Six Steps to Outstanding

Last week we had a visitor at school. In fact we had four. But rather than that warm, fuzzy feeling you feel when your uncle, auntie and two cousins pop round for some mulled wine and a mince pie in the run-up to Christmas, the whole school drew a sharp intake of breath and waited for the pain: Ofsted were coming.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those teachers who spirals into a whirlwind of panic, staying at school until 9pm and winding everyone else up with me. I know that I’m doing the things that Ofsted wants to see all year round, but not necessarily in every lesson all the time. You will understand my relief when the HMI gave me my feedback on her thirty minute observation: “that was definitely a 1”.

Outstanding & MFL

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on what makes every lesson Outstanding (this is teaching’s Holy Grail and, frankly, I think Monty Python would have trouble finding it even if we set them loose in the corridors of the DfE!). But I do know why my lesson was Outstanding, and I do know how other languages teachers can get there too. Here are my six simple steps to outstanding (note the consonance – catchy, right?).

Step 1: Engagement

No, my role is not to entertain – it is to help students to learn; but we all know that they learn better when they are enjoying what they’re doing. I don’t necessarily mean have ‘fun’ – you can enjoy something without having fun. The key is using learning activities that the students like doing: mine like using mini whiteboards, so I use them; they like doing silly voices when we use choral repetition, so we do; they like watching me do silly (and sometimes random!) actions to go with the words we’re practising, so I do them.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but how many of us have been drawn into the attitude you can hear repeated in every staffroom of the country?: “kids these days need to learn to sit quietly and listen,” “I’m not a clown,” “I don’t have time to play games, they need to learn”. Most of this is rubbish; the workplace nowadays is a much more vibrant place than it was before, and communication is key. In the UK, many of our students will be going on to work in service industries or in communicative jobs, such as those found in call centres. How are we preparing them to communicate if we make them sit at a desk and listen or write for an hour?

In my Ofsted-observed lesson, I used a range of activities my students enjoy to introduce book genres in French: choral repetition with actions for phonics revision; mini whiteboards for introducing the vocabulary using multiple choice and a Quiz-Quiz-Trade game to practise the phrases.

For ideas on the kinds of activities you can use, check out my post on The Kagan Method as a startpoint, or just get creative! It’s amazing what you can do with a bag full of dice…

Step 2: Sequencing

I was horrified at a GTP Subject Mentors’ conference last term when I discovered that most of my fellow mentors, all experienced MFL teachers, had never heard of PPP: Presentation, Practice, Production.

Lots of us will do these in some form or another without realising. The problem is that most of us don’t spend time on the largest ‘P’ – Practice, and most of us don’t sequence the stages strictly enough. Let me explain…

Imagine you are teaching students to use the comparative. You explain to the how to use plus…quemoins…que and aussi…que. You maybe do some mini whiteboard work. Then you want them to write their own comparative sentences. NO!

The problem here is that you haven’t allowed them to practise the structure enough, and by practise I basically mean repeat. Now I’m not suggesting that you spend a whole lesson repeating the phrase Monsieur M est plus cool que Monsieur S (my favourite model!) but you need to leave the structure wholly visible while the students spend most of the lesson ‘practising’ it – trying it out – with the support of the words on the board. They could be building sentences with dice, doing a RallyCoach activity (see the Kagan post) or playing a card game where they have to repeat simple comparative phrases (such as Kagan’s Quiz-Quiz-Trade or rosaespanola‘s ‘Cheat‘ card game), but the point is that they are using the structure over and over again without having to remember how it works – it’s the repetition that internalises the language. Once this stage is fully complete (after an hour, a week or even a term, depending on the structure) then get to the final P – Production.

In my lesson, the activities were clearly sequenced from Presentation – where I presented the vocabulary and had the students repeat, to Practise – where I used a Quiz-Quiz-Trade activity to get students repeating and remembering the words.

Step 3: AfL

Since its introduction into teaching, AfL has been the obsession of CPD leaders, SLTs and Ofsted inspectors alike, and rightly so; being able to ask students to assess their own learning and checking their understanding to inform your teaching is such an invaluable tool, and it’s so simple to do!

At my current school, students have green, amber and orange pages in their planner. Once I had done the choral repetition stages of my lesson and the practice activities, I asked students how well they felt they knew the vocabulary:

Using Assessment for Learning to check pupils’ confidence with new vocabulary is an invaluable tool.

Obviously the wording needs to be changed according to the activity you’ve been doing and what you’re leading on to, but the above descriptors worked perfectly for the next activity, and the next of my six steps…

Step 4: Differentiation

This is likely to be the least popular of my steps;  the staffroom cynics claim that differentiation is “too time-consuming” and that it doesn’t help students, since “they all have to sit exactly the same exam”. There is some truth in these points, but only because people have lost sight of what differentiation is for, and how to use it.

Firstly, differentiation isn’t supposed to be permanent: it should be used to push students on to the next level that is appropriate for them, with the aim of slowly weaning them off it for different skills and activities so that they can all pass that exam. I differentiate my activities for each skill (listening, speaking, reading & writing) according to pupils’ attainment grade for that individual skill and gradate the activities throughout the term so that they can finally complete a given task in that skill with no support.

Secondly, yes it can be time consuming, but we’re not talking about hours of work, and it’s work that you can keep forever! I tend to start with the same reading or listening text, and then use (a lot!) of copy and paste to modify the activities, ranging from those where students note down the information required independently to multiple-choice activities with tick-boxes.

In the lesson seen by the HMI, I had prepared two different worksheets for the same listening text: one green and one orange. Those students who had shown a green card took the green sheet, those who had shown the orange  card took the orange one. Simples!

This differentiated listening activity linked on perfectly from the AfL traffic lighting I did just before… and all just as the inspector walked into my room!

Step 5: Simplicity

As an NQT, I had an awful problem: for some reason, I got it into my head that when I was being observed, every lesson had to be groundbreaking, earth-shattering, innovative and, above all, COMPLICATED. I was clearly suffering from a prolonged stroke.

Whenever I was observed I tried to get students to make inhuman leaps in their learning, I had umpteen worksheets for each differentiated group and I made the lessons unmanageable. I even once got a 3! Sad times.

So my advice is, keep it simple – be realistic and don’t panic just because Ofsted are in. The best lessons are the ones that work, and those lessons are usually the simplest of all.

My ‘Outstanding’ lesson was painfully simple. By the end the students were able to ask the question Qu’est-ce que tu lis en ce moment and answer it with an opinion. Not groundbreaking, not earth-shattering, but in the words of the inspector, the pupils made “excellent progress”. Job done.

Step 6: Consistency

I have one request of anyone that reads this post: please, please, PLEASE do not wait until Ofsted announce their imminent arrival before putting any of the above tips into practice – it won’t work.

My heart truly sinks when teachers tell me that they replan their lessons for Ofsted – you shouldn’t need to. It isn’t hard to introduce one piece of differentiation a week (at first) and a few engaging activities, right from the start of the year. Remember – Ofsted inspectors, as much as we may hate them, aren’t stupid – they’ll be able to tell if what they’re observing is a show for them, and if they suspect it is, they’ll ask the students, who will be more than happy to dob you in!

So, don’t wait until Auntie Ofsted is knocking at your door – make your lessons Ofsted proof NOW!

Update! Here is the PowerPoint presentation with the sequence of activities I used for this lesson: T1 Year 8 – 9. Qu’est-ce que tu lis

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ICT in MFL – acronym heaven!

My school recently advertised for a member of each department to be ICT Champion for their subject… naturally, I couldn’t resist! But before writing the one-page proposal for how technology could be applied within the MFL department and why I was THE person to do it, I had to have a think about what I actually knew.

What about Q23?

We all remember well Qs 16 and 17 of the Professional Standards for Teachers – you know, the ones about passing an ICT test that had nothing to do with programmes people actually use, and the one that you validated by using a ‘custom animation’ in your latest PowerPoint that your mentor thought had come straight out of Star Trek. But what about the Q that time forgot: Q23?

In observing my trainees, I rarely pay much attention to what they’re doing with PowerPoint/SmartNotebook/Promethean (delete as applicable) – for me, the point in using ICT in the classroom is to enable a higher level of engagement, interactivity and independence from the pupils: Q23 – Design opportunities for learners to develop their literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. Ie: the kids have to use it too.

Student-based programmes

With this in mind, I sat down to think about all of the times my students had used ICT in my lessons to enhance their learning. This was not easy – whilst the will had always been there, poor WiFi connection and batteries that refused to hold their charge for a full hour often scuppered my plans. Still, there were some times when I felt genuinely pleased with the result, and none of those involved students copy-pasting from Wikipedia to PowerPoint and then reading their work to the class, stumbling over the Americanisms they had lifted but didn’t understand. Here are my top favourites:

1. French History Project (y7)

The VLE at my last school was (although not perfect) truly interactive and pretty user friendly: it was called RealSmart. Using the ‘mind-map’ application (unsurprisingly named ‘RealMap’), I created a three-hour long project for year 7 students on French historical periods.

Lesson 1 saw students in groups named after French regions logging on to the Histoire française RealMap from their netbooks and clicking on the coat of arms for their region. They were then presented with a series of reading and listening resources based on different periods of history (one per group) which they used to complete the exercises on their worksheets. All of the language in the resources was based on structures we had seen throughout the year so this was a great way to show their use in a contextual situation. During lesson 2 students broke away from their former groups to form new teams, with one student for each period of history per team. They then shared their information, teaching the other students in their group, before planning the final activity to be completed in lesson 3 – creating a timeline of French history.

This project was not only a great way of introducing cultural information into the MFL classroom whilst still practising essential language; it also enabled students to develop their ICT skills in a controlled way, without just resorting to Google and Wikipedia.

2.  VocabExpress

Whilst the next offering wasn’t really something that I created or even used in lessons, I couldn’t write a post about ICT in MFL without mentioning it.

VocabExpress is a web-based programme for – you guessed it – learning vocab. We all know that there is just not enough time to drill vocab and teach structures in lessons, so VocabExpress is the ideal accompaniment to any MFL course. Students log on with their own ID and complete different learning activities for a given list of words, chosen by the teacher (all of the vocab that has been uploaded is taken from the main coursebooks and so can be easily linked to any GCSE or A Level topic). The programme is intuitive, so when students make mistakes, it remembers and gives them those words more often. The teacher can monitor everything they do, from when they log in to what exercises they have completed and how well they did. Scores are then converted into points and a leader board is displayed of the whole class. There are also rankings for each class within the school, each school in the local area and there is even an annual national competition where schools from across the country compete for points.

The students LOVED it; the competitive element coupled with the fact that they could log on and learn whenever they wanted made VocabExpress a real success.

3. Blogging

The third and final activity in my list of favourite uses of ICT in MFL is a shameless piece of theft, but I am sure that its creator will not mind me stealing it!

My PGCE/Master 1 student on her second placement with us has been teaching her y7 French class about hobbies and free-time activities. Towards the end of the term, as a culmination of the work they had been doing, she asked them to bring in their netbooks and write a blog on their free-time activities. ‘Not very creative’ I hear you shout? Well wait for it…

Once the blogs had been designed and written, students were asked to include a space for ‘reader comments’ just like a real blog. They then left their netbooks in their places and moved around the room, reading their friend’s texts and leaving comments in French (which had been introduced previously). This was such a simple and yet amazingly creative idea, and an excellent way to get students giving their opinions in a real context. If this had been coupled with the RealSmart blogging facilities (RWeb or RCast) this would have been a truly interactive experience.

ICT means money

Now I know what the more cynical among you will be saying to yourselves: where did all of these bloody netbooks come from?! It’s true that 95% of the students at Homewood had signed up to a part-rent part-buy laptop scheme which meant that they all had their own netbook. I can’t deny that, if this isn’t the case in your school, buying a laptop trolley for a department can be very costly. Most schools, however, do have ICT suites which, with some planning, could be booked for a series of lessons to enable some of these activities to take place. The main point is that you really should make the effort – it will be well worth it!

The Kagan Method: teaching’s Holy Grail?

The first time I heard the word ‘Kagan’ was not a positive experience; a parent of one of my tutees (also a teacher) warned me of the impending hell when I told her that an entire INSET day had been dedicated to this newfangled teaching method. Thankfully, she was wrong! The training, delivered by Gavin Clowes from Teacher To Teacher (UK) Ltd. was engaging, creative and very thought-provoking.

Nobody is left behind

Kagan Cooperative learning, developped by Dr Spencer Kagan and associates, is a teaching and learning method designed to actively engage all students in their learning throughout a lesson. The underpinning idea is that, if all students are actively involved at each point during their lesson, their results will improve and behavioural issues will diminish greatly.

Kagan, however, isn’t just a philosophy; it’s also a collection of useful independent learning activities that can be used by teachers of all subjects with classes of all abilities. The characterising feature of each activity is that every student has something to do at every moment, meaning (for the MFL classroom) that everyone is practising their language skills at the same time!

Pick your activity

Kagan activities are not all suitable for the MFL classroom; they rely heavily on peer-to-peer discussion and the sharing of ideas and opinions between students, which requires too advanced a level of language for most MFL students. Some of the activities also lack the structure required for supporting student-to-student conversations in the target language. Some activities, however, are ideal for teaching foreign languages; here are my top three favourites:

  1. Quiz-Quiz-Trade
    Students circulate, each with a card with a target language phrase and its English translation written upon it. They pair up, and partner A reads the target language phrase. Partner B responds with the translation and then they swap roles. Partners then swap cards and circulate again before finding another partner and repeat the process. This activity is ideal for practising new vocabulary and ensuring that all students repeat a range of phrases.
  2. RallyCoach
    In pairs, students have one worksheet and one pen. They take it in turns to solve one problem each, explaining to their partner how they are solving the problem as they go. This activity works particularly well for grammatical constructions (negation, conjugation &c.) and is ideal for peer mentoring, when a stonger student is sat with a weaker student.
  3. Carousel Feedback
    This activity works best with a timer running. I have adapted it slightly in MFL lessons by combining it with another Kagan activity (RoundTable) to provide the necessary structure mentioned above: in groups of four, students take it in turns to add one idea to a mind map (for example nouns to complete the sentence Dans mon école idéale, il y a…). When the timer runs out, each group stands up and moves around the room, looking at other groups’ mind maps and noting down answers that they hadn’t thought of.

Don’t go calling Arthur

Despite the title of this post, I cannot unequivocally say that Kagan is the ‘Holy Grail’ of education; of the 36 activities elaborated by Kagan, only a handful are suitable for MFL teaching. The activities are also a bit samey, and if all teachers in the school start using them, students get quickly bored (five bouts of Quiz-Quiz-Trade in a day can be quite boring! Although this does make one reflect on the overuse of PowerPoint…). Nonetheless, Kagan training is an essential tool for every modern teacher’s arsenal, and the Kagan Cooperative Learning handbook is a must buy for any department.

Earworms: infecting language learners with song

We all know how annoying a catchy tune can be; I was sleepily driving along the A28 last week when my trainee decided to put DiscoBitch’s C’est beau la bourgeoisie on the iPod at full pelt. I spent the rest of the day teaching KS3 with the words “I’m a bitch” rolling around my head on a loop. For the creative MFL teacher, however, this curse can be turned into a golden advantage.

Invading your students’ involuntary memory

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we fill our lessons with expletive-ridden rap in order to drive them mad. In fact, it’s not the words of the song I’m interested in; it’s the music.

Dr Daniel J Levitin of McGill University in Montreal remarks that songs are easier to remember than words alone, because of the combination of melody, rhythm and rhyme… and what’s more, he points out that this is nothing new; before the ‘invention’ of written language around 5 000 years ago, songs were a number-one way to remember and transmit information.

According to Dr Vicky Williamson, memory expert at Goldsmith’s University in London, ‘stuck-song syndrome’ or ‘Earworm’ sets off involuntary triggers in our memories, which can result in a song remaining lodged in our consciousness for days on end.

More information on the science behind earworms (and my source!) can be found here.

Teaching grammar with songs

Ok, ok, I’ll stop boring you with neuroscience. The point is that this inherent ability to more easily memorise words set to music can be a invaluable tool for the Modern Foreign Languages teacher.

I try not to overkill the singing method however; we all know how quickly a well-loved activity can bore a class to tears if it is used one time too many. I therefore use songs to teach the one thing that students find the hardest – grammar!

The key to using songs in the classroom is to pick something the students know; the last thing you want to be doing is spending an hour teaching them the notes when you could choose something they already sing backwards in front of the bathroom mirror while their mothers bang frantically on the door and beg them to use their hairbrushes on their hair and not as a microphone.

Monsieur M’s top tips

Using pop songs in your lessons is not difficult, and you don’t need to be Education’s answer to Katherine Jenkins or Jonas Kauffmann to do it; it just takes a bit of confidence and the ability to have a laugh, albeit sometimes at your own expense! Here are my top three tips to help you get started:

  1. Don’t play around with the music!
    The whole reason this method works is because the students already know the rhythms and melodies of the songs that you choose, so changing these to fit in with your words, no matter how slightly, will confuse them and detract from the sticking power of the song.
  2. Keep it simple!
    Chanting all conjugated forms of the principal modal verbs in the space of five seconds may be your party trick, but you’ll be lucky if the kids can manage the first three pronouns! My general rule-of-thumb is to use the verses for model sentences and the chorus for the conjugation of the tense in question, or the main grammar point that I’m teaching. Check out the song lyrics I’ve posted above for some ideas.
  3. Trust in yourself!
    Yes, yes – it would be hard to get cheesier than that, but you’d be surprised how far a little confidence will go. You don’t have to be a great singer to do this – just accept your tone deafness and scream the lyrics out. The kids will probably fall about laughing, but as soon as they see they you’re laughing too, the new competition will be to find who can sing worse than you! As long as they’re all getting stuck in, your song will succeed.

Good luck!

UPADTE! Check out recordings of my songs on my YouTube channel: MonsieurRMc.