Thursday, 25 October 2012

AIM Language Learning

I've been having a look at the AIM (Accelerative Integrated Methodology) website to find out a bit more about this approach which has become widely used in Canada and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere. Although AIM has been around a few years, I confess I had only heard of it briefly via Twitter colleagues from Canada and it has not made a great mark in Britain.

The best way to learn more about it in detail would be to watch the introductory videos in which the method is explained and seen in use by enthusiastic teachers and pupils.

What struck me was that, if you get beyond the faintly hokey appeals to research, there is much that is familiar if you are a teacher who enjoys games, song, mime, drama, group and pair work. This is a set of resources and a methodology which gets youngsters very actively engaged in listening to and using the foreign language in all kinds of fun ways. There is a strong emphasis on the use of mime and gesture, considerable use of music and acting out, all underpinned by what is claimed to be an inductive approach to grammar. There is, as with many methods, an emphasis on high frequency words.  It is good to see that stories are used rather than traditional topics; stories fire the imagination and can lead to more creative language use. The teachers we hear from in the videos are are clearly huge enthusiasts and the snippets of classrooms we see reveal high quality language produced by smiling children.

The videos feature, largely, younger learners, who respond best to this kind of approach and I would imagine that teachers employing the method would temper it for older learners, appealing to more analytical skills. I can imagine that primary French teachers and children would respond very well to the resources, although I can also see its appeal for younger secondary students. It is possible to become an AIMS Foundation certificated teacher and there is an online training programme also available.

Teachers are always on the look out for panacea methods, and whilst this might not quite be it - because there is no such thing - there is undoubtedly lots to admire.

It is all created by Wendy Maxwell who has won awards for her tremendous work. Here are some sample materials.

I would have thought that AIM deserves wider recognition in the UK.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

La famille Smith

Just to show that things are human here at Frenchteacher Towers, here is a photo of Joel (my son who is studying physics at Manchester Uni), Elspeth (Professor Elspeth Jones who, she was told, is a "thought leader" in internationalisation in higher education) and yours truly on a fine morning at Swinstey reservoir, Blubberhouses (yes, Blubberhouses), near Harrogate, North Yorkshire. My brother-in-law Peter Jones from Sydney took the photo.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


There are a number of terms and abbreviations used in the field of teaching languages other than English. As far as the teaching of French is concerned, in Anglophone countries, some Americans (in New York) talk of LOTE (Languages Other Than English), some of WL (World Language(s)), most that I have found use FL (Foreign Language). The term Languages is also used on its own, for example by New Zealand high schools. Australians and New Zealanders seem to use ML (Modern Languages) at the university level, but at high school level, Australians frequently use LOTE. In NZ literature I have also seen IL, for International Languages.

The British now use MFL (Modern Foreign Languages). We used to say Modern Languages (ML), but some years ago it was thought necessary to distinguish the likes of French and German from community languages such as Hindi or Chinese. Interestingly, in the British university sector, where the distinction with community languages is less relevant, the term Modern Languages is still used.

The university of South Africa has a course in Modern European Languages and distinguishes them from World Languages. At high school level, where Afrikaans is a major "home language" the term "additional language" is sometimes used.

Meanwhile Canadian universitites also refer to Modern Languages while the terms Foreign Language, Modern Languages or just plain Languages can be found in high schools.

So, is any term superior to the others?

Nomenclature can clearly depend on the particular political concerns of countries. In South Africa the dictinction between home language and other languages is important. In the UK, the distinction between community languages and other languages is significant. This goes some way in explaining the variation in terminology and there is no compelling reason why everyone in the world should use the same term.

According to Wikipedia, "a world language is a language spoken internationally which is learned by many people as a second language". This definition is a handy, very broad definition and one which excludes ancient languages. It is matched closely by the term LOTE, therefore, in definition. LOTE could theoretically include classical languages. To me, however, adding the word "world" seems superfluous.

The term "additonal language" (AL) is a handy one, and shorter than LOTE. It makes the distinction with one's native language clear, but it could refer to a bilingual's own second language.

The term "second language" (L2), widely used in applied linguistics, is problematic since for many learners the extra language learned at school may be a third language.

To me, the term modern languages implicitly gives too much importance to Latin and Greek, which, whatever their merits, are learned these days by relatively few students. It is a term which may have been thought useful when there was potentially confusion between classical and modern languages. Latin and Greek can be conveniently referred to as Classics, leaving the term languages available for French, Spanish and so on..

In Britain "foreign languages" is no doubt seen as politically incorrect because of the ambiguous meaning of the word "foreign". We frown these days at the term foreigner, just as the British frown at the term "handicapped" (although the French do not mind handicapé - different countries, different euphemisms). In addition, there is an issue in referring to community languages as "foreign". In a sense they are, but to speakers of community langauges the term might be offensive.

The French have their generally accepted term langue vivante (LV) ("living language", an equivalent to modern language), whilst the Germans use Fremdsprache (foreign language). Wordreference informs me that the Spanish use lenguas vivas/modernas and the Italians lingue moderne. Are they less bothered about political niceties??

The term "modern foreign languages" (MFL) seems a bit too fussy to me, although, as I mentioned earlier, it is quite precise what it means in a British context.

It's not easy to come down in  favour of any of these terms and I am tempted to conclude that the term "languages" is perfectly adequate since we generally know what this means.

So I'd go with L!

Friday, 19 October 2012

Lyrics Training

I have been writing a new page on about using music in the modern languages classroom. In my searches I came across the Lyrics Training web site. What a useful and clever site! You can listen to songs and do gap fills interactively. If you do the free sign up you can build up points and record your progress.

Here is a very good training video by Russell Stannard on how it is used:

You could easily recommend this site to your A-level students or maybe take a group into the ICT room for them to work on a song.

Cloud Cuckoo land

Well, Cloud Cuckoo World, actually.

This is a rather attractive and useful site for primary French teachers who are happy to fork out a one-off subscription of £50.

There are two sections to the site. The first has a set of illustrated stories read aloud in English, with key vocabulary repeated and displayed in French. The second has pictures covering some everyday vocabulary. You click on the picture and the word is displayed and pronounced.

The illustrations are attractive and would work well both on a computer screen/iPad and on a whiteboard. The pronunciations are excellent (although the free sample story extract said "danseur" when the text read "danseuse"). I cannot vouch for how well the stories would amuse children since nearly everything is behind the paywall.

For parents there is a home subscription option costing £10 which may be of interest.

The content of the site is tied in with the QCDA Scheme of work.

Here is the help page for teachers.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Ma nouvelle maîtresse aux chevrons

Elle est jolie, non? Belle ligne et elle ne consomme pas beaucoup.

ABacc - a huge missed opportunity?

Stories in The Times and The Daily Telegraph suggest that the reformed GCE A-levels will remove January modules and resits, and that if students do a contrasting AS level subject (maths or a humanity), complete a 5000 word essay and do voluntary work as part of their portfolio, they will acquire an ABacc certificate which will help give them access to Russell Group universities.

It is clear that this idea borrows slightly from the International Baccalaureate and from the AQA EPQ. It is also a response to criticisms that too many students cannot write essays and that they are assessed too much on skills and knowledge acquired in the short term, rather than embedded, all round understanding of subjects. It also tries to deal with the criticism that our A-level students are too narrow in their choice of subjects. A broader curriculum would allow students to postpone key choices until later whilst providing them with a better understanding of the world.

It is a timid reform and, as usual, defers too much to vested interests. I'll explain why.

In 2000 an opportunity was missed when we moved from three A-levels to four AS-levels and three A2-levels. This barely broadened the curriculum at all. At the time many argued for something closer to the German Abitur, whereby students would study five or six subjects, thus ensuring some breadth of coverage - scientists would have to do some arts/languages/humanities and "arts" students would have to do some maths or science. This model was rejected and the lobby defending the "gold standard" A-level won the day.

This lobby consisted of, firstly, universities, whose interest was to receive well qualified specialists on their own subject areas; secondly, schools and teachers who also were happy to go along with a near status quo and thirdly conservative traditionalists in general who feared a watering down of traditional academic excellence.

What was forgotten was the students themselves who deserve an all round education. As a teacher I was well aware that some, usually less brilliant, students were happy to drop subjects and even had trouble putting together four AS level subjects. But there were also many students who reluctantly dropped subjects because their chosen university course meant they had to study a limited range of subjects (medicine is a good example).

There is an alternative which would be manageable by school, maintain a degree of depth and provide for greater breadth. Schools could offer five subjects over two years, with a terminal exam at the end of upper sixth (Y13). This would mean that students would study each subject for about 3-4 hours per week, instead of five. They would necessarily have to choose at least one contrasting subject. (It would be easy to insist on this in any case.) You could do away with "general studies" which is, in my experience, barely taken seriously by students and often considered a chore by teachers. I agree that inclusion of voluntary service is an excellent idea. A long, special topic essay could remain a possibility, but I doubt it would be necessary given the breadth a five subject programme would ensure.

Should maths and English be a compulsory part of a post 16 curriculum, as Labour suggests?

I think not. I have a bias against the hegemony of maths - the modern Latin -  since I believe that large parts of it are a waste of time for most young people and adults. But in any case, we do not have the means to offer maths to all post-16. (We barely have the means to offer it up to 16!) So there are sound pragmatic reasons for not forcing schools to offer maths and English to all at A-level. But there are principled reasons for rejecting compulsory maths and English. To do so could effectively exclude other worthy subjects, for example languages.

There may be a stronger case for including maths and English in some form of Tech Bacc along the lines of what Stephen Twigg has just suggested.

In sum, Gove's reform appears feeble, conservative and a sop to the universities. Let us be bolder, put students and their general education first.

Thursday, 11 October 2012


I came across these French assessment materials, thanks to Sarah on the TES forum. French teachers may find them interesting.

CIEP stands for Centre international d'études pédagogiques. DELF stands for Diplôme élémentaire en langue française.

CIEP is from the French Ministry of Education. the DELF (and DALF) exams are provided for learners of French around the world. The site says:

Chaque diplôme correspond à l'un des quatre premiers niveaux du Cadre européen commun de référence pour les langues. Pour chaque niveau une série d'épreuves évalue les quatre compétences de communication : compréhension et production écrites et orales.

  • Le diplôme délivré est le Diplôme d'Etudes en Langue Française. La mention DELF scolaire n'apparaît pas.
  • La structure des examens est la même que celle du DELF dans sa version "tous publics", seuls les thématiques et les supports diffèrent et sont adaptés aux publics scolaires.
Conditions générales
  • L'introduction du DELF scolaire est soumise à la signature d'une convention entre les autorités éducatives locales et l'ambassade de France.
  • Le DELF scolaire est accessible à tout jeune de nationalité étrangère, scolarisé dans un établissement habilité dans le cadre de la convention.
  • Les sessions sont organisées chaque année dans les établissements scolaires avec l'aval de la Commission nationale du DELF et du DALF.
  • Les inscriptions se font directement dans les établissements scolaires.
  • Les tarifs sont fixés par le service de coopération et d'action culturelle de l'ambassade de France en liaison avec les autorités éducatives locales. 
The sample exam papers are worth a look. I found it of interest that the question types resemble closely those we see on GCSE papers in England and Wales. Plenty of multi-choice, identification of factual information, true/false/not mentioned, matching and so on. The written assessment is a fairly open-ended composition.

There are four levels for the DELF scolaire exams, with the higher (B2) level resembling A-level work. There si also a "tous publics" version of the exams (linked above).

Anyway, have a look if you are interested. You may find the sample papers (pdf format) useful for your own classes. There are sound files you can stream online or download.

Friday, 5 October 2012

How should we assess writing at GCSE?

Writing is the least useful skill for language learners and as internet translators become ever more sophisticated it is likely that the vast majority of learners will never have to construct written language in the foreign language at all. We should downgrade its importance at all levels, but especially at GCSE. The current allocation of 30% of marks for writing is inappropriate.

That said, we shall no doubt continue to teach and assess writing, largely to support the other skills and to provide useful classwork and homework tasks.

So how should we clear up the current mess which is assessment of writing at GCSE?

When it was decided that that exam boards would have to mark written GCSE assignments this issue came sharply into focus with hundreds of schools unhappy with grades. A thread on the TES MFL forum about problems with marking writing at GCSE has been running for over a year.

Mistakes in marking with essay based questions occur where the examiner is inexperienced, careless or just tired. Difficult to interpret mark schemes do not help.

One way around this would be to abandon the current, open-ended essay assessment format. This type of "direct assessment", although it allows for authentic communication and does not encourage undesirable backwash effects, is hard to score accurately. (In its current "controlled assessment" form it is also to easy to cheat and therefore unreliable.)

We could assess grammatical skill using "indirect assessment" such as multi-choice or cloze tests. These methods, although reliable, are not "authentic" or communicative in nature. The ability to construct sentences with correct syntax could be achieved by using translation sentences with a clear-cut mark scheme. The problem with this, however, would be that teachers would then be encouraged to do endless prose translation sentences in the run-up to exams, thereby undermining good MFL teaching methodology.

Is there a way of testing syntax and vocabulary which is both accurate, encourages good teaching methodology, is not open to excessive interpretation, which would reflect good classroom practice and not lead to undesirable "backwash" effects? The answer is probably no, but we need to find a good compromise which allows for the most accurate assessment and which promotes good methodology.

One compromise solution would be a very closely guided composition task with bullet points in English. Here are a couple of examples of tasks for a higher tier exam paper which might require about 120 words each. Glossaries could be provided - I would not favour use of dictionaries because it is not possible to provide the same dictionary to all candidates and, in any case, they encourage poor practice among weaker students.

1.    You are writing a Facebook message to your French friend about an upcoming exchange
  • Ask him/her how they are
  • Say how you are
  • Ask him/her what they have been doing recently
  • Say you have just been into town with your friends
  • Ask him/her when they are going to arrive
  • Explain that you will meet them at the school car park
  • Tell him/her to bring warm clothes because the weather forecast is not good
  • Explain THREE things you are going to do during the stay
  • Explain THREE things you did last weekend with your friends or family
  • Sign off
2.   You are writing an email to a camp site in France because you would like a summer job there
  • Explain who you are, your age and that you are looking for a summer job in France
  • Explain why you would like to work at the camp site
  • Tell them about yourself: mention THREE pastimes or interests
  • Describe a job you have done (e.g. as part of work experience)
  • Describe what aspects of your personality would make you a good candidate
  • Ask them how much money they would pay you
  • Ask them where you would stay
  • Ask them if you would have any free time 
  • Sign off
The mark scheme would reward COMMUNICATION, RANGE OF LANGUAGE and ACCURACY. Each bullet point could be assessed for communication (would a sympathetic native speaker understand it?). Then a global mark could be given for range and accuracy. Range would have to involve a subjective element, but accuracy could be quantified, with clear definitions of major and minor errors - this would be a counting exercise.

I would be tempted to impose a word limit to encourage sensible timing and to allow for fair comparison of accuracy between candidates. (Some candidates might write a lot, quite well, but make many mistakes.)

You will say, no doubt, that this format resembles one which was used in GCSE for a number of years. Yes, it does, and they had good reasons for doing it this way.

The above tasks remain difficult for the weakest students, though glossaries could mitigate this.

Some of  this may become, as the Americans say, moot, if 16+ exams disappear, but we shall always need to assess.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012 updates

Je viens de me rendre compte que je fais de moins en moins de billets de blog en français. Faut que je fasse un plus grand effort....

Le fait de ne pas devoir aller au travail me permet de passer un peu plus de temps à préparer des ressources pour le site. Par exemple, dernièrement, j'ai écrit un texte avec des exercices sur les paris sportifs. Il paraît que les Français parient de plus en plus pendant la crise économique et que c'est les sociétés traditionnelles telles que la Française des jeux et le PMU qui en tirent le plus de bénéfices. Quand c'est la crise, les gens prennent plus de risques mais ils préfèrent les points de vente à proximité aux jeux en ligne.

Pour ce genre de texte ma méthode, c'est de trouver un article de journal (dans ce cas précis c'était Sud Ouest), d'y trouver les informations utiles et de réécrire les infos à ma façon. Souvent je simplifie un peu le vocabulaire, j'enlève ce qui n'est pas nécessaire et je réorganise la structure de l'article.  J'ai toujours en tête le niveau des élèves qui vont travailler dessus. Puis j'ajoute des exercices qui varient en fonction du sujet et du langage.

Un autre article que j'ai trouvé intéressant concerne des couples norvégiens dits modernes qui partagent les tâches ménagers mais qui divorcent davantage. L'auteur suggère la possibilité que quand les tâches ne sont pas clairement répartis, ça crée des disputes. Il vaut mieux alors avoir chacun son rôle bien précis et, dans la réalité, c'est la femme qui fait la plupart des corvées.

Le texte permet aux élèves de réviser tout le vocabulaire du ménage et de discuter un peu le rôle des hommes, des femmes et des enfants dans ce contexte. On pourrait imaginer une activité où les élèves jouent le rôle d'étudiants qui vivent ensemble et qui doivent organiser le ménage de leur maison.

Autrement je continue à faire des mots croisés sur divers thèmes.

A bientôt.