Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Vocabulaire idiot

Robert De Niro made a memorable video during the US presidential election in which he found a large number of nouns to describe Donald Trump. Here it is:

So in honour of the US president here is a French vocab list for you.

faible d'esprit
roi des cons
dépassé par sa situation

That'll do for now. You may have others.

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Saturday, 18 February 2017

Review: Ilini videos



This is a promising new site, currently in Beta, which features regularly updated, advanced level French videos, complete with sub-titles, downloadable, translated transcripts and optional English translations.

The content so far would suit adult learners and advanced level students. Each authentic video lasts under two minutes and topics available so far include:
  • A glass wall to protect the Eiffel Tower
  • A French woman crowned Miss Universe (oh dear!)
  • A record year for French car-maker Renault
  • Emmanuel Macron's supporters
  • Women in cinema
  • A farmer gettinga suspended sentence for helping migrants
  • The François Fillon scandal
  • The presidential election
  • The 2015 Paris climate conference

The videos are sourced from the likes of France 24, BFM and Euronews (copyright?). For each video you can download a pdf with the transcript and its translation, along with a second sheet on which you can record any vocabulary you wish.

The most useful aspect for teachers is the transcript from which you could design exercises such as gap-fill. The fact they are in pdf makes this more fiddly, but still feasible.

A free sign-up is required.

The webmasters say:

"We help you learn languages the natural way We bring you short, real-life videos in French and English with interactive subtitles and an integrated dictionary. In one click, you can save lists of vocabulary in your personal space. You can then come back later, rehearse or print them out.

We are currently in beta! This means that we are intensively working on the website and gathering feedback. We aspire to become the best place to improve your vocabulary with no pain. Join us, if you haven't done so already! Ilini is also available for French speakers learning English on fr.ilini.com."

One might assume that at some point they will monetise the site in some form or other, but for now A-level teachers might get some use out of the material.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Buckingham University PGCE and IPGCE presentations

I used these presentations as a basis for discussion with the PGCE and IPGCE students based at the University of Buckingham.

New book update

Just to let you know that the typescript of my new book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher is at Routledge and I'm hoping it will be available very soon. It's one of a series of books covering different subject areas. Maths and English are already published.

There will be around 200 pages and this is what what the Contents page looks like:


1. Running a room
2. Dissecting a lesson: visuals
3. Dissecting a lesson: using written texts
4. Dissecting a lesson: task-based lessons
5. Enjoying sounds
6. Great games
7. Getting grammatical
8. Words and chunks
9. Dissecting a lesson: speaking
10. Dissecting a lesson: writing
11. Teaching all abilities
12. Pace, questioning and other interactions
13. Moving them forwards
14. What makes an outstanding language teacher?


What is a bit different about this book, I think, is the focus on detailed analyses of classroom interactions - notably typical question-answer sequences and the subtleties of running them. I hope these will be of particular use to brand new teachers or others who feel uncertain about how to run lessons primarily in the target language. It really does deal with the nuts and bolts of teaching languages in schools.

There is almost no theory in this book, just plenty of practical ideas and descriptions of possible lessons. I try not to be too prescriptive. Indeed my final chapter includes "case studies" of unusual teaching approaches, including what I've called the bilingual approach used at the Michaela Community School where pupils seem to be making outstanding progress. I also look at the TPRS method which is particularly popular in the USA and AIMlang, used in Canada.

I do try to stick to some principles I am fond of: the importance of meaningful input and interaction, along with the rigorous practice of skills, including explicit grammar. I have also included "tech tips" at the end of most chapters, focusing on tools which maximise input and practice, not time-consuming creative tasks.

I have written a chapter on purposeful games, repeating very little of what we published in The Language Teacher Toolkit. I think of games just as enjoyable purposeful tasks which successfully recycle language.

The first chapter called "Running a Room" (a phrase I pinched from Tom Bennett) deals with generic language teaching skills including entry routines, starters, plenaries and skilled interactions with pupils.

My examples are largely, though not entirely, in English so as not to put off teachers of any particular language. I have also avoided referring specifically to the English education system as I would like the book to appeal (sell) to readers outside the UK.

Finally I have had really useful input from a number of teachers, notably Gianfranco Conti, Martina Bex and Carrie Toth from the USA, SEND specialist David Wilson, Pauline Galea from Canada, and Jess Lund and Barry Smith from Michaela in London. My former brilliant colleague Anne Swainston, whom I observed many times, also gave me useful insights.

In sum, I hope the book helps teachers build their personalised repertoire of successful techniques based on sound principles.

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Monday, 6 February 2017

Five ways to help your students prepare for the new GCSE Speaking Tests

So Controlled Assessments are on the way out and we essentially.return to the form of oral assessment which preceded them. From May 2018 pupils will do a role play, discuss a photo and have a conversation based on the prescribed topics or "sub-themes". This applies to both Foundation and Higher Tier.

What can teachers do to help pupils score well? I may have some useful ideas for you after many years of preparing pupils and a few years of marking oral exams for AQA during the previous regime.

1. Rote learning is still important

While it's true that CAs encouraged learning whole talks by heart (though it was never meant that way - unintended consequences), don't think for a moment that the learning by heart won't play a role in the new format. I recall very clearly, when I marked for AQA at least 15 years ago, listening to the candidates of one school who all produced very similar answers. For example, when asked to describe a recent meal every candidate had coincidentally eaten chicken and chips with ice cream for dessert. They all had plenty to say, with dubious accents, and scored very well. My feeling at the time was that these teachers had got some average candidates to perform very creditably by giving them lists of answers to memorise. I could only reward what I heard each candidate say.

So, my first point is this: whatever the ability profile or prior attainment of your students, give them lists of common questions with model answers which they can learn by rote or add to if they are smart enough. Remember that many of these answers will be usable in all three parts of the test, unless the role play happens to be a situational-style one. (AQA offers a mix of situational and conversational ones.) For weaker students give them short responses, for the most able give them as much as you want because they will devour it with relish.

As a young teacher I felt this sort of preparation went against my principles, but over time I compromised and did whatever would help to get those high grades.

2. Do fluency activities

Saying a lot still trumps (sorry) by far accuracy so anything you can do to help students maintain the flow is worthwhile. Fluency will stem from effective memory work and sound methodology (input and practice) over several years, but you can still exploit some handy task types in the run-up to oral exams.

"Just a minute" (mentioned in my previous blog) is one such activity. Along similar lines get pairs of students to time each other as they try to talk non-stop for chunks of time (say 30 seconds, one minute or more, depending on the class). Alternatively play speed-dating, changing pairs every two minutes. If you do this, I recommend you pause the lesson every ten minutes to model good answers yourself. This provides more useful input and adds variety of focus to the lesson.

3. Focus on tense

Jess Lund from Michaela Community School mentions this in a recent blog (https://jlmfl.wordpress.com/2017/02/04/gcse-french-the-michaela-way/) and provides an example of a learning sheet to help pupils with tenses. With weaker pupils focus on no more than past, present and future. Some pupils will have trouble doing any tense accurately.

In French, above all, try to train out of pupils the dreaded "je joué" hybrid tense which loses marks owing to the ambiguity of meaning it creates. This can be especially costly in the role plays (see below). Even excellent candidates can carelessly let this slip in.

With higher-attaining students make sure they pre-learn examples of other tenses (present conditional, imperfect and pluperfect) and modal verbs in different tenses.

4. Teach technique

Make sure you share the mark schemes with pupils stressing, above all, that you get the best marks by saying a lot. However, with the role play the opposite may be true. Some responses may require no more than a word or phrase to pick up all the marks. In French, for example, if the question is "Qu'est-que tu as acheté?" if a candidate says "poulet" this is likely to score higher than "J'acheté du poulet". The first answer is inaccurate but unambiguous, the second is ambiguous because of the verb error.

Practising the technique of producing minimalist answers will pay dividends. Even very good candidates lose marks carelessly by saying too much.

The photo card question needs some specific work on technique, notably the first question where a basic description of the picture is required.

5. Do lots of examples

The research is clear and chimes with common sense: students do better at assessment tasks when they are familiar with the test format. As I have blogged before, I favour leaving such practice reasonably late (during Y11). Why? Later practice will be better retained and since these assessment tasks are pretty boring why spend much time on them lower down the school?

I would use the specimens of your exam boards, plus those of other awarding bodies. You can then make up your own or find examples of materials online, including from my site. In the three weeks or so before the tests, do nothing else apart from oral practice. Give the practice as many twists as possible to make it enjoyable: change partners, get pairs to grade each other, model good responses, get students to model good answers, encourage pupils to record themselves, possibly sharing their work via digital platforms, display mark schemes or simplified versions thereof.

Give students written models of answers, matched to their abilities, to help them memorise.


Effective performance in the oral depends primarily on four or five years of good teaching and effort on the part of students, but you can help students achieve their potential through specific planning. Stress to students that all parts of the oral are interlinked. What's more, much of the oral practice will pay dividends in the writing paper students will do later.

If you are fortunate to have a language assistant perhaps you can get them to do practice tests just before their official test; this may help with nerves too. A-level students may be able to help with this too.

Assure your very weakest students that with good technique and a smallish repertoire of verbs and other vocab they can still do well. In addition, make sure you do all you can (within the rules) to help them on the day, with a smiling face, familiar question forms and encouraging students to extend answers where there are more marks for doing so. Don't feel bad if you hear many of the same answers repeated - this shows you and the pupils have both done your job.

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Friday, 3 February 2017

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own true/false statements. This can be further extended by getting students in pairs to recount your weekend from their notes and/or their own weekend.

2. Just a minute

Pupils work in small groups. Individuals try to talk for a minute without hesitating (i.e. drying up), repeating or deviating from the topic. This works well with good intermediate and advanced level students. You can give easy topics to intermediates and harder ones to advanced level students. This can be great preparation for an oral exam. I'd begin by improvising an example of your own to demonstrate as a model.

This is definitely an "output" task but one which can encourage students to speak fearlessly with an ear on fluency rather than accuracy.

3. Would I lie?

For intermediate to advanced level. Students try to work out which three of six statements are not true by asking you questions. You prepare five statements about yourself, three true and two false, and write them on the board. For example:

• My brother has twin sons.
• I have three cats.
• If I’d been a boy, I would’ve been called George.
• My family was brought up in Spain.
• My favourite movie is The Sound of Music.
• My father was an extra in Star Wars.

You can ask the class how many of the statements they think are false. Then tell them there are three. Tell them they have to work out which by asking you questions, listening to your answers and watching your reaction. You can embroider your answers as much as possible, giving the right number of hints depending on how fast you think your class is.

Let the students ask questions until they have decided which ones they believe (by a show of hands). Give them the real answer. You could add an element of competition by putting the class into pairs or small groups, with each grouping coming up with their chosen two false statements.

An extension to this task is to ask students to write down similar statements for themselves – three true and three false. Divide them into groups and repeat as above with one person from the group being questioned by the others.

4. Exploiting a simple picture

This is an extremely simple, zero preparation and fun idea for creating conversation lessons with high intermediate or advanced level classes. You take a simple picture featuring a couple of people and use it as the basis for some imaginative storytelling.

What's her name?
What's his name?
Where are they? What country? What town?
What's their relationship?
Did they meet recently?
Are they work colleagues?
How old are they?
What are they eating?
What are they talking about?
What is she like as a person? What's he like?
What are their interests?
Why do they look so happy?
How did they meet? When? Long ago?
If they are married, have they been married before?
What were they doing before they met at the restaurant?
What are they going to do next?
What do they do for a living?
What do they think of their jobs?
Have they always done that?
What did they used to do?

Now, how the conversation develops depends on just how imaginative your students are. You would do well to tell the students at the outset to be as daring as possible. They may take you in some interesting directions; or you may need to prompt them to use their imaginations a bit more by suggesting some more outrageous ideas, e.g. he has two wives, she is a spy, he is an ex convict, they are having an affair, and so on.

I would probably do this a teacher-led task, but with some classes you hand out a list of suggested questions and get the students to work in pairs or small groups. This would lead to a variety of stories which can be compared later on.

When you do this type of activity students come up with different scenarios. This can generate further debate. If you are leading the lesson, you may have to lead them along what seems like the most fruitful linguistic and creative path.

It's easy to encourage the use of different time frames - past, present and future - and to go on from speaking to writing or more listening. For example, you could make up your own back story to the couple, describe it in TL to the class, whilst they take notes, then feed back the account to a partner or the whole class.

How about getting them to write an imagined dialogue between the couple, once their story is established? Or how about getting the students to find their own picture and build an imaginative story around it, either spoken, written or both.

5. Word association

Give an example of how it works, then do it as a whole class activity, either working round in order or moving randomly from pupil to pupil. Stress that students should not plan words in advance and that they are allowed to pass. With the right class they can do it in small groups or pairs. This works at all levels.

You can use the game to develop quick vocabulary retrieval reflexes and to illustrate how humans organise words in the brain.

A similar and effective alternative is to build silly stories one word at a time, moving around the class. Sentences need to be grammatical, so in this case the task develops both meaning and syntactic and morphological skills. Tell students they can say "full stop" (period) if the sentence comes to a natural end.

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