Saturday, 29 September 2012

Create your own crosswords

I have to recommend this site by Dave Regan. There are quite a few online "make your own crossword" sites, but I particularly like this one. It is free, unless you want to access your crosswords from multiple computers or mobile devices, in which case you pay an annual $10. Dave allows you to use the crosswords for any reasonable purpose, including commercially. Plus it's very easy indeed to use.

You simply set up your parameters - colour of grid (grey or black, grey uses less ink), font and page size (American letter or A4). You enter your answers and clues, click and in very little time the crossword is made. You can go back if you discover you have made a mistake and then save the document as a pdf or HTML file. You can also leave your completed crossword available for others to use. They stay there for a limited period of about two months.

Here is the current list of ready-made puzzles:

Dave also has other sites which produce word searches and word matching puzzles.

I have been making a good number of crosswords for if you want to see what they look like.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Word wheel">

Here's a nifty little idea for playing with vocabulary. The word wheel could work well with advanced learners. Here it is:

This is how the activity was described:

"Get kids interacting and improving their language skills with this fun game!  For the activity, I tossed vocabulary words in a lunch bag. Kids flicked the game spinner, then pulled out a word. Once they had their word, the fun began! 

Students act, draw, rhyme, or define their word. They might also have to put it in a sentence, name what part of speech it is, or give a synonym or antonym for it. It's a game of chance! Below is a tally sheet I made for kids to keep score.

To make a spinner, you simply print design on card stock and laminate. Then, you add a paper clip and insert it in your spinner."

I'm sure you could make further adaptations to this. I would suggest putting the word in a sentence to encourage greater communication. How about giving another word beginning with the last letter of the stimulus word?

If you could not be bothered to make the wheels for your class you could list six things to do with the words, number them and get the class to roll a dice. Or, to make it more competititve, person A could ask person B whta to do with the word. 

Friday, 21 September 2012

ALF by Steve Glover (2)

In my last post I reviewed a unit from the A*ttitudes online AS French course by Steve Glover. Today I'm going to review one of his A2 film packs designed to support the work of teachers and students studying A-level cultural topics.

I've chosen to look at La nuit américaine, one of my favourite Truffaut films and one which I taught a couple of years ago alongside three other Truffaut pictures.

The first resource is a lengthy plot summary of the film with verbs in brackets to put in the present tense. The grammar task is easy for A2 level, but probably worthwhile in as much as it gets students to read the summary very carefully. These summaries are very useful for a medium where it is difficult, unlike with a novel, to situate events easily.

There is then a clever exercise aimed at building skill with adjectives when drawing up character descriptions. This suits a film with very distinct and interesting characters very well. I liked the matching task where students have to match an adjective with a character and grade on a 1-4 scale how powerfully the character matches the chosen trait. From this students can build sentences and short paragraphs, develop their analysis further and do translation practice.

The prose translation sentences Steve provides are appropriate to A2 level and include the subjunctive. They would support the sentence translation section of the AQA paper, for example.

Steve then provides his "tensinator" (nice!). Students have to translate from French paragraphs displaying the full range of A2 tenses. They are then asked to make up their own paragraphs to show tense skill. The level of challenge is quite appropriate. There then follows some good comprehension material (matching) and an effective, quite "old school" task to transform direct statements into indirect speech.

The pack also includes clear, ungimmicky powerpoints on the subjunctive and passive. The latter includes plenty of examples covering various A-level themes. Students could do instant translation work on these. Steve is right to practise the passive; it's a grammatical area which students find suprisingly difficult, even though it resembles English in its formation.

As with his AS resources, Steve then includes useful material on essay planning along with a model essay of 417 words. AQA ask for a minumum of 250 words, but this is inadequate to access higher content marks, so 400 words is a bare minimum.

So how does it all stack up as a resource costing £15? No problem with value for money. The exercises are skilfully put together and at the right level. They cover some key grammar, plot and character. To my mind it is not enough for a total package (and I am not sure it is claimed to be so), since it doesn't get into aspects such as the new wave, Truffaut's own influences and love of the cinema, so it would need more input from the teacher. Truffaut's films are, as much as anything, about himself, so that needs to be looked at as part of the cultural topic. It might also have been good to see one or two scenes analysed in detail, maybe with some scripted dialogue.

I took a brief look at the resources on Les 400 coups which look similar. The two Truffaut packs are priced together at £25. It looks like a good investment to me and if these materials are representative of Steve's other cultural topic packs I think teachers should look carefully at them as superb time-savers.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

ALF by Steve Glover (1)

ALF stands for A-level French. It's Steve Glover's site which contains a wealth of top quality resources to support AS and A2 level French teachers and students. Resources can be accessed directly online or can be ordered on CDs. Steve will even accept commissions for specific resources from busy teachers.

I took a careful look at one unit of his A*ttitudes AS level resources (la santé) and one of his sets of resources on a French film, Truffaut's La nuit américaine. In this review I'll focus on the AS material.

The unit on health comprises a good range of tasks, including some Taskmagic 3 games. To start with there is a partial vocab list which students can supplement. This is reinforced with some Taskmagic games. Then there is a lengthy text with pictures on various aspects of healthy living. Verbs are left in the infinitive and have to be put into the present tense, a worthwhile task at AS level, as many students are still insecure with the present tense. This text is supported with further Taskmagic activities. A Listothèque provides themed vocabulary which students can use to build utterances and ideas on various health-related issues. There then follows a range of grammatical exercises covering imperatives, possessive adjectives, imperfect + conditional and direct object pronouns. All the exercises are well-conceived and at the right level.
To develop listening skill there are two MP3 recordings and a video clip from the INA. The latter is from French TV news and is both interesting and quite challenging for this level, certainly faster and more dense than students will here in an examination situation. I like this - some other published materials are too easy. There is then a range of reading comprehension tasks, similar to those encountered in examinations - again, at the right level and well put together.

The essay planning material is very useful, though I did note that the language level was quite advanced for AS. It looked a little like A2 level, so might suit the more able AS student.

Steve provides three very useful model essays which press all the right exam buttons. Some might argue that they are on the short side to access the top content marks in the AQA's controversial mark schemes which favour content over written range and accuracy.

The A*ttitudes AS package comes with a teacher's scheme of work and an individual learning plan for students.

Conclusions? A-level resources I have seen in recent years have been lacking in imagination and too tailored to exam board specifications, but overall I liked this set of resources and much preferred them to the offering from Nelson-Thornes I used at my school. Steve lets you download them, adapt them, use them in any form in perpetuity. There is enough material in a unit to cover all your needs. If I were being critical I would say that, in this particular unit, there was room for more imaginative "fun" or information gap activity, but the teacher could easily add their own ideas to an already quite complete package. The language is accurate, interesting and Steve (with the help of Nathalie, his native speaker collaborator and proof reader) brings his teaching experience and knowledge of all the exam boards to bear. The material should stand the test of time and the exercise styles are familiar and effective, providing a good mix of target language input and oral, structural and lexical practice.

The whole course of 12 units costs £250 and I would say this is very good value, especially when you consider the price of a flimsy A-level text book with its accompanying online resources which need paying for annually. Teachers may prefer to buy individual units which cost £25 or £30 each, depending on the format chosen. Buyers benefit from the fact that they are not paying a publisher's overheads. There are versions for VLEs and Moodle too. If you wish to use the Taskmagic games this adds a significant extra (though one-off) cost.

Steve will let you try out his materials and you can contact him by mail or phone.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Exploiting Google Art Project pictures

I came across the amazing Google Art Project some time ago. It's an easy way to look at famous artworks from around the world.

It struck me that language teachers could make use of this resource to generate discussion at advanced level. The best pictures for this are ones which do not rely on simple description, but where students can let their imaginations run riot with their own invented back-stories.

How about this work by Van Gogh (Agostina Segatori dans le Café du Tambourin):

You could get the ball rolling with questions like:

What's her name? How old is she? Where is she? What's she wearing? Why is she there? Why is she alone?
What's she drinking? Does she usually drink this?
Is she waiting for someone? Who? How is she feeling?
What's happened? What's going to happen? etc etc

The students will go where they want with this. They could then write something up based on their own ideas. Give the students free rein and just nudge them along if they are short of imaginative ideas.

Here's another one - it's L'après-midi des Enfants à Wargemont by Renoir:

Possible questions:

Who are they? Where are they What is the girl reading? Is the woman their mother? If so, is she married? To whom? What are their interests? What is the woman's background? Is there a father? Where is he? Do the girls go to school? Do they have any brothers?

These pictures are also a way in to French art, of course, so there is then room for further reading or research.

I'm sure you could find other, better pictures.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Chansons FLE

Abel Carballiño vient de me signaler son blog où il poste des vidéoclips de chansons avec les paroles (prises sur Youtube). Vous n'avez qu'à cliquer sur la chanson dans la mosaïque. On peut écouter la chanson, regarder la vidéo et les paroles. Ça serait bien à condition que le site ne soit pas bloqué dans votre établissement.

Bonne idée, bien réalisée. Le format "mosaic" de Blogger est bien choisi.

Voici Mylène Farmer avec "C'est une belle journée".

Et les paroles:

Allongé le corps est mort
Pour des milliers
C'est un homme qui dort...
A moitié pleine est l'amphore
C'est à moitié vide
Qu'on la voit sans effort
Voir la vie, son côté pile
Oh philosophie,
dis-moi des élégies
Le bonheur
Lui me fait peur
D'avoir tant d'envies
Moi j'ai un souffle à cœur

C'est une belle journée
Je vais me coucher
Une si belle journée
qui s'achève
donne l'envie d'aimer,
mais je vais me coucher.
Mordre l'éternité
  à dents pleines
C'est une belle journée
Je vais me coucher
Une si belle journée
donne l'envie de paix
Voir des anges à mes pieds
Mais je vais me coucher
M'faire la belle

Allongé le corps est mort
Pour des milliers
C'est un homme qui dort...
A moitié pleine est l'amphore
C'est à moitié vide
que je la vois encore
Tout est dit puisqu'en amour
si c'est du lourd
Le cœur est léger
Des élégies toujours
Les plaisirs, les longs, les courts
Vois-tu en amour
moi, j'ai le souffle court


La vie est belle
comme une aile
Qu'on ne doit froisser
la vie est belle
et je vais là
la vie est belle
mais la mienne
Un monde emporté
Elle, j'entre en elle
et mortelle, va.


Summary of "Gove-levels"

I'm posting a very clear summary of the new proposals which are out for consultation, emailed by Philip Collie, the editor of Schoolzone.

As far as languages are concerned, it will be a major challenge to produce a non-tiered examination which is both challenging enough and accessible to a wide ability range. I do not think it is feasible and I will be interested to see what emerges after consultation. I welcome the end of controlled assessment which is cumbersome to administer, open to abuse and too dependent on learning by heart.

Here is that summary:
  • Removing controlled assessment and course from the six EBacc subjects (though "practical" subjects such as art will retain them)
  • No teacher assessment in these subjects at all: 100% externally marked exams.
  • No separate higher and foundation tier papers - everyone sits exams with all level questions included.
  • One board for each EBacc subject - awarded by tender - the most ambitious courses to be awarded the franchise.
  • New qualifications in EBacc subjects leading to English Bacc Certificates - success in all six subjects  = "A Full Bacc". 
  • The pass grade for English and maths EBC to be higher than grade C at GCSE.
  • Exams to be more rigorous, though more will ultimately "clear the bar" - suggestion that this will be as a result of better teaching.
  • Enhanced provision for lower achievers - a detailed record of successes to be kept by schools.
  • Pupils to be able to extend retakes to 17 or 18 to achieve EBacc.
  • English, maths and sciences will be the first subjects reviewed: EBCs to be introduced by 2015, examined from 2017.
  • Entire suite of GCSEs to go.
  • Replacements for league tables to be examined. These will reflect vocational qualifications as well as academic.
  • Disadvantaged pupil performance to be reflected in tables.
  • A return to separate sciences suggested, though there is an acknowledgement that schools welcome double award.
  • Awarding organisations will have to offer more detail in the information that is made available about students’ achievements, in addition to the overarching grading structure.
  • Qualifications likely to be no longer graded with letters. Not necessarily the same grading structure will be used in each subject.
  • Examinations will require the whole syllabus to be covered, in a range of ways.
  • Students will be expected to demonstrate more independent thinking.
  • Schools may be expected to devote more curriculum time to EBacc subjects than others.
  • Restrictions on use of calculators, periodic tables and historical source materials.
  • Universities to be involved in spec development, as has been suggested at A-level.
  • Lower uptake languages such as Russian may be under threat from the awarding organisation tender process.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Will it all end in tiers?

Michael Gove has said that he is unhappy with the idea of different tiers in GCSE examinations*. He argues that the Foundation tier limits aspiration.

It is easy to see where his argument fits within the agenda of raising aspirations for all but we need to look at this carefully.

Although the GCSE was set up in 1987 to be an exam aimed at nearly the whole ability range and to replace the discredited sheep/goats O-levels and CSE, it was immediately obvious that a one-exam-fits-all would not work in practice. Tiers (they were called levels then, with Foundation tier originally called Basic level) were set up to deal with this issue, with most exams having two tiers, maths even having three tiers in early incarnations of the system.

The fact of the matter is that the range of pupil aptitude is so wide that, for the most able, an all-encompassing exam would have sections which are far too easy, and for the least able, much of the exam would be beyond their capability. This is not a question of low aspiration, this is just a fact of life.

Maths and modern languages teachers in particular are aware of the problems teaching a wide range of abilities. In other subjects varying aptitudes can be accommodated more easily. This is why most secondary schools put their maths and languages pupils in sets.

One obvious problem of tiering in practice is that there are many pupils on the borderline of Foundation and Higher and for whom delicate decisions have to be made based on the teacher's knowledge, pupils' prior attainment and the individual wishes of the student and even parent. It is not always easy to get this right, and because exam boards change their grading assessments each year the teacher cannot be certain that he or she has made the decision which will ensure the best grade outcome.

Does tiering also, as claimed, put a limit on aspiration and the amount of work a pupil will do? There may be something in this, but my own experience is that a decision to enter a pupil for Foundation tier is based on a realistic assessment of aptitude and that, for many pupils, Foundation tier is a significant challenge.

Now, you might argue that it is not beyond our wits to be able to design a common examination for nearly all pupils. Well, yes, and it would be rather like what we had in the early days of GCSE, whereby all Higher level pupils entered for both Foundation (Basic) and Higher level. This meant that very bright students did questions which were far too easy for them, but the justification was that they had to show they could jump the easy hurdles too.

 I would argue that, in modern languages at least, tiering is still a sensible solution if you are to have a single qualification for nearly all pupils. We do not want to put pupils of moderate aptitude through assessments they simply cannot cope with, whatever their efforts and the efforts of the teacher. Conversely, it is a waste of time for very bright students to be doing assessments below their natural level.

Tiering was a clever solution to the initial conundrum of having one exam for all abilities. The overlapping element in the papers allows the weaker candidate to be stretched and the reasonably bright student to cope with the tougher papers.

And, just as a coda here, how about a new name for whatever succeeds GCSE?
GCE Standard level?
GCE Foundation level?
Foundation baccalaureate?


Oh and (Columbo voice)... just one more thing. We could return to the word level which we all understand very clearly. "Foundation tier" is the equivalent of a British Rail "standard class" ticket.

*UPDATE February 2013

We have kept the term GCSE, but as things stand, Michael Gove has rejected the idea of tiers for the exam. We shall see if this survives consultation. It should not.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What can we learn from the GCSE English debacle?

I watched some of the Education Select Committee hearing with Glenys Stacey this morning, having followed this story with great interest from the night before grades were originally released. There was already a storm brewing on Twitter when Heads had their sneak preview of results.

Ofqual have changed their policy on grading. After years of undoubted grade inflation they have decided to impose a policy of "comparable outcomes". In practice what this means is that Ofqual look at prior attainment data (KS2 SATS performance) and other factors to do with the cohort for that year and pretty much predetermine what the grades will be. They make a prediction which exam boards have to stick closely to. If the boards disagree with Ofqual, as Edexcel clearly did, they have to tow the Ofqual line.

This year, for English, Ofqual took into account KS2 data and, importantly, the lower number of candidates from schools who had entered students for the IGCSE - principally independent schools - and produced a prediction for grades to which boards had to adhere. The result was that grades fell for the first time in many years (ever?) and not just at the C/D borderline.

So let's be clear: what we now have is effectively an adjusted norm-referenced system of grading. More precisely it is described, so I have learned, as limen referencing. * Outcomes are largely predetermined by prior attainment at KS2 and assumptions about predictable progress between KS2 and the end of KS4. To me this looks like secondary school teachers are not allowed, on average, to add significant value.

I would ask whether we can be sure that the KS2 data are accurate. They are not influenced by prior attainment data from a younger age so we are depending on tests being consistent and raw marks and levels being accurate. History has shown us that KS2 marking is sometimes inaccurate. In addition, children from independent schools and from Wales do not do KS2 tests at all.

Experienced heads and heads of English report that many of their students were unfairly graded this year. They argue that they know what C grade work looks like and many "C grade" candidates were awarded Ds. Ofqual defend their position by pointing to the numbers. This year, overall, results fell by only 1.5% with a cohort missing a significant proportion of more able candidates, so they argue. Edexcel disagreed with Ofsted citing in the recently leaked letters their own statistical evidence.

We can also safely assume that the other exam boards, not just Edexcel, would have given higher grades had it not been for the intervention of Ofqual. Experienced examiners are not being trusted to do their job.

There are interesting consequences to this new era of "comparable outomes". If, generally speaking, results will not increase, then it will appear impossible for schools, on average, to show improvements in accountability measures such as Raise Online and league tables. If one school improves, it will have to be at the expense of another. On average teachers and schools will be wasting their time if they think they can improve results overall.

The analogy with athletics is often mentioned. Not allowing students to improve is like saying to a sprinter that they cannot break the world record given their previous performances. I am not sure this is a fair analogy, since noone is bothered about world records inflation, whereas there is a genuine concern about grade inflation and the alleged "race to the bottom", as Glenys Stacey put it today.

But if we are to have a kind of norm-referencing let's be honest about it and say that only a certain number can pass with the same proportion of candidates at each grade each year.

English has been highlighted in recent weeks, but languages are not immune from comparable outcomes. But with languages the cohorts have changed in size and nature so much over the years that any unfairness or inconsistency has been more masked. What we do know for sure is that languages continue to get an even worse deal than English as far as grading is concerned.

* For a detailed study of types of assessment see:

Friday, 7 September 2012

What went wrong with Asset Languages?

In the news recently has been the fact that OCR, who run the Asset Languages scheme (part of what was at one time called the languages ladder), have decided to cut down on the number of languages it offers. The Asset Languages courses will be scaled back to just French, German, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin, with the cutbacks hitting less popular languages, including community languages.

This is the current list of languages offered:  Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Cornish, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Panjabi, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Welsh and Yoruba.

Helen Ward, writing in the TES, records the following entry figures for some of the languages in 2012:
  • 13,887 French
  • 6,940 Spanish
  • 241 Arabic
  • 24 Turkish
  • 13 Greek
These figures are not very high and suggest that the whole languages ladder idea has not really caught on. Let's recall that it was originally set up to allow students and adults to make progress with languages in the same way they might with a musical instrument. Just as a youngster works through the grades at piano, so they would with a language. The availability of a clear and transparent set of grades would increase interest and take-up.

Some schools, primaries and secondaries, including my former school for a while, have made use of the lower levels so that those studying a language for a short time can get a recognised qualification. But I would imagine that entries for the higher levels never got going at all. The original plan was for students to be able to move right up to beyond advanced level to mastery, but I see from the Asset web site that this is no longer the case.

One problem has been that there is no syllabus for Asset, just an examination, so teachers who are used to very specific lists of topics, grammar and vocabulary have been put off. They fear the unknown. Another issue has no doubt been the cost of entries and the bureaucracy involved in doing teacher assessment. But the main problem has been that the government has not recognised Asset as an equivalent to GCSE in league tables and the awareness among the general public has been minimal.

It's a shame. I was involved with Asset, writing intermediate papers whilst OCR, drawing on the experience of Cambridge Assessment, I believe, were very professional. Questions went through a detailed editing process and were pre-tested (not something that happens with GCSE questions). On the other hand, not to offer a detailed syllabus for every language was a mistake.

Fundamentally, there has been a political failure. This is a classic case of a decent idea not properly followed through and now OCR are shrinking it for financial reasons. If it doesn't pay, don't do it. Sound familiar?


Update: October 8th 2013. OCR announced that Asset Languages is no more.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Le show de Bradley Wiggins

J'ai aimé cette vidéo de Bradley Wiggins qui parle français et qui taquine les journalistes.

Cool dude en français?

Sunday, 2 September 2012


I wonder if you already know the excellent language game called Alibi. I've used it many times with intermediate and advanced level groups and it has always been enjoyed and produced lots of good language.

This is how it works:

You tell your class in English - in your best dead-pan and convincing fashion -  (or in French if they are really good) that a crime was committed last night at 8.00 p.m. (I would usually say an old lady was mugged on the town square.) You then explain that the police suspect a pair of young people. You then say that they are suspected to come from your school. (Class still looking concerned.) You then say that the two suspects are thought to come from this very class. (A few will look quizzical, a few will cotton on that you are joking.)

You then confess that you have made up the crime and then explain that you need two volunteers to leave the room to work out an alibi between them. They should agree on something they did together, such as a trip to the cinema or a restaurant, and plan in every detail what they did. Warn them that they will have to come in one by one to be questioned by the rest of the class. This means that their alibi must be very detailed (what clothes they were wearing, how they got to their destination, where they sat, what they ate, who paid, who was there, what they talked about etc etc).

Whilst the pair are outside you can prepare some questions with the rest of the class and write them on the board. The key grammar point is use of past tense, and the distinction between perfect and imperfect tense - what were you wearing?/how did you get there? etc.

After about five minutes you invite one of the suspects in and they sit at the front. You get them to swear an oath on the French dictionary: "je jure de dire la vérité, toute la vérité, rien que la vérité" (the class always likes that bit).

The class then puts up hands to ask questions (using the crib sheet on the board to help). The teacher just chooses who to speak and throws in extra questions if pupils dry up. You may choose one student to act as a scribe to record testimony.

After about 10 minutes the second suspect is invited in, swears the oath and answers questions. The first suspect may stay in the room if you are sure they won't cheat by gesturing answers to their alleged partner-in-crime.

Finally, having weighed up the similarities and differences between the two stories, the class can vote to decide if the suspects are guilty or innocent.

What I like about this game is that you get to use a lot of target language, pitched at an appropriate level for the class and that the pupils are really interested in the proceedings. They are listening REALLY hard for differences in the two testimonies. It is also a very flexible format, because if the class is reluctant to speak, the teacher can take the lead and provide lots of good "comprehensible input".

What you also find is, because they are really focused on content, they are less focused on grammatical accuracy, including the perfect/imperfect distinction. This is alright, as you can sensibly correct where necessary, then go through it after the activity. In this case communication trumps accuracy.

Oh, and one last thing, the game demands nil preparation. Nice!

Try it. See what you think.