Sunday, 3 December 2017

Starters with impact for GCSE

Starters with impact

We’ve just had our mocks, and we’ve got a long list of things to address on top of the content which we need to finish.  We are not going to magic extra time out of the ether, so that means that every activity we do in class needs to have maximum impact.  There are 2 main ways for this to happen:

1.  The activity combines language skills with heightening awareness of exam formats or requirements.

2.  By doing activities that emphasize key structures and start the process of memorising and internalising key structures and language.  

In many senses, I have been doing this already, but sharpening this up is beginning to make a difference.  What I’m going to look at in my next few blogs are some examples of strategies I’m using in class.


These play such a crucial role.  Here are some favourites of mine.

“5 a day”

Whilst stood at the photocopier, a couple of weeks ago, I had a bad case of worksheet envy.  I was admiring a starter sheet from maths, taken from this website “5 a day”.  The teacher said it was great for highlighting misconceptions.  Now I’m not going to have time to do something for every day, but here is one I made for my foundation French group:


2 photos – match the sentences to the card.  Once you’ve gone through it, give them 30 seconds to memorise, then show a version with key structures blanked out.  Get them to write them again on their mini-whiteboards.

2 photos – 2 descriptions.  Match the photo to the description, then similar process to before.  This allows you to model a full answer for the speaking photo card.

Summary questions

We call our bank of speaking questions for each topic “summary questions” so that the students don’t just think of these as questions just for the speaking exam.  We have a real task on our hands getting them to learn them, so we’ve started giving them a couple of key questions a week.  We also desperately need them to practise writing to a bullet point, and for them to see the connection between the summary questions and the writing exam.  They also need practice in understanding what is required of the bullet point.

We give them 2 questions to learn, but instead of always testing as a peer assessment, we sometimes put them as writing bullet points on the board and give them 10 minutes to answer one of the bullet points.

Here’s an example:

 Qu’est-ce que tu fais pendant ton temps libre?

is transformed to the bullet point

  • vos passe-temps préférés
My students have found this useful, and it seems to be helping them to make the links between their learning and the exam.

I’m still using my lollipop sticks starter, which I talked about here, but I now follow it up with a grid in the past, present and future that is similar to grids seen in the reading exam specimens, which I get them to fill in, either with or without prompts.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Preparing for the new A-Levels

This weekend I had the pleasure of spending my Saturday with colleagues at a conference on preparing for the new A-Level hosted by the wonderful ALL Yorkshire, with Robert Pike and Rachel Tattersall presenting.  I can’t possibly do justice to everything that was presented, but below are some of the things that I took away from today, and the thoughts I had whilst listening to the presentations.  A lot of the comments below are specifically AQA, but the general gist will apply to any board.

1. Get the information from the exam board websites now! 

You need to get yourself familiar now with the exam structure, especially for the speaking exam.

It was news to me that for the A-Level, the candidates only have 5 minutes preparation time, and this is done in front of the examiner! Not only that, but although they only do one stimulus card, they have to ask 2 questions. The devil truly is in the detail!

The advice on conduct of the examinations is up on the website (e.g. ) so now is the time to trawl through the website to get what you need.

On the German A-level page there are the detailed instructions for the speaking test, and commentaries on sample answers for both the essay paper and the speaking test.

You should also have had an advisor assigned to your school for the Independent Research Project.  If you haven’t heard (I haven’t!), chase it up with your exams officer.

2. Preparation for the exams

IRP -  My students have started their research, and they are now beginning to look towards how to turn that into something which can be used for the exam.  Timings are going to be crucial – those 2 minutes of presentation can earn up to 5 marks for AO4, so it’s important for this to be structured well, but of course, not so crammed that the students rush and become unintelligible. A 9 minute discussion is a long time, and it’s going to be crucial that they have enough material and considered thoughts on this to last this amount of time.

The training prompted me to go home and look at the form for the IRP (also on the website).  There is room for between 2 and 10 headings for the discussion. The more headings used, the more control the candidate will have over the direction of the discussion.


It was commented on that a mark of 0/10 for the translation into the TL was not uncommon.  Lots of small mistakes evenly distributed would lead to this, so training our students to be confident with grammar, and to look carefully at what is required (singular /plural; definite article / indefinite article) is essential.

How can we help in class?

Lots of practice of changing and manipulating language.  The old adage of making maximum use of any text you do in class still applies.  Getting students used to finding verbs but then change tenses, changing 1st to 3rd person (especially with irregular verbs in German), spotting the change in role and therefore the change in case – these are all things that come with regular practice.


I was intrigued to find out that examiners do count the words for the summaries.  They do allow for a few additional words, and will mark up to 10 words over the word-limit, up to the first natural break.  That means that candidates must stick to the bullet points, and be guided by the number of points awarded.

Tips to improve summaries:

·         Avoid introductions and keep to the bullet points.

·         Make rough notes first before doing the final summary – it will make it more concise.

·         Answer the bullet points directly.

·         In class, practise transcribing, especially focusing on verb endings, article spellings etc.

The essay

Examiners look first a AO4 (critical response).  Students need to demonstrate accurate and detailed knowledge, evidence from the text, and develop arguments and draw conclusions.  The best essays are not the long essays – 350 words are more than enough. They need to be tight, relevant and varied.  Encouraging students to choose their examples and quotes carefully and write with control, needs a lot of practice.  Robert Pike talked about using ExExExEx to get students to think about structuring paragraphs.

·         Express your point

·         Explain

·         Example

·         Extend and develop – this the part which will give candidates access to the highest marks for AO4

Personally, I use a variation on PEEL, and use it in my marking.

·         P – point

·         Eg – Example

·         Ex – Explanation

·         Ev – Evaluation

·         L – link to the question

By using this in my marking, the students have been able to see more clearly whether they have been making too many descriptive points, rather than developing ideas.

3.  Developing the knowledge of society and making it stick

One of the big concerns for this new A-Level is whether students have a good understanding of the knowledge of society, and can they recall this information quickly.  There is a lot of key information to remember, and although they don’t need specific figures, they do need to know trends, rough comparisons and be able to talk and comment about these and examples from the TL countries.

We need to help our students to get control over this by getting them to do summarising activities at the end of the topic.  This should also mean that they have an easy overview of the whole topic.

Favourites that were mentioned were making a mind map, summary page of facts, doing a poster, doing a presentation to the class with a word-limit on the slide to stop the dreaded put-a-text-up-then-read-it-out disaster.  I have several students who hate mind maps and posters, and are definitely bullet-point people.  I insist on a second column beside the stats and facts which states what conclusions they can draw from them.

4.  Combining fluency and knowledge of society

Getting our students confident enough to speak is often one of our big tasks in Y12.  There are lots of good, short activities to support this:

·         Speaking from word cloud prompts reinforces key ideas.

·         Using prompt cards with key language and a key idea that they have to include builds up their level of language.

·         Just a minute

·         Hot seating

·         Rank ordering (diamond 9, for example) with justification of their placings.

There were all ideas I already used, but I came across a couple of new ones that I liked:

Connect 4 – but instead of providing a word, they have to be able to answer the question e.g. How has family changed since 1960s?

Beetle Drive – 1 question for each side of the dice.  Students have to answer the relevant question to be able to cross off that particular square.  BUT (and this is the bit I really liked) if they throw the same number again, they have to add to their answer.

5.  And finally…. questioning

All the way through the training session, it occurred to me again and again how crucial the questions we pose in class are.  One question I really need to consider for myself is whether I’m spending enough time asking higher order questions that give students the opportunity to evaluate, analyse and compare aspects of the TL country.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Why I love mailmerge

Unlike excel spreadsheets, which we've had no choice but learn to love, mailmerge seems to be a little known function.  I discovered it a couple of years ago, but as I talk to lots of colleagues who've never used it, I thought I would share my very basic use of it.

Feedback on exams.  Except with the most switched-on classes, it can be a nightmare.  4 skills, at least 3 on paper form.  No matter how hard I had tried to make it clear, students were still confused.  "Which one's my overall grade?".  Reading out the levels/grades to the whole class or going round individually were also less than satisfactory.

As I already have a spreadsheet with the grades/levels for each skill, I can easily make individualised feedback for each student.  Now that I am wise in the ways of mailmerge, it takes me 5 mins to create feedback from the spreadsheet which also makes it clear for the student and minimises my stress levels.  What's not to love?

Here's how I do it.

1.  When I'm marking the exams, as well as entering grades, I also enter a remark in 2 extra columns: "what you did well" and "next steps".  I normally do this on a separate piece of paper - doing it into a spreadsheet also gives me a great overview for parents' evening and reports.

2.  so now you have a lovely spreadsheet like this:

3.  Open a word document and choose "Mailings" and select "Start mailmerge" and choose "normal document".  Write the basic format of the document you want.

4.  Now you need to choose the recipients.  That's the students from your spreadsheet. So - choose "existing list" then choose your spreadsheet and the page that has your class on it.

5.  Now enter the fields where you need them.

6.  Choose preview results and double-check.  Then finish and merge.  I always choose "edit all" .  And Voila - pain-free feedback.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Changing mindsets - or trying to take the comfort blanket away

I'm coming to the end of my first year at my new school, so the annual reflection about what's worked and what hasn't is even more essential.  One of the biggest battles I have had this year has centred round learning for assessments. Apart from my Year 7s, all my other year groups have clung to the idea of memorising paragraphs. The disastrous legacy of the now defunct GCSE is proving hard to shift. The battle is, of course, most acute in year 10, who have less time than other year groups to make that shift.  In their writing exam, despite me saying that the questions would be adapted from the summary questions they had done for each topic, many students simply tried to learn all of these answers by rote. This meant that we had the familiar problems of minds going blank after the first line, but with the added horror that they didn't tweak the language they knew to fit the actual question.  When talking with the students, it became apparent that I still had my work cut out.  What I thought I had been teaching them i.e. how to use key verbs, how to use the language constructively, was not what the students were taking in.  Basic mistake.

In many ways, this is a variation on another age-old battle to persuade students that "just reading through" is the worst revision technique ever.  I get it - rote-learning of paragraphs has a good feeling to it.  It's also really definite - there's my paragraph, that's what I've got to learn. Doesn't matter if I don't know what it means, I've just got to learn it.  Boom!  Of course, breaking things down, knowing what all the elements mean - that's hard work, and it looks like you're making less progress at first, but it's real learning. There will still be a place for learning answers so that you can answer questions for the general conversation, but it cannot be with this mindset that you just learn and regurgitate.

I'm about to get my year 10s to prepare a for another writing assessment, so these are some of the things I've done differently since January.
1.  Lots of explicit talk about learning - lots of use of lego imagery!
2.  Adapting the use of photos as starters to emphasise the use of key language.
3.  Making a bigger part of the learning process - showing the leaderboard, but also (crucially) showing which % of the course they have mastered.
4.  Making them fill in a sheet of key language for the summary questions before they learn them - broken down into opinion phrases, verbs, adjectives/adverbs, connectives, fab phrases.  On the sheet they fill in the French and the English.  It's a faff, and I make them do it in class, because they don't like doing it, and I can quality control it.  It then allows them to test each other.
5.  My lollipop-stick games on key verbs.
6.  Vocab tests that include a few sentences to translate, not just single bits of vocabulary

Will it work?  We will see.  Is anyone else in the same boat?  I'd love to know how you've tackled it.

Swag Bag

Sometimes the old ideas are good ideas because they work.  I have a year 10 GCSE French set, where many have targets of grades 6-7, but I found it difficult to get them out of their comfort zone.  So, in October, we started a swag bag.  On the middle double-spread in their exercise books, we started assembling useful phrases that would help them to elevate their language.  A few weeks ago, we had managed to come up with this:

It's different to a learning mat, because they are responsible for choosing whether the word or phrase is worthy of inclusion, which means that we have a conversation about why these phrases are useful.  It also puts the onus on them to think about it and maintain it.  Now, when we do extended writing, they have to nominate at the top of their work a minimum of 3 swag bag phrases that they can use in their work.  It's a work in progress, and we will add to it in the future, but it's been useful for getting them out of their "j'aime...parce que c'est super" straitjacket.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Lollipop sticks for grammar!

Lollipop sticks - a fun way of making sure no-one gets left out from my questioning.  But there's so much more to be done with them. Why does it just have to be student names on them?  As I no longer have access to my smartboard random word chooser, I need another random phrase selector, and lollipop fit the bill in a pleasingly no-tech kinda way.

One of my challenges this year has been to find ways to help my year 10s build their awareness of verbs and the different tenses. So - I have created these lollipop sticks, all with "trigger phrases" on them - French on one side, English on the other.

The trigger phrases include phrases or verbs which then require the infinitive, and then triggers for the present, perfect, imperfect and future:

I have selected 8 key verbs from the topic we are currently doing, and put them into a table.
After introducing the idea of the trigger phrases, ensuring that they know which tense goes with which, we can then start playing.

Some ideas that have worked:
  • Everyone gets a lollipop stick, then writes the chosen verb in the form they need on their mini-whiteboard.
  • Focus on one verb - allow some memorisation time, then people come up to choose their stick, then get to form it. They double their points if they can translate it too.
  • Challenge the other team. 
  • Timed challenge.
You get the gist - I'm sure you can think of some of your own.