Sunday, 7 December 2014

Stretch and challenge in MFL

" Stretch and challenge" - one of Ofsted's obsessions, and rightly so - who wants pupils who aren't learning to the best of their ability?  As linguists, we want pupils to be adventurous and to use their knowledge to express themselves.  After all, it's what helped us fall in love with language learning. The way I see it, stretch and challenge is not just for the most able; it is about how we set the learning climate in our classroom. Of course,it will look different depending on which pupils you have in front of you, but this is not about an add-on. So - how do we achieve this in class?

Deploying some very prosaic (but effective) basics can help us.  The most fundamental basic is to know your pupils, and their prior learning. This, however, allows us to be creative with how we introduce vocabulary. This week, I was able to introduce the perfect tense in French to a weaker set of pupils through an account of a weekend in Paris using regular "er" verbs.  I knew that they were already familiar with the verbs in the text, although not in the perfect tense, and within the context of the passage, they were able to show understanding, and then mine it for key verbs in the perfect tense.  Parallel texts (one side in the Target Language (TL), the other in English) also give pupils the change to understand texts that little bit beyond their current level. Equally, using a text with lots of cognates/familiar vocabulary which support pupils in working out the meaning of new language is a very effective technique. Give one/get one or quiz/quiz/trade can also be a good way of reinforcing independent use of phonics by pupils, as well as reinforcing other co-operative language. These strategies not only get beyond the sterile listen/repeat chorus and its single-word stranglehold, but they get pupils engaging with longer texts, which is far more satisfying for the learners, and already gives them that sense of progress.

The use of target language is something repeatedly raised by Ofsted as an issue. Some things are more difficult in the TL however, there is much which can be done in the TL. If I fall off the TL waggon, I run a competition in class for the best use of the TL - this boosts the pupils' awareness, and mine. We have a speaking mat to support this, and it is part of our routine to get them out at the beginning of the lesson.  Progressing with it is often tricky, and much of it comes down to teaching questions, and revising them at regular intervals. Having the question words displayed prominently in the classroom helps to prompt and support.  Then, when you ask your pupil where their book is, they can understand and respond, if you have been able to point at the relevant question word on the board. If not all the lesson is possible in the TL, it is better to "chunk" it - so there are clear segments in English, clear segments in the TL.  Swapping between the 2 just encourages the pupils to wait for the English translation.

Speaking is not just confined to classroom routine.  In topic-related work, it is important that pupils have the opportunity to work beyond tightly-scripted dialogues, although these clearly have a place in familiarising pupils with new language.  This is where Group talk comes into its own.  Having an unscripted conversation that is still supported allows pupils the freedom to express themselves and try things out for themselves, and gives them the feeling of having "real" conversations, and can really boost confidence. It also means they have to listen carefully to each other, and more able pupils can be encouraged to extend their responses.

Speaking also includes reading out loud, which helps with phonics.  A favourite game in my classes is "rhubarb".  In a group, one person starts reading.  If they make a mistake spotted by someone else, the challenger says "rhubarb" and says what it should be. If the group agree it is right, they get to continue the reading.  Points are awarded for every sentence read successfully, one point if they are challenged unsuccessfully, one point if they have challenged successfully and are going to take on the reading.

Here's a question: how often do your classes (even your beginners) do extended writing as opposed to drills and sentences?  This is one very obvious stretch and challenge opportunity which should be done regularly. If the most talented are shown how to use dictionaries and verb tables, they can really fly with regular practice.  Remember all those strategies you use with GCSE classes?  Are you using them in KS3 to promote a range of language.  If not, why not? Our learners often feel very constrained by what they feel they can say, but a learning mat with prompts and suggestions can help them develop and extend their ideas.  Most pupils don't want to say that everything is "super", it's just that it's the only thing that occurs to them. Creative writing and poems also give pupils a change to experiment and learn to love the language.

Translation is going to become ever more present, given the changes to KS3 and GCSE, and it's true that it does help pupils do some detailed work, and can be an opportunity to meet new language.  It is important, however, that the pupils then get to use some of that new language in their own work.  One of the best pieces of advice I was given as a young teacher was to exploit one text in as many different ways as possible. Too often I have seen opportunities wasted to help pupils build on their knowledge by not doing that final additional step where they produce something of their own based on the language. As linguists, we are magpies, nicking lovely shiny expressions and using them for ourselves.  We should help the next generation do that too!


There can be more to stretch and challenge for listening than simply giving out a differentiated worksheet, although that still has its place. Songs are a rewarding place to start, and give some cultural flavour too.  If you are working with a textbook's recording, why not get pupils to make shorthand notes/ draw symbols, then use the language to report back to a partner? Rachel Hawkes suggests giving pupils a transcript, then saying it out loud to the class with some changes.  Pupils then need to identify where the differences are, transcribe the new words and then they can use them for themselves. Listening is often a bolt-on task or a task to see if they have retained the new vocabulary.  Why not integrate it into the lesson more completely?

I have to admit to feeling a bit exhausted after writing all this. This is not a tick-list for every lesson, but using some of these ideas some of the time can help you provide challenge for all.



Sunday, 12 October 2014

essay writing - structure


I'll come to the fish in a bit.  In the meantime, here are some thoughts on helping sixth-formers plan essays.

Building a cogent and coherent argument in essay form is an essential skill at AS for MFL, and it takes a lot of care to build up the skills.  For AQA, the essay has 20 out of the available 35 marks for content and structure.  How can we help our sixth-formers to write these essays?

Planning and preparation
Encouraging planning is essential.  In the early days, I used to insist on the sixth-formers handing in their planning as well as their essay before I realised that they often did their plan after they had written their essay.  Now, especially in the first few months when we are embedding good habits,  I get my sixth-formers to hand in a plan, a word-bank and their planned examples before I let them write the essay.  This can either focus minds or highlight any potential mistakes.

If they don't get into the habit of planning, they will forget to do it in the exam, and probably find themselves with a wobbly blancmange of an essay.  It is all the more important, as the AQA essays are often in 2 parts, and failure to answer one part of the question is penalised.

Why the fish?
Well, that is what the essay structure should look like.  I saw this demonstrated many moons ago when I was just starting out, and I've used it ever since - the image is clear and really gets the point across.

The head is the introduction, preferably with a hook to get the reader's attention.
The main body with the spine is the development - with a clear line of argument (the spine) running through
The conclusion is the tail.
The proportions also roughly correspond.

Paragraph structure
There are many acronyms for helping to structure a paragraph, and although sticking slavishly to them can limit students writing at this level, there are some elements of these acronyms that are helpful.  The most acronym for supporting students who struggle with structure is:
P -point
E- example
E- explain
L- link to the question, link to the next paragraph

An example of the usefulness of acronyms: a student, who had done a rather shabby essay was reviewing his work, and when I told him that he hadn't explored the implications of the essay said, "Oh -so I've done P.E. rather than P.E.E.L."

There are some key principles of a paragraph:
1. The first sentence should tell you the theme of the paragraph
2.  Once you have made a point, you need to explain and explore it, preferably using an example
3.  It should be clearly linked to the question
4.  If you give a statistic, you need to explore all the implications
5.  It is expected that you will analyse as you go, rather than waiting for the conclusion, as in other subjects,such as history.

A great little exercise for emphasising the importance of the first sentence is to present the pupils with several paragraphs with the first sentence removed, and a choice of possible replacements.  This focuses the pupils on the key elements very effectively. I'll post an example in the next post.

A few of my resources for essay-writing are on the TES here.  I'll be adding to them in the next few weeks. Here is the essay feedback sheet - designed for AQA.  Here is the essay plan template.

Essay writing in sixth form - Miss, what's an example?

This post is prompted by a question which stopped me in my tracks. When giving feedback on an essay, I told a student that he had to use more examples, to which he replied, "Miss- I don't know what you mean by an example."  This had me stumped - how can you not know what an example is? Although this may be a rather extreme case, I'm pretty sure that there are lots of students who could use some sharpening up in the area.  I get too many essays in at the start of the year where pupils make a point (usually a sweeping generalisation) and simply name their example with no further explanation as if to say, "BOOM!  Impressive, huh?" Um, no - not even close.
Finally, after recovering myself, I came up with this:
Why use examples?

  • They allow  you to demonstrate use of other tenses/voices e.g.  past
  • They back up your point by providing evidence


  • Use them to explore the full implications of the point you’re making – remember you are getting most of your points for the development of your ideas.

Types of examples

A fact or statistic : e.g. 1/3 of children have their own TV

A concrete example: e.g. Sesamstraße is able to help children to read and count whilst also having fun

A personal example: e.g. I used to watch Bob the Builder with my parents..

Although backing up your argument is, of course, essential, I think that leads many students down cul-de-sacs which they then can't get out of.  The key thing is whether it helps you to demonstrate depth of understanding, and whether it helps you to explore all of the implication of the point you're making. 

Getting students to understand examples

We have only just set our first proper AS- style essay.  So, what have we been doing in the meantime?

Using the examples in texts - and making the most of them
The first task is get students to recognise that each text is also presenting an argument, and a set of ideas.  Once we have battled through the comprehension, I get them to find the examples in a text.  I then ask them to summarise what these points can show. This is especially useful for statistics.  Take the example that 1/3 of German children have their own TV.  We came up with a long list of implications: parents can't supervise, parents don't have control, children can watch unsuitable programmes, children may watch TV too late and not get enough sleep.  This acts not only as a great way of re-using the language from the text, but really gets them thinking about the ideas, and gives them practice in thinking about how to use examples.  Asking students to summarise the key ideas in a text is also a great homework /starter for the next lesson.

Guided analysis of concrete examples
The TV topic is such a great one to start with.  The students were given links on Edmodo to lots of different German TV clips and asked to write about them using a series of prompts to help them think about how they may or may not benefit children. All students produced some great analysis of the pros and cons.  This will then help them with their essays.  Well, that's the hope, anyway.

In my next post, I'll look at structuring the essay

Welcome to sixth form! Bridging that gap

I started this post a few weeks ago, having met my new year 12 group for the first time.  I've taught these pupils since they were in year 9, and they have achieved great things at GCSE, yet this transition into sixth-form is potentially more difficult than the transition from primary to secondary or even from sixth-form to university, so it takes some longer to adjust than others. We need them to be independent learners, have the maturity to manage their own study time, and for A-level German, they need to discover a love of learning tables very quickly. That's before we even start on the more sophisticated thinking skills required for A-level. This has been in my thoughts a lot in the last few weeks, so it felt right that the first blog of the new academic year should be dedicated to them.

Vocabulary learning
When I first started teaching sixth-form, I was surprised at how many of these high-flier students admitted that they had spent very little time on learning the vocabulary for the weekly tests I gave during GCSE. The shock, then, of the volume of vocabulary learning was huge, and every year I have pupils who struggle to get to grips with this.

Of course, much comes down to the structure of the teaching and homework tasks set, so this is where the teacher planning comes in.  I try to diferentiate in my planning between "core" vocabulary and "nice-to-use" add-ons.  I still think the core vocabulary is worth teaching actively, and there are many ways to do it. Breaking words down (especially in German), matching the definitions, Call-my-bluff style guess the definition, looking at all the words associated with one verb (prefixes, suffixes, nouns, adjectives), using key words to describe a picture.  Once you have done a listening or a reading text, it is important that the pupils actively use the language from that text - cloze text, translation, match the 2 halves of the sentences, free-range speaking activities.  This will help to cement much of the learning, but I find that there is still a need for learning - especially when it comes to genders, plurals, irregular verbs.

Helping pupils structure this is important, and the "learning conversation" I find needs to be revisited to keep the momentum going, and to help those students struggling.  Some students really get into and make their own sets, especially if they have a tedious commute by public transport. Others use spreadsheets, some simply keep lists.

I'm not a fan of lists that have no rhyme or reason to them - I don't think they help students focus their efforts.  We use a word bank template divided into nouns, verbs, adjectives/adverbs and useful phrases.  This also has the benefit of making them look for words other than nouns, as a non-directed search for vocabulary seems to end up simply being a big list of nouns at the expense of everything else.

Generating a buzz and curiosity

I am often astounded at the number of pupils who come into sixth-form who think that after one trip to Germany and a good grade at GCSE means that they have this German thing all sewn up - that they have this thing sussed and apart from getting better at German, they have nothing else to learn. This is by no means the majority, but I do get more than I would wish for.

So - what to do?  This is where has come into its own.  It allows the teachers, and importantly the students to share videos and websites that they come across, and it allows us to generate a bit of a buzz.  It takes a while before the students want to put their heads above the parapet, but with encouragement, they will.  We start the topic of advertising next week, and it is always a good one for beginning the sharing process.

We also do weekly scrapbooks, an idea which I know quite a few schools use.  The pupils have to find an article of their own choosing, look up the vocabulary which is new, and summarise it.  I have also started asking the pupils to post their choice of article onto Edmodo.

Speaking skills

Speaking - ah.  I think students used to large groups suddenly feel rather exposed in smaller groups, and with the amount of grammar thrown their way, it can leave them tongue-tied.  This needn't be the case, and there is much to be said for adapting the strategies we use in earlier years.  Group talk? perfect!  Speaking bingo? perfect! Speaking mats for debates? Why not?

In the early days, it is about getting them to enjoy the speaking.  If we let them get too hung up on accuracy, they will never speak!

In the next post, I'm going to consider essay-writing *groan*
Essay writing skills
Getting them involved with younger pupils

Sunday, 15 June 2014

MFL show and tell York 2014 - afternoon sessions

The theme of the afternoon for me was speaking, or rather, getting the kids to speak.

First up, Dominic McGladdery on low-tech ideas for encouraging speaking.
His first, and crucial point was TEACH EM PHONICS.  They need to be able to de-code the letters they have in front of them.  He gave various ideas for places to go for ideas: languages without limits is a great starting point, and I love their strap line

If we fail to teach phonics, we are condemning many of our learners
 to be quasi-dyslexic in the foreign language.
There is also lightbulb languages, previously MFL Sunderland resources.  Suzi Bewell wrote a 10 minute guide to phonics to be found here.

One great tip: 1-15 has most sounds that beginner learners need. After a few years of teaching no French, I will be back teaching French in September, and the thought of tackling French phonics is daunting, but this is something I'm going to follow-up.
Here's a quick list of other things to try:
  • Get the pupils to think about the phonics - how about venn diagrams? For German, one side would be "ie", the other side "ei".
  • How about words that rhyme?
  • Tongue twisters
  • rhyming dictionaries - this website has many different languages - fantastic!
  • Describe the picture
  • Spot the difference
  • puppets - especially for shy pupils, or better still, masks from poundland.  Dom described the fun to be had with Alan Sugar or Simon Cowell masks. Pupils may be reluctant to argue, but once they take on these personas, there's no stopping them!
  • Hats are also great.
  • Dice can also be used in many different ways to select what the pupils talk about
  • Cluedo
  • Dom also told us about blogs by Jose Picardo who sets out how to podcast and use audacity.

Suzi Bewell presented the possibilities for combining both listening, speaking, reading and writing using's Audio Notetaker software. The presentation, which explains it more eloquently than me is here.

Finally an tip for apps, thanks to @misstdunne and @GermanistGLS: Vocab battle. Battle it out on your phones via bluetooth.  The winner gets to put stickers onto your opponent's photo.

Finally, thank you for such a great day. Lots to think about - just as well the summer hols are coming up soon ;-)

MFL show and tell York 2 - 14th June 2014 Just the morning sessions!

Oh wow!  Another day jam-packed with ideas.  60+ teachers and trainees gathered on a Saturday (yes - a Saturday) in Harrogate Grammar School to get a monster-sized chunk of CPD organised by Suzi Bewell from the University of York and William Strange.  My head is still spinning! This is the morning's whirlwind of ideas. I'll do a separate post on the afternoon.

Firstly, if you're on twitter @suzibewell, is beginning to tweet links to the presentations which the presenters gave. has some of the links to the exhibitors and some of the presentations.  Secondly, I must apologise to the presenters whose names I didn't quite catch. I think I had Saturday brainPlease let me know so I can update my blog!

There was a keynote speech shown by Rene Koglbauer, who shared a couple of great links. is a site for German learners and although I've not explored it, it looks like it has lots of useful videos and resources.
The other great website is courtesy of Newcastle's own Tyneside Cinema, which has study guides for lots of foreign language films.

It was great to see so many successful PGCE students presenting the results of some of their work.  It just goes to prove the valuable work universities are still doing in teacher training, and long may that last!

Lucy presented an introductory lesson on sport in Spanish.  This was one of the activities she got them to do combining a sport (choosing between hago or juego) and a time phrase.

I liked the plenary where there was enough prompts and support for the weaker ones, but there was room for the more able to expand.

Jan McCann (@biscuitsmccann) talked about how to use a full day when the timetable is collapsed and you have a whole year group for the day. As we come close to the end of term, this may be of interest to some colleagues! She gave examples of simple projects, such as making board games, up to weekend trip to Normandy. I was impressed by the way they had made the most of the days to really enrich the learning.  I loved the idea of the joint project with the art dept about the film Kirikou, where the pupils learned about Senegal and then make lolly-stick puppets and write a dialogue to perform with them.  The stop-motion filmed commentary of football matches also really appealed.
My favourite idea was an idea for Year 10, where they learned advertising language to plan and film an advert for a German product.  She also had some valuable advice:
1.  Pace yourself- they are long days
2.  Consider using form groups, as the more able can help the less able
3.  Get ex-pupils to support
4.  Make sure the pupils have something to show for it at the end, and do a celebration show and tell at the end

The next presention (sorry - I think it was @MFLCanonLee but I'm not sure!) had a topical world cup theme.  Find "sticker" images, make a fantasy team, setting them out like the in the coverage on the TV before the game and then use as a basis for talking about the players.

William Strange (@GermanGLS) demonstrated something for all busy teachers - the joys of mail merge. I liked the way it could work for giving pupils good feedback from CAs without having to write everything out again and again.

The next presenter had us in giggles as she presented some cultural knowledge of Switzerland she had done with her pupils before setting up a penpal exchange.  Getting us to say Chäschueche (cheese cake). The serious point about cultural awareness, however, was really important.

Dominic McGladdery (@dominic_mcg) showed us how to reanimate a corpse..or rather how to get pupils to convert a powerpoint into animated gifs. Save the powerpoint as JPEGS, find a website such as, upload the images and create create et voila!

Barbara Gleave demonstrated some lovely ideas for songs to do with primary schools. My favourite was a song called ou est pere noel set to the tune of frere jacques to teach prepositions:

Ella talked about a fascinating E-twinning project on the topic of school set up by her mentor in the school in Wetherby.  The pupils took photos of their meals in their respective cantines and of the contents of their school bags and used that as a basis for work ranging from labelling contents to writing recipes and comparing the contents.  They then made questionnaires about the school day which they sent to their partners.  These are great ways of getting really rich cultural knowledge as well as linguistic knowledge from what can be a very dry topic. We are just coming to the end of blogging project with our partner school, and I think it would be great when we re-run it to include some of these ideas.

Adam (I think it was Adam - I can't quite make it out!) talked about a joint history and French mini-series of lessons on the French Revolution.  The first lesson set out the background and how it affected France today.  The next lesson got the pupils to work out the theme of the lesson from the following key words hidden round the classroom.  Can you guess what it is?

The guillotine and the Reign of Terror.  This next part I thought was inspired.  The class had to decide which of the following people would have been "coupable" or "non-coupable".  There was then a panel of judges selected from the class - complete with false moustaches who then decided the fate of the accused, also represented by class members. If they were executed then had to eat a sour sweet ("poison").  Of course, if the judges got it wrong, they were traitors to the cause, and were themselves coupable.  Have a go yourself.

Who was spared?  Only Sophie!

Frances presented 2 activities to encourage co-operation and speaking.  The first, below, is Rally Robin, put I just know it as test your partner, but is a great way of reinforcing language and getting them involved quickly.

The next created much amusement: "would you rather.." - a good starter activity.  She demonstrated on us, getting us to respond to the questions "Would you rather live by the beach or in the mountains/ be a snake or an elephant?" and then asked those who would like to live by the beach to stand up.  We then had to justify our reasons, and believe me they were very revealing!

Diana Keszler (@Diana_Keszler) entertained us greatly presenting a lesson getting the pupils to learn about places in the town using what looked like a bbc french clip about Guadeloupe. The clip was great and had a few bits that are great for mimicking. She then got them to compare Basse-Terre and Paris - a great way to get some "il n'y a pas de" practice in. This gave them a great base for writing work.

Martin talked how to approach the use of literature. 
1.  Using poetry to reinforce a tense. Rather than asking pupils to do gapfill from a listening exercise, he suggested asking the pupils to predict which verbs go in which gaps.  He used a poem which I'm not familiar with, not being Spanish,  but it looked a perfect one.  It was called "Instantes" by Jorge Luis Borges, but it can apply to many others.  He then said that listening to a clip from Youtube would make it much more pleasurable and the pupils would get more out of it.

2.  A poetry reading competition.  They chose "Maripose del aire" by Lorca because it emphasises the rhythm of Spanish well, and is good for adjective variety.

3.  Use songs - use the same technique as number 1. The song for practising the preterite in Spanish was "La historia de Juan".

4.  How about translation from English to the TL?  How about Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" because it's full of the present continuous. I think it might well work in German, and it's great for emphasising that the present tense is both "I play" and "I am playing".

Get connected! Connectives and slow writing

I've been on a mission this year - to try and coax my pupils out of their tiny comfort zone, where the reason for everything is "parce que c'est super" or "Weil es lustig ist". I swear,  a little piece of me dies when I see that. Now, I'm not talking about the pupils for whom these sentences are a real achievement, I'm talking about the pupils who hang onto the their one "weil" phrase and refuse to venture beyond them.

So, what to do?

Step 1: colour-code my connectives learning wall - I mainly teach German, and so the perfect way to order them was as follows:

This in itself has had a big impact. Firstly, my previously ignored display was suddenly noticed by the pupils.  I had beginner pupils asking how to use the red connectives.  My GCSE groups, even more reluctant learners would give them a go. Why? In part, the clarity of the display made it so much easier to use and the colour-coding scheme showed clear progression.  I also used the display regularly as a teaching tool. And it became a means of feeding back to pupils on their variety of word order. Self-assessment of variety was also made easier. It has also become a short-hand way of referring to the different word-order rules, and less of a mouthful than "subordinating conjunctions"

Of course, it doesn't happen by magic, and the usual regular teaching / reinforcement has to happen. This has also been in conjunction with a big push on group talk this year. I use speaking bingo grids like the one below quite often for ensuring that a range of language is used in the course of the group discussion.

I really felt that I needed to push things further.  Some pupils reluctantly and begrudgingly stuck in a red connective to stop me nagging them, but I felt that the quality of ideas hadn't really improved for those pupils. This is where the wonder of twitter and the blogosphere played its part.

David Didau (@learningspy) has devoted several blogs and now a book on improving writing.  Some of his ideas really resonated with me.  One of the things he writes about in his chapter on writing is the idea of producing more sophisticated responses to exam questions, and the use of discourse markers. As linguists, we know the power of words, and words can unlock ideas as well as framing them.

Take a typical starter - picture prompts to help pupils discuss their opinions of maths.  What happens if we then ask them to use obwohl (although) or deshalb (therefore) to answer the question? 

 I tried this with and without the prompts with my year 10 class, and the difference in the sophistication of the ideas expressed pleasantly surprised me. During the task, some pupils hunted out phrases that we had talked about from a reading comprehension so that they could say what they wanted to say. We discussed the difference as a class, and one pupil's remark I found interesting - it was like I can given them permission to use things they do in English.

And this brings to another point.  Ask your pupils about their opinions about, for example, school rules and they are opinionated and often funny and perceptive.  So, we need to harness this, rather than limit them to the "weil es ungerecht ist".

Another David Didau idea is that of Slow Writing - getting the pupils to slow down, appreciate every word, and produce beautifully crafted sentences. This is one example from a lesson on school rules.  I told the pupils we were going to play with the language we'd been learning and I was setting them a challenge. On A4 paper I asked them to create the following sentences:

They then worked in pairs either to produce a combined version, or to improve their own.  I then asked them if they wanted to re-order the sentences, and use them to produce a paragraph. The rhetorical question and the 3 word sentences produced some real crackers, and of course the boys argued over the 22-word sentences. The pupils seemed to enjoy the exercise, and it did allow them to play with the language, and got them out of the rut.  Anything that helps them do that is a good thing.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

First flipping steps

I have finally managed to take my first steps in flipping my German Year 9 lessons.  These are my experiences so far.

Firstly - why bother?
This is a beginner "express" course, with 2 lessons per week.  Not a lot of time, and I wanted to maximise my use of class time. I want to do more speaking, and have time to do more interesting reading tasks, and also have the time to support them with extended writing.
Although some are good at learning vocabulary, some are not, and I wanted to promote more active ways of learning vocabulary, and nudge them into using sites such as, which I had used with great success in class.
This class also has some very able linguists who are desperate for more stimulation, and will willingly go away and learn things for themselves, and I wanted a way to give them links and to push them forwards.

How did I set it up?
Until my exam classes go on study leave, I have limited time, but this class can't wait till mid-May. So, for the initial stages, I have used a combination of edmodo and quizlet.
Edmodo - Edmodo looks like facebook, works a bit like facebook, but is designed for schools.  It's pretty easy to use (with the help of this wonderful guide to Edmodo), and if the pupils add in their email address, the lost password issue is also less of a headache.  For me, I have the chance to share files and documents, links to quizlet and other useful sites, but most importantly, I have the ability to set quizzes to check whether they had understood and learnt the work and I can make them do something active with the learning they do.
Quizlet- flashcard games on the computer, complete with pronunciation to learn vocabulary.

I got the pupils to join Edmodo, after talking about behaviour online and getting them to sign a code of conduct form which I made - which turned out to be important.  With Edmodo looking like facebook, the lines between a "school" site and "fun" site were blurred, and a couple of pupils needed reminding.  There is also a setting to allow the teacher to moderate all posts before they are published.  I have opted for this.

We did the first Edmodo lesson together, and I showed them the link to their learning homework on quizlet, and told them and messaged them on Edmodo to learn the words first with quizlet and then do the quizzes.  In my head this made perfect sense. What happened? Well, many completely ignored that instruction and simply did the quizzes, meaning that they got low scores. Luckily, because we were in class, we discussed in the plenary why that hadn't worked. The instant feedback from the quiz when they saw their score is something the pupils really liked, and they looked at which answers they got wrong, and I could hear some really good comments, such as "I didn't put the endings on the neuter adjectives" or "I've forgotten my capital letters".

They were set loose with a homework to do a similar thing - use to learn the names of clothes and then use the Edmodo quizzes to test whether they knew the vocabulary and to get more practice on adjective endings which we had been practising in class, and which I suspected were not fully secure.

The result
The quiz scores were really mixed, but it sparked a few interesting reactions.  Several pupils, and not necessarily the "keen" pupils sent me direct messages to say that they didn't understand a certain aspect of the topic, could we go over it again.  Some asked questions which showed they had completely the wrong idea.  These pupils were showing a sense of responsibility for their own learning and a degree of reflection which was new and encouraging.

The planning for the next lesson was therefore tightly based around the results I had seen from Edmodo.  Rather than having to find out during the next lesson that the pupils were not sure about adjectival endings, I had been able to see this in advance, and save myself some time, and pupils had been able to ask questions without losing face in class.

The boys who had done well were "experts" at various stations in the breakout space, and their job was to help the other pupils get to grips with the adjective endings for masculine nouns etc.  They took this role very seriously, and I was then able to reward them with school merits and badges on Edmodo. This took the first 20 mins, and meant we could then do some more rewarding speaking and writing work based on what we wear at the weekend.

There were some issues with access to the internet.  Some pupils only had a tablet, and the Edmodo app didn't allow them to do the quizzes, and one boy quietly came and told me that he only had a rubbish computer.  I have a week till my next lesson with this class, so he has arranged to do some of his work one lunchtime.  It's not perfect, but I bet he will still spend more time on the vocabulary than with a standard vocab list.

Initial conclusions
This allows me to be more responsive to the pupils, and it has nudged them towards taking more responsibility, and I think the boys respond well to the format of Edmodo, and are more open to asking questions.  It did allow me to circulate and talk to the pupils, and the boys who were "experts" also felt they understood the rules better after explaining them and helping others. The language which I heard from the boys in the rest of the lesson also convinced me it is another tool in the box which is worth exploring.  I intend to flip one lesson each week. I will keep you posted!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Learning for the GCSE German controlled assessment

How many times do hear statements like this?
"I'm good at revision, I just go blank when I go into the exam" or maybe
"It won't go in.  I can't learn it"

The constant battle to help pupils learn for the controlled assessment goes on and on. We are also battling against panic and bad revision technique.  It boils down to 3 things: they don't understand the language they are trying to use, they use limited strategies which aren't really fit for purpose, and they don't review the learning they have done so far to see if it has worked. This then translates into the following disasters:

1.  In an attempt to get the best grade possible, lots of pupils resort to either using impressive looking phrases from worksheets or texts which they don't understand, or they use the dreaded google translate, believing that these things are the magic keys to the kingdom. Some of this comes from them not having faith in the language that they know, and believe that mysterious phrases which look impressive must be better than what they can come up with on their own.  Oh, and it's faster. Job done.
2.  Despite all efforts to help them in class to learn strategically, they ignore all these strategies in favour of "just reading through" because it's easier.
3.  They try to learn too much too fast, ending up in them learning nothing properly.
4.  They rarely test themselves to whether they have, in fact, learnt any of it, meaning that they're blissfully unaware that it hasn't worked.
5.  If they do test themselves, they don't actually do anything about the weak bits that they have found.
6.  They try to use complex phrases without really understanding them or having a "feel" for them - especially subordinating conjunctions such as "weil" in German, where the verb gets sent to the end.
7.  They try to learn it parrot-fashion without really knowing what they're saying. Are we the teachers to blame here?  I do get exasperated, and sometimes I do say, "Well, you've just got to learn it." I wonder how that is translated in the teenage brain.

Certainly, websites such as help, although that has now disappeared behind a pay-wall.  I'm sure there are others around that you can suggest.

How do you get pupils to try to slow down, really look at the work, and improve their understanding of their work?  I teach all boys, and most of them are in a rush to finish and tick the work off their lists.  I certainly don't have all the answers, but here are a couple of things I've done recently.  Nothing spectacular, but I thought I would share.

End of topic test
Obvious, really, but I've been guilty of being in a rush, and assuming they would learn it during their revision. Um -no! I like to test those key structures that I know they'll need, as well as key words.  If they know these already, they're getting there.  The difference between "meine Familie" and "mit meiner Familie" - they need to know this.  Have they really understood?  Pick up the problems and deal with them before starting the task.

Breaking down their learning into 3 phases:
1. words
2. small phrases
3. sentence / paragraph level

This seems to give them focus

*Top 20 difficult words*
This is my favourite. I ask pupils to pick out their top 20 difficult words, whether that's for spelling or for meaning, and I ask them to write a list in English and German.
This works a treat, especially with the complacent ones who simply want to get on and "just learn" it, because suddenly they realise that they don't know what "feierlich" means, and..oh ..what does that mean again?
Why 20 words?  It's a manageable number, it's not too scary, and gives them a do-able revision list.
Highlight the complex phrases
The highlighters come out, and they highlight their complex phrases. I get them to test themselves and each other, both on meaning and on correct German.  They take that pretty seriously.
Emphasis on communication rather than parrot-fashion
I then get them to choose 10 key content words from a paragraph, and get them to practise communicating their points, rather than doing it word-for-word.

Finally, I tell them that to get a good GCSE they need
Links especially WEIL
Opinions and reasons
Tenses - past, present, future, conditional

This got quite a response on twitter, with other members of the wonderful #mfltwitterati contributing their ideas.  Here is a summary:

  • Textivate got a well-deserved big thumbs up from many, and is a great way of managing the active learning. Other active learning ideas:
  • @JaneJaneheg suggested
  • Other IT-based ideas from @kec974 were cueprompter and visioprompt
  • @Langwitch, @missmaclachlan and several others make good use of mini-whiteboards, getting the pupils the gradually erase words and take the support away, and this also forces them to break things down into chunks
  • Post-its with 1 side in the MFL and the other side in English was suggested by @zaragozalass
  • @rhwilko has started making them do an English version of what they have prepared.  She finds that this also helps them see if their language is too basic
  • Others tweeted about discouraging script writing to avoid the pitfall of mindless learning, but maximising the time to practise with a list of key vocab and verbs.
  • @SJBarnes suggesting speaking to the drama dept about techniques

Saturday, 8 February 2014

What is IT Lieracy in 2014?

I've been teaching now since 1998, which in technology terms is a lifetime ago.  I still remember doing IT training sessions on "how to use Word" alongside older staff members who struggled with the very basics. Those days are a long time away!  I've always prided myself on being able to do what I needed to do with computers, without being an expert.  When smartboards came along, and powerpoint became a day-to-day necessity, I learnt how to use it, I've used all the IT tools that have come my way, and I've congratulated myself on being at least in the game, if not leading the pack.  I'm doing a blog, aren't I?

Well, now I'm not too sure I am still keeping up, and it's made me wonder what IT competency means for teachers and aspiring teachers. It feels to me like the number of programmes, websites and apps which I need to be confident with have exploded in recent years.  So, if we accept that we need more than Word and Powerpoint, what else do we need to consider?

Bob Harrison (@bobharrisonset) has put together a quiz to help you think about exactly that, and this was my first step in thinking about this whole area, and gives much food for thought. Watching the tweets from the people at #ililc4 has also made me wonder about my future priorities, and how fast I need to adapt. Here are my additional thoughts.

Managing your classes - Excel
A good teacher knows his/her pupils - their names, quirks, what makes them tick, AND what they need to progress, and that means data.  It never occurred to me when I was training. However, there's no escaping data, and it can be a powerful tool if you don't allow it to rule your life - which brings me to my achilles heel.  Excel allows you to track your pupils, identify trends, and isolate particular groups through the cunning use of filters. Now, in our school we use SIMS for data, but I feel like I only use the equivalent of the little toe of either programme. I was very envious of a fellow member of the #mfltwittterati who tweeted about his use of excel to manage data, whereas because I use it so badly, it takes me an age to do anything.  It really feels like "me no speaky excel". as the formulas especially completely baffle me.  He made the point that it was one of his pupils who showed him how to set it up, and it helps him immensely. This has to be part of your armoury.

Use your VLE
As astonishing as it may sound, our school has only just got a VLE, but the benefits are huge - the ability to help pupils have reference to materials, the ability to set homework.  It is a great resource, and you should make full use of it.

Social Media and flipping classrooms
I teach German and French.  The internet is a powerful tool, which has the potential to connect people, which means being able to get pupils to speak with, read blogs from and write to other people.  As my pupils have assured me, writing letters is very last-century, and even emails are incredibly clunky.  They also belong to a generation that teach themselves how to play the guitar from youtube.  We need to be able to tap into this, so this means...

  • class blogs, such as
  • skype
  • twitter for giving links and information
  • google docs and google forms
  • dropbox and wikis
  • edmodo - I haven't tried it yet, but it is on my list of things to do before the end of this academic year.
  • Apps such as Explain Everything or Show Me or powtoon to allow you to put together videos/presentations that pupils can watch at home
  • apps and websites for recording audio -, audioboo
  • video conferencing possibilities such as google hangout
  • for making flashcard memory games
The possibilities and potential of technology are demonstrated in this poster by @kazWd about engaging homework ideas.

The prospect of our school getting ipads is some way away, but many schools do have them, and their user-friendliness is much praised. @joedale is a source of much information.  Just as ipads and iphones / smartphones become part of everyday life, so we need to think about how we can use them.  Ignoring them isn't really an option.

Commercial websites and fragmentation of the market
Here's my problem.  I have a tiny departmental budget, and many of the commercial websites are simply out of my reach.  As attractive as their offers are, I can't take them up.

The development of what's on offer happens at such a bewildering rate, that I don't know how durable many of these developments are.  When it was just Microsoft Office, it meant that although you needed to adapt to the latest generation, you didn't need to worry about whether the materials you had developed would simply become unusable. Just as I consider getting to grips with google docs, someone moots the possibility that they may be obselete in a couple of years.  Seriously, I would welcome advice.

My priorities?
1.  excel
2.  blogs
3.  google docs
4. edmodo
5.  keeping my sanity

One thing at a time, and keep getting advice from my tweeps.  Keep experimenting, keep being positive.

Sunday, 19 January 2014


This week I did a carousel lesson for the first time in aaaages. An old idea, yes, but still effective.  My poor Year 10s had been hit with a lot of grammar recently as we did the perfect tense in detail for the first time.  Auxiliary verbs, participles, word order - ouch!  we needed a change of pace, change of scenery, and carousel lessons serve this purpose perfectly.

Why have I avoided them?
Managing the logistics
It can be messy, and I have struggled in the past to get the timings of the activities right.  Timings are everything.
Supervising and getting the learning right
Carousels mean that the pupils have to get on on their own.  Fine if they are well-motivated, but what about the lazy ones or the more switched off pupils?  How to keep them learning and moving things on. And, of course - can they make progress in this lesson?  There also still needs to be a very clear purpose to the learning.  Defining the learning objectives, rather than being distracted by the lovely activities is sometimes harder than you think.
I already do groupwork, so what's the deal?
Although I do groupwork or pairwork most lessons,this type of lesson, if you exclude the plenary at the end, has the pupils in charge of each activity for the whole lesson, including reading the instructions, working out the activity. The change in the use of the room, and the change of format also keeps the pupils on their toes, and allows you to do things from a slightly more unusual perspective.

Things that have worked for me
Changing things up
It's meant to be a change and I try to give a boost to problem solving / speaking / vocab building in these kind of lessons.  For example, we had spent a long time in previous lessons focusing on getting our verbs right, but what about the other bits of the sentence?  They needed to be built up too.  Listening on a laptop rather than as a class is also a valuable thing to do, as it gives them control.
Engaging their curiosity
One group had a carefully wrapped "present" to unpack, and they then needed to remember each others "presents", along the lines of "I went to market and I bought.." - the combination of something to rummage around in with a challenge meant that they enjoyed this and got stuck in.  This allowed them to teach themselves new vocabulary whilst practising a key structure - in this case "For Christmas I got...Ryan got.."
Challenges / competitions
How many...can you find?  This is easy to mark and you can get a scoreboard easily up-and-running.  It gets them going, plus it means it is easy to oversee, and pick up those who might be sitting back.  One group had a "word scatter" where they had to build as many sentences as they could.  Each member had to fill in a sheet with the team name on, so no passengers here. I teach in an all boys' school, and their competitive spirit gets the better of them.  Another had to find as many "haben" verbs and "sein" verbs and adjectives as possible in a reading text.  Another had a dictionary skills task to do.
Planning one less activity than you think you need
I always try to pack too much in, so plan a little less to make sure that you have taken into account movement time.  This meant that this last time, I had 2 versions of each station going.  It worked better, and leads me onto the last point...
A Plenary which ties it all together
This is essential, and should really try to assess the learning which has gone on.  Allow yourself enough time to do this, and scale down the carousel if necessary.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Catching the drifters - update

I wrote here about catching the pupils who were drifting, and the missed opportunities I wanted to avoid.  I wanted to give you an update on how this worked.

What I did - the Challenge
I asked the pupils I had identified from an assessment to stay behind.  I asked them to rate their confidence in German, their concentration levels, and to identify 3 things they could do to boost their confidence and their work.  These were then the targets that they used to assess their progress at the end of each lesson for 2 weeks.  They had a simple sheet to use each lesson, and the sheet also posed the question: "Do I need to do anything differently next lesson?".  I targeted my questioning more sharply, and reminded pupils, and that was all that was needed.

How did it go?
what I would do differently
As usual, I made it too complicated.  I had kept the target sheets, which meant it was too complicated to manage.  Next time, I will get the sheets stuck in their books at the back:  simpler and more discreet.

What really worked
The vast majority of the pupils took it seriously, and most were able to say straight away why they hadn't performed as well ("I didn't revise, Miss"; "I talk too much"; "I don't understand verbs"). Asking them to assess themselves rather than berate them for underperforming in the test proved to be a bridge.

They were noticed
This is the most heart-breaking aspect.  These pupils suddenly felt they were no longer invisible.  They felt empowered, and because they knew they couldn't get away with doing the minimum, many of them upped their game.  Keeping the nature of the intervention positive and encouraging meant that they bought into it.

I got them to review their position at the end of 3 weeks, and most had made good progress, and crucially, they had gained a "can-do" attitude.  Next week, we have the January exams, and the proof will be be in the pudding

It identified pupils who were actually causes for concern
There were 2 pupils in the group who, on closer inspection, showed more worrying signs of lack of engagement, and more serious problems.  I hope that, by catching them earlier than I would normally, I may be able to put more active interventions in place, and stop the rot...maybe.

Impact for the whole class?
I have noticed an improvement in the atmosphere in the whole class - more focus, a more positive attitude.

From my point of view
I sharpened up my questioning, and I feel I know all of my pupils better.  I think it has improved me as a teacher, and apart from the breaktime I lost at the beginning and the end of the process, there was little extra effort involved.  Lots of impact for little effort.

I haven't worked out how to put documents on a blog yet, so here is the link to the TES