Monday, 31 October 2016

The Michaela method

Michaela Community School is a ‘Free School’ set up in 2013 and which has gained some notoriety, partly owing to a news story which made the national press and partly because it is evangelical about its ethos, spreading the word via blogs, conferences and a book which is about to be published. 

It’s an all-ability school in an inner-city area of north-west London. Its motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’, the curriculum and leadership being highly influenced by the ideas of E.D. Hirsch Jr of "cultural literacy" fame. It has an above-average percentage of students on free school meals, an indication of its social context.  A significant number of students arrive at the school with literacy problems. Students are grouped by general ability at an early stage. Michaela has become best known for its ‘no excuses’ discipline policy, and the high achievement and immaculate behaviour of its students. Anyone who visits the school notes how happy and polite the students are and how well-ordered and aspirational the environment is. I suggest you look at the video in my previous blog to get a flavour.

Its team of language teachers, led in 2016 by Jess Lund with Barry Smith adopt a rather individual way of teaching French. They might sum it up as follows: “Teach like a linguist. Think for yourself, make everything totally transparent, no guesswork, focus on accuracy and ignore orthodoxy.”  I've had a few jousts with Barry on Twitter and had the opportunity to talk with him on the phone about how they teach French. Below are the main features of the approach they use with near-beginner and low-intermediate students (Y7 to Y9).

  • Focus strongly on reading from the start (in line with the whole school policy).
  • Teach from the front; make little or no use of pair or group work.
  • Do lots of fast-paced choral and individual ‘call and response’ activity ( a phrase in English and getting the answer back in TL).
  • Don’t use pictures, since focusing on words improves literacy and leaves no room for doubt.
  • Use plenty of TL, but don’t be dogmatic about it. Students will often ask complex formulaic TL questions in class which they have practised repeatedly.
  • Use plenty of translation, especially from English into the TL.
  • Place a strong focus on phonics teaching, making links between sounds and spelling very explicit. They spend a lot of time working on letter combinations and how they relate to sounds: “yeux”, “deux”, “feu”; “boit”, “noir”, “oiseau”, and so on.
  • Don’t worry too much about grading the difficulty of language; expose students to complex language from the start, e.g. beginners will quickly learn examples of the subjunctive in set phrases and be urged to use them.
  • Get students to read aloud a lot; correct them very clearly.
  • Read aloud a lot to the class and be the sole source of listening input, at least in the first two years.
  • Insist on accuracy at all times.
  • Avoid text books and published materials; write amusing texts.
  • Include plenty of writing but especially later in the lesson.
  • Do no creative writing in the early stages (since students can go wrong too easily).
  • Use lots of memory tricks to help students retain language.
  • Explain French usage by giving literal translations in odd English: “I have a question important”.
  • Make very little use of technology since it’s likely to waste time and be less productive. Avoid PowerPoint.
  • Emphasise the simplicity of the language at all times; do this by giving clear rules and using English where needed; leave no room for guesswork or uncertainty.
  • Make frequent use of parallel texts so students know at every point what the TL means.
  • Do lots of ‘low-stakes’ tests, e.g. vocab recall.
  • No games; a key point for Michaela teachers is the notion of ‘return on investment’ or ‘opportunity cost’ – which activity will produce the most learning? Games are rejected as a point of principle.
  • Use a mix of hands-up and no hands-up ("cold calling").
  • Make lessons fun through the pleasure of learning together, not by doing ‘fun activities’; develop strong relationships.

I would pick out in particular the large amount of translation used in order to make everything totally meaningful along with a strong focus on accuracy. Traditional immersion-style TL use is rejected since it is deemed to be confusing and off-putting for students, encouraging guesswork which is discouraged. Similarly, there is no pair or group work since this could lead to guesswork and poor modelling from students. There is little emphasis on creative use of language; even so, a good deal of TL is used and recycled which clearly helps the students remember. Michaela does not use text books for French so all listening is sourced from the teachers. 

The decision to avoid visual aids is pretty unique and based on the assumption that pictures are confusing and showing English words aids general literacy. Reading is king!

Technology is avoided since the teachers believe it adds nothing to learning and leads to time-wasting.

The approach is strongly in the skill-building camp, but is a bit unusual in that language is not closely graded by difficulty, moving from the smallest, easiest language features to the more complex. Pupils are exposed to complex structures from the start, including the subjunctive. Observers are struck with how much students can do from the early stages and how much the pupils adore their teachers.

My impression from observing video clips and communicating with Barry and Jess is that achievement and motivation are very high. I also have the feeling that the approach depends on having powerful, charismatic teachers with excellent language skills. Some teachers just could not work in that way. The method also works because the whole school ethos is absolutely consistent, so pupils come along to lessons with the expectation of reading a lot, being taught from the front and being academically stretched. 

This is one reason, in fact, why it's hard to judge the methodology in isolation. While I might criticise the overly analytical approach with its constant comparison with English, the focus on accuracy over fluency (Barry argues that the former leads to the latter), the lack of exposure to other models of French, the ideological objection to pictures and lack of opportunities for pupil-pupil interaction and compositional writing, my guess is that the pupils will go on to achieve very well at GCSE. Why? Because essentially they have talented teachers who believe passionately in their approach, the pupils are working very hard and recycling a lot of language in the process.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Michaela Community School on French TV

I shall be putting together another blog about the approach to teaching French at Michaela. It's unorthodox and apparently highly effective. Meanwhile, enjoy the video above. Good to hear a head teacher being intervewed in French. Kudos to Barry Smith too, the assistant head and French teacher who can both delight and annoy you!

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Exploiting hand-held flashcards with beginners

Here is a draft extract from a new book I'm working on. An unusual feature of the book will be its focus on the detailed nuts and bolts of lessons.

Suppose that your aim is to introduce the vocabulary associated with places around town with beginners. Your target vocabulary might be 12 items in the first lesson – you can adapt this number depending on the class’s ability: swimming pool, supermarket, town hall, park, car park, cinema, museum, theatre, bank, restaurant, café, market. I’ll lay out one approach below.
For each of the vocab items you have a large, clear hand-held flashcard with the word spelt out at the bottom so that students can immediately associate the picture with the sound and the spelling of the word. You separate out the items by gender, teaching items of the same gender together. Here’s a suggested teaching sequence with commentary. Target language is italicised.

Here is the cinema.
Here is the park.
Here is the market,
etc – all 12 items.

Do this twice.

Students just listen as you just say each word. Students need time to just hear and take in the new sounds. No need to force any repetition.
The cinema.
The park.
The market,
etc – all 12 items.
The cinema (x2).
The park (x2).
The market (x2).
Group repetition, focusing on accurate pronunciation, exaggerating vowel and consonant sounds a little. No need to rush. You could vary the repetition style with whispering.
What’s this? It’s the cinema (x2).

Allow students to hear the question and the answer.
What’s this? (show a card) (x12).
(Hands up) It’s the cinema, etc.
Elicit answers from volunteers with hands up. Get other individuals to repeat the correct answer. Get the whole class to repeat correct answers.
Either/or questions,
e.g. Is this the cinema or the market?
It’s the cinema.
You can create a comic effect by stressing the right answer in each pair or by refusing to accept their option, e.g. No, it’s not the cinema!
Hide all the cards.
Ask in English how many the class can remember.

Elicit suggestions with hands up – try to get all 12 items.
Ask in English who can list all 12 on their own.
The cinema, the park, the café etc.
You can prompt the student by giving the first sound or syllable of a word. If a student is struggling encourage others to help out.
Play ‘hide the flashcard’. Tell the class they have to guess the hidden card.
Hands up. Students make guesses.
You can add comic effect by pretending with a facial expression that they have got the answer right, then say no!

By this stage the students have heard each item numerous times, you’ve been speaking almost entirely in the TL and every student has uttered the words repeatedly, either individually or with the whole class. There’s been some fun and amusement along the way. The class has heard accurate and clear models of each word. A sequence such as the above would take at most 15 minutes, at which time a release of tension or change of direction is called for. You could have five minutes of quiet time, getting students to copy down the words with their definite articles in their books. You may have prepared a simple set of the similar pictures for students to copy the words next to.
In the following lesson you could practise a pared-down version of the above sequence, allowing students to show off what they’ve remembered. To add interest you could vary the interactions a little, e.g. you could hide a card and offer students a choice of three, thus speeding up the process while allowing them to hear the words again. You could then do a moving around task where you pin on the walls around the class numbered pictures, supply students with a written, lettered list of the items. To a time limit students have to move around and find which letters match each numbers.
Once you feel the students are ready to move on, you can then add a little more challenge by introducing the phrase there is (i.e. in my town there is a cinema).

You list a few items (maybe invented) of places in your town.
In my town there is a cinema
In my town there is a swimming pool, etc.

Students listen.
Students listen in silence, taking in the new sounds for “in my town” and “there is”. Stress the difference in sounds between the different indefinite articles.

Note that students will now be hearing the indefinite article, not the definite article they heard previously. This is fine, since at this stage they will be starting to work out the difference between definite and indefinite articles.
You ask What’s in your town? You can try this in TL, hoping students get the idea, or briefly say it in English first.
A cinema.
A park etc.
If there are errors of pronunciation or gender you can recast responses with the correct gender, making little fuss. The more you repeat them the more students will use the right gender instinctively. Compare with how toddlers pick up the gender of their first language.
Is there a cinema?
Is there a restaurant? etc.
Ask yes/no questions to allow students to hear the items again. At any point you can always check understanding by asking students to translate a simple TL or English statement. You have to keep everyone on board.
What’s in your town?
There is…
Now try to elicit longer answers, including more than one item. Help the process along by offering the first sounds to get students going, e.g. there is…

Who can list five things in their town?
Hands up – there is
Offer prompts if needed, then ask if anyone can do more than five, more than six etc.

At this point a transition might make sense and it would be logical to display a brief description of a town on the board, including the items you have practised and a few more, preferably cognates. You could read aloud the description. Then get the whole group to repeat a few words at a time after you. You could then put the students into pairs and tell them to read aloud the paragraph to their partner, encouraging partners to offer positive feedback on performance. Then give the opportunity for a few individual volunteers to perform their reading aloud in front of the class.            

I’ll go no further with this for now, but you can imagine that a range of further reading and writing tasks could ensue, including ones that get a bit closer to the way the language is used in real life situations. The point has been to demonstrate how you can introduce and practise items repeatedly, with little pain, almost all in TL. Outstanding teachers are thorough about this type of activity, making it a positive and fun experience while making the most out of TL input and practice activities.

York University PGCE presentations - GCSE and A-level

These are the two presentations I used as part of the training session with PGCE students at York University on October 28th 2016. Teachers in England and Wales might find them useful for their own presentations.


Saturday, 22 October 2016


The Professional Development Consortium in Modern Foreign Languages (PDC in MFL) gives teachers access to eight key principles of teaching and learning languages, which are based on research evidence. PDC in MFL was set up by researchers at the University of Reading Institute of Education and University of Oxford Department of Education and is made up of classroom MFL teachers, trainers and researchers in England.

Firstly, here are the eight principles as they appear on the PDC in MFL website:


Target language input is essential for learning but it can be made more effective if learners are encouraged to check the understanding of it by asking questions of what the teacher is saying or asking the teacher to repeat.


Learners need to be encouraged to speak spontaneously and to say things that they are not sure are correct


Less spontaneous oral interaction should nevertheless be of high quality. By high quality we mean including substantial student turns; adequate wait time; cognitive challenge [e.g. by requiring a verb phrase or subordinate clause]; appropriate teacher feedback; nominating students rather than waiting for volunteers.


Students should be explicitly taught strategies to use when faced with communication difficulties. These should be used alongside techniques for developing their oral fluency, such as repetition of tasks and chunking of pre-learnt words into whole phrases.


Learners need to be taught how to access a greater range of more challenging spoken and written texts, through explicit instruction in comprehension strategies and in the relationship between the written and spoken forms.

Principle 6 FEEDBACK

Learners need to develop their self- confidence and see the link between the strategies they use and how successful they are on a task.

Principle 7 WRITING

Writing should be developed as a skill in its own right not just as a consolidation of other language skills. For this to happen students should frequently write using the language and strategies they already know rather than resources provided by the teacher (e.g. textbooks, writing frames, dictionaries, etc. )

Principle 8 (underpins all other principles)

The principal focus of pedagogy should be on developing language skills and therefore the teaching of linguistic knowledge (knowledge of grammar and vocabulary) should act in the service of skill development not as an end in itself.

It looks like a reasonable set of principles since the key elements are input and interaction, which most scholars would go along with. Some might quibble about the omission of culture or the excessive importance given to grammar, for example, but this depends on your theoretical perspective. The final principle makes sense for those who believe strongly in skill-acquisition and it makes sense to me. The main instigators of the principles seem to be Suzanne Graham and Ernesto Macaro, so the slight emphasis on learning strategies is not surprising. How well does the website show off these principles?

The PDC in MFL website has a number of resources shared by teachers and which, I suppose, are meant exemplify the principles. They don't really. It's a bit of a hotch-potch of documents and PowerPoints (not vetted for error, by the way) sent in by teachers.

In addition there 13 videos featuring teachers and pupils in action. Topics include developing writing as a skill, higher level reading, practising French sounds, exploring sound-spelling links, developing spontaneous speech and using the target language.

An important aspect of the Consortium is the teacher clusters which have been set up. (I don't know how active these are.) The site says:

"MFL teachers are now meeting in the following areas:

Reading/North Hampshire, Portsmouth/South Hampshire, Brighton/Sussex
Cheltenham/Gloucestershire, Oxford, South Oxfordshire, Birmingham.
Another cluster is planned for Lincolnshire and Newcastle upon Tyne.

The aim of the clusters is to:

• create time after school to meet with local MFL colleagues and share in your professional development;
• revisit the PDC in MFL principles and use them as a basis for discussion;
• plan with your local colleagues how to apply one specific principle (or more) in your teaching;
• discuss and evaluate the outcomes together at subsequent meetings.

Meetings take place 3-4 times per year, hosted by the teachers or teacher trainers involved in the cluster. The work of the PDC in MFL is used as a basis for discussion but the teachers and teacher trainers have autonomy over the clusters and decide what happens in meetings."

I watched the video called "Le Dragon Toxique" with the focus on developing reading skills and sound-spelling links. I was left unimpressed, I'm afraid. Although the video only shows excerpts from the lesson, much of the time was spent talking in English and discussing strategies. I saw almost no actual use of language used for communication. The students didn't even seem hugely engaged either (despite the presence of a camera) - having pupils seated in groups did not help. Some were inattentive. When time on the curriculum is limited this type of lesson looks like time-wasted to me.

Hoping to find something better I looked at the video about practising sound-spelling links with a Y9 French class. At least there was some useful repetition work going on, but the pace was quite slow and the teacher was interspersing practice with English comments. To me this was no more than an average example to show teacher trainees. Was that the point? I cannot be sure. There was no flair. here and I can imagine that class switching off quickly.

The video showing the development of spontaneous language was more promising. The native speaker teacher used plenty of target language, pupils (working on a restaurant dialogue) seemed interested, but the group seating was a handicap once again. The best teaching needs eye contact during teacher exposition. There wasn't much here. Once pairs of students got underway there were signs of reasonable performance.

I'm a bit wary of being over-critical based on a few clips, but it does make me think that, although clusters and sharing of ideas is great, you have to offer models of brilliant practice. I didn't see any here unfortunately.

Wouldn't it be good if there was a bank of videos showing the very best teachers at work? There is a brilliant project waiting to be done!

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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

1jour1question videos

One of my go-to sources for advanced level video listening is the set of short videos from Milan Presse, made available on YouTube. Each 1jour1question video. If you've never come across this excellent clips you can find them on this YouTube channel:

Each video lasts 1m 43s, an ideal length for doing intensive "input-output" work, including true-false, ticking true sentences, gap-filling, matching and questions in French or English. Many of the videos are a good basis for further discussion or fit well with common themes in your syllabus. Written for French native speakers aged around 10-14, the content remains appropriate for older non-natives, while the language is clearly spoken at a natural (quite fast pace).

The range of topics is huge, many sparked off by current events of the time. This means that some of them have now lost that currency, but many have a good shelf life. (They're the ones I use for

Here are some of the titles to give you a flavour:

Ça sert à quoi, la Palme d'or?
C'est quoi, le terrorisme?
Pas plus de 2 degrés: d'où vient cet objectif pour le climat?
C'est quoi, la dyslexie?
La crise des réfugiés expliquée aux enfants.
C'est quoi, la maladie d'Alzheimer?
Pourquoi des attentats ont-ils eu lieu à Paris?
Pourquoi des ados partent-ils faire le Djihad?
Est-ce vrai que les filles sont meilleures que les garçons à l'école?
Pourquoi y a-t-il plusieurs Bacs ?

Each video features drawn cartoons, some text and a voice-over. Content is interesting, informative and balanced.

All in all, well worth using with your A-level classes and some able Higher Tier (high intermediate) students.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Nifty ways to use a smartphone in class

When I taught I didn't make huge use of tech, though like most teachers I had my favourite activities. I wasn't much of a phone user either, but many teachers do interesting things with smartphones. Schools have rules about phone use, of course, some have. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), some ban them outright or more commonly ban their use in class. Many language teachers find the restrictions on phones a bit frustrating and just ignore no-use rules (I don't blame them really, as long as use is tightly monitored).

The phone or phablet is an amazing resource in your pocket. How can it be used in the languages classroom in productive ways? Thanks to colleagues on Twitter and Facebook for some of the ideas below. All can, of course, be done with a tablet.

I never did most of these and would only say what I usually do about tech: does it give you a good return on investment? Is the task at least as productive as a non-tech alternative?

Conversing with a digital assistant

IPhone has Siri, Android/Google phones have the newly named Google Assistant (hitherto known as Google Now). In case you were unaware, you can ask your phone questions in your chosen language (just use settings) and make a note of the answers, receiving good quality language input in the process. You could set a number of questions which your students have to ask then the students make a note or transcribe the answers they receive.

Listening to podcasts or watching video

You don't need a tablet or computer to do useful listening tasks. If the bandwidth is sufficient, students can watch an online video or listen to an audio podcast while doing a comprehension exercise. The video listening sheets on fit the bill well. Advanced students could use News in Slow French or its equivalents in other languages. Audio Lingua is another great source of listening, as is the brilliant Lyrics Training which allows you to follow song videos and do gap-filling of lyrics.

Some teachers use Google Classroom to share online videos with students.

I've always believed that tech is at its best when it provides great quality language input.

Using instant messaging

As a writing exercise, pupils can send each other messages via a social medium such as Facebook. Instant messaging is one of the main reasons for writing these days, so messaging gives writing a real life purpose in the classroom. You'd just need to be sure your class would do the task properly and be prepared to monitor it carefully.

You can also use SnapChat to have students send recordings of speaking assessments to a central class account. Some teachers report that students are less self-conscious working in this fashion.

Gianfranco Conti has written about "interactional writing" in detail here

Recording audio and video

Students can read aloud, perform dialogues and sketches, then listen back to their performance or upload it to YouTube. The benefits of this hardly need spelling out. They could even send target languages messages to someone else. Some teachers also get pupils to video role-plays and sketches. Students can also record memorable class songs, e.g. simple tunes for verb chanting; these can also be set as ringtones. Audioboo and Spreaker are apps you can use for recording podcasts.

Pupils can record the teacher speaking, then listen at home. This could be a grammar explanation or some target language for summary or some other task.

Pupils could keep a photo or video record of an exchange or study trip abroad, then share it via social media. they could also record conversations with an exchange partner.


It's common practice nowadays to photograph things for later reference. Students can therefore take a picture of language on the board to use for revision or pass on to an absent friend. In schools where pupils can't take textbooks home, pages can be photographed for homework. Dyslexic pupils can find this particularly useful. Some teachers get students to write on their tables with felt-tip pens, then photograph their work. Images can be saved on OneDrive, Google Drive or Evernote, for example. Some pupils just like to show their work to family members.

The Office Lens app trims, enhances and makes pictures of whiteboard
Notes and documents more readable. It can convert images to editable Word and PowerPoint documents.

One teacher says she gets her students to take a picture of the view from their bedroom and send it to a friend to be described in the TL. Another has an alternative to the Postit note method of learning vocabulary. Pupils take a picture of a list of words and us it as a lock screen image.

Students can photograph a vocabulary list to be learned and look at it on the way to school.

Using phone as a timer alarm/buzzer

Many paired or small group tasks involve a time limit. Since pupils frequently don't wear watches, the phone becomes the obvious means of counting down tasks.

Assessment for learning

Some teachers enjoy using Plickers. Plickers lets you poll your class, without the need for pupils to have their own device. You give each student a card (a “paper clicker”), and use your smartphone or tablet to scan them to do instant checks-for-understanding, exit tickets, and impromptu polls. The data is automatically saved, student-by-student, at Plickers.

Socrative is also used for interacting with classes in various ways. There are versions for the teacher and pupil.

Behaviour management

ClassDojo is a behaviour management tool. Each pupil has a profile – complete with their own avatar – to which you can attach positive and negative points ('dojos') throughout the lesson. The programme can be operated from a phone, tablet or computer and each time you award a point an (optional) sound plays to alert the class. This information is recorded on students' profiles so that it can be reviewed throughout the year. Parents also have logins so that they can view their child's achievements from home. Class Dojo is quite widely used.

One teacher has written:

"I have so far introduced ClassDojo into MFL lessons in two schools, and the results from both were very positive. All students, including a student with SEN who rarely engages with the classroom activities, have been motivated and actively participating in lessons. During the trial lesson in which I introduced ClassDojo for the first time, every single pupil in the room contributed verbally to the lesson and had put their hand up to volunteer an answer. Disruptive behaviour was reduced considerably and all pupils worked hard to not have points deducted from them. In all of the lessons taught with ClassDojo, pupils were without a doubt more engaged and were focused on constructing complex sentences spontaneously in order to earn the extra bonus points won by using the language independently in class."

Too Noisy is a fun little app which records noise levels and displays them graphically on a phone or on the interactive whiteboard. The app can be programmed to react when noise levels go beyond a certain point. Tech geeks might like this for pair and group work.


Edmodo: "With intuitive features and unlimited storage, quickly create groups, assign homework, schedule quizzes, manage progress, and more. With everything on one platform, Edmodo is designed to give you complete control over your digital classroom." I'll have to take their word for it, but I know many teachers find it very useful.


Kahoot, Memrise, Quizlet, Duolingo, Cramit, Brainscape, Bitsboard, Zondle, StudyStack. Most apps are of the vocabulary/flashcard type which I'm not a huge fan of personally, but some teachers and pupils really like them.

Memrise is one of the most popular vocabulary apps. Some teachers have pupils use it while setting up at the start of a lesson or packing away at the end. Why not encourage students to use it on the bus?

Quizlet Live can be used to pit teams against each other.

QR codes

Aurélie Charles has produced a useful Prezi all about QR codes in MFL.

There are more ideas here

Dictionary work

Probably a marginally quicker way to get the meaning of a word. For advanced students Wordreference provides a wider range of references than any paper dictionary you'd find in a classroom. Teachers also use Larousse and Linguee. Other online French dictionaries are listed on Specific dictionary tasks can be set. How many of us still use paper dictionaries?


I'm told that some advanced level students use their phones for researching topics in class. Maybe their eyesight is better than mine. They could certainly plug in their headphones and watch/listen to film extracts and interviews with actors and directors.


Students can create their own blogs and update them with their phones. I am writing this post lying in my bed with the radio on on my iPad using BlogPress, an app which works with Blogger. (Too much information?)

Interactive grammar

Languages Online, Language Gym and Conjugemos are widely used. Textivate is also used for grammar as well as all sorts of comprehension and text manipulation tasks. A tablet may suit these sites a bit better than a phone, though.

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