Friday, 31 August 2012

It's the teaching quality, stupid.

I've been following the debates on academies and free schools with interest. Labour's academy policy, hugely expanded with frenetic gusto by Michael Gove, and supplemented with free schools, is predicated on the huge assumption that school autonomy is a route to higher pupil achievement.

I have always been a bit suspicious about that claim, even though international evidence (OECD - PISA) has detected a correlation between achievement and educational systems which allow for autonomy..

What we know for certain is that it's teaching quality, above all else, which determines pupil's attainment.* The focus should be totally on that. If it could be demonstrated that school autonomy increases teaching quality, then a strong case could be made for it. There appears to be some evidence that chains of independent academies have had some success in raising standards, for example the Harris chain in London. The idea is this: if one school is doing well, get it to share its practice with others and they will all get better. Maybe there is something in this, but only if it is an improvement in teaching which is bringing about the improvement. Interestingly the key factor here is collaboration rather than autonomy. Would not well-run local authorities be able to foster collaboration?

As Dylan Wiliam and others have argued, you cannot change your teaching force or improve teaching overnight and changing a school's status does little to raise achievement in itself. So sharing best practice is the secret. This can be done across schools and within them by setting up, for example, teaching and learning communities. I have witnessed this first hand and seen how, even in a high-achieving school, marginal improvements can be made in teacher motivation and practice. Collaboration, staff development, motivation and good leadership to create a disciplined and positive environment must be key.

Most of the schools which have recently become academies have done so for perceived financial gain. It remains to be seen whether they will gain in the long term. Most have probably changed little and we won't know for some time whether academy or free school status has brought about raised standards.

I taught for many years in a school which chose to remain under local authority control. Through effective leadership and excellent teaching it has striven to improve year on year. I cannot see how academy status would have made any difference. School autonomy on its own does not raise standards.

The conspiracy theorist in me would say that for many years Conservative politicians have wanted to divorce schools from local authorities and finally they have, in part, achieved it, thanks to an over-enthusiastic education secretary and a silent opposition whose views are unformulated. I hope that the other half of secondary schools and the vast majority of primary schools which are still maintained, keep their current status.


Thursday, 30 August 2012

Why have A-level MFL entries fallen so much?

In 1993 nearly 30,000 students entered for A-level French. In 2012 the figure was just over 12,500. Just compare with a few other common A-level subjects (I am grateful to Brian Stubbs for these figures, which I have rounded up or down - apologies for formatting):

                             1993                            2012

Maths                   66,000                         86,000
History                 46,000                         52,000
Geography           46,000                         32,000
Physics                38,000                         34,500 (fell, but rising since 2006)
Biology                48,000                         63,000
Chemistry            41,000                         49,000 (fell, but rising since 2003)
Psychology          22,000                         56,000
Religious studies   9,000                           23,000
Media,film,TV      7,000                           32,000
Business              23,000                          28,000

French                 30,000                         13,000
Spanish                4,800                           7,300
German               11,000                          5,000

So what has been going on? I believe a number of factors have led to the decline in French (and German).

  • A-level students have a wider range of options in sixth forms and particularly sixth form colleges and many of what we might call the non-specialist linguists have gone to subjects such as psychology and business. These may be perceived to be more interesting or easier to get a good grade in (they are).
  • The supply of linguists coming through from GCSE has declined, though this may be a minor factor since French was on the slide during the 1990's, long before MFL became optional again in 2004
  • In the last few years there has been strong encouragement from government and schools to take STEM subjects (hence the recent rises in the sciences). This reflects a growing utilitarian trend among students to pick subjects which are valued highly by society and the jobs market.
  • It has become increasingly clear to students that it is harder to get a high grade in languages than most other subjects. The focus on targets and the transparency with which these are shared with students has sharpened the awareness of students to their likely outcomes.
  • There has been no move in the media, schools or from government (until just recently with EBacc) to value languages highly, despite the favourable employment outcomes for linguists
  • Teaching approaches in MFL may have produced a generation of linguists less proficient in the skills needed for success at A-level (internalised grammatical understanding and its associated outcome, the ability to use language spontaneously). Coursework and controlled assessment may have played a role in this, but the problem goes back further and 1990's course books thin on high quality grammatical progression did not help matters.
  • Lack of curriculum time and poor timetabling at KS3 and KS4 - lack of regular contact - has led to weakly embedded skills so students lack the confidence to continue beyond GCSE.
It seems a little ironic that as the world gets smaller and young people travel and work more widely, the popularity of languages has waned dramatically, to the point where the UK is short of skilled linguists. What could be done to address this?

  • Government should be raising the status of modern languages. The EBacc is a crafty step in the right direction, using league tables to shift schools' curricula and option policies, but it is not yet clear how effective this will be. A bolder option would be to make languages compulsory in some form again, though this policy would be unpopular with schools and pupils and I have reservations about it.
  • So-called top universities could make a GCSE qualification in languages at grade B or above compulsory for entry. This would have a dramatic effect on GCSE take-up. UCL have shown the way in this. The current generation of students are highly aware of what they need to reach their destination.
  • School leaders could change their perception of languages, valuing them more highly on the timetable and awarding them a similar status to maths and English.
  • Government could reward MFL teacher trainees more generously in order to raise the quality of entrants to the profession.
  • Properly develop languages at primary level.
  • Incentives could be given to encourage more study trips and exchanges.
  • The GCSE examination should be revised to make it more stimulating and to reward deeper understanding rather than rote learning.
  • Course book publishers could be less slavish to the exam specifications and actually produce stimulating and challenging resources.
  • The issue of grading in MFL should be addressed, both at GCSE and A-level. We currently suffer from severe grading. How about going in the opposite direction and making languages relatively easier in grading terms, recognising their inherent difficulty for pupils? Ofqual has show recently how easy it is to get the grades you want.
Overall, my educated guess is that Britain will not suddenly start falling in love with languages, nor will schools, whose leaders are the product of their society. But the government and universities could easily rig the system to make modern languages more attractive and maybe this is where they should start. Too many young people are missing out on the unique rewards which language learning brings.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Sounds of the world's animals

A few years ago there was a website called Sounds of the World's Animals from Georgetown University. It featured tables of words such as quack, moo, woof in umpteen languages. Not only that, it had sound files for a good many of them. It was brilliant and it's a pity it no longer exists.

Children in classrooms love this topic and it is guaranteed to produce mirth and not a little chaos as the little darlings all try out their best animal impressions.

There are still some sites which list animal sounds across the world, including French ones. My Twitter friends have reminded me of one or two:

The University of Austin, Texas people (of Tex's French grammar fame) have a list here based on the original Georgetown University one.

There is a longer list here, by Derek Abbott from the University of Adelaide (which, to judge by its appearance, may have also come from the original source?).

This one is fun, because it has sounds too, though the quality varies and some of the pigs sounded suspiciously like real pigs to me, rather than human renditions of them.

 Soundofanimals does sounds but only works with Internet Explorer, it seems. With Firefox I found it hard to navigate. If you want to hear the sounds from the horse's mouth, as it were, try this (for aficionados).

And finally, a clip which you could use in the classroom, although it doesn't give the French words for the sounds, just the actual noises made by the creatures. A nice intro to animals in general though.

I always ended sessions on this topic by asking pupils if they thought a French dog (ouaf) would understand an English dog (woof). Would it be like a Scouser talking to a Geordie?

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Frenchteacher updates

I've been less busy than usual with the site over the summer holiday, but there have been some significant additions.

I am aware that quite a lot of my subscribers are previous users who knew the contents of the site well, but I wanted to make potential new users aware of the contents behind the paywall, so I have created a full contents page so that people can get an instant glimpse of what's available. Up to now there are 580 members of I am happy to consider anyone's ideas for new additions to the site.

As far as new content is concerned, well, I have added a text and exercises on Usain Bolt which I have pitched at the upper intermediate level (higher GCSE), although it could be used at AS level for the AQA sport theme. I was going to add English questions, but instead I have added the task: "note down in English as many points as you can". We sometimes used this approach at my former school to encourage students to produce as much as they could according to their ability. I recommend it. I always hesitate before including exercises in English as I would rather work almost entirely in the target language, but using English does allow students to use a text more easily. This is, of course, the current fashion with GCSE examinations in Britain.

For advanced level I have added a few resources:
  • An A2 (advanced) level text and exercises on a racist attack int eh gard département - very appropriate for the GCE specifications
  • An A2 article and exercises on the recent disturbances in Amiens between youths and the police
  • An AS/A2 text and exercises on organic food - the pros and cons of les produits bio
  • An AS text and exercsies on tourism in France
If you want your students to read more in French you could try something we used successfully a Ripon: you give a weekly internet reading task to students. They choose an article, copy and paste it on to A4, add a short vocab glossary and summary in English. They could do it all electronically of course, but we found a paper version convenient. We would read them, sometimes comment, but not assess because we did not want to add too much to our workload, just theirs!

Bonne rentrée!

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A-level French results over the years

                    A*    A    B    C    D    E    N    U   A - E    
          2012      6.8 32.6 29.4 18.5  8.8  3.1       0.8  99.2   12511   
          2011      7.7 32.4 29.3 18.0  8.7  3.0       0.9  99.1   13196
          2010      7.7 31.4 28.5 18.2  9.6  3.7       0.9  99.1   13850
          2009          38.6 27.6 18.3 10.5  4.1       0.9  99.1   14333
          2008          37.3 27.7 18.9 10.6  4.3       1.2  98.8   14885
          2007          36.3 28.0 18.2 11.6  4.6       1.3  98.7   14477
          2006          34.7 27.4 19.5 11.8  5.3       1.3  98.7   14650
          2005          32.9 27.5 20.0 12.4  5.6       1.6  98.4   14484
          2004          33.4 26.8 19.8 12.6  5.8       1.6  98.4   15149
          2003          31.4 26.4 20.0 13.3  6.6       2.3  97.7   15531
          2002          29.3 25.2 20.9 13.8  7.7       3.1  96.9   15614
          2001          24.7 20.5 19.4 16.0 11.2  5.5  2.7  91.8   17939
          2000          23.5 21.5 20.1 16.3 10.5  5.6  2.5  91.9   18221
          1999          23.2 20.4 20.1 16.4 11.3  5.7  2.9  91.4   21072
          1998          21.6 20.7 19.6 17.3 11.6  6.2  3.0  90.8   23633
          1997          20.2 19.9 19.6 16.7 12.1  6.9  4.6  88.5   25916
          1996          20.9 18.0 20.3 17.3 12.5  6.9  4.1  89.0   27490
          1995          20.1 18.3 19.3 17.7 13.4  7.1  4.1  88.8   27563
          1994          19.9 17.7 19.0 17.4 13.4  7.8  4.7  87.5   28942
          1993          18.6 17.3 19.5 18.5 13.6  7.6  4.9  87.5   29886
That table is from Brian Stubbs's Student Performance Analysis pages.

Most language teachers are aware of how hard it is for students to achieve an A* at A-level compared to other subjects. Ofqual are aware of the issue and one wonders why it has not been dealt with already, but what the data also show is that, over the course of two decades, grade inflation has not hit French A-level nearly as much as some other subjects.

Compare, for example, results for English, a subject which attracts a wider range of abilities than French:

                    A*    A    B    C    D    E    N    U   A - E    
          2012      6.8 14.4 26.9 29.9 17.2  4.2       0.6  99.4   89638
          2011      7.1 15.2 27.1 29.2 16.6  4.2       0.6  99.4   89980
          2010      7.4 15.7 26.6 27.9 17.0  4.6       0.8  99.2   89320
          2009          23.0 27.1 28.4 16.4  4.4       0.7  99.3   91815
          2008          22.8 26.7 27.7 16.8  5.1       0.9  99.1   89111
          2007          23.2 26.0 27.3 17.2  5.3       1.0  99.0   85275
          2006          21.9 25.3 27.4 18.2  6.0       1.2  98.8   86640
          2005          20.7 24.5 27.4 19.1  6.9       1.4  98.6   85858     
          2004          20.6 23.7 27.1 19.6  7.4       1.6  98.4   81649
          2003          20.0 24.5 27.3 19.5  7.1       1.6  98.4   78476
          2002          18.9 24.3 27.2 19.9  7.8       1.9  98.1   72196
          2001          16.5 19.8 24.5 20.9 12.1  4.5  1.7  93.8   76808
          2000          15.6 19.5 24.0 21.1 12.8  4.9  2.1  93.0   86428              
          1999          15.2 19.2 23.8 21.1 13.4  5.2  2.1  92.7   90340
          1998          14.9 19.1 22.9 21.3 13.7  5.6  2.5  91.9   94099
          1997          14.3 18.9 22.7 21.6 14.5  5.6  2.4  92.0   93546
          1996          14.5 19.4 21.8 21.1 14.3  6.2  2.7  91.1   86627
          1995          14.1 19.0 21.8 20.4 14.7  6.5  3.5  90.0   86467
          1994          13.5 19.0 21.6 20.8 14.6  6.8  3.6  89.5   88214
          1993          12.9 18.1 20.3 20.9 15.3  7.5  4.9  87.5   89238

In this case it is clear that, given the fact that the number of entries has remained static. The decline in the number of young people taking A-level languages is well documented, so the examination boards have had to keep a careful eye on grade allocations as the average ability level of candidates has risen. In French they have been much more successful, it would appear, in holding the standard than in English. (You would see a similar pattern in other subjects too.)

My feeling, having taught A-level French for over 30 years is that you still need to be a very good candidate to get an A grade. What may have changed a little is the ease with which you can now get grades C to E. My strong hunch is that candidates who may have scraped an E two decades ago are now more likely to achieve a D or a C.

Modern languages remain among the hardest of A-levels in terms of grading. Absolute difficulty level is harder to assess and much depends on a student's natural aptitude.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Fin de vacances

Nigel Ward, Elspeth, moi and my sister Gaynor
Got back home from the house in Puyravault after two and a half weeks of warm sunshine, Olympics on the telly, visits from friends and family. Charente Maritime is a lovely place to be in the summer, usually sunny, usually comfortably warm (though this year was exceptionally hot) and with plenty to do. We returned to our favourite beaches near the Coubre lighthouse on the Côte Sauvage and Châtelaillon with our friends Douglas and Isabelle, did a guided tour of the Abbaye de Maillezais during which talented actors played out imaginary scenes from the abbey's past - not always easy to follow!

Boating in the marais, otherwise known as the Venise Verte is always peaceful and amusing.

Jolly boating weather
We cycled, walked, went to the night market in Surgères, enjoyed very good company, ate and drank a good deal, read a bit and idled far too much on Twitter. I even managed to add a couple of exercises to - I couldn't resist.

Now back home, digesting exam results, but with the knowledge that my holiday continues beyond September! Feels very odd not having to go back to school.

Caption competition?

Nigel and Gaynor took the photos, by the way.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The best languages to study?

The Telegraph reported today a top ten of most desirable foreign languages from the point of view of businesses. The rankings are based on a survey carried out by the CBI which received replies from 542 UK business managers.

The rankings are not terribly surprising, actually, as German was ranked first, followed by French. Spanish was third with Mandarin fourth. One slight surprise to me, though it should not have been, was Polish, which was ranked fifth.

When teachers are asked by leaders and parents why Mandarin is not the main language offered in a school they should remind them that we do most of our business with our near neighbours in the EU. But just as important, and maybe more so, is the fact that our cultural heritage is more closely related to that of our European partners and that learning French, for example, is a route into a world of culture, literature, film, art and the rest. We are also far more likely to travel to the continent, to meet Europeans in our everyday life and to live and work in Europe.

That's not to ignore the fact that we should open our minds to more distant cultures, but when you add on the fact that Mandarin, Arabic and Russian are more difficult languages for young people to learn, the case for French, German and Spanish remains cast iron.

Monday, 13 August 2012


Martin Lapworth, the Taskmagic man, has come up with a very useful idea for language teachers. Textivate, currently in Beta form and free, is tool which creates online interactive tasks with texts. You can create tasks such as jigsaw reading, gap fills, re-ordering tasks, filling in letters and separating continuous text into words. Exercises can be stored on line if you register, or stored "locally" on your own computer. You can also embed tasks into blogs and web sites.

In a sense, this tool is a further development from the original Fun with Texts programme from Camsoft, which you may already be familar with. It is not revolutionary in that the exercise types are very familiar to anyone who has used Fun with Texts or Taskmagic, but this latest incarnation looks flexible, instantly accessible, easy on the eye and very functional.

Taskmagic is an excellent all round resource for enjoyable games and worksheet production, worth its significant price. Textivate will do some of what Taskmagic does, in a less "fun" format, but, I would imagine, at lower cost.

Try it here:

Thursday, 9 August 2012

About vocab learning

Jennifer Wagner tweeted an interesting article about research findings on the importance of vocabulary in second language learning. There is a growing feeling that we have over-estimated the importance of grammar in our courses at the expense of vocabulary.

Keith S. Folse from the University of Central Florida writes here about eight myths regarding vocabulary. These are neatly summarised in his second paragraph, but I would like to pick up one which struck me as quite counter-intuitive. I wonder if you agree.

Folse explains that studies clearly show that it is better to present vocab lists in a non-themed way. In his words:

The commonly used organization of words into semantic groups is not a good technique. In fact, it actually confuses learners and can hinder vocabulary retention.

He adds:

Organization by semantic sets continues, however, because it is much easier for textbook writers and teachers to present vocabulary in semantic sets such as family members, animals, or days of the week than design creative vignettes to accommodate all of the words in a vocabulary list. The bottom line, though, is that research shows that learners remember vocabulary more easily when the vocabulary is presented in thematic sets such as a trip to the beach or my cousin's birthday party.

He goes on to support his claim by reference to four studies which clearly indicated that learners acquired vocabulary more quickly when the words presented were not semantically related.

So how would one use vocab lists to avoid "semantic clustering"? He gives an example passage in which semantically related vocabulary is presented within a theme, which should make it easier to recall. I'll copy it full so you can see what he means. The theme is a trip to the beach.

Last Saturday I went to the beach with my brother and cousin. My brother wanted to take his pet bird with us, but my cousin and I talked him out of such a crazy idea. My cousin called his parents to make sure it was all right for him to go with us. Of course they said yes. We had a great time at the beach. We saw lots of people and lots of fish. When we got home Saturday night, we talked about going to the beach again on Sunday. We we really tired, so we decided to get up late on Sunday morning

The underlined words are, of course, part of the semantic clusters family members, pets and days.

I confess that it never occurred to me that presenting vocabulary in semantically themed lists might be a less than optimal method. (Although I was always suspicious of vocab lists in general, preferring to teach vocabulary in the context of other language.) I remain somewhat sceptical and would like to have seen a wider range of studies into this.

It's worth noting that Folse does not argue against lists per se.

For ways of exploiting vocab lists there is a page here, which is part of my little teacher's guide.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012


I'm sure I am not alone in thinking that we cannot be far from having the technology to do quite sophisticated instant voice translation. If you had a mobile device capable of translating your speech instantly into another language, why would you bother with the lengthy and difficult process of learning a language?

The iTranslate app from Sonic Mobile does a decent job for simple sentences across a wide range of languages. You choose your source language and target language, tap, make your utterance and await the translation which appears almost instantly in written form, then, within a second or two, spoken. I have tried a few utterances and the voice recognition is pretty good, whilst the pronunciation of the translated utterance is accurate. You can speak at a reasonable pace, but the quality of translation is less sophisticated than, say, Google Translate. For a traveller needing to produce simple questions or statements the app is very effective. Grammatical complexity produces mixed results. A school student could find it useful for basic translation and to be able to hear accurately pronounced target language. I would happily recommend this to students, with the usual caveat that accuracy is by no means guaranteed. The main user would be the business person or tourist wanting to produce or imitate simple utterances to achieve a specific task, rather than engage in meaningful conversation. Teachers need not fear for their jobs yet, but I can foresee a day when lazy people will ask why they should bother learning a language when a device can do it for you.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Olympic experience

We've been caught up in all the excitement of the Olympic games and were lucky to get tickets for the basketball at the Olympic park. We also took the opportunity to watch the men's time trial going through Kingston, so we got caught a fleeting glimpse of Le Colonel Wiggo himself.

Le Colonel Wiggo sur le pont de Kingston
We got a superb impression of the organisation of the games in London. The Javelin train from St Pancras to the park was swift and comfortable, the welcome at the park warm and efficient, security fuss-free and friendly. The atmosphere around the park was exciting, food not unreasonably priced and of fair quality, and the venue we experienced was superb. We watched two basketball matches: Lithuania versus Nigeria and Great Britain against Brazil. We had the distinct impression that basketball fans have a short attention span, what with the constant entertrainment in the warm-up, time-outs and half time, Mexican waves, singing, kiss cams and chanting. It was a lot of fun.

The Lithuania match was one which made some minor headlines owing to the racist behaviour of a small group of fans. From our position we were only aware of the non-stop whistling from them every time Nigeria, clearly the inferior team, got the ball. Not quite the Olympic spirit. One Lithuanian fan was subesequently fined for his behaviour, which included making a Nazi salute at one of the black volunteers. He claimed, in his defence, that this was normal behaviour in sports venues in his country.

Talking of the volunteers, they were superb. Numerous, friendly, helpful and clearly glad to be part of the celebration.

The following day we found a spot on Kingston bridge to watch the time trialists speed through. This was rather exciting too, partly because we knew we were witnessing a British sporting phenomenon, partly because of the knowledge that we were sharing the excitement with many others. I took the chance to pay a visit to Tiffin School, close to the town centre, where I taught for four years from 1980.

Exciting times, as they say.