop grammatical accuracy. If you include it in the exam teachers will do too much of it in the classroom at the expense of target language.

The move away from "general studies through the target language" to a syllabus more tightly focused on the target language culture is regrettable, but I expect teachers will try to put this right themselves as far as they can. I would expect teachers to favour theme one (social issues and trends) over theme two.

This has been a huge missed opportunity. We could have modernised the assessment, given speaking and listening its proper place and designed something to appeal to a greater range of students.Where is the world of work, for example?

The awarding bodies can now get on with designing specifications which include content appropriate to the subject content document, but which really engage students and which may help to arrest the disastrous decline in the number of A-level students. ALCAB and the DfE have not made the task easier.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

To set or not to set?

The research is not terribly clear on the subject of how much outcomes are altered when you group children by ability. In general, it suggests there may be a slight advantage for those in the top group, but there is a disadvantage for those in middle and lower groups, so, if anything, the overall the effect may be slightly negative. I stress "may". For a clear summary of research done in the 1980s and 1990s on this:

When you look at more recent sources like John Hattie and Robert Coe the above conclusions apply across all subjects taken together, even though maths has tended to be a particular focus, perhaps because of its perceived importance and the relative ease with which you can measure outcomes.

In sum, the research tells us there are much better ways of increasing attainment than putting students into ability sets.

Up to now, however, I have never seen any research on this issue with specific regard to modern languages. To me, as the research suggests, it makes sense not to group by ability in primary schools (indeed, I was surprised to learn that this is quite common practice), and in most subjects at secondary school. Yet I still have my doubts about maths and languages. Why?

Progress in both maths and languages, at least by my own reckoning of classroom methodology, involve a steady accumulation of knowledge and skills where understanding the previous step is quite important before you move on to the next. Research evidence shows most teachers feel this to be the case and that language teachers see teaching mixed ability groups as a challenge or problem. I realise that that is only a partially correct claim, but even so it seems to be more relevant than in other subjects where each conceptual area is, relatively speaking, more distinct. In addition, if you believe that acquisition is dependent crucially on the supply of large amounts of comprehensible target language, then it makes sense to pitch this at a level appropriate to the ability or progress of the class.

With this in mind, most secondary schools understandably take the view that pupils' needs are better served when they can move on at a pace which suits them. Hence sets. My highly unscientific Twitter and MFL Resources survey of language teachers suggests that schools which use some form of ability grouping for MFL outnumber those who do not by about two to one. Setting in some form or another is very common indeed.

So why does the research seem to confirm that setting is ineffective in maths and indeed across the board? Some arguments have been put forward: teachers go too fast with top sets, not allowing knowledge/skills to be embedded; schools assign weaker teachers to lower sets; students in lower sets feel less worthy and behave less well. Hattie notes that lower sets often end up doing low value tasks, such aa filling the gaps on worksheets.One might also suggest that some pupils find themselves in lower sets because they have a poorer work ethic to begin with. This is probably why some schools avoid setting: you end up with all the awkward customers in the lower sets and classes become hard to manage.This may be a very good reason in itself not to set by ability.

What about languages, though? Comparing the success of setting with mixed ability grouping is really hard to do. If you compare the two approaches across different schools, then other factors come into play which make a comparison unreliable. The teachers are different. The school context is different. The methodology may be different and so on. If you do an experiment in your own school, changing from one system to another, you may get interesting results, but once again, it is really hard to control for variables such as change of teacher. Anecdotally, some teachers report their results have improved after moving to mixed groups, others the contrary.

In the absence of research about ability grouping in languages we are left with hunches and the evidence of experience. My own is that ability grouping in languages is probably desirable in most secondary schools, but that it needs some imagination in its implementation. As always, context is key and it may well be that setting does not suit the culture of a particular school. The beliefs of teachers may play a role too; it is better if staff believe in the system. If there is a strong culture of academic excellence and a degree of competition, then setting may be appropriate. If you set or do not set, you are bound to be compromising in some way. If you keep groups mixed you are probably hampering the progress of the most able and not fine tuning your lesson plans enough to the ability of your classes. If you set you may lower the motivation of the less able. Other compromises include the fact that the school curriculum arrangements may impose types of setting a department do not agree with - you just have to go with the system.

Here are some ways you might implement ability grouping to make it work most effectively:

  • You do not need to simply have groups in a simple A, B, C, D hierarchy.
  • You can have just one top, accelerated group. This may avoid sink set mentality creeping in with the other groups.
  • You can have parallel bottom groups to avoid the sink set mentality.
  • You can look at the precise range of attainment in a year group and adjust the pattern of groups from year to year - perhaps there is a persistent small tail of low achievers who need particular attention.
  • You can assign certain teachers to certain groups to make best use of their skills; you can make sure your lower groups get the teachers perceived to be the best.
  • When arranging lower sets you can split up more difficult students.
  • You can make sure there is easy movement between sets; students are often very motivated by the idea of moving up a set. Some also request a move down.
  • You can pack the top sets with more students and make lower sets as small as possible.
  • You can go out of your way to have high aspirations for lower sets and compromise on standards as little as possible. You have to dispel the feeling among students that they are second class citizens.
  • You can make sure that lesson plans and schemes of work are finely tuned to each group.
John Hattie, in his widely read book Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, states:
  • “… that instructional materials and the nature of instruction must be adapted to these specific groups”
  • “Simply placing students in small or homogeneous groups is not enough”
  • “For grouping to be maximally effective materials and teaching must be varied and made appropriately challenging to accommodate the needs of students at their differing levels of ability”
Some readers may object in principle to any form of grouping by ability because they believe this is a question of equal opportunities or high aspirations for all. In France, for example, I understand that grouping by ability is almost unheard of. They may also argue that setting, banding and streaming are another means of selection and reinforce academic and social differences between students. In answer to these views I would argue that the opportunities of all may be best served, in some contexts, by arranging classes so that lessons can be pitched at the best level to ensure the best progress.

I wonder if the issue of setting is like a number of others in teaching (e.g. homework and textbooks). If it is done well it works, if it is done badly it doesn't.

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Thursday, 11 December 2014

My five most viewed blog posts of 2014

I write a blog every two or three days. I keep wondering if I'll run out of things to go on about, but up to now I have not. Semi retirement gives you more time to reflect and offer free advice! Blogger conveniently supplies information on page hits, so I am able to note which of my posts gets read (or at least glanced at).

I am sometimes surprised which posts get more attention than others. It can be a more profound reflection on teaching methodology, an exam-related or simply a very simple idea for the classroom. Anyway, for the record these are the five most viewed posts this year, in order of popularity:


The clear winner, with 1496 page views. This was my take on the draft content of the proposed new MFL A-levels, the fruit of ALCAB's deliberations. We eagerly await the feedback from Ofqual on this. Rumour has it teachers were, like me, much less than impressed. I mean MUCH less. Essay in English? Boring topics? Translation reaffirmed? No thanks.


In second place with 1283 page views is the post entitled "dans ma trousse". I was having a little go at those who argue that using the pencil case in the classroom is dull. I try to make the "case" for using the "trousse" in all sorts of ways.


In a solid third spot with 931 views comes my annual post offering my favourite GCSE revision links. I understand why teachers latch on to anything which they might supply to their students in the run-up to exams. I have been there.


In fourth place on 801 views comes my blog about the implications of ALCAB's indicative topics for new A-levels. I was getting a bit hot under the collar about this during the summer holidays. Why? I could not believe what I was reading from ALCAB. Nor could the exam boards, as I understand it. My argument was that A-levels are not the same as an undergrad course and that Russell Group professors do not really understand what makes a good A-level lesson and what motivates 17-18 year-olds. My views remain precisely the same.


In fifth spot with a respectable 730 page views comes my review of the draft GCSE MFL subject content. Exam boards are now working on specs based on this. I worry less about this than A-level, though continue to regret the inclusion of translation. Michael Gove left his fingerprints on GCSE too. At least controlled assessments are gone and I welcome that.

Bubbling under were posts on the imperfect tense (basically a lesson plan based on a text), a World Cup football task and a post on flipping the classroom.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

What does creativity mean in language learning?

The word "creative" is bandied about a good deal in teaching and creativity is generally thought to be a good thing. But what does it mean in language learning and teaching?

Maybe a dictionary definition is a reasonable place to start. Oxford Dictionaries online supplies this: "the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness".

That definition sits very naturally with subjects such as art, music and English. How relevant or useful is it to us linguists?

Firstly, for language teachers, creativity has to relate above all to what we would label "output" activities. I am referring here to speaking and writing tasks. By the literal definition of creativity we can envisage, for example, speaking or writing tasks which involve use of the imagination, such as dialogue or story writing, sketches or mini-plays. Technology, for example online programmes and apps, has created some appealing new outlets in this context, some more gimmicky than others, no doubt. I daresay a degree of creativity can come into advanced level essay writing. Teachers themselves can, of course, be creative by coming up with original ways of presenting and practising material.

That said, I have the feeling that the word creativity has taken on a different and particular meaning in language teaching circles. I may be wrong, but my impression is that when teachers talk of "creative" use of language, what they mean is the capacity of pupils to produce original utterances, not just learned phrases. Teachers and inspectors want to hear students using the language "spontaneously" ("creatively") i.e. they want students to be able to apply their tacit grammatical knowledge to produce their own utterances or sentences on paper. It is clear that this is a quite specific, yet useful, way of employing the term creativity.

This is, of course, our goal. How do we teach lessons which allow pupils to internalise the grammar and vocabulary of the language so that they can create their own utterances, use the language "creatively"?

Paradoxically, designing "creative" lessons (by the traditional use of the word) may be detrimental to long term acquisition if it ends up severely limiting the already limited classroom time for high quality input tasks and controlled practice. Creating a Voki, recording a talk, making a film, designing a poster, writing a sketch or producing an online comic story may be motivational and generate very useful output, but if it takes so long that listening and reading are neglected, then it may be ultimately counter-productive. Students need all the time we can afford to keep hearing and reading the target language. This is how language becomes embedded.

I rather like the emphasis on "creativity" as the ability to create original utterances based on tacit knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. This is the holy grail. Only a smallish minority of our students get to that level. So I would suggest that we should keep the focus strongly on large amounts of high quality target language input with a sensible amount of traditional creativity. In this way we can produce the "creative" linguists we seek.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Deux assistantes parlent de Noël en France

I did a worksheet a while ago based on a good video made by two foreign language assistantes who were working at Nottingham High School. Here is the video with the exercises below. I recommend it for AS level or very good Y11s (high intermediate). Enjoy.

If your device does not display the video, the link is given below.

Yahel est à gauche, Delphine à droite.

1.         Où habite Delphine ? A partir de quand voit-on des décorations dans sa ville ?
2.         Qu’est-ce qui se passe le premier décembre ? Qu’est-ce que Delphine en dit ?
3.         Où habite Yahel ? Que dit-elle sur les décorations chez elle ? Donnez des détails.
4.         Que dit Delphine sur les décorations chez elle ? Donnez des détails.
5.         Que dit Delphine sur la veille de Noël ?
6.         Que dit-elle sur la nourriture qu’on mange à Noël ?
7.         Que boit-on ?
8.         Pourquoi est-ce qu’on ne mange pas des escargots chez Yahel ?
9.         Que disent-elles sur le chocolat ?
10.       Quand est-ce qu’on offre les cadeaux de Noël chez Yahel et Delphine ?
11.       Que fait-on pour le réveillon du jour de l’an ?
12.       Qu’est-ce qui se passe le 6 janvier ?
13.       Expliquez la tradition de la galette du roi.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Christmas strip bingo

If you've played strip bingo with classes before you know the drill. If not, this is what you do. I've added a vocabulary list after the instructions. Apologies for any poor formatting.

Display the list of French Christmas vocabulary on the board.
Hand out long strip of paper to each pupil (e.g. A4 cut/torn into three vertical strips)
Tell pupils to write down 15 French Christmas words using the whole length of their strip of paper (make sure they spread them out quite evenly).
Tell them that you will say Christmas words randomly. When they hear a word at either end of their strip they may tear it off (thus revealing a new word). You keep saying Christmas words. The first pupil to get rid of all their words is the winner. Remember to keep saying the same words over and over! 
Advent Calendar –un calendrier de l’Avent   Present/gift –Un cadeau
Angel – un ange    Reindeer - Un renne
Bells – les clochettes​    Chestnuts – les marrons
Robin – Un rouge-gorge​        Snowman – un bonhomme de neige
Candle – une bougie  Christmas Day – le jour de Noël
Christmas - le Noël ​    Sledge – Un traîneau
Christmas cake – un gâteau de Noël ​     Christmas Eve – la veille de Noël
Christmas Card – une carte de Noël Snowfall – La chute de neige
Christmas Carol – un chant de NoëlNew Year’s Eve – le Saint-Sylvestre
Christmas Tree – un sapin de Noël New Year’s Day – le jour de l’An
Church – l’église Stars – des étoiles
Cracker – un diablotin Stocking – une chaussette
Cranberry Sauce – la sauce à la canneberge Stuffing – la farce
Decorations – les décorations de Noël Yuletide log – une bûche de Noël
Fairy Lights – la guirlande électrique Turkey – la dinde
Father Christmas – Le père noël Mistletoe – le gui