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)

AfT: Assessment for Teaching

Last week I did the thing that most teachers would be terrified of doing, and asked my students to give me feedback on my lessons.

I can hear you all clamouring as you read: “are you mad?!” or the far more likely “it’s not students’ place to comment on our teaching – we are the professionals!” Well yes we are… but like it or not we are catering to a specific audience. I’ve said before that teaching is not about entertainment, and I stand by that – I’m not just some glorified clown; but who knows what helps them learn better than those learning themselves? We are professional educators, but generations change, and the fact is that the kids learn differently and respond differently to the work with which they are presented.

WWW and EBI

With this in mind, I decided to open myself up to a bit of criticism. The students in my y10 classes have already had to evaluate their own performance after controlled assessments and set themselves targets for the term, and they are used to me marking their work with two What Went Well comments and an Even Better If, so I was confident that they would be able to evaluate my teaching constructively. I was right to take the gamble.

A job worth doing

I gave the girls a piece of scrap paper each and asked them to think about their lessons with me so far this year and, with their learning in mind, give me two WWW comments and one EBI for their French lessons. Now I’m not really one of those soppy “in it for the kids” kind of teachers, but what they wrote almost made me cry. I know – the shame.

Not only did they give me serious constructive criticism on the activities I organise for their learning and how well they help them to learn the structures they need to use, their comments also showed me just how important the student/teacher relationship is for the students:

“You genuinely care about all your students and not just because your job tells you to.”

“You are really helpful, and support us, and care for us.”

“[You have] a caring attitude towards pupils which is reflected in the happy atmosphere which is present.”

Wow. I was truly overwhelmed.

The bad bits

Even the EBI, which most teachers would probably be terrified of seeing in black and white, bowled me over; the targets that the vast majority of students gave me were directly linked to the impact of my teaching on their learning, and were things that I would never expect to hear from students:

“Even better if we had more vocab tests.”

“More revision lessons.”

“More revision sheets to do at home.”

“More speaking in front of the whole class.”

“If we had mini-tests more often.”

“Ok, ok,” you say, “you’re clearly in some sort of teaching utopia – the Holy Grail of schools. This wouldn’t work for the rest of us.” Well, actually, no. Yes, my school is a girls grammar school, but in a fairly poor region, and with a much wider catchment than most grammar schools. Some of our students have some serious BESD issues. It’s the supportive atmosphere in my class, and more importantly throughout the school, that has led the girls to make these comments. Even one of the moodiest girls I teach came by after school on the day we did this to “have a chat in French” while she waited for her friend who was in detention.

A kid’s guide to teaching

So, unable to keep this amazing learning experience to myself, now it’s time to share the pupils’ point-of-view with you and see how they think we could improve our teaching:

  • The student-teacher relationship was a key factor in almost every single student’s appreciation of my lessons. Whilst I’m not there to be liked, it makes it so much easier to take them on a learning journey with you if they trust you and feel supported by you.
  • Interactive/active/engaging learning (their words) was the way they found they learnt the most on lessons. See my posts on Kagan and dialogic learning for more ideas.

So there you have it: I put myself on the line and took one for the team! Now let’s start teaching the lessons that the kids really want to go to!!

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

PGCE vs GTP – the ITT wars

With this week’s announcement that trainee teachers will have to pass a personality test to be able to train (TES, 8 June 2012), teacher training is once again at the forefront of educational debate. But the big question is, personality test or not, which pathway should you follow?

Follow the yellow brick road

The two principal teacher training pathways in the UK are the Post/Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP). One of the main attractions of the GTP over the PGCE may be financial; six months into their term of office, the government laid out plans to cut ITT funding by up to 85% (TES, 23 November 2010). In reality, PGCE grants were drastically cut (my current trainee receives at least £3000 less than I did for the same course). GTP students, however, receive a salary from their placement school or the Teaching Agency with a fixed minimum which is based on the Unqualified Teachers’ Pay Scales, and accounts for a lot more than a normal PGCE bursary.

Delightful possibilities for exploitation

There is, of course a downside to being paid such a good salary to train. As Head of Languages Isabelle Jones puts it:

With the GTP you do get paid, but some schools can see you as cheap labour as well.

This is, unfortunately, all too true; whilst as a GTP student you are normally employed as supernumerary (ie: on top of the teaching staff already at the school), plenty of schools will happily use you to fill a gap in their timetable, leaving you alone in a class without the kind of regular feedback given to PGCE students. Teacher of MFL Nina Elliot agrees that this can be a risk, but nonetheless supports the GTP…

…with appropriate support and in a school which understands you are NOT a full time teacher.

This, in my opinion, is too big a variable to risk.

A question of experience

The GTP naturally lends itself to those coming to teaching from other industries and not straight from university, since it enables them to ‘train whilst working’ and still earn a salary. Yet self-proclaimed career-shifter Alex Foster (http://alexfoster.me.uk/), currently studying for his MFL PGCE, still thinks that this was a better route than the GTP:

Don’t do the GTP unless you already work in a school. I am glad, as a mature career shifter, of the support and peers from the PGCE approach.

This, I have to say, is one of the main reasons I support the PGCE over the GTP; peer mentoring is such an important process when you are learning to teach, and a lot of this can be lost through the GTP because contact with your peers is minimal. I was lucky to follow a unique course with Canterbury Christ Church University which saw me spend four months at university in France with seven other trainees; this was a real bonding experience and one that left me with some very close friends, with whom I still now share ideas and resources.

The other obvious advantage of the PGCE is that…

students get a wider range of experiences through their various placements and enrichment opportunities. (Isabelle Jones)

In other words, the experience you gain as a teacher in two contrasting placements of more-or-less equal length could be said to outweigh the experience of just one school with a brief placement elsewhere, particularly when you consider that this experience is also backed up by more educational theory than the GTP, delivered by the relevant ITT provider.

Whatever route you choose, the ultimate deciding factor of how well you are trained is how you respond to your training, so make sure you pick the best pathway for you.

Have your say

What do you think – GTP or PGCE? Or do you feel that one of the other pathways, such as Teach First, is a more viable option?

Quotations in the above post were taken from comments on Twitter, and have therefore been modified appropriately.