Saturday, 26 November 2022

Dual Coding works for Vocabulary Learning

 I am not going to start by defining Dual Coding. I'm going to show a powerful tool in learning Vocabulary and you can see if you agree that it is an example of Dual Coding.

Here is an example we use with Year 6 when they come on Induction Days in July. We know it works because we test them in September! Partly to see if they still remember, but mainly to show them what an effective technique it is:











If you test any of our Year 7s on confiture, they instantly tell you it means jam. From one lesson at the end of Year 6. As well as guimauves, pain, fromage, moutarde and lots of other foods for the lesson described in this post.

I have had ex pupils contact me on social media to say it's 10 years since they learned items of clothing in Spanish and they still can't forget the words. Most memorably, cow 13 wearing socks. I recently met someone I taught 26 years ago (at parents' evening - I teach her son) and I should have taken the opportunity to test her - I remember her class learning I couldn't bring the kitchen sink, it was évier (heavier) with wordplay and pictures for household items. This was the 1990s when we still taught nouns. And one pupil once did the entire GCSE vocabulary list this way. Her twin brother laughed that this was a whole weekend she would never get back. She got a grade A. He didn't.

The confiture example above is in a powerpoint. And other examples have found their way into our department booklets, as a regular first activity in a new unit.








But more often, it works like this:

1. Pupils have a piece of paper.

2. I say a new word. (Tell any pupils who do know it not to shout out.)

3. Pupils say what the sound of the word makes them think of.

4. I draw it on the board and pupils draw it on their piece of paper.

5. I tell them the real meaning and they write the English and the TL next to their picture.

6. They draw the real thing, incorporating it into their first picture. This is important. If it's two separate pictures the dual coding won't work.

7. I do some testing later to help reinforce retrieval.

8. They never forget the word.

Even the versions that end up in the booklet or on a powerpoint originally started this way, with pupils telling me their word associations and choosing the most memorable ones.

The reasons we do this on paper is in case any of the pictures are highly memorable but too scurrilous to go in exercise books. For example piscine or bragas.

Here's some examples with Year 11 working on Environment Vocabulary.


You can see inundación, where the water goes in and under your house. You can see a fun deer (fundir) who is melting. And a (latex) condom full of tin cans (latas). And an actual explanation of why batteries are called pilas complete with the story of Volta and Galvani's argument about frogs.

And the other reason it's fine to do it on paper, is that the real image is the one in pupils' heads. The pictures on the board will be rubbed out. The piece of paper will be lost. The image in pupils' heads is indelible.

This is why this is an example of Dual Coding. The word is encoded in the pupils minds with the word and the image. It is stored quickly, easily, effectively and permanently. If you are interested in cognitive science, you can't find a better example of Dual Coding. More importantly, if you are interested in teaching vocabulary, it works!






Saturday, 19 November 2022

How the current GCSE works across topics - My Granny went to an aquarium and she doesn't like geography.

 Extra incentive for reading this post. It contains video (click here if it doesn't load) of my very ordinary classroom in case you want a nosey about!



The video shows the set up of the lesson. I have written on the pupils' desks in Spanish (in board pen).  On one side of the classroom, the sequence is:

I like/I love/I don't like        because I can/can't/have to/don't have to

especially if                         but if..., I prefer...

_____ likes / doesn't like...

Then on the desks on the other side of the classroom, I have written (in Spanish):

I went/I was in                    I wanted / ___ wanted

I said... ____ said              I decided / we decided

was ____ing                      I ________ed / ____ __________ed

I would have preferred to ___________

You may recognise this from the original My Granny went to the Aquarium post. Because this lesson is for a Year 10 (beginners) group who have already done the Aquarium lesson. And then recycled it to talk about a Theme Park. I don't really need to write the structures on the desks, because each pupil in the class has ownership of their expression. So by looking round the class, the pupils can remember who says what and build their story. And if someone gets stuck, each pupil can prompt them with their expression.

The original story was something like this:

Me gusta ir al acuario porque me gusta ver los peces, sobre todo si hace mal tiempo, porque si hace buen tiempo prefiero ir a la playa. A mi hermano le gusta tocar las estrellas de mar. 

Fuimos al acuario y yo quería ver los peces. Pero mi hermano dijo, "Quiero tocar una estrella de mar." Entonces decidimos ir a tocar las estrellas de mar. Mi hermano tocaba una estrella y yo sacaba una foto cuando dejé caer mi móvil en el agua. Hubiera preferido ir a la playa.

And they can transform it to come up with things like:

Me encanta ir a un parque de atracciones porque me gusta montar en una montaña rusa. Sobre todo si hace sol, porque si llueve, prefiero ir al acuario. A mi hermano no le gusta montar en las montañas rusas. Prefiere comer refrescos y comer muchos caramelos. 

Fuimos a un parque de atracciones. Yo quería montar en la montaña rusa pero mi hermano quería comer caramelos y beber refresco. Decidimos montar en la montaña rusa. Me divertía mucho pero mi hermano vomitó. Vomitó en mi pelo. Lloré. Me hubiera gustado ir al acuario.

You can see the same structures reappearing in each. These are to meet the AQA criteria of opinions, reasons, examples in different time frames, and narrating events. It's worth pointing out that the two sides to the classroom deliberately correspond to the "two halves" of the game plan for the speaking exam. And crucially, there is a very limited number of verbs for each story. The first one is entirely constructed around to go, to see, to touch, to take photos, to drop. This means pupils can pick four or five verbs and use them to tell a complex story which meets the exam criteria.

As we moved from talking about the aquarium to talking about the theme park, we challenged pupils to do it more and more fluently, independently and spontaneously. The important message to the pupils is that they don't need to learn more Spanish. They need to get better at using it. And we are now carrying this across to a new GCSE topic - talking about school lessons.

So we used the expressions on the desk to reconstruct the aquarium/theme park stories from September. Then we agreed on some easy infinitives to work with for talking about lessons: to talk, to work, to shout, and as a class, we improvised the following story:


I like science because I can talk to Alice, especially if we work together. But if I have to work with Vincent I prefer to work in silence. Unfortunately Vincent likes to work with me. I went to science and I wanted to work with Alice. But Alice didn't want to work with me. I was working in silence but Vincent was talking and the teacher shouted at me. I would have liked to work with Alice.

I don't know who this Vincent is.

They produced it quickly and spontaneously from the repertoire of expressions. We wrote this one on the board together, then made sure everyone could say the whole story. Every version was slightly different, and some pupils can use their repertoire more flexibly than others. You can see in the version on the board, they conjugated the verb we work, which wasn't one of the structures on the desk. This what happens when pupils have a core repertoire: more things stick to the core. The same way once you have a snowball, you can roll it around and more snow will stick to it. What you mustn't do is have an even covering of Spanish (ticking off grammar points on a grid) because it will just all melt.


Saturday, 12 November 2022

Corpus - dead body zombie language

 The exam boards' draft GCSEs they have been working on are out. And I am not going to be commenting on them while they go through the next stage of approval. Apart from to hope that the generally warm initial reception from teachers is taken as a positive. And a little reminder that the flaws in previous GCSEs (Controlled Assessment, target language prompts in Role Plays...) were introduced by the DfE, not the exam boards. The exam boards have the job of coming up with something that meets the stipulations they are given, works for teachers as a course, and works as an exam.

So I am going to try to tear myself back to what I was thinking about last weekend but didn't have the time to write about: Can I get my brain around the rationale for a syllabus based on High Frequency Language as driven by NCELP and OFSTED?

Hopefully since it started in March 2021, one aspect of this blog is an honest and frank attempt to deal fairly with the ideas we are being asked to adopt. And in many cases I am worried more by the unbalanced pushing of ideas to one extreme, rather than against the ideas themselves. I go along with most of the ideas, but I don't go all the way. And I have made tweaks, for example in making grammar more explicit in our booklets, which as a department we are now evaluating. But one thing I haven't posted about, because I just can't get my head around it, is the High Frequency vocabulary approach.

I can only see the clashes and downsides. I will list them and then see if in the process of writing this, I can start to glimpse why there might be a positive side.

1. Is the High Frequency Approach compatible with the Synthetic Grammar Approach?

NCELP and OFSTED are advocating a focus on learning the language as a grammatical system. Explicit and well-sequenced knowledge building up a picture of the linguistic structures. This includes things like deliberately selecting the words to be taught because they exemplify a pattern (grammar or phonics feature). And excluding other words that would distract from the pattern. Yet we know that the most high frequency language is the most highly irregular. Words which are in everyday use get the corners bashed off. Words which are mostly in the cupboard or even still in their box are in pristine condition. 

Here are the most common 100 words in French. They don't fit well with an approach wanting to start with simple clear building blocks. Words like le, en, de, son need a lot of unpacking!

So logically, what words would go best with an approach based on a synthetic language approach, starting from little regular building blocks that can introduce one thing at a time for pupils to deal with? Logically perhaps it would be cognates. There are youtube videos which announce you can learn thousands of Spanish words in minutes. For example by replacing the ty on the end of university to make it into universidad, or opportunity into oportunidad. This approach would seem to be the natural bedfellow of a "one step at a time follow the pattern" syllabus.

If it is true that the syllabus specified the grammar of jouer au foot, jouer du piano but the High Frequency Vocabulary didn't have any sports or instruments, then that's where this should have had a good look at itself and stopped under the weight of its own internal contradictions. But perhaps that story is a myth.

2. Is the Synthetic Grammar Approach compatible with the High Frequency Approach?

That might seem like the same question, but in a recent video Scott Thornbury turned the argument on its head. The High Frequency Language is taken from analysis of corpora of language as used by speakers. What if the study of collocation of words in corpora shows that language is not actually built grammatically at all? Grammar is secondary to idiom. This is the nature of language. Words go together in chunks. If you take the logic of grammar + vocabulary, you end up saying things that are just not said. Examples? Until McDonalds deliberately subverted it, you couldn't use the verb "to love" in the present continuous. The answer to "Who is there?" in French is, "It's me", in Spanish is, "I am me", in English is "It is I" (because the verb to be takes a predicate not an object) but everyone says, "It is me". The grammar is the same in all three languages. But it's not the grammar that determines what you say. The Synthetic Grammar approach is undone by the findings of corpus analysis. It's not how language works at all.

3. Is the High Frequency Approach compatible with Communication?

The "benefit" of a High Frequency vocabulary approach is supposed to be that it pushes us away from lists of random nouns that we've fallen into in order to teach our pupils the plethora of random trivial stuff they might want to say. That it breaks the hold of topics whereby the syllabus is structured by teaching pupils to say things without regard to careful sequencing of the grammar. This is clearly an example of what I mentioned above of an idea which has been pushed too far. Of course I agree that learning should not be a series of "learn to say this and then move on" episodes. It felt a bit like that in the mid 90s, but even then I am sure it was more thought-through than that. But if teaching Pets is to be replaced with teaching nouns you can have which exemplify regular masculine and feminine endings... And we are happy to teach red dog, red tortoise (but not green dog, green tortoise because that requires adjectival agreement and we only teach one thing at a time)... then you can't ask the question, "What pets do you have?" You can only say, "What regular masculine or feminine nouns qualified by an invariable adjective do you have?" So communication has gone out of the window. The corpus approach, together with the synthetic grammar approach has, in a glorious self fulfillment of the word "corpus", led to a dead body of language. A zombie language which is studied for form, not for pupils to create meaning. And of course this reminds us there are dead languages too, which this approach is all in favour of more pupils studying. Precisely because it is an intellectual exercise unsullied by actual foreigners who communicate in the language in their unpredictable idiomatic ways.

4. Is the High Frequency approach compatible with Social Justice?

And if communication has gone out of the window, then so has social justice. Because if mother is High Frequency, but step mother isn't, if Christian is on the list but other religions aren't, if Spain is on the list but Puerto Rico isn't... then this isn't about a plethora of trivia. It's about pupils' lives. Of course the answer then is, "They are not learning to talk about things: They are learning the language." So communication has to go. Because as soon as this hits the real classroom, pupils want to learn to say things. So any High Frequency Vocabulary approach has to be immediately qualified by, "Oh, yes, of course if they ask you can teach them things." Which is an admission of its failure. Yes to: "We need to make sure we address the balance and make sure we teach more of the grammar and more of the High Frequency Words." But No to: "We should build the syllabus out of High Frequency Words."

5. The High Frequency approach WOULD be compatible with authentic materials.

One area where a High Frequency Vocabulary approach would be useful would be if pupils were learning through reading or listening to lots of rich authentic materials. So a syllabus based on a secure knowledge of non topic words, word classes other than nouns, words which have more of a role in sentence building than in their own meaning, words with a core meaning but multiple other uses (such as "de"). The words which make up the majority of most texts, as NCELP often say. This would make so much sense if our pupils were exposed to a diet of books, stories, non fiction, documentaries. The texts would be a good and natural source of the high frequency words. And the high frequency words would be the key to understanding the texts and not just guessing at meaning from cognates and topic words. BUT, the OFSTED approach is that we should be very cautious with authentic or even modified texts. Pupils should be exposed to texts which are artificially (synthetically) created to model and rehearse the language and grammar patterns pupils are learning. They want us to believe pupils read by parsing known grammar and vocabulary to arrive at meaning. So again, the High Frequency Vocabulary approach is incompatible with other aspects of this project.


There are other arguments too. In the US, teachers fight against the idea that there exists Plato's ideal form of the language. For them, the classroom is a communicative space. And the language in that classroom is valid language. Their pupils are emerging speakers of a language, transitioning from monolingual to bilingual. And the language that matters is the developing language of their pupils. They approach this from a social justice perspective, resisting the idea of an imperialist "correct version" of the language. But going back to his video, Scott Thornbury resists it from a linguistic perspective. Having already pointed out that corpus analysis shows that language does not equal grammar + vocabulary, he goes on to say that language learning does not happen by breaking down the linguist's language in to what seem like logical chunks of grammar and predetermined vocabulary. You must watch the video for his omelette metaphor.

This is all good fun and I enjoy thinking about it. Even if I couldn't get anywhere near finding an acceptable rationale for structuring the curriculum around High Frequency Vocabulary. But what really counts is what happens in the classroom. Day in day out, we find our pupils want to communicate. They want to know how to say things. Often personal, sometimes bizarre, maybe cultural. Sometimes which fit in with what they can say, sometimes which just have to be learned as a chunk. And we wouldn't want to remove that element of language learning. For the pupils to be focused on what they can say and what they want to be able to say, is a good thing. The teacher has a vision of how their language is going to accumulate and be conceptualised. And may increasingly share that with the pupils. But when you get in the classroom, meaning and communication come first. Watch Scott Thornbury's omelette video and it will become clear why. You don't make an omelette by chopping up the body of a dead omelette.

So, is the NCELP-OFSTED explicit knowledge about language curriculum a logical clearly thought-through solution? Or is it a mishmash of political fads and individuals' personal preferences in a barely coherent project? The role of High Frequency Language, incompatible with so many of their other approaches suggests it may not be as rigorous as they would like to pretend.









Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Reading in Modern Languages in 2022.

 In the light of a recent national Ofsted report on supporting pupils struggling with Reading, our school has been doing work on each subject department's approach to texts.

As a department, we have thought about the texts, tasks and strategies we use with learners, and how we make them accessible to pupils with different reading ages.

Here's a summary:

Pupils with Lower Reading Age:

Pre-engage with pupils on cultural knowledge, including knowledge of local places and activities.We have pupils who don't know where Cromer is or don't know what a Leisure Centre is.
Integrate Listening and Reading – teacher reads text aloud and pupils follow the text.
Use the key words/pictures/actions/sounds to support phonics throughout KS3.
Use similar texts with variations. Including revisiting texts and language from previous units.
Use parallel texts in English and French to ask pupils to find words.
Strategies of using the Questions (in English, multiple choice, gap fill etc)to make the meaning of the text accessible.
Identify topic vocabulary. Identify powerful non topic / high frequency vocabulary.Identify grammar features.Use these step by step strategies to build up precise understanding of the meaning of the text.
Texts with very high % of known words and grammar which pupils are readingin order to practise recall and see the language modelled.Including structures which are revisited across topics.
Integrate teaching of Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing.

Pupils with Average Reading Age:

Check prior cultural knowledge.
Use key words to reinforce phonics and anticipate problems when reading aloud or “silently”.(Pupils should still pronounce words correctly in their heads!)
Strategies of using the Questions to access the meaning of the text.For example the order of the questions helps locate the position of the information in the text.
Use texts with similar language but with the information structured differently.
Use parallel texts in English and French to ask pupils to find new wordsincluding where the structures or word order are different.
Build knowledge of powerful non topic language and grammatical forms to access precise meanings.
Analyse the quality of texts as models for improving their own writing.
Texts with high % of known words and grammar which pupils are readingin order to see the language modelled. Including structures which are revisited across topics.
Integrate the teaching of Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing.

Pupils with Higher Reading Age:

Read texts in order to access new cultural knowledge.
Use texts to introduce new vocabulary for pupils to deduce from context and co-text.
Use reading aloud to check fluent phonics.
Strategies for dealing with texts with more unknown words or structures,to be deduced from the construction of meaning.
Expect pupils to process known words including powerful non topic wordsand grammar features to read precise meanings.
Encourage pupils to take responsibility for noting down and using new words in their own work.
Use some authentic texts or modified texts.Or texts designed for reading for information or pleasure, not just as models of language.


I would be interested to hear what MFL teachers think about this and whether it fits with how you use reading. Hopefully there's something of a continuum of strategies from scaffolded to independent which teachers can deploy flexibly to support and encourage learners.

But this comes with an important corollary...

Following the controversial Ofsted "Research Review" in Modern Languages, we have retreated from authentic texts or even modified texts. We have decreased the use of texts for information or reading for pleasure, and instead we use texts to rehearse and model the language we expect pupils to be learning to speak and write. We create texts using a high percentage of language pupils know. And we don't expect them to make cognitive leaps in deducing meaning, supposedly beyond their "novice" level. We have been told that learners arrive at meaning by parsing known words and grammar, and require texts where over 90% of the words are known. We were worried that we were labelling pupils with higher literacy levels as "good at languages" and pupils with weaker literacy as "bad at languages". As a result, we have changed our assessment texts to make sure they simply test pupils' knowledge of language they have learned.

Looking at the profile of our learners, and the strength of reading in our school, I think we are going to have to re-introduce texts which pupils read for meaning: to find information, to learn new things, and for pleasure.




You may like to look at this post on Teaching Reading for Pleasure in the 1990s for comparison's sake.

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Has it all been a big horrendous mistake?

 I need more space than a tweet to explain why I think the new GCSE that we may end up with is just a big horrendous mistake. So here goes:

The reforms in the GCSE (alongside Ofsted and NCELP) seem to want an end to random vocabulary items, and an overall accumulation of language rather than topics. I have said in previous posts that the current GCSE is an excellent fit for this. The Speaking and Writing exams are best taught with a core repertoire of language rather than by topics. And the Listening and Reading exams are largely built out of high frequency non topic language. And it's the non topic language which is vital for the questions and the markscheme.

My contention in a previous post was that the GCSE panel may have been familiar with the current GCSE in the specification, but not with how it has worked out in practice. I would say in 2019, I hadn't fully fathomed it either. For example, on paper, there is a very long list of random topic vocabulary. Which it turns out teachers can ignore because the key to the Listening and Reading exams is the non topic vocabulary.

I have said all this before, but today I tried to explain this to a member of the GCSE panel on twitter. I couldn't understand how it could be decided in 2019 to scrap the then brand new GCSE. Which had been presented as a generational shift reintroducing translation and the rigour of written exams. His answer was that in 2019 it was clear that the recently introduced GCSE was not working. He said that there was clamour on facebook from teachers, and he said that no-one could defend it.

Is this why we've been through all this? Because of clamour on facebook from teachers struggling with what was then the new specification?

I would say that we were daunted. We were daunted by the long vocabulary list. And the amount of content we thought you would have to get through. And how to prepare pupils to talk on so many topics. But teachers and the exam boards have found solutions to these issues. 

We are not daunted anymore by the long vocabulary list. We know to focus on the non topic section at the start of the list.  AQA do drop in one or two of the more random words into the exam each year ("hake", "hooligan"...) but otherwise the key is to learn the non topic words. And the overload of topics? This is precisely what has made the current GCSE such a good fit for what the GCSE panel say they want. It's the number of topics which has pushed teachers away from rote learning and towards a core of language that works across topics.

I was always baffled that the new GCSE should be based on the 2016 review into teaching in the landscape of the old Controlled Assessment GCSE which destroyed language learning. But if it was because of the "clamour" from teachers adapting to the first cohorts taking the new GCSE, then this is such a tragic mistake. Because those adaptations, moving away from rote learning and towards accumulating a core of language, are exactly what the new GCSE panel ended up prescribing.

And because the current GCSE is such a good fit for these aims, there is the distinct possibility that the new one actually ends up as a retreat from this. The new vocabulary list may have fewer random topic items. But it will still have them. And this time, instead of being an irrelevant half-forgotten list in the spec, it will be central to how the exam is built. The boards will need to construct their texts and tasks from these vocabulary items, making sure they are all tested in rotation. And if the focus switches to testing pupils' knowledge of items rather than how well they can use their language to express themselves, then the focus on a core repertoire will be diminished, with a topic approach strengthened. And if the Speaking tasks are to require short accurate answers phrasebook style, then rote learning will again score higher than where pupils accumulate a repertoire they can deploy. Think of how the current Role Play works, where pupils who try to extend or express themselves score worse than someone with a ready answer. This is the sort of task the panel's brief to the boards calls for.

So the new GCSE panel may not have realised just what a good fit the current GCSE is for their declared aims. And they may have created something that actually works out worse. We are in the hands of the exam boards. We don't know what they are going to propose. Will they be able to keep a Conversation in the exam? Where there can be interaction and follow up questions? And the pupil is rewarded for extending and developing answers spontaneously drawing on a core of language they can use to express themselves? We can only hope the exam boards are wiser and better listeners compared to what we have seen in the political decision making.

Sunday, 16 October 2022

Unintended Consequences. How the new GCSE may end up moving us in the opposite direction to what they wanted.

 One of the "selling points" of the new GCSE was always its defined vocabulary list. Firstly claiming to reduce the amount of random topic vocabulary and secondly to boost the important high frequency vocabulary. On the one hand this was supposed to be attractive to teachers who find aspects of the current Listening and Reading exams frustrating. And on the other hand it was meant to suit a curriculum which is no longer based around topics. Instead pupils should have one long learning experience, accumulating language which is always useful and never abandoned.

This is not what is going to happen. The new GCSE is going to have unintended consequences. And the biggest is going to be an increase in the amount of topic vocabulary to be learned.

Currently, the GCSE specs have a ridiculous list of topic vocabulary. Which you can safely ignore. For the Speaking and Writing exam, teach your pupils the core repertoire of opinions, reasons and tenses. Across topics. As a cumulative learning experience, focused on how well they can deploy their language. For the Listening and Reading, focus on the high frequency non-topic vocabulary. These words are key to how the exam boards construct the texts. And key to the markscheme, where pupils who understand the text but omit these key words don't get the mark.

The GCSE review panel don't know that the current GCSE matches their objectives so well. Because their brief was explicitly to respond to the 2016 Review of the landscape of the previous GCSE. And because where they are familiar with the new GCSE, it is maybe the Edexcel version. Or perhaps they are familiar with the spec (and its irrelevant vocabulary list) but not with actually teaching the course.

So how is this going to be different in the new GCSE? The vocabulary list will be shorter. But this time you WILL have to learn it. The exam boards will have to make sure that all the items on the list do come up in the exam, rotating the content and checking that words are being tested. People attending NCELP KS4 training report that it is being sold as "a big vocabulary test".

So you could well end up with an exam where in practice you have to learn more topic words than in the current one. And skew your curriculum away from a core repertoire that works across topics.

The exam boards are going to have to pick contexts and construct texts that work using the words on the list. And they will be keen to make sure there's as much continuity and as little change as they can manage, in order to ensure comparability of standards, and to create a specification that they know teachers will be able to opt for with confidence.

There was clamour in the MFL community for new content based on the culture and Culture of target language speaking countries. It would have been a spectacular opportunity for the GCSE review panel, if they wanted to see progress away from the First Person narratives and diet of opinions and reasons, to work with the community and make this happen. It didn't happen. I don't know what contexts the exam boards will come up with, but I suspect in the face of changes, they will try to stick as closely as they can to what we are familiar with.

15% of the words on the list can be specified by the exam board to fit the contexts they decide on. They are going to have to create texts and tasks year on year for the specified contexts using the limited number of words. So when it comes to choosing the other 85% of their words from the "High Frequency Words" list, they are going to need to chose as many words as possible which can be directly linked to one of the chosen contexts. And with this exam, you WILL have to know these words. It's a test of the specified knowledge.

So in terms of Vocabulary, we may well end up with an exam which has fewer items on the list than the current GCSE in the specification. But in practice it will feel like an exam with more vocabulary, including more "topic" vocabulary that you actually need to memorise. This has implications for teaching at KS4 and also for how the curriculum is organised. And also for KS3. I've been rewriting the curriculum and the resources, but I am reluctant to make further changes until I know more about what is going to happen at GCSE.

This may be where I should end this post. But there are more worries perhaps for a future post. If the idea of pupils expressing themselves and showing off what they can do with their language is to be replaced by testing of knowledge and accuracy, then there is a risk that this will reintroduce rote learning and phrasebook learning. Think of what currently can happen on the Role Play in the existing GCSE. A pupil who sets out to express themself and try to say what they want, communicating and extending their ideas, will score worse than a pupil who has a quick ready response. The new Speaking exam criteria given to the boards specify this kind of short accurate answer. It's hard to say more without knowing more about what is coming. I suppose we have to trust to the expertise of the exam boards and whether they listen to teachers more than the GCSE review panel were prepared to do.



Saturday, 8 October 2022

Ofsted Inspectors' Questions and Curriculum Progression in MFL

 So this week's big story was the leaking of Ofsted Inspectors' Question Crib Sheets, on the website Quality Schools. The MFL one doesn't really hold any surprises - it's based on asking how you ensure progression in the three "Pillars" of Phonics, Grammar and High Frequency Vocabulary.

There's one section that has got me wondering. There's a section of questions for Inspectors to ask staff to see if they are on top of exactly how and when certain features are taught:


Now we know that the curriculum envisaged by Ofsted and NCELP and the new GCSE is a curriculum based NOT on growing the learners' language - their evolving conceptualisations, repertoire, and ability to use the language to interact with meaning and to express themselves. Instead it is a curriculum that takes the linguist's language and chops it up and tries to reconstitute it. (As in Scott Thornbury's metaphorical rubbery omelette analogy.)

The thing is, I have it very clear in our curriculum how we take the raw ingredients and carefully let them cook into the learners' language. What I don't know is where Ofsted get their idea of what the lumps of chopped up cold omelette should be. The quoted question above shows some random spot check items: agreement, word order, comparatives, superlatives.

If you ask me when we teach comparatives do I have an answer ready? Isn't it literally just the word "más"? What else are they expecting me to have planned? How have I organised the curriculum to accommodate radical changing verbs, impersonal expressions, adjectives before a vowel like nouvel, verbs where the spelling follows the sound like mangeons? These are hardly the architectural pillars of a curriculum. And it's starting to sound like a tick box curriculum on paper. Not something robust that builds what you want pupils to know or be able to do.

And I know it's just a spot check random example, but it seems adjective heavy. And in our curriculum we're not big on adjectives. You can't spend 5 years on "it is..." And one thing the current GCSE doesn't ask for is description. I don't ask, Décris ta chambre... Comment est ta soeur... Because the criteria want rather more than is + adjective. Even if you can say Elle est plus intelligente que moi.

Is there a list of things that the language curriculum has to be made up of? The NCELP curriculum isn't compulsory. The GCSE syllabus isn't supposed to determine KS3. The 2016 Review had idiosyncratic things to say about verb paradigms. What is it that Ofsted are actually meant to be inspecting? It's whether we are teaching the National Curriculum. Which sets out what we are meant to be teaching. Spoiler alert. It does not mention the comparative or the superlative.

It's worth going back and looking at the National Curriculum to remind yourself (and Ofsted if need be) what it is we are supposed to be teaching. Here's the central points:

It should enable pupils to understand and communicate personal and factual information that goes beyond their immediate needs and interests, developing and justifying points of view in speech and writing, with increased spontaneity, independence and accuracy... Write prose using an increasingly wide range of grammar and vocabulary, write creatively to express their own ideas and opinions, and translate short written text accurately into the foreign language.

I'm glad I checked. Because that is exactly what we do. I am not going to lose sleep over whether a member of the department may or may not be able to answer the question, "When do you teach the superlative?" Because I will already have told the Ofsted inspector that we follow the National Curriculum and develop what pupils can do with the language, with increasing spontaneity, independence and accuracy in order to understand and communicate, developing and justifying points of view.

So if I didn't start with the linguist's map of the whole language and chop it up like a dead omelette, how have I structured our curriculum progression?

By what pupils can do with the language. And how well they can do it in terms of expression, independence, spontaneity, coherence and sophistication. That's our curriculum progression model.



















These are the exemplars for our Key Performance Indicators for Year 8 and Year 9. They are based around pupils developing and being able to deploy their repertoire across topics. So everything builds up, and nothing is left behind. By the end, they can give and justify opinions, talk about other people, give examples in past and future and narrate anecdotes.

The second half of the KPI sheet shows the other half of the progression model. Not what they are learning but how well they can deploy it. With increasing expression, coherence, accuracy and spontaneity. Here is the Year 8 model:


So I have kept this overall vision of progression which seems eminently compatible with the National Curriculum. With pupils learning to speak and write and express themselves in French. And I have rewritten the booklets to make all the grammar, phonics and non-topic vocabulary more explicit. Because we do teach word order, adjectival agreement, irregular adjectives, the words more  and most, infinitives, tenses, possessives. And we teach them in a way that ensures they become integrated with the body of language the pupil is accumulating and can deploy. Far from being incompatible with teaching the nuts and bolts of the language, a curriculum which expects pupils to communicate using the language REQUIRES them to be acquiring an understanding of how the language works. In order to express themselves.

And what if an inspector asks a pupil about their learning. Is it terrible if the pupil says, "I'm learning to talk about my free time"? Instead of saying, "I am learning to use verb + infinitive constructions to give and justify opinions"? Surely we want pupils to feel they are learning to communicate. And that this is what drives their learning and their progress. The planned curriculum can show how learning to talk about free time is bringing in tenses, adjectives, comparatives, superlatives. And the teacher may want pupils as part of the learning process to start to think about what is the most powerful and transferable language. But isn't it entirely natural for the learner to be focused on meaning, expression and what they can do in the language?


Saturday, 1 October 2022

Longest Sentence or Bust!

 My normal approach to Open Evening is to showcase examples of creative and communicative outcomes in our curriculum like the Year 7 French Art Exhibition. This year, on Monday lesson 2 I was told I needed a more exciting activity for Open Evening on Thursday. By the time the International Leaders met at lunchtime, I'd made one: World's Longest French Sentence or Bust!


These are not dice. They only have four faces with French on, not six. And you don't roll them. You spin them. Skillfully between two index fingers. The International Leaders stand in a row as a human fruit machine. And they invite the Year 6 pupils to make the World's Longest French Sentence. With the warning that if you carry on too long, it will say something nonsensical and you will be out!

The boxes are always spun in order. So you can see the sides facing the punter currently say, I don't like to visit a castle with my family but... And the sentence will always be grammatically correct. The Year 6 pupils say when they want each International Leader in turn to stop spinning.

The conjunction on the end sends you back to the first box to go round again. So you could end up with, I don't like to visit a castle with my family but I love to swim in the sea in France and I like to eat snails in a hotel but I prefer to take photos in Paris...

As you build the sentence, the International Leaders read it to you in their beautiful French. And translate it into English. And another International Leader writes it up on the whiteboard in their beautiful handwriting. Before each spin they give you the chance to decide whether to stick or twist. Because you might up saying, I like to take photos on the beach with my family but I don't like to take photos on the beach with my family. The most common way of going Bust was ...and I like to swim in the sea in Paris. I must say the International Leaders were very strict about what they considered an incoherent sentence. Even so, the record was a 40 word sentence.

There were others who managed more than 40 words but at around the 45 word mark they went bust and were erased from the board. Sadly I didn't get a photo of the winning sentence so you will have to imagine it in all its beauty. If you were going to do this activity for your own Open Evening, you could issue little cards to say, "I took part in..." and take away a little certificate with your score.

It was fun to take part in, fun to watch and simple to run. Having said that, I don't think it would have been any of those things had we not had an excellent team of International Leaders making it fun and professionally run. Parents liked the way you could produce something impressive from simple building blocks. I was impressed with the Year 9s' fluent pronunciation, confident translation and tidy board writing. The element of competition and jeopardy was also an attraction. By comparison, nobody went on the gimkit game on the board all evening!

Would I use it in class? Yes, but not with these boxes for spinners. We already do a lot of work that starts with creating randomised grammatically correct sentences. This post talks about how randomisation is one step in getting pupils to confidently produce longer answers in French. And then moving on to the task of curating meaning and coherence. This is an important message in our curriculum: saying things in French isn't hard. What we work on is making what we say more coherent, developed, personal, expressive.

So instead of sets of spinning boxes, you could play the same stick, twist or bust game with a Keep Talking sheet or a Dice Game sheet. I would probably also get pupils to write down their answers in felt tip on the table - you want them to write quickly without worrying about neatness, without the writing getting in the way of the speedy generation of multiple sentences. And erasing any that go wrong. You could ask them to do the activity without writing the words down. But then the job of remembering 40+ word sentences and assessing them for internal consistency becomes a task in itself!



Saturday, 17 September 2022

Learning pupils' names - modelling learning

 Two weeks in and I have learned the names of my five Year 9 groups and my two Year 7 groups. Very deliberately, and using it to talk to pupils about learning.

I'll tell you what I do. It's very basic and I'm not suggesting you do it the same way I do. It's just the way I've always done it because I can't think of any other way. But I do think it's important and interesting to be able to use it to show pupils the learning process, with the emphasis on process.

Because I haven't finished learning the names of those 200 pupils. It's an on-going process...

When the pupils come in, I sit them randomly and I take the register. Because I have to. And I use it as a way to check the pronunciation of any names I might be unfamiliar with and spot any spellings that might trip me up.

Then I go round the class, ask each pupil their name and write it on a seating plan. I check the spelling of their names, including any contractions. I'm usually quite good at remembering these from the register or at least remembering to focus on tricky spellings. Double letters, silent letters, vowel combinations. Pupils appreciate you wanting to get it right. But I don't dwell on quirks, as names can also be very sensitive. But it is important to at some time point out that we have to focus on pronunciation and spelling as well as memory. All through this process, I am modelling deliberate learning.

After every four or five pupils, I go back and test myself on their names so far. Without looking at what I've written. It could be stressful, because pupils don't want to be the one that you've forgotten. I talk about this. I let them know that putting pressure on me won't help. To learn, I have to be relaxed and prepared to have a go. And getting one wrong will hopefully mean that I actually end up remembering it better. I don't rush through the class. There's no point trying to get round the whole class and realising you've not tested yourself enough as you went. The same with the pupils' vocabulary learning. If they have a list of words to learn, don't rush through. Of course, when I get to the last pupils as I go round the class, I've tested myself on their names fewer times, so we talk about that too. And the fact that I am going to learn all their names. Not without mistakes, not without it taking time. But I will learn them. And it's the same with their French. Just as I wouldn't stop with half the class and say I couldn't learn the rest, or if there's someone whose name escapes me or I muddle up with someone else... I will keep going until I know them, and it's the same with French. You have to keep going, accept you're going to get some wrong, but confident that you will end up learning the words.

I talk to them about what I am doing by constantly testing myself: Testing isn't something that happens at the end of learning. You don't do "learning" for a bit and then have a test to try to catch you out. Testing is learning. I learn their names by challenging myself to remember them. One pupil this week said, "Why don't you get us to wear name badges?" Easy answer: Because the teachers who get you to wear name badges get your names right, but they don't learn your name. That hit home, with lots of nodding and agreement. And I mentioned it to my other classes who agreed and could also link it to what happens when they are doing French. If they rely on their booklets for everything, it helps, but it's better to challenge yourself to try to remember it. Even if that means getting it wrong - the ones you get wrong often turn out to be the ones you remember most strongly!

I also point out that I am remembering them in the order of where they sit. Just as they might remember a French word as the one at the top or bottom of a list, or which word it was next to. If I can't remember their name, I ask them to tell me the first letter. Just as they can uncover the first letter of the French word and see if that helps. I go back to the register list and identify them in alphabetical order, rather than by going round the room. I warn them that if I meet them in the corridor, then they should say hello to me and I will try to greet them by name. Just as they will have to recognise French words in context, not in a list.

We do get started with the French, but throughout the first lesson, I will always interact with pupils by name. And I tell them that although they think I've learned their names, I haven't. And that I will have to continue to test myself, and not worry about getting them wrong.

Next lesson, we see if I can still remember their names. And talk about the curve of forgetting. And how it's entirely normal for the brain to let go of things. But with pupils and their names, it's also important to keep hold of it. And French words too, obviously. So with time, we start to forget but if you catch it in time it helps strengthen memories. But if you leave it too long, it's gone and you have to start all over again. So I do some homework. I write their names in my markbook. I put their names on a seating plan on the system. Even so, they can see I have started to forget. As the term gets underway and they start having homework set, I remind them of this.

And there are different ways to test myself. When I give out the booklets, they were collected in desk by desk, but I still give them out, trying to match individual pupils to the name on the booklet. I do the register as a matching exercise. And I continue to test myself every time I interact with a pupil, using their name.

Throughout the year, I can refer back to these first weeks. The testing, the having a go, the low-stakes, the first letter clues, words in order, out of order, in different contexts, spelling, pronunciation, muddling one word with another, forgetting, homework, and taking time and effort because you will learn it.

It also keeps the brain alive!


Friday, 12 August 2022

Introducing the idea of a Game Plan in KS3

 You may have read previous posts about using a "Game Plan" as an extended metaphor for preparing the language needed for Speaking and Writing at GCSE. Today's post is about building up to that Game Plan, starting in Year 8, in the booklets I am rewriting.

What I am trying to do in rewriting the booklets is show that deliberately teaching meticulously sequenced language items is not incompatible with teaching pupils to express themselves and develop how well they can use their language. Or, to put it the other way round, to show that a curriculum based on developing how well pupils can use their language and express themselves, is not incompatible with careful, deliberate and coherent sequencing of the language.

(It still beats me why anyone would think that by espousing one you have to abandon the other.)

I am working on Year 8 Unit 3 Free Time. This builds on the previous two units in Year 8 on Town and School. Pupils are getting better and better at developing answers which give opinions and justify them using can / can't / have to / want to. So at the end of the previous unit, a typical answer might look like this: J'adore la géographie parce que je peux travailler dans un groupe. Et le professeur est sympa parce que normalement je peux parler avec mes amis si je veux. Mais en maths on doit travailler en silence. Je préfère la géographie.

Pupils are working on developing answers with increasing coherence, spontaneity and independence in speaking and writing. With lots of focus on the quality of the answer, developing one idea rather than stringing ideas together. And focus on the process - what can pupils do with and without support, how can we reduce the cognitive load of thinking up what to say, with activities like Being Ben. These are aspects of our curriculum with a strong literacy and oracy foundation, and based on the fundamentals of learning a language not only in order to communicate but by dint of being challenged to express yourself using what you know. I am not prepared to relinquish them to a doctrine that says communication places obstacles in the way of pupils' learning and that self-expression has to wait until "expert" level is reached.

That previous paragraph wasn't a digression. It was a statement of the content and purpose of the unit. In terms of new language content, we (re)introduce: the present tense of -er verbs, the present tense of the verb aller, the perfect tense in the first person.

What I want to show with the Game Plan idea, is that these are not introduced for the sake of it. They dovetail in to the pupils' growing repertoire of language. And we teach them specific ways and triggers for deploying the new language in order to continue developing the quality of their answers.

Here's a screen shot for the tactics for deploying -er verbs. Have a look at the two examples and see if you can spot the tactics before looking at the answer.

Here's what we get pupils to do next:

So they take a model, typical of the type of answer they have been giving up to now, and they work out how to deploy the new language to take it on to the next level. Their writing has had references to with my friends or with my family. Now these are exploited as a trigger, to use the conjugated -er verbs they are learning. To add them on to their repertoire, and build routines so that as they speak and write, the next idea flows coherently from what they have just said. Every time you say, with my friends, use a verb in the 1st person plural. Every time you say, with my sister, follow it up with a verb saying what she does.

The Game Plan idea continues when the verb aller is introduced. Again, the new language is introduced so that it extends the repertoire. And pupils think tactically about when to deploy it, building routines to extend and develop their answers.


Another example:


As well as looking at individual tactics, the overall Game Plan works as a framework for writing and speaking:




I think you've got the idea by now, but we can finish it off by adding the perfect tense:



Just in case, I should make it clear that there's a lot more in the booklet and a lot more in lessons than these Game Plan activities shown here. They appear regularly as part of how to use and deploy the pupils' language as part of a growing repertoire.

It's part of understanding that communication and self expression aren't something that just happens. Or aren't something too demanding that has been an undesirable obstacle to learning. Communication is like everything else. It needs work, needs developing. And while you work on developing communication, you are practising working on the language. There's no conflict between the two at all. Absolutely none.




Sunday, 7 August 2022

Explicit and Implicit Learning - rewriting the Year 7 Unit on Food.

 This is NOT a post about whether you say, "Je n'ai jamais mangé un croissant" or "Je n'ai jamais mangé de croissants."

It's a post about how we structure and sequence the curriculum.

We are supposed to be at a time of transition from a curriculum built around topics and situations, to a curriculum built around knowledge of the grammatical system. Supposedly we have favoured topics, ticking off things pupils can say and situations they can deal with. The grammar is supposed to have been incidental and randomly sequenced according to the demands of the topic, not the logic of the language.

Of course this isn't true. We have curricula which cleverly intertwine grammar and communication, visiting and revisiting, using and recycling grammar, in a process of meeting, spotting patterns, practising, applying, and transferring to a new topic in an ever-growing repertoire of language.

Confident in the statements of that last paragraph, I am re-writing all the KS3 booklets, to make the grammar and phonics sequencing much more explicit. I am trying to find the balance between the two caricature extremes and show that we do manage to develop grammar AND pupils' ability to use the language very much in symbiosis.

I have done half of Year 7, half of Year 8 and half of Year 9. With no real pitfalls yet. Year 7 has been the hardest because we don't want lessons to be booklet based. It's about interaction and using the language. So I've had to dabble in powerpoints as well as the booklets. But now in the Year 7 unit on Food, I have hit some issues that bring us back to the central question.

And it is around the words some / any / not any.

In the first unit, we have a fairly traditional start. Where pupils meet the indefinite article  un / une to talk about a brother, a sister, a dog, a cat and other animals. In the second unit, we deliberately move to something pupils won't have done in Primary school, and work on describing artworks for an exhibition. This sees further work on gender and adjectival agreement. And focuses on the definite article the. "Il y a une licorne rose. La licorne est sur le pont." So far so good. 

The picture is supposed to be that definite articles and indefinite articles are picked up in the next unit on Food, and joined by the partitive "some." It makes sense, and it's what we've always done: j'aime le pain. J'ai mangé un croissant. Je voudrais du lait.

And pupils always love this Keep Talking Sheet, that means they can say great things right from the first lesson.


So pretty soon, they can talk spontaneously and write like this:


No problem. Except this year it was. I'd been talking to the group about du, de la, des. And this was the pupil's first draft. Along with his comment.



It seems that not only does he not understand how to change the into some. It has also thrown him off being able to write enough instead of agonising over which one to put. And worse, he's written le hamburgers and la fromage.

This throws up several interesting questions. You could say that the fact that he's thinking about it, and cares about it, and with his booklet he is immediately able to correct it, all means that he's going through an important process of conceptualisation and understanding. Or you could say that what he needs is simply a lot more input so that le fromage becomes automatic. In both cases this is accepting that this is not the finished article and that the learning process will continue.

You might be relaxed about the mistake. Either because you think it just doesn't matter or is not the priority, or because you know it will slowly be sorted out. Or you might believe that it's a disaster because la fromage might become fossilised and that pupils shouldn't be asked to express themselves at this stage because unsupported use of the language leads to errors. I have written here about these different attitudes to error.


But there's a further question. Why are we teaching le, un, du? In particular, why are we teaching du? Because it's fundamental to the grammar? We've taken the logical language system as a linguist would see it, and we've identified this as a key feature that pupils must master? 

Scott Thornbury has written about the difference between chopping up "the linguist's grammar" and building up "the learner's grammar" here.

There has always been this difference in approach. The new element is that we are being asked to think of it as a social justice issue. In the past, maybe we thought that for the pupils struggling most with languages, it was important to concentrate on communication, on opinions, on the topic words. And that the little words weren't important, shouldn't get in the way, could be quickly passed over. We are being told to question this. What if confusion around these high frequency little words is precisely what is frustrating learners? And what if these are the learners with less cultural capital in terms of linguistic confidence, and who are the least able to figure these words out for themselves by osmosis?

So, for example in Year 8, a pupil who says j'aime au foot or je joue le foot. What you want is for them to be able to talk confidently. Does this mean not worrying about the confusion, because getting stuck on that is an obstacle to communication? Or does it mean you should sort it out, because the confusion is an obstacle to confidence in language-learning? 

Further questions: Do they need more input so this doesn't happen? Explanation? Or careful and deliberate sequencing of how each one is introduced and when they are contrasted? Or is it perfectly fine to go through a period of confusing the two because it will sort itself out or because it's not worth getting stuck on?

So when we plan our curriculum, is grasping du more important than learning the words for fromage, pain, viande? Is du more important than learning to give opinions? Is du more important than being able to ask for food in a restaurant? We are being invited to consider that the answer is Yes it is.

If it's so important, should we be planning where pupils are going to meet du again? Apart from when they talk about food, when do pupils need to know some? Year 8 is built around saying things like: J'aime aller au parc avec mes amis surtout s'il fait beau parce que je peux jouer au tennis si je veux. Not a du, de la, des in sight.

And when they do meet it, it doesn't translate as "some": il fait du soleil, je fais du skate. An explanation here is not going to be better than just knowing it as a chunk.

The non-topic approach is meant to be about getting away from lists of nouns and away from chunks. And shifting the focus to the high frequency words. So in j'ai un chien, it is j'ai and un which are the important words in the new approach. Our Year 8 curriculum is much stronger on verbs than on nouns. But because of that, there's hardly any du, de la, des either. Should I be bringing in more nouns, so we can have more articles definite, indefinite and partitive?

What to do? Is du so conceptually important that we need to build in more use for it throughout Year 8 and Year 9? Surely not. Not just for the sake of it. Or is it OK to only use it when a topic requires it? Or if it's not that prevalent, maybe we should we avoid it and get rid of je voudrais du pain and just stick to j'aime le pain? Because otherwise we're letting a focus on use and communication get in the way of sequencing the language properly.

So what have I done? I have reinstated quantities. Un kilo de, une barquette de... Which seems as if I am going down the communicative transactional route. But it's in order to get at the core meaning behind du, de la, des which is that de  means of. Then I'm keeping everything we used to do. With some explicit focus on j'aime LE pain, je mange DES céréales, je ne mange pas DE viande. But that doesn't mean explanation. Or over focusing on it to tie pupils in knots. It means being careful how each is introduced and contrasted, with pupils and lessons focused on meaning and communicating about food.

I don't want to be over-thinking the curriculum around this. It brings me back to the idea that teachers had this in balance. Why? Because it has evolved that way. A curriculum honed over decades. Keeping a balance between meaning and form, communication and concepts. Messing about with it, trying to produce something meticulous on paper is bound to produce something that doesn't always get it quite right in the classroom. I'll keep going. And of course, what matters is what happens in the classroom next year! Watch this space...