Saturday, 11 September 2021

"There's no time for acquisition."

 In language teaching, there is always a debate between, on the one hand, the way a language is acquired through exposure to the language, engagement with meaning and communication, and on the other hand, through explicit teaching, explanation and memorisation.

I think most of us are happy to make sure we maintain a balance of the two. Exposure to language, communication through language, spotting patterns in language, using patterns to generate new language to express ourselves, with the teacher providing input, explanation and structured practice.

There are current proposals from Ofsted, NCELP and the new GCSE panel that would seem to want to push the balance away from meaning and towards forms. With a carefully controlled syllabus where what pupils learn to say is not primarily based on what they want to be able to communicate, but instead as a medium for encountering and rehearsing specific grammatical features.

This is accompanied by an explanation that there is no time in our classroom situation for enough exposure to the language for acquisition to happen.

The reason this rings alarm bells for me is not because I am opposed to this idea. It describes very accurately many features of my approach.

We start Spanish in Year 9. And to get to GCSE by Year 11, we are short of time and I do have a very sharp focus on how explicit grammatical knowledge can accelerate the process of learning a language.

Dr Rachel Hawkes and HMI Michael Wardle have both used the example of Pets to ask what are we really teaching. In Spanish we might really be teaching the patterns of gender. In French we might be teaching the phonics of chien, cheval, chat, or oiseau, poisson and oie. Or word order. Or adjectival agreement. Or the verb to have.

I do exactly the same. When we start Spanish, we have a series of lessons which are not really about the "topic." We start with a conversation of basic greetings. This is carefully constructed, right down to the names (Ángela) of the characters in the book (OUP Amigos 2) , in order to tackle the sound-spelling link and have all the phonics of Spanish sorted. As well as upside down question marks and exclamation marks.

Then we do some work on numbers, but really we are focusing on the vowel combinations in seis, siete, nueve, diez. The point being that greetings are useful, but not as useful as being able to read any word in Spanish accurately and confidently.

Then we do a lesson ostensibly on Family. Which is really about the pattern of masculine and feminine endings. And lessons on My Town and My House to look at plurals, negatives, high frequency words and endings other than o/a.

And so on, with the next lesson on My School to look at the definite article and adjectival agreement.

And a lesson on Free Time to look at verb + infinitive and conjunctions.

Of course, we can adapt the pace and we go back and reinforce to make sure pupils are accumulating learning not discarding it. And pupils are building on years of work on these features in French. So very quickly pupils get the basic concepts and are ready to start learning Spanish in units where they will develop their ability to extend answers spontaneously. They learn to give and justify opinions, and narrate events in detail. I am extremely pleased with their progress.

But they often are not.

Because for learners, forms are not of primary importance. I might be happy that they have a grasp of concepts and can apply them in the range of language I have given them. But the focus on building up a working kit of recombinable language suits some learners more than others. Others feel that what they are learning doesn't sufficiently match what they personally want to be able to say. That our attempts, which we think give them a picture of the language and how it works, ignore the specific individual things that they would like to learn to say. They are less concerned with mastering what to them seems abstract, and more concerned with feeling secure in saying specific things which are important and personal to them.

The Pets example given above would seem to be the very worst example they could have picked. To teach cat and dog because they exemplify a grammatical pattern but refuse to include snake and mouse, is not going to have the desired effect of removing obstacles to pupils' learning. For a pupil who has a snake or a mouse, it will seriously impact their ability to learn in that lesson and their attitude to languages going forward. Pupils' primary concern is meaning. And focus on form is secondary. Would we really have it any other way? 

In my teaching, I have to keep this in constant tension. Pushing forward the things that I think will build up their repertoire, develop their understanding of how language works. And also delivering on their desire to feel that they can say the things that matter to them.

We can try to shift the focus. But by highlighting forms. Not by removing meaning.

As well as the rationale that "there is no time for acquisition", the other claim is that this approach is more equitable.

A colleague, Kate Shepheard-Walwyn, analysed our curriculum and learners' response to it as part of her MA. She looked at the idea of accelerating learning in a time constrained situation through a focus on understanding forms designed to equip pupils with the knowledge they needed to meet exam criteria. She found that the learners who responded best to this were pupils of higher prior attainment, in particular boys. This doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is an assertion that such an approach would be more equitable for pupils of lower prior attainment or who have previously not engaged with language-learning.

Hopefully you can see why I am extremely wary of any attempt to push our teaching any further in this direction. It is not because I am ideologically opposed to it. Or can't see the point of it. I have already gone far enough down this road and I am trying to claw my way back.

To come back to acquisition and explicit learning, to meaning and to forms. I think that we have to keep them in balance. Researchers trying to decide between the two ways of learning have not resolved the debate. But we don't have to chose between the two. It is a balance we constantly address.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Finally a Place for Starters!

 For once, I think I am late to the party! When did Starters and Plenaries come in? Early 2000s? (Here's what I was teaching in the early 2000s.) Well I think I have finally found a place for Starters in my teaching.

Plenaries I could sort of see the point of. An opportunity for pupils to reflect, for the teacher to assess, for progress to be considered. That made sense. (Although not the idea of making it into a performative stationery-heavy part of every lesson. Or misusing the word Plenary.)

But what were starters for? To engage pupils' brains? To get them ready to learn? To have part of the lesson where there was problem solving or bringing in elements from wider learning? It didn't make much sense to have this as a separate part of the lesson rather than getting stuck in. The problem with Starters seemed that they were more Start-Stop. And the few times I did try them, they took over the whole lesson.

But now, I am actively looking for ways to make sure I and all the other teachers in the department have clearly defined and programmed moments where we go back over content and concepts that mustn't be let go of. Because of our rolling Snowball curriculum model, we try to have this built in to the Scheme of Work already, but if our mantra is "Everything is joined up, nothing is left behind" then extra opportunities to make this explicit are always welcome. We are already using our low stakes drag and drop computer room tasks to do this.

So we are trialling what we are calling, "Fluent in Five Minutes." Our maths department have this, and I think there is a similarly named Primary maths initiative. They've stolen the word fluency from languages, so I am stealing it back. In maths the fluency means fluency of recall and then fluency of application. So their starters are a mix of tasks to prompt recall of meanings and definitions, processes and equations, arithmetical dexterity, and some problem solving. The Starter may or may not be used to link previous knowledge to today's lesson.

Another benefit is Routines, and starting every lesson in a predictable way. A downside is that someone has to prepare them, and that that someone has to learn to use Powerpoint. Or Powerdisappoint as I call it after a morning spent working out how to stop it resizing text and refusing to do accents. Fortunately, as the tasks are meant to be low on extraneous cognitive demand, they can be very similar so that pupils immediately know what to do and can focus on the language. They are designed to be do-able, rather than to catch pupils out. They are low stakes and pupils know that they won't be marked. But that the teachers will be alert to how they work and what is going on, so that they can take it into account in their planning. The idea, though, is that the tasks are an exercise in refamiliarisation with content, strongly scaffolded, and then the answers are given, with an opportunity for a quick focus on important concepts. All before the lesson proper begins.

And that doing all that will have a positive impact on the lesson, by giving pupils confidence and helping them have their French ready at their fingertips.

Here are some examples. They are then followed by an answer slide, sometimes with notes.

This one is a mechanical exercise in writing out the sentences in order. And then translating them into English. It is refamiliarisation with words from Year 7.

The bar at the bottom is a timer. It's a rectangle with a colour gradient, so green at one end fading to red at the other. And when the teacher clicks, it is set to "fly out" to the left. But slowly. In fact it slides out in exactly a minute. You can't set it for the full five minutes. And anyway, I have pupils who will spend five minutes happily watching the timer. So it may well be the first thing to be cut.

This one is a translation of 5 roughly similar sentences to draw attention to the words like is, has, to have... It is shifting attention from the broad meaning to the precise forms, focusing on high frequency words that are taught grammatically and lexically in a pincer movement.

You will see that as a school we are using beige or pastel coloured backgrounds to avoid visual stress from whiteboards and we are avoiding clutter on slides. I don't know if this will have the side effect of making everything too samey to be memorable. I notice Seneca Learning do use decorative images that could distract but which are designed to make the exercise look and feel different from the last one.

Translating "in" into French can be tricky, and this exercise exposes pupils to that, but in a do-able way because they are translating into English. The answers slide also prompts discussion around "at the weekend" and "on Monday". For Year 8, this is moving into new content. For Year 9 it is revisiting vocabulary and grammar in a low-stakes way.

Similarly, this one revisits content from Year 7 and the concept of word order. Again, it exposes pupils to the difference in word order but with them working into English. This is partly for recall and partly looking to build on internalised models that can be used by analogy for new contexts.

I will let you know how it goes. The department are under strict instructions that if they already begin lessons with this kind of thing but with expert quick-fire questioning, then they are totally at liberty to continue to do that instead. If this revolutionises my lessons with pupils who are at once calm, focused and ready to push on, then I will claim it as a triumph. (If it leads to a deadening, a dragging and pain, then I shall say I was right all along for the last 20 years.) We shall see!

Monday, 30 August 2021

Teaching the Subjunctive in French and Spanish

 The first thing to bear in mind when teaching the subjunctive is not to give the impression that it is difficult. And anyway, as anyone who has watched kids at football training knows, it's the fancy stuff they want to spend time on, not the basics. So the subjunctive is not there to trip you up. It's there to make you look good. And enable you to say things you want to be able to say, as part of your repertoire for extending answers into coherent narratives.

You could teach pupils a list of expressions to memorise which take the subjunctive. I prefer to start with understanding the concept. The easiest way to do this is to look at the word "subjunctive". Pupils can immediately see that it splits into sub and junctive. And they recognise that the junctive is to do with joining or junctions. And that sub is linked to making something less important.

This makes sense as soon as they see sentences where two ideas are joined, and one of them is too SHOUTY and needs subduing.

For example:

I don't think that THE SUBJUNCTIVE IS HARD

In this sentence you can see the two clauses linked by the word "that". And the second clause is shouting very loudly exactly the opposite of what we are trying to say. As I stated at the top, we are not to go around stating that the subjunctive is hard, and the example sentence is trying to make the point that this is not what we believe. 

In English the second clause clashes horribly with the overall point of the sentence. Luckily in French and Spanish we can use the subjunctive to smooth over the joining of the 2 clauses and subdue the shouty part. Exactly as the word "subjunctive" promised us.

I don't think that the subjunctive be difficult
No creo que el subjuntivo sea difícil
Je ne crois pas que le subjonctif soit difficile

And from there, we can extrapolate to any expressions which are counterfactual, doubtful, improbable or supposition. We can give pupils a list of examples, let them see it in context, and add it to their repertoire.

Another example would be the sentence:

I am sorry that YOUR DOG'S DEAD.

Again, the second clause is insensitively shouty and drowns out the overall message. We use the subjunctive to tone down the shoutiness of the clause. And by extrapolation all value judgements and emotions, both positive and negative.

The other use of the subjunctive is again one where English phrasing can lead to bizarre unintended implications.

My parents don't want me... to be a dentist

I want you... to do well in your exams

These sentences start off in an alarming way that we can avoid by using the subjunctive.

My parents don't want that I be a dentist
Mis padres no quieren que sea dentista
Mes parents ne veulent pas que je sois dentiste

That's much better! Thank goodness for the subjunctive. And by extension, we can teach pupils to use the subjunctive for whenever you are getting someone else to do something.

I am not advocating rote learning fancy expressions to impress the examiner. We had enough of that with the old GCSE that destroyed language learning. I am teaching pupils to understand how to use the subjunctive to create meaning. And they integrate it into their repertoire of giving opinions, justifying them, and narrating events with differences of opinion, what people said, what was happening, and what happened. (Explained in detail in the video in this post.)

In particular the "my parents don't want" use is easily included in the pupils' repertoire. Maybe with topic like jobs and careers, but also in any answer about going out with friends.

Me encanta salir con mis amigos, pero mi madre no quiere que vuelva tarde, por ejemplo el fin de semana pasado fui a la casa de un amigo y...

If you want to see exactly how I talk about this with pupils, then I have this video on the subjunctive for French and Spanish. Includes free bongo solo.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Booklets at KS3

 I have been asked to write a post about using booklets rather than textbooks. I have always used booklets, and it's interesting to think about how they have evolved (and continue to evolve). This post includes a video to show what one of our typical booklets contains now.

When I was an NQT in the 1990s, we worked from booklets. These had "yellow pages" at the front which contained the vocabulary and structures reference section. At the end of the unit, pupils would keep the yellow pages in their Spanish ring-binder. The other pages were activity pages to work through. They were usually the published worksheets that accompanied the various textbooks we had. For example listening or reading activities where the pupils could answer on the sheet. This was more practical than pupils answering in their exercise books or on paper. And often the texts and exercises on the worksheets were more substantial than what appeared in the textbooks. For younger viewers, I should also explain that access to photocopiers was new and expensive, so getting things printed in bulk was a good idea. The school had actual printing machines.

As I started to take over some responsibility for Spanish at KS3, I also started to put some of my own worksheets into the booklets. These were usually scaffolding for speaking lessons, along the lines of this lesson from 2002 that was videoed for the OUP PGCSE resources. Things like Keep Talking sheets (see "Why I don't call them sentence builders"). The idea was that a lesson wasn't something that happened on paper - it was mainly about practising communicating with other people in the classroom.

When I became head of department in my current school, I have to admit that bringing in booklets was in part to police what other teachers were doing. In the nicest possible way, by providing them with resources. Again, I wanted lessons to break free from the textbook, and make the steps beyond learning vocabulary, towards having a strong focus on modelling, practising and using language to communicate. I wanted to make sure that the curriculum was built around a growing core of language that pupils could use confidently and apply across topics.

Here's an example of what our booklets look like now. Click here if the embedded video doesn't load.

You can see it is still very much based on scaffolding and modelling. With some on-paper activities: coffee splat, link up maze, annotating and adapting model answers, logical/strange, verb tables, categorising, writing in different colours (which I have now seen called "rainbow writing", which I love)... And some Keep Talking activities which might only be a page in the booklet but which can take a whole series of lessons with activities like Being Ben or Speed Dating until pupils can speak fluently and become less and less dependent on the booklet.

We do also have exercise books where pupils do extended writing. They keep their exercise books from year to year, partly because much of their work is done in the booklets but also to keep the progression of their learning all in one place. They also keep their booklets in a folder so they can refer back to earlier units when they need to. They don't tend to take the booklets home anymore, as more and more homework is set online.

Rather than having differentiated versions of the booklet, we try to make sure that all activities are scaffolded, and pupils challenge themselves to reduce their dependence on scaffolding. If teachers do create a modified version of any activities, they go into a shared folder and may well end up in the booklet next year.

We do still use textbooks, and everyone in the department picks and chooses when to use the different resources. And most important of all, is that the lesson isn't something that happens on paper! Learning a language is about what happens when it is lifted off the page.

Saturday, 21 August 2021

Back to School - the Immediate Implications of the Ofsted Research Review in Modern Languages.

 Time to sum up the series of posts on the Ofsted Research Review in Modern Languages and make myself a list of things for the start of a new term.

The start of Year 7 for us is always built around Phonics. But this year it won't just be for Year 7. Without chanting and choral repetition last year, the pupils going into Year 8 and Year 9 will need a top up. We shall see if they take to the keywords and hand gestures with the same enthusiasm as Year 7 usually do. A lot of my focus will be on a gentle start to the year, with staff settling back in, spending more informal time together and catching up on everyone's ideas and thoughts for the year. But phonics is the one thing that we must hit early on. We know it's vulnerable to staffing changes - because it's what we start with, sometimes new teachers aren't up to speed with how we teach it. So we need to make sure it's the one thing we're all ready to go with. And then throughout the year we can explore the NCELP resources for continuing to work on phonics, sharing what we have found and building it in to our Scheme of Work.

 Another one for the start of the year is obviously going to be Transition. Rather than a Baseline Test, we do an information gathering exercise. We have to make sure we are all genuinely interested in pupils' prior experience of languages, valuing what they have already learned at home and at school. And now is the time to renew our contacts with our feeder schools. The interruptions of the last two years mean we have to reach out and renew networks, and make them stronger than ever.

Then there will be areas to highlight with the whole department, to focus on our strengths. Our snowballing curriculum means everything we teach is joined up, and nothing is left behind. We make sure that pupils develop a core of language that new knowledge can stick to. This works for Vocabulary and for Grammar. Rather than micro-planning interleaving and returning to words from previous topics, we try to make sure that pupils' learning is always accumulating more, and the words and structures they have learned in one topic, are transferrable to future topics. To make sure this is even more explicit, we are going to make sure the computer room activities are programmed to include revisiting language from previous topics. I want to talk to the department about pooling our starter activities and using these as another opportunity to link current content to known language. And maybe branding them like maths with their "fluent in 5" silent lesson starters based on a gradated mixture of recall and problem solving questions.

We will keep our Grammar bound up with our Vocabulary teaching, building a cumulative repertoire of language that pupils can use. Pupils will meet structures and concepts over and over again, moving from lexico-grammatical chunks towards being able to manipulate and inflect the grammar for themselves. During the year we will look at the NCELP resources for ways to focus on drawing pupils' attention to grammatical forms, carefully integrating new language with existing knowledge.

The greatest strength of our curriculum is an area that Ofsted have missed, or downgraded: Communication. But actually, curating the repertoire of language pupils can use in order to express themselves, is the best regulator for all the things that Ofsted do want us to be doing. As I wrote in this post on the central flaw in the Ofsted view of language teaching:

If Ofsted want us to keep a close eye on what pupils can manage and what overwhelms them...
If Ofsted want us to think about how knowledge sticks...
If Ofsted want us to think about how knowledge accumulates...
If Ofsted want us to keep a close eye on how knowledge can be recalled fluently...

... then the best way to monitor, regulate, cement, and ensure this, is to focus on developing pupils' repertoire for expressing themselves, communicating more and more independently and spontaneously.

Much of this communication happens in the lesson activities, but Ofsted also want us to plan for how we use the Target Language for Classroom Communication. This will be important at the start of the year as teachers introduce their routines. And we have a speaking frame to encourage pupils to use these structures for different purposes. We will bring back the laminated TL Connect 4 game to incentivise pupils to use the target language to communicate. As the year goes on, we can look at James Stubbs' blog and think about how he makes sure classroom routines develop so that classroom language continues to keep pace with the language pupils are learning in the curriculum.

We have started to make new Assessments so that we are testing what has been learned, rather than labelling the pupils with good underlying literacy as the ones who are "good at languages". We have stopped worrying about tests producing a spread of marks from "top" to "bottom" and are concentrating on how the tests show pupils that they are doing well and making progress. We will continue to use vocabulary tests in class, but more as a way of showing the importance of continual low stakes testing as part of the learning process, rather than as a way of checking up on learning at home. We will make more use of asking for direct online evidence of learning done at home.

We will continue to focus Feedback so it has most impact. Books will be marked using criteria labels prior to the final assessed piece, so that the feedback can have immediate impact. The key performance indicators for the assessed work will continue to use exemplars rather than descriptive statements. And we expect similar quality of work from all pupils, with different levels of support or independence. We will use the exemplars to give pupils a clear view of the progress they are making.

The final section of the Ofsted Review that I looked at was Leadership and Structures. Much of this is focused on the take up of languages. We will be doing a survey of Year 9 in September to start them thinking about options choices and to get an insight into their thinking right from the start. We will need to renew our creative projects and links with other subjects. And we will want to renew our links with partner schools for exchanges (real or virtual) to get pupils back into widening their horizons and friendships. 

But thinking about Leadership is where we need to split away from the Ofsted Review. Because the return to school isn't going to be determined by Ofsted. It will be about human beings. Staff and pupils. Spending time together, catching up, listening, valuing, supporting, thinking, seeing things from different perspectives, and enjoying working together.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Toblerones for Speaking

 Pupils love this Speaking practice activity, perhaps because everyone loves a toblerone, but also because it makes them feel organised, supported and in control. It is something I used to use for the calamitous Learn Fancy Answers By Rote GCSE but you may still think it is a good idea to use for pupils to rehearse answers, at GCSE or in KS3.

Figure 1

How to Make the Toblerone.

1. Write out your answer in Spanish at the top of a sheet of A4.

2. Rotate the sheet of A4 and write the English at the other end of the sheet. The Spanish now looks upside down compared to the English. See figure 1 to check you have done it correctly.

Figure 2
3. Fold the sheet of A4 into three. This is always great fun as pupils fold it in half first and then wonder what to do. Learning to fold into three  is great practice for folding tea towels or thank you letters to your aunt Iris at Christmas. See figure 2.

Figure 3
4. Form the sheet of A4 into a toblerone and secure with a paper clip. Make sure it can stand safely on its base and that the Spanish and English both now appear the correct way up on opposite sides of the toblerone. See figure 3.

How to use the toblerone.

1. Set the toblerone on the table between you and your partner so that the Spanish is facing you.

2. Look at the Spanish text facing you. Translate it into English out loud to your partner. Your partner will read the English side of the toblerone and ask you to correct any mistakes you make.

3. Keep the Spanish text facing you. You are going to read it to your partner BUT you can't look at the text and speak at the same time. So look at the text, memorise a chunk, look up and say it to your partner.

4. Turn the toblerone round so the English is facing you. Look at the English and try to say it in Spanish to your partner. They look at the Spanish version and ask you to correct any mistakes you make.

5. It is a good idea to let your partner have a go at their toblerone in between. This means you challenge yourself to keep yours in your brain for a little bit longer between activities.

6. Decide what you want to put on the 3rd side (the bottom) of the toblerone. The question in Spanish? The verb endings? Picture cues? Then practise using at the cues you have given yourself while your partner looks at the Spanish to check you are doing it correctly.

7. You may have a series of questions to practise like this. Make a toblerone for each one and practise each one with a partner. You only need ONE paper clip. Don't be greedy. Take it off the first toblerone and use it to assemble the next one.

How to store the toblerones.

Figure 4
1. Unclip the last toblerone you were using.

2. Flatten them all out.

3. Use the clip to hold them together and keep them safe. See figure 4.

4. Reuse regularly in class with a partner. Take them home and do more toblerone practice. Store in a cool dry place. Do not attempt to eat them.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

A Brave New World for Language Learning

By Dr Greg
 This is Preston bus station. I knew it as a grey concrete dirty, wet, impractical, prematurely aged, sometimes smelly place that was hard to find the way into on foot. (Hint: Go through Morrisons.) But one day I decided to try the mental gymnastics of seeing it differently. A new style of architecture for a new age. Democratic, free of flounces and imperialist or classical references, public, accessible (through Morrisons) for all and for the future. And there you have it. Look at that picture. The most gorgeous building in the country, fortunately saved from destruction by a campaign that I ended up supporting. It truly delights my soul to look at even that picture, let alone the actual building. How can I have been so blind for so long?

I am going to try the same trick with the Ofsted/NCELP/new GCSE proposals. I am going to put aside all my objections and try to visualise it as a wonderful new structure full of promise, hope and ambition.

First of all, ambition. We have failed. Language teaching is failing. It is unsuccessful particularly in the early stages of Secondary School, and loses too many learners who don't grasp the basics well enough to have good foundations. And it is inequitable and un-democratic because under-privileged learners are the ones who get left behind, and we don't pay enough attention and care to the detail of building their understanding in the tiny incremental blocks they need.

Our languages curriculum suffers from vain pretentions and over-blown bombast. It expects pupils to "communicate" and "express themselves" somehow magically, when they have barely started to learn the language. These vain promises lead to a plethora of features being added that compromise the structural integrity of the edifice. They confuse and they lead nowhere. We encourage pupils to talk about themselves and their families, whether or not the language involved fits the patterns of grammar that pupils desperately need to grasp. Pupils' individual circumstances require the teaching of too great a range of low-frequency vocabulary that is inefficient and distracting. We need to stop putting the trivial and decorative (What pets do you have, what are they called?) before the structural and conceptual.

So what should we be teaching? The structural pillars of phonics, vocabulary, grammar. Not topics, not communication. Not yet. First an abstract understanding of the rules and structures of the language. Carefully managed so that one concept is introduced at a time. To build up a mental architect's plan of how the language is structured. With rules and processes to be spotted, understood and followed so that pupils can have a feeling of success when their recall is tested.

Progress can be gradual but relentless. With an understanding that connections need to be made between existing knowledge of structures and new knowledge over time. And that knowledge needs to be revisited and re-tested to stop it being forgotten.

There will be room for cultural knowledge, and this knowledge will come out of the language itself. Place names to practice pronunciation. Knowledge that there is different pronunciation in different regions. Different forms of address using different verb forms. Knowledge which engages directly with and reinforces the language structures the pupils need to learn.

Everyone will have the same knowledge, and that knowledge will be expertly selected and ordered so that it makes sense and can be learned. Pupils won't have the cognitive load of having to think about what to say or the obstacles of being put in a situation where they feel they are being asked to say things they aren't secure in, or come up with their own answers. It is only fair to ask pupils to recall and show their understanding of what they have actually been taught.

Here it is from Dr Rachel Hawkes of NCELPWe have typically taught pets, and we have decided to teach them gato, perro. But also in the same breath we have taught them pez, serpiente, ratón because thy fit within the topic area. But what they do also is compromise and hold learners back a little bit because they obscure the fundamental pattern which is if the noun ends in o it’s masculine, if it ends in a, it’s feminine. If we accept that that is problematic and we don’t wish to put hurdles in the way, well maybe pez goes, serpiente goes, ratón goes.

How am I doing? Are you loving the brutalist beauty, honesty and clarity? I tried my very best to convince myself.

Or is it starting to sound a little bit Orwellian? Are you worried that far from democratic, it sounds imposed, totalitarian and controlling? Focused on the abstract rather than reality? Is there a danger that once it is opened to the public, cracks might start to appear? For some reason I have been watching historic engineering failure videos on YouTube, and the high-handed architect who thinks they know best and continues with the project despite the increasing alarm of the construction workers never seems to end well. Preston bus station has survived and I believe it is structurally sound. But its user-experience, popularity, practicality and maintenance costs don't necessarily match up to its conceptual beauty.

If you have been traumatised or feel brainwashed by this post, please click here to read the antidote.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Ofsted Confusion: Neural Networks, pseudo-science and learning

 I have to start with this slide from HMI Michael Wardle's Webinar on Curriclum Design, because it looks so much like a map of Norfolk with a vastly upgraded transport system.

I think he is using it entirely metaphorically. As a picture of the brain's outline. And a generic representation of a network framed by that brain. To illustrate the point that learning is a complex web of knowledge where connections are made over time.

I don't think this is meant as a representation of an actual physical network in the brain, any more that it represents the actual road network in Norfolk.

But we have to be careful. I HAVE seen representations of "neural networks" and computer generated graphics of "a synapse firing as a memory is created" purporting to show learning physically happening. This was in a different presentation which was urging me to use this understanding of how learning happens in the brain, to help inform my approach to planning learning and teaching. 

As science, it was clearly utterly bogus. A discrete memory is not physically formed by the firing of a synapse in a little package of just the right amount of knowledge to cross the barrier from short term working memory to long term storage memory.

This isn't to say that "cognitive science" isn't useful. But we need to be careful to understand that talking about "storage" or "retrieval" are all metaphorical models. In the same way as we now talk about the brain being "hard-wired" for something, these are using the metaphor of computer storage to help express our understanding of what is going on in the brain.

In previous eras, memory was thought of as a hydraulic system, a series of cogs, a telephone system - whatever the technology of the time suggested. So it's not surprising that today we use the metaphor of computer memory. Except of course, that this is a metaphor within a metaphor. Storage and memory are already metaphors when applied to computers.

Then we also talk about "networks" in the way language works and the brain deals with language. Research on the brain can show what regions of the brain are activated when processing language. The main conclusion would seem to be one of immense flexibility and complexity, that is very far from offering an easy granular process to be followed to create learning. When Michael Wardle says learning depends on a web of knowledge and schemata formed over time, I don't think he means that we can look into the brain and see networks forming or firing. I think he means that it helps if you already know stuff, and new stuff you learn interacts with what you already know. In a complex, dynamic and changing relationship which is very far from a physical network of roads and roundabouts. (Yes, we have roundabouts in Norfolk.)

This storage network metaphor turns up in research in language-learning. For example this study talks about the way words "link" and "compete for space" in the memory. For example it suggests that if you learn a list of words such as lion, tiger, wolf, jaguar... then these will compete for storage and retrieval, and make recall marginally slower. But if you learn words like lion, yawn, yellow, mane... then these words will form a network and reinforce each other in learning and recall.

The metaphor of computer memory with networks and storage might be helpful here and these could be interesting (if marginal) findings. But as a teacher I would have questions as to whether this is less to do with the mechanics of "storage" and more to do with the interest and affective aspects. A list of animals to learn in a deliberate act of memorisation. Versus a set of words that set off the imagination with interesting descriptive detail. The research throws up interesting ideas that can be explored and interpreted in different ways. But reading the article didn't cast light on how the brain worked. It cast light on how the authors thought about the working of the brain.

As linguists, we know other ways that words form a system. We want our learners to see the underlying patterns. Not just so they can apply grammar to be accurate, express themselves, or show complexity. But also because we think it is a shortcut for memorisation. It's easier to remember things that make sense. Knowing a rule can save you from memorising a million examples. This is all true. But it's looking at it from the point of view of someone in possession of the knowledge of the whole system. For a learner, it is entirely different.

In his webinar, Michael Wardle focuses on how we could take this formal grammatical network of French and try to build it in the pupils' brain. He gives the example of introducing pets and adjectives. We have all gone through the complexities of teaching word order and adjectival agreement. Michael Wardle's approach is to start by "hiding" all adjectives which would change for feminine. So he would teach pupils to say they have a red dog, because the word rouge can transfer to saying they have a red tortoise without having to worry about changing the ending.

I can see the logic of this. And as a cunning ploy I am not above using it myself. It's similar to the way when I first went to France, I asked for deux of everything. To avoid making any errors of un / une. Expensive and waist-expanding, but at least I wasn't committing a grammatical mistake. And every year there is a pupil in Year 7 who just says they are going to describe everything as orange because it's invariable. And then I share compound adjectives with them and say as long as you say it's dark blue you don't have to do the agreement either. As I say cunning tricks. That I use half-jokingly.

But this isn't a joke. This is Ofsted setting out how to construct a curriculum. It depends on totally controlling what pupils say, so that it becomes necessary to prohibit self expression and communication at this stage of language-learning. Pupils can talk about red dogs and red tortoises. But as soon as someone has a green spider, then that is inadmissible because it doesn't fit the grammar pattern we want to see exemplified. We saw the same idea in The Great Pet Debate where perro and gato were fine, because they exemplified masculine and feminine endings. But pez, ratón and serpiente were not allowed.

I do think it is important to build pupils' core of language. And that once that core of language is established, then more and more will stick to it.

But it I think there is a sleight of mind going on, thinking that one "network" can be slipped into the mind instead of another. The idea that there are neural networks in the brain, and that knowledge can be described as a web, and that language has an underlying structure of links, does not mean that you can construct a grammatical framework and plug it into the pupil's brain like an extra graphics card into a computer. In the same way that I couldn't use the map at the top of this post to get from here to Hunstanton.

It is a nice theory that collapses on contact with reality of real human learners. It is an attempt to create a grammatical network, built up out of carefully selected knowledge, to make a tightly dictated schema that is predicated on the understanding of the grammatical system. And then it hopes to replicate that grammatical system as a network in the brain. Because of the power of the diagram on the slide to convince us that this is how the brain looks. And the mixed metaphors of neural networks, a web of knowledge, language as a grammatical system.

There are many, many more things in the human brain for learning and language to stick to. There's the sound of words, the way words look, the pupils' own language(s). And their lives and lived experience and ability to interact, and stories, and visualisations and silly associations and mnemonics and emotion and relationships and family and likes and dislikes. And yes, pets. Language engages and interacts with all of these. Not just with itself in an abstract network.

It is an inconvenient but undeniable truth that language attempts to refer to the world. It is not a closed self-referential system. Language is meaning as well as form.

So I might teach pupils cat and dog because they exemplify masculine and feminine endings. But the pupil with three snakes, a mouse and a fish will have very strong "networks" of experience that the words for cat and dog might not stick to. Let alone the owner of the spider and their "web" of knowledge. Meaning is the primary role of language and its strongest way of making links and memories. To put form above meaning in the hope of constructing a network in the brain is misguided and misconceived.

This is the rabbit hole we are being dragged into. By NCELP, Ofsted, and the new GCSE panel. It is an ideology based on creating a synthetic, abstract language, where the emphasis is on exposure to language chosen for its form so that linguistic patterns can be identified. It teaches a limited, reduced and deliberately simplified set of language, so that the learner might easily discern the patterns and supposedly turn them into a mental "network". This can only be done by removing the "obstacle" of the learner wanting to say or learn things that don't fit this carefully selected web of words. So communication and self expression have to be delayed.

And it's not just pets. As we have seen with the proposals for the new GCSE which seek to limit pupils to "high frequency" words, things like step mum, foster family, wheel chair are not to be taught. So if the pupils wanting to use these words can't learn them, then no pupil should be allowed to talk about their actual family. But that's OK because we are going to be talking about red dogs and red tortoises. To practise the language, not the meaning. But it's meaning which creates the strongest experiences, memories, networks.

I could stop there on that point that the goal of memorisation is best achieved when it links to a far richer network of meaning and real experience than just a self-referential linguistic system.

But I will go further (sorry). But I'll make it brief with some points to think about:

The complexity of language is real. But the human brain is up to the job.

The learner's interlanguage is by definition incomplete, partial, and includes misconceptions.

Expressing themselves has an important role in forming the unconscious schemata of the learner's interlanguage. Making meaning from the words and structures they have, exploring how it can be used, how it fits together, and what their current limitations are.

So I will finish with this:

If Ofsted want us to keep a close eye on what pupils can manage and what overwhelms them...
If Ofsted want us to think about how knowledge sticks...
If Ofsted want us to think about how knowledge accumulates...
If Ofsted want us to keep a close eye on how knowledge can be recalled fluently...

...then the best way to achieve all this is the opposite of what they are proposing. The best way is to acknowledge that language has meaning as well as form. The best way is to have a strong focus on curating a growing repertoire of language that pupils can use in order to express themselves with increasing independence, fluency and complexity.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Leadership and Structures - Reviewing our Curriclum

 The posts in this series have been focused on aspects of language-teaching and language-learning from the Ofsted Research Review. I have looked at Target Language use, Grammar, Vocabulary, Assessment, Feedback, Phonics, Transition, and Communication. Also featured in the Research Review is a section on Leadership and Structures. This doesn't directly relate to language teaching and learning, and this blog isn't the place to be washing our linen in public, however clean it may be. But I will outline what I have picked up on as the main issues in the Review. And also describe some of our situation to help document and think-through how we measure up.

The issues around Leadership and Structures that I highlighted in the Ofsted Research Review are:

All pupils should be studying a language throughout KS3 as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

The so called Ebacc (a schools performance measure, not a qualification) targets are for 75% to be entered for GCSE in 2024 and 90% by 2027.

That Leadership should understand the language-learning process. For example it is not just a process of learning a succession of sets of words.

I should start by saying that we are very lucky with the Leadership we have in our school. And if you know me at all, you know I won't say that just to be nice. Despite the title of this blog. The period of covid disruption has highlighted the extraordinary levels of trust, understanding, care, communication, support, and good sense permeating the school and which were already in place before the crises hit.

In terms of the Ofsted Review criteria, almost all pupils study a language from Year 7 to Year 9. There are one or two individual exceptions where pupils arrived at the school already disapplied from languages as part of a package to focus on individual needs.

At the moment, we have no particular plans to chase the 75% in 2024 ebacc target. This is the year group who will be starting Year 9 in September. No plans to change structures, apart from continuing to teach them a rich KS3 curriculum with clear progression that enables them to use their language with increasing fluency and independence.

We have made some decisions about the number of hours of lessons for Year 9 which I felt might have affected pupil confidence and take up at GCSE. Year 9 will have an increase in timetabled lessons in "core" subjects as part of a "catch-up" drive. This would have meant a reduction in French lessons, but we have avoided this by moving ab-initio Year 9 Spanish to an extra lesson once a week after the end of the school day. This in turn means that Spanish is available to all Year 9 pupils who want to be able to study it, instead of just certain selected teaching groups.

I personally feel the ebacc target has been brought into disrepute by being constantly moved back. Embarrassingly, I started talking to Leadership about planning staffing for the return of compulsory MFL at GCSE back in 2017, which turns out to have been 10 years before it is now supposed to happen. The latest surprise was in an Ofsted report on Primary MFL teaching, where it emerged that the target is for pupils "studying" for GCSE in 2025 but not taking it until 2027. It's hard to plan seriously when the target is literally a moving target.

I also wonder about the integrity of asking 90% of pupils to be entered for something that not only is not an actual qualification, but which by definition many of them cannot achieve. The grading is set so that 90% of pupils cannot possibly achieve a "good" grade in languages. The government policy seems dishonest and cowardly by focusing on a fake "ebacc" enforced by Ofsted rather than a clear statement that languages should be compulsory.

So the decision comes down to whether schools want more pupils to study a language. The answer in our context is that we would love more pupils to pick a language. But do we want to force them to take a language over another subject? Are the other subjects not just as valid and valuable? Of course they are. I think Leadership would argue that languages are as valued as other subjects. I am not sure they want to say that they are more valued.

Our current situation is that the number of option subjects that pupils can pick, has dropped from 4 GCSEs to 3. Without there being a drop in the numbers opting for languages. Since the end of the disastrous Learn fancy answers by rote and repeat the exam until you are perfect GCSE that destroyed language learning, our results have seen an improvement. We have yet to see what message feeds back about the experience of the new KS4 from older pupils, and how MFL compares to other subjects in terms of difficulty and grading. Our approach to developing spontaneous Speaking and Writing across KS3-4 fits much better with the new GCSE. We have had significant turbulence in staffing, but we also have a strong shared vision and a consistent approach across the department.

In September, we must redouble our efforts to gather feedback from pupils on their language-learning experience. And make sure we communicate clearly how they are making progress, including adapting our assessments to make sure they feel successful and aren't labeled as "good" or "bad" at languages based on their underlying literacy rather than what they are learning in language lessons. We are looking forward to a post covid return to a rich KS3 experience based on communication and creativity. One of the greatest incentives to continue with a language is visits and exchanges. We will see how quickly these can return and where they can be boosted by online virtual exchanges. As a school, we are building up to a major celebration of the school's history, ethos and role in the wider world which will help boost our sense of purpose and community cohesion...

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Communication - Reviewing our Curriculum in the light of the Ofsted Research Review

 This series of posts looks at the implications of the recent Ofsted Research Review for our KS3 curriculum. This post is on the aspect of Communication.

At every turn so far in looking at the Ofsted Review, it has been the lack of focus on Communication which has stood out. Especially compared with what we do in our curriculum. Our priority is to share with pupils how to get better and better at using the language they have learned. To speak and write with increasing fluency, independence, spontaneity, creativity and self expression.

Here is what I took from the Ofsted Research Review:

Culture and Communication are stated as major goals in the National Curriculum Programme of Study. The Ofsted Review also quotes them as eventual goals, but says they can be delayed. Ofsted prioritise the learning of phonics, vocabulary and grammar first.

The report repeatedly emphasises that our learners in KS3 are "novice" with only a few pupils at higher levels at GCSE reaching "expert" status. At the "novice" level, they want the focus to be on grammar and vocabulary, word-by-word parsing of sentences. It claims that this is necessary in order for a focus on communication to be possible at a later stage.

They make similar points about authentic texts, preferring input that can be decoded word-by-word with known words and grammar. As pupils move towards the more expert levels at higher grades at GCSE, they may be able to add other skills and strategies such as applying cultural and linguistic knowledge to make sense of more complex texts.

This has raised eyebrows, as in my lifetime it has always been axiomatic that you do not delay the ability to communicate or access culture until "expert" level has been reached. For me, this was part of one of those formative conversations in my very early years, where my parents explained to me that although they had A Levels in languages, they had never been taught to use them, but that things would be better for my generation. I have written about this here for the Association for Language Learning page on Speaking, including the story of my dad using Latin to talk to a French car mechanic.

But beyond personal anecdote, there are strong reasons why communication features strongly in our KS3 curriculum.

Pupils want to communicate

Not all pupils make it to "expert"

Using your French to express yourself has a role in systematising knowledge

Challenging pupils to communicate requires us to create a coherent curriculum that equips them to do so

Pupils want to communicate: 

I have written here about the great pet debate. I understand that when you teach pets, you can also teach masculine/feminine endings. But we all know that there is no stronger imperative than the desire of pupils to list their pets. Whether or not they exemplify a grammar pattern. And I wrote here about the way some pupils love being able to recombine language and say silly or nonsense things for the fun of it. Or cry because they desperately want to express themselves. And do get to use their language for real communication in the classroom, online or on exchanges.

When I started as Head of Department, I interviewed pupils and the biggest theme that emerged, was the desire for more tangible outcomes from their language learning. Something they could create, be proud of, show their parents. So we built a curriculum around real projects: an Art Exhibition, a Farm Stamper trail, and letter exchanges with France. I will come back to whether this is in some way an obstacle to learning in the points below.

Not all pupils make it to "expert":

Not all pupils are going to be the few who at higher levels at GCSE or sixth form make it to Ofsted's "expert" level. We need to construct a curriculum that delivers useful learning to pupils who are going to go on to acquire the whole grammatical system, and also to pupils who will cease their study of languages before total mastery is reached. If anything, this would suggest that language for immediate communication is more appropriate in the early stages, with greater grammatical conceptualisation coming later. Fortunately, we don't have to pick between the two. We can devise a curriculum where communication, acquisition of vocabulary and understanding of grammar can all evolve in parallel. Of course we can. 

Using your language has an important role in systematisation:

I am going to quote from a guest blog I wrote for the MEITS project.

It is by using the language from the start that the pupil develops the conscious and unconscious schemata that make learning happen. Being allowed to communicate requires the pupil to draw on their entire developing repertoire. Making the links, seeing how it works, and exploring its limits. It gathers their knowledge into a snowball, stopping their language from melting away, and means more and more language will stick to the snowball they already have.

This is central to the ideas behind Task Based Language Learning, where pupils have to draw on their emerging language to complete a task. An "exercise" focuses more on just practising and producing the specific language point that pupils have been learning. With a "task" it is up to the pupil to find the language needed in order to complete the task. And to be able to find the ways the language fits together and how they can manipulate it. And to become aware of the fact that they do have a slowly crystalising interlanguage that becomes more and more coherent and useable.

Challenging pupils to be creative obliges us to create a curriculum that equips them to do so:

This is the point that these posts have kept inevitably coming back to. On Grammar and Vocabulary our curriculum has to deliver. Because we are asking pupils to draw on their language to communicate, we have to curate a growing core of language that they can use. The curriculum has to be coherent, progressive and cumulative. Pupils learn to use their language with increasing independence, complexity and spontaneity. 

Communication, which Ofsted almost imply could be an obstacle to learning, seems to be precisely the thing that enables and organises it.

Monday, 26 July 2021

Assessment - Reviewing our Curriculum in the light of the Ofsted Research Review

 So far, in posts on Transition, Phonics, Vocabulary, Grammar and Feedback, I think I have concluded that while our department philosophy doesn't match the Ofsted definition, we have a strong enough vision of the big picture to justify what we do. Our focus is on pupils getting better and better at using their language. Speaking and writing with increasing independence, complexity and spontaneity. Ofsted ignore this aspect completely, but in order to achieve it, we do have to tackle many of the things Ofsted say they want us to tackle in terms of progression.

This post is on an aspect where the Ofsted Review has given us serious reason to re-think what we do: Assessment.

We already knew that our KS3 assessments were due for a change, and as soon as the Ofsted Review came out, we started to think through its implications. I have already written about this in a previous post. So if you haven't read it, maybe it would be a good idea to click here and read it first. Then this post is going to be an update on what we have decided to do, along with some drafts of new ideas for assessments.

Here are the main points from the Ofsted Research Review that I identified when I started our departmental review.

Assessments should test what pupils have been taught.

Assessments should help pupils be aware of their progress and make them feel successful.

Assessments should not be too influenced by GCSE.

I am going to concentrate in this post on Listening and Reading assessments. I have written here about assessing Speaking at KS3. We are not planning changes. As you will see from the post, our approach involves pupils in understanding their own progress and success in Speaking. And the post on Feedback gives a good idea about the rationale behind our assessment of Writing.

From our department review
Our old Listening and Reading assessments were based on past papers from AQA FCSE exams selected for the relevant topics. One reason was that they were similar in layout and format to the GCSE so at options evening we could show pupils how it is already familiar to them.

Ofsted aren't keen on KS3 assessments being too driven by GCSE and although this isn't the main reason for changing our assessments, it's something I think I agree on. Hopefully it's part of wanting pupils to have a rich, successful and appropriate KS3 experience. Having said that, there are some great examples of how teachers have created wonderful KS3 tasks that still look forward to the GCSE tasks they will eventually meet. For example @NazihadeLondres has developed lesson starters around TikTok videos to stimulate and scaffold natural conversation in a way that will lead on to the GCSE photocard.

From an AQA FCSE paper
It's more the other 2 highlighted points from the Ofsted Review which have given me food for thought. The philosophy of "test pupils on what they have learned" is not as straight-forward as it looks. Given the Ofsted Review's total omission of the idea of pupils learning to use their language, their statement may be interpreted as, "test pupils' recall of what they have learned." Do we want to have assessments that just check their recall? What about their ability to comprehend Listening and Reading in context? As language teachers, are we not responsible for teaching them literacy strategies for locating answers in texts? Using things like words from the question, cultural knowledge, cognates, grammatical understanding, prediction, deduction, elimination... in order to extract information from texts? 

Or on the other hand, does this requirement just label the pupils with strong underlying literacy as "good at languages"? And label pupils with weaker literacy as "bad at languages"? (I strongly suspect this is exactly what happens at GCSE Listening and Reading, with pupils' grades being a reflection of their literacy more than what they have learned in language lessons.)

I don't have to resolve this question. Because in fact, I think that a Unit test isn't the place to throw those demands of Reading and Listening at the pupils. If we think they are so important, then they should be central to our lessons and our teaching. And I think at the moment, they are not. At the moment (despite experimental forays into Listening for pleasure and Reading a class novel) our curriculum revolves around expanding a core repertoire of language that pupils meet in Listening and Reading and learn to deploy in their Speaking and Writing.

So, I am creating assessments designed to be based on testing how well pupils are learning that core repertoire they are being taught in class. You can see some examples here for Year 8 Unit 1.

Things like:

Listening and picking the correct word. 

Listening for what word has changed. 

Then translating sentences from French to English. 

And then sentences to translate into French where the previous question can act as scaffolding for words and structures.

Previously the most important role of our assessments had been that of identifying whether pupils were on track, or above, or below, depending on their starting points.

Ofsted are keen that we instead bear in mind the role of assessments in helping pupils understand their progress, but also in creating a feeling of success.

This raises a much more difficult question. If this is based on testing pupils' recall of what they have been taught, what mark on the test should we expect or accept? We will have to wait and see how they do!

Feedback - Reviewing our Curriculum in the light of the Ofsted Research Review

 This is one of a series of posts on reviewing our curriculum in the light of the recent Ofsted Research Review in MFL. So far I have looked at Transition, Phonics, Vocabulary and Grammar. Our department's principal focus is on pupils learning to get better and better at using their language, with increasing independence, complexity and spontaneity. This principle is entirely missing from the Ofsted Review. Despite this discrepancy, however, the way we challenge pupils to use their language to express themselves, does mean that our curriculum seems well thought-out in terms of progression and challenge. So while the Ofsted Review doesn't share our aims, so far I think that we do meet many of their expectations in terms of the big picture of careful and sustained progression. There are details for us to tweak, but the majority are on our own terms, not just because we think Ofsted "wants" us to.

This post was going to be on Assessment as well as Feedback. I already know that Assessment is an area where the Ofsted  Review has pushed us to make changes. Our assessments in KS3 are due for an overhaul, and as soon as the Research Review came out, it gave me useful questions to think about. If you haven't read my earlier post on this, then perhaps it is a good place to start. And then this post will concentrate on Feedback and I will need a separate post on Assessment, as a chance to update you on the changes we are already starting to make.

Here's what I highlighted on Feedback from the Ofsted Research Review when I started our own KS3 curriculum review.

Feedback should be specific and focused so pupils can make a difference to one thing at a time. 

In speaking, the teacher can prompt pupils to try again or recast what they have said so the pupil can repeat what they are saying incorporating the correct version.

Feedback should help pupils understand clearly how to make progress and to feel successful.

From our department review

Our school policy on written Feedback was based around "Missions" where pupils were asked to respond to feedback by performing a task to correct, reflect or improve. I was always suspicious of this as it seemed designed to prove to an outside observer that pupils were engaging with feedback, rather than concentrating on what was best for the learner. 

And it ignored the primary recipient of feedback from marking: the teacher. It is the teacher who is best equipped to understand the implications of error or misconceptions or indeed excellence in pupils' work. It is the teacher who can decide how this is going to inform what to do next. Of course it is great to involve pupils in understanding their learning and to have a sense of their progress. But this isn't necessarily best done through doing corrections. The policy has now been relaxed and it is up to departments to decide how they handle feedback and "missions."

Example of a sticky label for marking criteria
As a department, our Feedback is much less focused on "errors" than it is on curating the quality of a piece of writing. We use sticky address labels with key criteria. These are used for work in pupils' books to give formative assessment before the final piece of work which will be assessed against the Key Performance Indicators.

The teacher can tick off the criteria and annotate the label with further comments as needed. From the example you can see that some of the key criteria are about making sure the pupil has included all the "ingredients" required by the task. Here, that means Opinions, Reasons, and reference to Past and Future. Then there are criteria focusing on the quality of the piece of writing: Organisation, Variety and Personal detail. This is part of our department's focus on pupils getting better and better at using their language, which is completely missing from the Ofsted Review.

KPIs for Y8
And there is room for comments on Accuracy. And these comments have to be understood very carefully as part of a wider conversation about progress. Because our assessment model is for all pupils to produce work of much the same standard. But with different levels of support. This is explicit in our Key Performance Indicators. On the Year 8 example, you can see the exemplar texts for each Unit. And underneath you can see the statements relating to support, scaffolding and independence at different levels.

What this means is that Accuracy has to be seen as part of this picture. And pupils have to understand that as they become more adventurous in expressing themselves, as they take more risks, as they move away from scaffolding, then they are going to make more errors.

The Feedback conversations are not going to be about correcting individual errors. They are going to be about the process of reducing dependence on support and moving towards greater independence in self-expression.

This isn't to say that marking isn't important, for the teacher to see exactly where pupils are up to with their internalisation and accurate use of language. But accurate language may well be typical of a pupil more reliant on scaffolding, and inaccurate language the result of a pupil starting to take more risks. We do use feedback to make pupils aware of their progress and to feel successful, but this is an ongoing conversation, not to do with error correction. I recommend you look at this earlier post on using Metaphors to understand the language-learning process if you want to read more on this.

And my next post will be on Assessment, where we are already making changes and the Ofsted Review has been a big factor in informing our thinking.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Grammar - Reviewing our Curriculum in the light of the Ofsted Research Review

 So far in this series of posts on looking at our curriculum in the light of the Ofsted Research Review (Transition, Phonics, Vocabulary), it has been very useful to look at how thought-through our curriculum is, and where we want to continue to make tweaks. Not because we think Ofsted "wants" us to, but because we have identified areas to continue to work on. Let's see if Grammar turns out to be the area where we have to change our plans...

The points I highlighted in the Ofsted Research Review when it comes to Grammar are:

Structures should be revisited in different contexts with increasing spontaneity.

The Grammar pupils are taught should be planned. It should fit with what they need, and what is appropriate. And it shouldn't be rushed to tick things off for the sake of getting through a list of content.

We will need to consider what grammar we teach, based on the pay-offs between its complexity, usefulness and frequency.

Pupils may meet structures in set phrases at first, but should understand what the component parts are and learn to manipulate them. Full paradigms of verbs may be overwhelming if demanded too early.

Grammar should be explained, and pupils should spot and explore patterns, and practise producing structures across Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing. Pupils shouldn't be left to acquire structures by osmosis.

From our KS3 review
I think our department works from different principles to this, but that they are not incompatible. We have a clear vision that our main aim is for pupils to get better and better at using their language. Extending Speaking and Writing with increasing spontaneity, independence and complexity. This idea is completely missing from the Ofsted Review. But it does mean that our approach to grammar is fine-tuned to what pupils need and can cope with next, in order to extend their repertoire. It means we have a deliberate focus on recycling grammar in different contexts with increasing spontaneity. Ofsted perhaps mean spontaneity in manipulating the form. We mean increasing spontaneity in creating meaning and expressing themselves. Our vision is greater than theirs and includes theirs as one of its elements.

From Steve Smith's linguascope webinar
Because of our focus on pupils being able to use their language, we are very used to the idea that Grammar isn't learned in one go. It may be met in set phrases, or explained as a concept, or as a rule or a process. In all cases, it is going to be something which needs to be met and used over and over in different contexts as pupils' repertoire develops. I wrote in the post on Vocabulary about how our curriculum is like a snowball gathering more snow, and how all our language is joined up and nothing is ever left behind.

So in terms of the bigger picture, the Ofsted Review doesn't seem to hold too many issues for us. But what about the detail?

I have written here about how we plan the teaching of verbs. In Year 7, pupils meet the verbs to be and to have, mainly as lexical items, but with also a glimpse of how the paradigm works. They meet the verb manger in different persons of the present tense and in past and future in the first person. Reflexive verbs are introduced for daily routine in the present tense. Then in Year 8 we build a very strong core of verb + infinitive. We then add present tense in all persons and then the perfect tense. All as part of a coherent repertoire so pupils can say more and more. In Year 9 we introduce verb tables as a valuable tool and to help conceptualise the bigger picture of tenses. I think our plans for verbs are coherent and well thought-through.

I worry that Ofsted think the verbs to be and to have are very important. As we don't have a curriculum built around nouns (and the verb to have) or adjectives (and the verb to be), then these key verbs don't feature as highly as an outsider might expect. As I wrote in the post on Vocabulary, perhaps we are moving in the opposite direction to other schools. We stripped down our curriculum 15 years ago to a core of language we want pupils to get good at. And now we have established that strong core, maybe it is the time to bring back more sets of nouns and adjectives, and the verbs to have and to be.

Similarly, the Ofsted Review expects detailed mapping out of other aspects of Grammar. We do have a plan for when we teach things like adjectival agreement, negation, interrogatives. But I am not convinced that these things are ever taught, finished, done and dusted. Things like du, de la, des can be explained, but the explanation doesn't get you very far in terms of how they are used and what they mean. So we teach them all the time - they never go away. And it is by constant exposure, pattern-spotting, conscious rationalisation and subconscious acquisition, that they are learned. I suppose I could invent a paper-based "plan" of when we claim to teach them. But as I wrote in the post on Vocabulary, a curriculum plan is no replacement for constantly monitoring the pupils and what they need. When it's foggy, concentrate on the road. Don't try to drive by looking at the satnav screen.

I wrote in this article for the Language Learning Journal in 2005 about the difference between enabling, generative grammar, and censoring, corrective grammar. I think that with the grammar that enables pupils to express themselves with a growing repertoire of language, we have a well thought-through curriculum and we share it well with pupils so they understand how they are learning. Perhaps we have more work to do in terms of planning and sharing how we intend to work on the censoring, correcting aspects of grammar. Teaching the nitty-gritty rules and accuracy.


I am not sure with de la confiture or du pain, for example, if pupils really do work it out by thinking through a conscious rule. J'aime manger de la confiture avec du pain. In English it would be, "I like to eat jam with bread." There is no "some" in that sentence in English. And would J'aime manger la confiture avec le pain be the same or would it be different? Language isn't just grammar + vocabulary. It is also idiomatic. By which I don't mean fancy expressions about cats and dogs. I mean that you are learning by chunks and collocation what people actually say.

This brings me back to another point I also made in the post about Vocabulary. Perhaps we don't teach Grammar and Vocabulary as Ofsted envisage as separate "pillars." We teach a repertoire of language where grammar and vocabulary are not taught separately, but as part of a coherent and growing core of language that can be deployed with increasing fluency, independence and complexity.