Wednesday, 31 August 2011


The nice people at Linguascope are organising a national competition called Linguatrivia for Y7 French students. There is a small entry fee for schools whose students take part.  The dedicated website has a practice test and full instructions about how to enter. The deadline for entry is early in 2012, so there's plenty of time to think about it. Looks like an excellent initiative. There are some very nice prizes on offer and apparently everyone wins a prize! I might have to enter under a pseudonym.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Fin de vacances

It's been a good few weeks. First I had the Year 8 French trip to Normandy. Nice to have Elspeth me for the last one. The kids were great and we had good fun as a staff. First timers Liz and Arwen were brilliant and we even got Glenn to sign up for Facebook. The coach broke down on the way home, but that didn't spoil a very enjoyable and stress-free time.

My brother-in-law and family came to stay and it was good to spend some time with them, seeing the three children growing up, doing some local visits (Newby Hall and Harewood House). The Himalayan garden and vegetable garden are amazing at Harewood. We had fun digging up potatoes and carrots from the new vegetable beds in our totally revamped garden designed by Elspeth. We've had some fabulous cabbages, spinach, carrots, lettuce, beetroot, swede, sugar snap peas, potatoes and ripening tomatoes. If you have never grown your own carrots, try it - they taste superb.

We got to Puyravault by August 10th. Our friends Douglas and Isabelle came for a few days. Anne, Tony and family had stayed at the house just before us and left us supplies of wine and ice cream. We always have fun together cycling, eating and lounging on the beach. The Leeds-Nantes route is really handy. We spent time with Jacques and Catherine, plus some of their family, including baby Perrine. We read a bit (Ben Elton for me, Philip Pullman for Elspeth), drank rosé (Plessis-Duval Cabernet d'Anjou is "the one") watched Boston Legal and The Killing on DVD, including one marathon eight episode session of the latter, cycled, walked, sat on the beach and popped over to St Jean d'Angely to see friends. Did a little decorating in the house and played the drums, though not much. Pleasant slow drive back up to Boulogne, avoiding motorways for a second time. Just like the old days.

So, back to school on Thursday and time to get the brain back in gear, with new colleagues, new classes and old friends. I bet the sun starts to shine!


Helen Myers of the London branch of the ALL has commented on the recent GCSE results in modern languages. She picks up the key points, which, just to reiterate, are the fall in the number of entries again this year (one might have expected this to have bottomed out by now), the continuing issue of severe grading and the fall in the number of A* grades at GCSE, both in total numbers and as a percentage. The latter is incomprehensible; with a falling cohort we might have expected relatively more A* grades.

Then, of course, there's the continuing issue of a lack of A* grades at A-Level.

Am I missing something? Have the goalposts been moved a shade? One wonders how carefully the examination boards finalise their grading patterns and what factors come into play in their calculations. The results analysis sections of the boards' web sites are a great step forward, but there is room for more transparency if we are to have confidence in the system.

A new specification can take a while to bed in, so marking standards on those sections where judgment is required (Speaking and Writing) need to be looked at critically. Exam markers are human and, despite the boards' mechanisms to ensure accuracy, experience tells us that many errors are made, so re-marks will sometimes be the order of the day. This has been my experience so far.

Back to school on Thursday! Time to get into work mode.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Air Sarko One aménagé

Il est rassurant de voir que Sarko prend bien compte de la conjoncture économique actuelle. L'année dernière l'état français a acheté un Airbus d'occasion pour le président de la République. Il a été totalement refait pour lui et maintenant on continue à le moderniser. La facture totale de ce moyen de transport peu nécessaire: plus de 250 millions d'euros.

Imaginez si la reine faisait une chose pareille. En fait, ils n'oseraient pas, sachant le scandale que ça déclencherait dans les médias. Mais les médias en France...

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

School uniform

Patrick Barkham in the Guardian has written a good piece on the vexed issue of school uniform following one school's decision to make trousers compulsory for girls.

I have to say that, having worked as an assistant years ago in France, and having regularly observed classes at our French partner school, I have never been a fan of uniform. I also observe that when we have non-uniform days at RGS the behaviour of pupils does not change. Why would it?

Curiously, most of our pupils seem happy enough with uniform, especially the girls who don't have to decide what to wear each morning. Even our sixth-formers wear a traditional navy blue/black uniform with little complaint.

I am little persuaded by the egalitarian argument and certainly not by the behaviour one. There is no evidence, as the Guardian article points out, that uniform raises academic performance or improves behaviour. Uniform is also expensive.

In Britain we rather like uniformity. We are more tribal than most and have been responsible for a number of dress codes in the past: teddy boy, mod, punk. Our footy fans love sport their team's jersey. Teachers dress formally for school; office workers often sport jackets, ties and suits. We associate uniform with respectability and conformity and that is probably the heart of the matter.

For me personally uniform is the biggest curse of my job. Every day I tell kids to button up their collars, tuck in their shirts and even occasionally roll down their skirts. Every morning I have to put on an uncomfortable tie. I'd happily see the back of it and have a sensible work dress code. Pupils would quickly get bored with showing off and turn up every
day in jeans and sweat shirt.

(This post does not reflect the policy of my school!)

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

"Outstanding" lessons revisited

Michelle Cairns has produced a useful mind map on the subject of what constitutes an outstanding modern language lesson. I posted on this a while ago and we had a discussion in our department on the same question. I still balk, by the way, at the word outstanding which OFSTED gave us and which has now become part of our teachers' vocabulary, even though it should not be the word we use.

One comment on Michelle's exercise... On the internet there are well known twitterers and bloggers who share ideas, run training sessions and support each other. This is excellent and I would like to see more language teachers engaging with the whole MFL community. These teachers, unsurprisingly, usually share an interest in trying out the latest developments in ICT. I am one of them... up to a point.

You see, I have had a nagging feeling for a while that we need to be just a bit more critical of what might be seen as gimmicky web tools. There are activities out there which seem quite fun and which students may well enjoy using, but which in fact are not very productive in terms of linguistic progress. In this category I would be tempted to place GoAnimate and Voki, for example. If a task takes a long time, involves too much use of English and does not allow a student to hear or read significant amounts of the target language, then we should question its use.

Going back to Michelle's mind map, I think that many, many teachers do brilliant lessons without recourse to ICT at all. If there's a bottom line here, it's to do with teacher-pupil relationships, use of target language, sound methodology and lots of practice. If a new technology works against any of those factors, we should question its validity.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Fin de l'internet illimité au domicile en France?

Dans un document de discussion on avance la possibilité de mettre fin à l'internet illimité en France étant donné le risque d'une saturation du réseau. En fait, au Royaume-Uni nous avons déjà de tels seuils. Avec TalkTalk mon fournisseur d'accès je suis limité à 40go par mois. En réalité je ne suis pas conscient de cette limite car je télécharge relativement peu et je ne joue pas de jeux en ligne. Le réseau internet ressemble à la fameuse M25, l'autoroute qui contourne Londres. On l'élargit, mais elle finit toujours par être saturée.

Pour ce qui concerne internet il me semble naturel que ceux qui s'en servent le plus devraient payer plus cher. Peut-être que les autres verront une baisse du prix.

Ce que je voudrais voir en France, ce serait un marché plus compétitif. Tous les fournisseurs pratiquent dese forfaits du même prix et ce sont d prix relativement élevés par rapports à ceux en Angleterre où le marché est plus compétitif.

Friday, 19 August 2011

A-Level results

I was able to have a very close look at our A and As results thanks to the Enhanced Results Analysis section of the e AQA site. This is, by the way, an excellent service which allows you to see how your school compared with others on whole papers and individual questions. One general observation: it is, once again this year, very hard for students to get an A* in MFL. I wonder how many of the small minority who do get A* are native speakers. For two years running I have seen very able linguists not reaching that grade. You could easily argue that, given the small but significant percentage of native speakers, the overall ratio of A* to A grades should be higher than for other subjects. Maybe the overall proportion of A grades should be higher too. Exam boards do not measure numbers of native speakers, partly because defining native speaker competence is not always easy.

Ofqual really need to look into this area.

The papers report, yet again, a fall in the number of entries for A-Level French, German and even Spanish. French was down 4.7% in one year. This is concerning and is partly explained by lower numbers doing GCSE. It may also have something to do with the rising number taking other hard A-Levels like maths and sciences. (It is worth noting that AS entries rose in all modern languages). The government talks a good game on languages, but the money is going to STEM subjects which sends out an even stronger message.

EBacc will help, despite its shortcmings, as will fairer grading at GCSE, better teaching and strong messages from schools and the media about the value of languages.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Scottish primary languages plan

Hot off the press today from The Herald, an intention for all Scottish primary school pupils to learn two modern foreign languages! I add the exclamation mark since, whilst I admire the ambition of this initiative, I wonder how on Earth it will be achieved, especially given how hard it has proved to introduce just one foreign language in English schools. The idea seems to be a response to the falling numbers of children taking languages further up the system. As in England, Spanish is holding its own, whilst French and German are in decline.

It is a curiosity that, as languages are in ever greater demand in Europe...


British students are showing less and less interest in studying them. The reasons for the relative unpopularity of MFL in England are well known, league table effects, inherent difficulty and severe grading being high on the list. I do not know to what extent these factors come into play in Scotland.

Anyway, we'll see whether the Scottish ministry is willing to match its intentions with cash and good organisation. One should also question whether the aim is sound. I have yet to be
convinced that primary MFL increases subsequent enthusiasm for language learning or higher
take-up. Is there research evidence to support this assumption? And why two languages? Is the
primary curriculum full enough already?

I'll keep an eye on this story...

Here is the original piece if you don't wish to register on heraldscotland:

THE Scottish Government has announced ambitious plans to teach all primary pupils at least two modern languages.

In the week pupils return to school after the holidays, ministers are to announce they are setting up a working group to discuss how to meet the target.

The working group will look at the role of employers, universities and parents in promoting languages, as well as how the subjects are taught at school.

The training of teachers will also be a focus following concerns that primary staff are not taught language teaching as part of their university courses or probation years.

It comes after another disappointing decline in the number of pupils taking modern language Higher exams. Figures published last week showed a 4% drop in the number of pupils sitting French, German and Italian at Higher, with only Spanish showing an increase.

Dr Alasdair Allan, Minister for Learning and Skills, said the working group of key individuals and language organisations would be asked to help devise a language plan for Scotland.

“It is considered normal in most European countries to come out of school speaking more than one language,” he said. “The idea is that young people would be exposed to two languages other than their own, starting in primary school.

“It is early days, but there is strong support for the idea that you boost languages in this way and teach them earlier.

“That means we have to take decisions about teacher training to give primary teachers confidence in this area because it is no longer an option for pupils to arrive in secondary school without any meaningful exposure to other languages.”

The demise of languages in secondary has been blamed on the fact many schools no longer see languages as compulsory, despite school inspectors calling for them to be a “core element” in the first three years of secondary.

In addition, as part of cuts to education budgets, two-thirds of local authorities have scrapped foreign language assistants.

There have also been problems in primary, with The Herald revealing last year that three-quarters of schools were missing recommended targets for the delivery of modern languages.

The announcement from Dr Allan follows comments by Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, that he supported the so-called “Barcelona Agreement” by the European Council, which called for the teaching of at least two foreign languages from an early age.

Dan Tierney, a reader in language education at Strathclyde University, said: “I fervently hope Scotland can meet the proposals in the Barcelona Agreement.

“We have had many reports over the years and have worked hard to improve the languages situation although some of the more ambitious and expensive recommendations have not been implemented. There needs to be greater coherence in language provision to ensure continuity and we need to address teacher training at university.”

Sarah Breslin, director of Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, added: “I fully back this initiative and I think there is a real sense now of the importance of languages for Scotland to take its place in a globalised world.”

A spokeswoman for CBI Scotland stressed the importance of languages to businesses. “Scotland relies on its ability to compete in international markets and operating effectively in a global economy relies on the right language skills,” she said. Staff who can communicate at least conversationally can make all the difference in the conduct of business, consolidating relationships with existing suppliers and customers and opening the way to new contacts.”

Online modern language teaching methods course

Readers may already be familiar with the excellent Français Interactif from the University of Texas. Well, they have produced another outstanding resource and I thoroughly recommend this online training course for modern foreign language teachers. It consists of a series of modules in the form of discussion points and short videos. Many of the main issues facing language teachers are dealt with with an emphasis on the practical rather than the theoretical. The videos are snippets of lessons or seminars. Modules include the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing. There are also modules on, for example, assessment and culture. Modules are supported by further references which have an American bias.

The site is clear, easy to navigate and uses both Flash and Quicktime for video, so is accessible to ipad users.

I have just spent half an hour browsing the course and can see how it could be used not only for trainee teachers, but also for staff development. There are some controversial claims made in there regarding methodology, for instance, so you could take a video and then use it as a basis for discussion.

I came across one telling section on the use of technology to help us make up for the lack of classroom time we are given. It is reckoned to require 500 hours to reach an intermediate level in a "category 2" language like French, Spanish or German. Chinese, a "category 4" language is said to require 1000 hours to get to that same level. One for the Mandarin enthusiasts to think about there!

European teachers will detect some differences in terminology and a bias towards American resources (not unusual in the US language teachinh community, but this is not necessarily a bad thing as it gets us thinking differently.

We should be seeing more of this type of initiative online. It's a great advert for Austin.

All in all it's a tremendous initiative, professionally executed.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Les personnalités préférées des Français

Chaque année le Journal du Dimanche fait faire un sondage sur les personnages préférés des Français. Le lien vous dirige vers un diaporama qui pourrait servir de cours culturel. Mon chanteur français favori, Cabrel, y était à la cinquième place. Yannick Noah reste en pole position pour la deuxième fois consécutive.

On n'a pas ce genre de sondage en Angleterre. La Radio 4 de la BBC fait une enquête annuelle, mais il s'agit de personnages du monde entier. Time magazine aux USA fait quelque chose de semblable.

Je ne sais pas comment les gens peuvent répondre à ce genre de question, mais je trouve intéressant quand même que les sportifs, les chanteurs et les acteurs occupent, pour la plupart, les premières places. Les chanteurs de "variétés" tels que Cabrel et Goldmann ont énormément de fans. En Angleterre la "chanson" a moins d'importance, même si notre pays reste très créatif musicalement.

Les personnages politiques ont une chose en commun entre nos deux pays: on ne les aime pas.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Pourquoi les émeutiers s'arment de battes de baseball

C'est un article curieux que j'ai vu sur Apparemment les ventes en ligne de battes de baseball ont augmenté. L'auteur pose la question pourquoi la batte de cricket n'est pas l'arme préférée des voyous.

Ce qu'il ne dit pas, c'est que la batte de cricket, plus lourde, est un peu plus difficile à manier que la batte de baseball. La crosse de hockey, elle, est peut-être un peu trop longue. Je parie également que la batte de cricket est plus chère. Certains des voyous responsables de la récente vague de criminalité n'auraient jamais vu un match de cricket de toute façon.

En passant, j'ai appris le terme "coquille de protection des testicules". En anglais ça se dit tout simplement "box".

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Big County Chorus

In my spare time, one of musical hobbies is barbershop singing.

I wrote that with a straight face.

If you like singing and if you particularly like singing in harmony, smiling with pleasure as you hear a ringing chord, then I recommend you seek out your local barbershop harmony club. It isn't just a men's hobby, by the way, although most clubs are male only.

Want to see a really good example of barbershop chorus singing?

Vocal Majority, from the USA, are the most famous chorus and are one of the best choirs in the world.

Here is one of the best choruses in Britain:

I belong to the Big County Chorus, a barbershop chorus from the Leeds-Bradford area. I've been maintaining their web site for a few weeks. If you are interested it is here.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Claude Berri update

I have been adding some exercises and links on Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources to the A-level page on I used Taskmagic 3 for some gap fills and a matching task on plot and characters. I also found a nice little video interview, originally from the INA site, with Daniel Auteuil, the day of the premiere of Jean de Florette. You get the impression he is still just a little in the character of Ugolin! Or was it my imagination? There is a worksheet to go with it if you happen to be working on this film.

Here is a link to the Daniel Auteuil video.

I heard an interview with him a few months ago on the radio. He seemed such a nice guy and he recalled what an important role Ugolin was for him.

In addition, I have uploaded some resources for Lucie Aubrac and Germinal. Do let me know if you know of any other materials.

Monday, 1 August 2011

La France votée le pays préféré des retraités américains

 Et pour la cinquième fois consécutive, paraît-il.

Si vous suivez les liens fournis par Laura Lawless sur son excellent site, vous trouverez que les Français eux-mêmes ne prennent pas trop au sérieux cette étude.

Et moi, qui passe plusieurs semaines par an à vivre en Charente-Maritime avec un certain nombre d'amis français avec qui j'ai passé pas mal de temps, qu'est-ce que j'aime dans l'Hexagone?

Un peu au hasard, je mettrais en avant: sa belle langue, ses grands espaces, la variété et la beauté de ses paysages, son littoral et ses plages, son patrimoine historique et culturel, son réseau autoroutier et ferroviaire, sa gastronomie, ses liens de famille très proches, son hospitalité et sa convivialité, ses spécificités régionales, sa créativité artistique, architecturale et technologique, son attachement à la justice sociale, son climat agréable, sa démocratie, son cinéma, sa laïcité et sa relative tolérance (mais voir plus bas).

Par contre, je critiquerais: son système éducatif trop rigide, les heures d'ouverture de ses commerces, la qualité trop variable de son service clientèle (on sourit davantage chez nous), ses médias trop peu critiques de la classe politique, sa corruption politique, son manque d'ouverture vers le monde extérieur, sa télévision médiocre, ses syndicats qui refusent le changement, son racisme (quelle déception de voir le Front National gagner tant de voix aux élections) et, finalement, ses petites routes de campagne accidentées et, finalement, ses jardins - mais il faut dire que les Anglais sont très forts dans ce domaine. updates

Source: a UKIP member's site!

After realising that I didn't have a really good text with exercises on immigration, I managed to find a pdf of an article based on a report from the OECD on immigration and why it is beneficial. It hits the spot perfectly for A2 level, so I have uploaded it along with some exercises, translation and gap fill using Taskmagic. Given the public's often ill thought out views this issue and the nonsense published in rags like the Mail and Express I feel almost bound to get the issue properly explained to sixth-formers. This article does it effectively.

Just before the end of term I uploaded a few more texts, exercises and gap fills. You can find them all on Topics include facebook and fashion (barbed clothes).

In the article, the OECD recommends that governments do what they have to to ease social tension between ethnic groups. Easier said than done. However, they really could be more courageous in explaining clearly to peoples why, with ageing populations, and in some countries low birth rates, we need immigration to maintain our standard of living. I wonder how our economy would survive without all those people working in care homes, cleaning, hotel and catering, IT, agriculture and the NHS.

One aspect of A-level teaching I enjoy is the fact that it is rather like teaching general studies through the medium of French. If you are willing to move away from text books and the specification from time to time, there is really interesting work to do.