NCLs 4 MFL: soooooo Y2D?

I hope that at least the MFL teachers among my readers will have understood the title of today’s post!

As we all know, from September 2013, schools will no longer be required to assess their pupils using National Curriculum Levels at KS3. The DfE is not replacing this system of assessment and reporting, preferring instead to allow schools “to introduce their own approaches to formative assessment, to support pupil attainment and progression”. Whilst the DfE argues that NCLs are “complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents” it is by now what they are used to, and has been a fairly useful, if somewhat arbitrary way to compare children’s progress across a range of different subjects.

Did someone say curriculum reform?

With this in mind, most schools seem to be sticking with NCLs in the absence of any viable replacement. (I have yet to meet a teacher whose school is scrapping them, but if yours is I’d love to hear from you! @MonsieurRMC).

The big problem with National Curriculum Levels in MFL has always been that, since pupils are awarded a distinct level in each of the four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), it is immensley difficult to give them an overall level for their progress in the language as a whole. Some departments ‘average out’ pupils’ levels, but this has always struck me as an extremely misleading method of reporting; a pupil may achieve a level 4 for reading but only a level 2 for writing and be awarded a level 3, despite the fact that he or she is not working at level 3 overall.

The temporary solution

From September 2013, I will be directing my department to assess and report pupils’ levels in a slightly more comprehensive way: all y7 parents will be sent a copy of the NCL sheet below, and each pupil will have a personal copy to keep in her book. When pupils have demonstrated sufficient evidence that they have fulfilled any of the criteria for any one skill, the teacher will record this with a tick in the relevant box. Pupils will only be awarded an ‘a’ sub-level when they have fulfilled all criteria for all skills at that level.

Pupils and parents will be able to track progress and identify areas for improvement simply by looking at their individual progress sheet at any given time.

Pupils and parents will be able to track progress and identify areas for improvement simply by looking at their individual progress sheet at any given time.

This system should also facilitate reporting differences between other sub-levels; a ‘b’ sub-level will be awarded to a pupil who only needs to evidence one or two more criteria for that level. A ‘c’ sub-level will be awarded to a pupil who has fully achieved the level below plus one or two criteria of their next target level.

A simpler system?

My hope is that this system will make it easier for teachers to continually assess and keep track of their students’ progress, and for pupils and parents to identify areas in which the pupil needs to improve. Both of the PDF documents with the levels for Y7 and Y8 are available below, and constructive feedback is always welcome!

KS3 MFL NC Level Descriptors (Part 1) KS3 MFL NC Level Descriptors (Part 2)

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Cooperative Learning in MFL

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This is a blogged version of a CPD session I delivered to MFL departments in St Alban’s and Folkestone this year. The Prezi I used can be found here. The session aims were:

  • to look at strategies for planning for effective group work in MFL lessons.
  • to look into ways of encouraging a maximum of TL speaking by students.

At the base: the theory

It is important first and foremost to remember who we (secondary teachers) are doing all this for: teenagers. Stroppy, difficult, impetuous TEENAGERS. Studies have shown that there is a reason that we are so quick to assign these adjectives to adolescents; the teenage brain is not a young adult brain, but an entity in itself. It seems self-evident when you say it out loud, but I confess that I had never considered that teenagers were programmed to behave in the ways they do because of their brain chemistry until it was pointed out during a CPD session run by science teacher and research student Claire Tyson when I was working at Homewood School & Sixth Form Centre in Kent.

Claire made the analogy that a brain was like a sound system, with the prefrontal cortex as the remote control. The problem is that in a teenage brain, the prefrontal cortex isn’t yet properly connected, so teenagers make most of their judgements using a more primitive area at the back of the brain. They have the sound system, but no remote control! This produces the following results:

  • Teenagers typically experience lack of foresight; emotional volatility; impulsiveness; lack of thought for others.
  • Heightened sensitivity to dopamine means that teenagers value rewards more heavily than adults.
  • A similar sensitivity to oxytocin means that teenagers treat peer exclusion in the same way as threats to physical health or food supply.
  • Teenage brains don’t register delayed gratification – the appeal of fun now is too strong!

Stage 1: The Learning Environment

When we consider all of these points, it is easy to see that the typical classroom is far from being tailored to teenagers’ needs and not conducive to helping them to learn in a way that is going to be most effective for them. Yes – teenagers need to learn to adapt to a formal environment, but not through force. As teachers, it is surely our job to help them to learn in the best way for them? Do teenagers relate to their environment in the same way as adults? Can we have the same expectations of teenagers as adults? Should we treat teenagers differently because they are teenagers?

“Sensitivity to oxytocin means that teenagers treat peer exclusion in the same way as threats to physical health or food supply.”

In order to exploit this fact, and simultaneously tick the Ofsted boxes that value a variety of learning tasks (from individual, to pair and group work) I set about rearranging my classroom: I used grouped tables rather than rows to facilitate discussion and make it easier to switch between different types of task; each table became a team which could win points for good collaboration and effort; I designed target-language manage-mats based on those I had come across at a Kagan method CPD session to stream-line my classroom organisation and ensure that all pupils could be actively involved in their learning.

Stage 2: Cooperative Learning

At a recent conference in London on mindset, featuring the great Carol Dweck,  presenter Chris Watkins noted that the results of a survey that he had conducted showed that

“80% of teachers’ memories of ‘best’ learning experiences are active, collaborative, learner-driven and learning-focused”.

Some delegates argued that this was all very well, but that with a curriculum to deliver, there was no time for all this ‘extra’ stuff. Watkins succinctly retorted that he had proven that orientation towards better learning rather than performance actually improved performance itself! With this in mind, I aspire to plan activities which promote collaboration and cooperation to improve learning and skills. Some of these have been mentioned in previous posts, but you can never have too much of a good thing, right?!

  1. RallyCoach
    This is a great activity when practising skills that have a particular method to follow, like conjugation or negation. Rather than having students complete practise exercises in the traditional way, working through a textbook or a worksheet, the worksheet is split in half and students complete the acivities in pairs. As they do, they explain what they are doing to their partner who watches and listens, and, if they need to, questions and critiques. This process reinforces the method in both students’ minds. RallyCoach lends itself particularly well to differentiation because you can pair stronger students with weaker ones for coaching purposes.
  2. Structured Pair Work
    When practising skills as a whole class, generally with mini whiteboards, I once again ask students to work in pairs. The manage mats I mentioned earlier assign each student in the group a number 1 – 4 and the letter A or B. Quite simply, person A has a go at the first activity, person B at the second, and so on. Since both partners win a point if theirs is the first correct answer shown, the student not writing is still motivated to check that their partner’s work is correct to avoid wasting time making corrections.
  3. Structured Group Work
    This works on the same principal as the pair work activities, but uses the numbers on the manage mats instead of the letters. Each student is allocated a role for each exercise, and the roles are rotated throughout the activity to ensure that everyone practises the different skills.
  4. Quiz-Quiz-Trade
    Rather than solely using choral repetition as a way of drilling vocabulary, which enables each student to repeat each word a maximum ten times or so, I use Quiz-Quiz-Trade to maximise the practise stage for every individual. 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.
Assigning roles during a running dictation activity encouraged teamwork & discussions about learning, reinforcing students' understanding of the language structures they were practising.

Assigning roles during a running dictation activity encouraged teamwork & discussions about learning, reinforcing students’ understanding of the language structures they were practising.

The Summit: Speaking to Learn

The educational system we have inherited clearly values writing much more heavily than speaking, but ask yourself: is speaking more important than writing? Do students get enough opportunities to speak in MFL lessons in order to prepare them for their controlled speaking assessments? Every time I have asked teachers this question,  the answer has been a resounding NO! Here,  then, are some useful tools to improve pupils’ oral fluency whilst still learning the structures and vocabulary they need:

  1. Phonics
    I won’t say too much about this; details can be found in my last post about French Phonics. Teaching these to my students has really paid dividends, because not only do they make far fewer of the common mistakes to which MFL teachers have become accustomed, they are also now far better at decoding words for themselves and thus able to expand their own vocabulary independently of any input from me.
  2. Songs
    Again, information about the use of songs can be found in a previous post.
  3. Simple Games
    At a PGCE mentors’ conference recently, the lecturer mentioned the practice stage of the PPP model (Presentation – Practice – Production) as being the weakest for trainee teachers, and urged us to show them how to “find 45 excuses to get the kids to say the same word”. This turn of phrase really hit the nail on the head, because we all know that it is through repetition that students improve their fluency. Choral repetition can, however, become boring. I therefore try to vary ‘repetition’ activities with a ludic element in my lessons to ‘hide’ from students the fact that they are repeating vocabulary. This could simply be by using dice to take it in turns to build sentences using the vocabulary and structures we have been practising. Similarly, having students play noughts-and-crosses in pairs using language on the board rather than playing as a whole class maximises pupil use of the target language. My favourite game, however, has to be Empreinte Digitale or Huella Digital: student 1 selects a phrase at random from a numbered list and reads this to the group. Students 2 – 4 then race to put their finger on the correct picture in a grid in the middle of the table. Each student takes it in turns reading, so all students are able to practise their speaking and listening skills.

The End

Wow. That has to be my longest post to date. Hopefully it will keep @flane (my biggest critic!) satisfied for a while! 😉

Synthetic Phonics goes Continental

Now I’m no fan of Gove (no… I’m REALLY not…) so I can’t say that I’m a great advocate of synthetic phonics testing in English for primary school children. That said, any MFL teacher will be able to regale you with stories of mistakes in target-language pronunciation often arising from students’ inability to decode the language’s orthography. (My favourite is one I picked up as an assistant in France when, in her Bac oral, a student confused the word ‘beach’ with another word which sounds similar but is in fact a very unflattering term for a certain type of woman.)

French phonics are fun

Teaching French in England is no different, but introducing French phonics at an early stage of a learner’s language acquisition can drastically improve pronunciation at GCSE level, and equips learners with the skills necessary to decode the different orthographic patterns found in French. The VAK (visual-aural-kinaesthetic) method is effective in teaching phonics because it simultaneously engages different functions in the brain and thus ensures maximum retention. Set out in the document below are the IPA transcription, orthography, example words, images and actions of the major French phonemes. Teachers should ask students to repeat the sounds while looking at the words & images on the board and doing the relevant actions in order to ensure maximum retention.

For non-subject specialists (particularly in primary schools) the pronunciation of each sound can be found on YouTube.

French Phonics – Teacher’s Guide

UPDATE: a filmed example of how to present the Francophoniques in class can now also be found on YouTube.

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

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.