Book Review: Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher by Steve Smith


There have been several changes in the life of this languages teacher since I last wrote a blog post – a job change (with another pending, though within the same school) and an associated house move have left me with very little time to catch up with, and contribute to, the world of Twitter, let alone to do the reading I’d like and to blog. However, the Easter break is upon us and, having settled into new routines, I’m determined to make the most of it by attacking the pile of books next to my bed! Ordered weeks ago, and top of my list, is Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher by Steve Smith – a little bit because he was my own languages teacher over 20 years ago, and so I read his output with some personal interest, but mainly because his counsel on the art of language teaching is by now well-known both for its intelligent precision and, most importantly, its practicality in application to the classroom. I won’t go on about that ever-lacking commodity in the lives of all teachers – time, just in case I needed to say it! – but will just reiterate that, like all of us in education, I could do with more. Teachers don’t always have the time to read up on research and practice as much as I know they would like, so books like Steve’s, which come straight to the point and are crammed full of useful and immediately applicable tasks, strategies and ideas, are a real godsend.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters, twelve of which you can see on the list below. It successfully manages to appeal to teachers at all stages of their careers – NQTs will find the clear advice on what makes a great teacher and on running a room invaluable but the book is relevant for all language teachers. There are detailed chapters on what works well in all four skill areas, including how to teach those skills, rather than simply bung them in and hope for the best (listening is dealt with in the chapter Enjoying Sounds). What Steve does with this book is to gather together all of the qualities which tend to lead to the best outcomes for learners of all abilities, regardless of your own methodology preference. Indeed, the book is keen to point out that there is no one, ideal way of teaching languages; instead, it’s important to be an informed and reflective practitioner, who considers carefully what their own beliefs about effective language teaching are. If you believe in your way of doing things and your way of doing things is well-informed, it is likely to work well. He emphasises his point by describing three unorthodox case studies towards the end of the book, which have all worked well in their respective contexts. Steve does, though, point out that, in all cases, there are commonalities: a key message throughout the book is the need for meaningful “TL input and opportunities to recycle language.”

Steve’s book has definitely reminded me to think about how effectively I use TL within  the classroom and how effectively I ask my students to use it. This will be an immediate focus in my teaching and I liked the idea of perhaps having a departmental TL policy, to ensure consistency. There are so many ideas for structuring learning in this book that it is difficult to single one or two out for reviewing. One I particularly liked was teaching using a text and incorporating strategy. I’m a big fan of explicit teaching of strategy and, in my experience, students need reminding of such “ways in” on many occasions, to build their resilience in approaching a difficult task. We all, I would hope, refer to strategy into our lessons, but I really liked the way Steve built the strategy into the students’ actual interaction with the text, rather than explaining or eliciting the strategies from the students and then letting them get on with trying to use them. The approach referred to in the book involves skilled and judicious use of modelling. It leads the students through the reading experience, using strategies such as getting them to begin by recalling their prior knowledge by spending 2 minutes in English thinking about what they already know about the text’s topic. I would say that, despite being in English, this is two minutes well-spent, if it both piques students’ interest and primes them for better understanding of what they are about to read. Incidentally, Steve recommends frequently reading texts aloud to students, again something I intend to do more of. Their main source of aural input is you, as their teacher, and they need a good deal of it to acquire the necessary output skills. A range of strategic approaches which build upon each other are recommended, such as cognate and verb finding, interspersed with activities to get students interacting with the text. He advocates modelling when finding cognates, showing students the thought-processes behind this. In my experience, students can find “easy” cognates but sometimes don’t find all those that we might expect – often because their vocabulary in English is lacking. Elsewhere in the book, Steve points out that it can be useful to draw students’ attention to language patterns between French and English – an example being some -er verbs that become -ate verbs in English. At higher levels in some of the specimen reading material for GCSE provided by AQA, the texts contain cognates which few students will pick up on because they do not know the relevant words in English, so anything we can do to increase lexical and basic etymological knowledge (and teach students to notice it!) will be helpful here.

In short, the book is well worth having in your language teaching library, providing a brilliant synthesis of skills, activity types and qualities to move learning forward for students, in what is an ever-evolving and cognitively challenging journey. Contents


Using a Text

So, this isn’t a methodology blog post – it’s about using texts. However, I do think more and more that lots of reading texts in the TL provides “safe” input. Listening input is obviously hugely important in the development of L2 acquisition, but it’s also far more spontaneous and, as such, riskier for students. When listening to spoken L2, students must be in a constant state of “brain arousal”, attempting to retain what they have heard as the speech flow continues – and, as we already know, the window of retention lasts two seconds. So their brains have to work quickly. In addition, if the context for listening is one which requires a response – whether that be a conversation, an interpretation or answering a question about what they have heard, the sense of risk is increased. What if they haven’t understood as the language was uttered too quickly for their brains to be able to retain and process it? What if they can’t then respond adequately to what they have heard? The opportunities for demotivation and embarrassment are multifold. With a text, though, the language doesn’t just “disappear”, as it does when spoken. It’s still there, they can take their time, they have cues and hints: it’s far easier to use context to decipher an unknown word when the words don’t disappear into thin air as you read them, for example! So, texts providing rich and targeted linguistic input provide opportunities for students to notice and learn new vocabulary and structures, in a risk-free context. Most students enjoy reading texts. My Y10 group (currently my pilot group for trialling “new stuff”!) are currently really enjoying reading texts aloud. They have done some phonics work recently and are loving the puzzle-solving aspect of working out how to say what they see. They like reading the texts, too – if they are interesting. It’s not always necessary to link these to the students’ specific interests, although I find that occasionally doing so makes them feel valued and provides further motivation for understanding what they read – not to mention allowing certain students to feel a bit more “expert”, as they can sometimes understand things others can’t when they have prior knowledge of the subject of the text. It could be something you, as teacher, are passionate about / interested in – I used an authentic text on Alan Turing with my Y10 when we were covering the unit on role models and they really enjoyed it. It could equally well be something currently topical in the news or something a bit quirky – sloths or meerkats, maybe! Regardless, variety is important – both linguistically and in the way we ask students to encounter a text. It keeps them on their toes but also provides opportunities for language recycling – important in the first stages of acquisition.

Last weekend, I joined in with a webinar lead by Anthony Gaughan and organised by IATEFL. It was a great session but targeted specifically at EFL teachers and some of the activities suggested would have presented too great a challenge to allow for meaningful input and prevent demotivation. I still think that just READING a text / group of texts at the initial stages of learning new vocabulary or structures is key. Giving the target language for the lesson to them in context, over and over again, without necessarily taxing them further, to allow them to begin to absorb it is, in my opinion, a good way to lay foundations. What can we then do with texts to spice things up a little? A few years ago, the Head of English in my school ran a CPD session around literacy for learning and using texts; lots of the ideas he provided were very applicable to MFL teaching. I think these would work best once the target input has already been encounteredi n a mores straightforward way. Here they are:

  • Teach critical reading skills using images. Giving an image and asking students to predict, infer, guess, imagine or connect to prior learning can act as a great pre-cursor to reading a text, where the same skills can be brought into play. Use of images is especially relevant in MFL now that there is a photocard task in the new GCSE specification.
  • Slow-release: give the first line or two of a text and ask students to predict. They could suggest what vocabulary will appear in the rest of the text, continue a sentence or write the next sentence.
  • Using IWB, display only one line / part of a line of a text, with the rest covered. Ask students what they think comes before / after.
  • Use the spotlight tool on the IWB to highlight a section of the text and ask students to use their predictive / inference skills as above. Done judiciously, this could be a good introduction to a topic: what do they think they will learn about, based on what they can see of the text? What topic area does it cover? What vocabulary do they already know?
  • Cloze – we all know this one!
  • Sequencing parts of the text. You could also ask students to sequence pictures, based on a text they have already read. This could work well with tenses or time adverbials.
  • Take a text and alphabetise it. Students could work out what they think it is about, pick out all the words to do with “x”, pick out all the verbs etc. Lots of potential here.
  • Highlighting, annotating, underlining, circling etc – a great skill for exams.
  • Distilling – coming up with a one-word / sentence caption for a picture / text or writing / choosing headlines for different paragraphs of a text.
  • Display a text on IWB – ask students what they think is the most important word in the text, or the most interesting / difficult / recently learned etc.
  • Visualising (this is more of a listening one but you could display the text as well) – students sketch the text as it is read to them.
  • “Physicalising” (another more listening-based one) – students work in pairs; one reads the text and the other acts out what they hear.


Chaos/Complexity Theory and SLA

I’m going to begin with a couple of caveats: first, I’m not a scientist and my understanding of chaos/complexity theory is pretty rudimentary. In fact, that’s probably being generous. Second, I am not always convinced by the desire of academics to grab a theory formulated for one discipline and attempt to use it in the context of another. I think doing so can be genuinely intellectually interesting, and certainly found it so in literature studies at university, but I’m not always persuaded that it adds anything to our understanding – of what an author meant by his text or, in this case, of how we learn a second language. However, whilst I don’t have enough depth of understanding of what chaos/complexity theory actually is to say whether the process of learning another language can be classed as such a system, I do think – from the limited reading I have done thus far! – that there are some relevant comparisons to be made.

In her article Chaos/Complexity Science and Second Language AcquisitionDiane Larsen-Freeman defines complex systems as “dynamic, complex, non-linear, chaotic, unpredictable, sensitive to initial conditions, open, self-organising, feedback-sensitive and adaptive” – certainly, at first glance, a list of descriptors which seem applicable to language and its learning. Nasrin Hadidi-Temjid says in his article on the topic that “language-learning is often viewed as an additive, linear process. We teach this piece, then that piece, and we expect that our students will acquire them one-by-one.” If we are to subscribe to a chaos/complexity picture of language-learning, we must let go of the idea of language learning as linear. This makes sense to me. I can remember, when first given a copy of the National Curriculum level descriptors for MFL, being surprised: I had never had any conception of any one tense being any more important – or difficult – than any other. Nor had it ever occurred to me that the ability to express my opinions made me a more skilled language user – no more than the ability to express anything else, anyway. It all seemed very arbitrary and is undeniably linear in its approach. Proponents of a chaos/complexity approach to SLA would argue that the process is not a linear one: that we acquire bits of language (in the absence of a more scientific term!) and a resultant interlanguage develops, which is in a constant state of dynamism. This interlanguage isn’t L1 and it isn’t L2 – it is something new; a functional system in and of itself. During the process of learning, seemingly random events can cause this system to break down – become chaotic – and when it does so, the L2 user can appear to regress. Larsen-Freeman gives a much-quoted example in L1 Child Language Acquisition texts, which also applies to SLA: that of English past tense morphological inflection acquisition. She explains that L2 learners are thought to acquire this lexically and can be proficient users of both irregular and regular past tense forms. Then, with the addition of some new component, the system is thrown into chaos and has to go through a period of restructure, whilst the user’s interlanguage accommodates the new knowledge. During this period, the learner uses past tenses incorrectly, which he/she was previously using correctly. It seems plausible to me that this could well relate to working memory limitations and cognitive overload. It also seems a bit like a computer’s “syntax error” – something has been dropped into the code which the computer can’t process and so the whole thing crashes. Then, once the computer has processed and installed a new update, the programme functions once again. It even reminded me a bit of Westworld’s androids, which experience malfunction when trying to comprehend concepts beyond their programming but which, with repeated exposure to these concepts, sometimes become beings of greater sentience. Whichever, it is the collapse of a previously functioning system – not necessarily anywhere close to TL/native language systems, but a functioning interlanguage nonetheless. In the end, after this period of restructure, the interlanguage settles and accommodates the new learning so that the learner’s interlanguage edges a little closer to the TL system. Larsen-Freeman goes on to say that “much learning can take place in the form of a reduction of uncertainty in the system state without ever manifesting itself in the production of a new form.” I have always maintained that the progressive/linear structures imposed by the old National Curriculum levels and as a result, by school system generated flightpaths and targets, did not work well for languages but struggled to explain why. Now, things seem clearer to me: in the joint names of progress and accountability, governments and schools have attempted to impose a linear structure on the process of SLA. Students and teachers have been told that progress has not taken place if they haven’t managed to move from using present tense to using past/future in the allotted timescale, when actually, it’s just not how language learning works. Can we, as teachers, teach languages in the way that would work best for genuine acquisition, when constrained by the requirements of examinations and often uninformed expectations of SLT? We are reminded in Larsen-Freeman’s article that, “much learning may take place receptively only to be manifest productively when the requisite data have been taken in. Terrell (1991), Ellis (1993), and Van Patten and Cadierno (1993) have all pointed out that explicit grammar instruction will not likely result in immediate mastery of specific grammatical items, but suggest nevertheless that explicit instruction does have value, namely, in facilitating intake.” To me, this echoes the view put forward by Daniel Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? He explains that background knowledge is important for learning – it facilitates the process of learning and enables it to happen faster and with greater efficiency, because it “allows chunking, which makes more room in working memory, which makes it easier to relate ideas, and therefore to comprehend.”

In addition to the interlanguage being a complex and chaotic system, Larsen-Freeman also explains that there are numerous factors which can influence its trajectory – factors which do not act in isolation, but as interacting agents. These are things like the target language itself, the amount and type of input and feedback, whether the learning context is tutored or untutored, the age of the learner, aptitude, motivation (amongst other sociopsychological factors), attitude, personality… the list goes on. The number of influencing factors and the resultant number of combinations of factors which can influence how the interlanguage develops means that no two classroom contexts can ever be the same. Every one will be different because every one will contain different learners, all bringing different influences into the mix. Every one will be different because every teacher is different – we all come to our own conclusions about methodology, we all have varying styles and approaches. Given all of this dynamism and instability, Larsen-Freeman reminds us of “the need to resist the temptation to settle for simple solutions to complex problems.” This reminds me of the approach favoured by Steve Smith of The Language Teacher Toolkit blog, who doesn’t advocate a “best way” for language-teaching, rather acknowledges that reasoned and informed teacher belief about what works, executed well, will make for good teaching. I’m more and more inclined to believe that this is correct. How can there be a best way when there are so many variables? Larsen-Freeman puts it better than me when she says “if language is as complex as it is, it is not likely we will find a single process to account for all the complexity.”

What does all of this mean for classroom practice, though? I’ll be honest and say that I’m not entirely sure. I think it certainly means that a linear way of teaching isn’t the best way for SLA, although I’m not sure how to suggest a different model. I wondered about adapting teaching to match the patterns of learning exhibited by L1 learners of French, with the idea that this might provide an optimal framework for interlanguage development, but couldn’t find anything online to tell me the order in which they acquire particular grammatical / morphological features (if anyone can enlighten me, that would be great!). In addition, since there doesn’t seem to be much understanding of what input causes the interlanguage to go into chaotic meltdown (it’s probably different depending on the learner and their influential factors) and because, as Willingham tells us, background knowledge DOES facilitate deeper learning / comprehension, I do think that there is definite merit in explicit teaching of grammar and in linking L2 to L1, in terms of morphological / phonological / syntactic similarities and differences. Whilst I don’t expect this explicit teaching of grammar to necessarily result in acquisition, I do think that it could be anchoring and that preparing the learner’s brain in this way could make it more receptive to new language input, whether that be explicitly or implicitly taught, and as a result, could enable the restructuring of the interlanguage to happen with greater efficiency, as the learner’s expertise in understanding how language works and how the L2 works becomes greater and greater.

Gianfranco Conti: Breaking the Sound Barrier

I had already been following Gianfranco’s ideas on teaching listening and had begun to incorporate some of his suggested activities into lessons and homeworks for my Y10 group. I have to say that his approach to listening has absolutely revolutionised the way I plan to teach, and this is not an exaggeration! I think that it is far, far too easy in teaching to become sluggish and set in your ways – often because you aren’t exposed to new ways of thinking and doing things. I’ve mentioned before that CPD is often dreadfully lacking, but since becoming active on Twitter and having my eyes opened to what people are doing, I feel empowered to revitalise my practice. It has to be said that the change to the GCSE specification has helped there too, because it has pushed me to think about new ways of teaching. But back to listening. I don’t know why I had never thought about the fact that our first language is acquired by listening. I don’t know why, as a language specialist, I was unaware that a whopping 45% of real-life communication is through listening. It’s clearly key.

Up until now, I had used the listening activities in the coursebook as they were, sometimes adapting the exercises, but always expecting students to comprehend, to pick out information, to work out who went shopping and at what time and what they bought. To my great shame, though, I have never equipped students with the skills they need to be able to do this with confidence and efficiency. I never, ever understood why, every time I said we were “doing some listening”, they would, without exception, groan and ask “are we doing a test, Miss?” I would respond that, no, it wasn’t a test. It was just another activity, like the reading we’d done ten minutes ago. Now, I see that they had it better than me: of course it was a test! A test of their ability to understand spoken French, but without teaching them how; not much different from throwing them into the deep end of a swimming pool, without teaching them to swim, and withholding the inflatables! Gianfranco pointed out that first of all, aural exposure to L2 is too limited and in addition, instruction is not principled (SO true. I will be FAR more principled in future!) and aural tasks are under-exploited (hopefully no longer!). A big problem, though, is that speed of delivery is inaccessible. How many times have I paused a recording to reprimand students for the inevitable “whaaaaat?” that emerges from the otherwise silent classroom? Many. But if you haven’t equipped them with the skills, even the slowed-down speeds of coursebook recordings is too great for some to follow. Moreover, if a recording contains more than 10% unknown words, it represents incomprehensible input to the listener. And when faced with incomprehensible input, what happens? Panic zone, demotivation, loss of confidence and the eternal refrain: “I just can’t do French.”

We should be listening to TEACH not to TEST.

What even are listening skills, though? I think I would have struggled to answer that question, had it ever been asked of me (should it have, as part of my PGCE course?), before Gianfranco’s presentation. He explained that the following processes have to take place in the act of listening:

  • decoding – the ability to segment what you hear into individual words and underneath that, into individual sounds
  • lexical search – having heard the sounds, the brain that sorts through its lexicon and attempts to locate a match (and this is why we should praise students for getting a sound right, even if ultimately, the word is wrong. They can learn.)
  • parsing – putting the lexical item into syntactic context. What is its grammatical role?
  • meaning building – now we know what we’ve heard and where each word fits grammatically, what does it actually mean?
  • discourse construction – I think that this must mean placing what you have heard as a whole into a conversation and formulating an appropriate reply. Please correct me if I haven’t quite got this bit!

Gianfranco argues – very convincingly – that language skills are acquired like any other: by teaching from the bottom up. You can’t learn how to ride a bike if you don’t know which way round to sit on the seat, where to put your hands and feet and what action to make with your legs. You have to learn the components of what riding a bike actually is and then practice them, with the support of stabilisers, before you can become an “expert bike rider.” The same is true of learning to listen. Gianfranco explains it like this: “becoming an expert requires acquiring automaticity in the execution of key skills and achieving expertise requires the novice to gradually adjust their performance to the way in which an expert listener behaves.” We simply can’t expect our students to behave like expert listeners in L2 without showing them how and giving them ample opportunity to practice – and to feel good about what they are doing. They need greater exposure to L2, but in a very targeted way: input must be comprehensible, so vocabulary must be carefully selected and speed of delivery adapted, and activities must be exploited to allow teachers to model (and students to practise) skills, rather than jumping to the final hurdle and expecting them to build meaning and construct discourse around what they have heard.

There are lots of activities recommended by Gianfranco to develop these skills, which you can find on his blog here and here. I find that the students really enjoy them, too. Based on the principle that daily exposure is ideal, I am trialling a daily listening HW with Y10 and include an example here. We’ve been doing the unit on reading habits from the Studio coursebook.

hw_listening_week_7 (1)

I recorded the input myself.

Gianfranco’s own write-up of his presentation is here.

Some first thoughts…

I am slowly making my way through my Second Language Learning Theories book (Mitchell, Myles and Marsden) and have got as far as the 1970s and Krashen’s Monitor Model. This was based around five principles, the first of which is the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, which asserts that language acquisition is an entirely separate process from language learning. Essentially, acquisition for Krashen is subconscious and refers principally to L1 childhood language development. The acquisition process doesn’t include explicit knowledge of how language works. Conversely, language learning is a conscious process, with a focus on form and the linguistic rules of the L2. This seems to make sense so far: the majority of native English speakers could not tell you about the tense they are using, how they formed it or about subject-verb-object word order, for example (hence the difficulties many parents of primary-aged children are currently experiencing when trying to help with their SPAG homework!). It is, I think, valid to say that they don’t need to. We communicate effectively every single day, in varying contexts, using a range of social registers, with no problem whatsoever, without being able to explain that we have just used the present progressive or a fronted adverbial. That isn’t to say that there aren’t other benefits of learning about L1 grammar, of course, but they aren’t the focus of this blog post. Acquisition, then, happens informally, as a result of changes in the brain and a constant flow of meaningful input. Learning typically takes place in a classroom and is a far more structured and deliberate process.

I highlighted the word “meaningful” just now. At this very early stage of my own learning about SL acquisition, it seems to me that this is a key concept. Mitchell et al explain that in the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, what is important is the difference between meaningful communication on the one hand and conscious attention to form on the other. It is suggested that “meaningful communication can very well take place in the language classroom” and also that it “will supposedly trigger subconscious acquisition processes.” What do we mean by meaningful communication, though? In early childhood, surely it is communication which enables a child to take part in his / her existence, to make sense of it and crucially to have their needs met. These things are strongly linked with emotional response. There has been research to suggest that children who experience neglect or maltreatment in childhood experience delays in language acquisition and development. I have only a layman’s knowledge – if that – of how the brain works, but it seems to me that L1 acquisition could well be linked to emotional response. The amygdala is key in emotional response and contains many neurons which can initiate brain activity. There is further, limited research to suggest that a larger than average amygdala (which may be the result of negative childhood experience) is a predictor of language ability: the larger the volume of the right amygdala, the less well children performed on language tests at age 2, 3 and 4. Anyway, I suppose what I am getting at is that there seems to be some kind of connection between emotions and L1 language acquisition / development. If what we mean by “meaningful communication” is language which is highly relevant within a particular context for a child, we can link this to emotion. Firstly, a child who does not yet possess the language to articulate their wants and needs must feel frustration and anger. I’m sure we’ve all seen a desperate parent asking their offspring: “what do you want? Is it this? This? Are you hungry? What??” whilst the child cries and cries at their unmet desire / need. Then, there is the issue of caregiver approval and the delight shown by the parent when the child begins to use language; this positive response must surely trigger an emotional reaction in the child. Language acts as a tangible way for the child to experience cohesion with the micro-world within which they exist and enables another layer of bonding with the caregiver. All of this must be tied up with emotion: without language and ability to communicate, there must be frustration, anger and ultimately depression, if continued. Without it, a child couldn’t connect with those around him. Language provides a bridge between thought/emotion and reality. Surely this is the very definition of “meaningful communication”? Communication which enables you to make sense of your environment, to please and connect with caregivers, to express your wants and needs? It seems to me to be quite plausible that the process of L1 language acquisition is at least directly related to, if not triggered by, emotional responses related to meaningful communication. If you add in to this mix the theory that there is a critical period in human development for language acquisition (which results in native speaker competency to take place), you could start to think that language acquisition, in the sense meant by Krashen, can only take place in very specific contexts.

It was argued above that meaningful communication could very well take place within the language classroom. I would suggest that, if we define meaningful as above, this is entirely artificial. You can set up “meaningful exchanges” in the classroom and teach students to respond to language which is unrelated to the lesson but enables them to converse in the classroom context – classroom instructions and questions etc. You can even insist that during the lesson, or during certain parts of it, you and they must use L2 only. But it is still artificial. The students know that you speak English and that they do, they know that they can communicate with you spontaneously and immediately in L1 and so the genuine emotional impetus, which may be a part of the trigger for spontaneous acquisition, is missing. Similarly, whilst they may like and appreciate the praise you give them for using L2, your positive response to them is not part of their critical development, as it is with a young child and his / her caregiver. In addition, by the time children reach adolescence, when they typically begin to learn L2, the proposed critical period for language acquisition is pretty much over. When you add in to all of this that students are not encouraged to think of learning as a natural process, that they are taught to think in terms of targets and next steps and what chunk of vocabulary / grammar they must learn in order to “make progress”, and also take into account curriculum time and organisation, it doesn’t look like a great picture for natural language acquisition in the classroom.

Krashen also believed that learning cannot turn into acquisition; language learned explicitly and deliberately can never become “acquired”. By acquired, I would suggest that he meant the ability to use (aspects of) L2 in exactly the same way as L1. Steve Smith talks about the “interface problem” (see his blog post here) in relation to this. My own gut feeling (and it is admittedly airy-fairy!) is that Krashen was correct. I believe wholeheartedly that L2 learning can become deeply-embedded, to the extent that “spontaneity” is possible, but I feel intuitively that when I communicate in L1 and when I communicate in L2, I am using my brain in different ways. I did say it was airy-fairy!

My feeling now – which is likely to change as I learn more! – is that to adapt your teaching of L2 to the belief that it is acquired in the main implicitly, like L1, is not the best way. It feels a bit like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole: if the conditions for acquisition (as defined by Krashen) cannot be met within the classroom, we need to proceed with caution in trying to lend our teaching to the belief that they can.


Ian Bauckham: Reclaiming Subject Knowledge

Ian has recently chaired the Modern Languages Pedagogy Review (which can be found here) and shared with us some of the basic principles contained within. The review was undertaken by the Teaching Schools Council, in the face of the worrying picture of MFL teaching and learning in the UK. Currently, 3.5% of our economic performance is lost through lack of language skills and, in the aftermath of Brexit, language skills will take on ever greater relevance. The APPG on Modern Languages has published a document on Brexit and Languages, which underlines the “urgent strategic need for language skills, if the UK is to succeed as a world leader in free trade and international relations.” Unfortunately, though, the outlook is gloomy: the review tells us that in “2016, only 34% of all pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 achieved an EBacc language GCSE at A*-C grade and only 49% entered a language GCSE.” The statistics are particularly troubling for boys – only 1 in 3 of boys entered at state-funded UK schools achieved a grade C or above in a language last year and overall, only 1 in 10 boys got a grade C or higher. When you rephrase this to say that 90% of boys in the UK don’t take a GCSE in an MFL or don’t achieve at at least grade C when they do, it makes for concerning reading. The review also reveals that MFL is frequently cited as students’ least favourite subject at school and that lack of enjoyment is a huge reason for lack of uptake at GCSE – even when students perceive value in the subject for their future lives. All of this is pretty disheartening for MFL teachers. Here we all are, full of vim and passion for our subject, learning about pedagogy and methodology and working hard to plan engaging and interesting lessons to enable our students to learn – and the bottom line is: they just don’t enjoy it. It’s clear, then, that something needs to be done to improve the overall language learning experience in our schools – even if it feels a bitter pill to swallow!

First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge the struggles faced by teachers in UK schools, where languages are all too often massively undervalued. I have always maintained that MFL teaching is a different kettle of fish from other subjects. CPD for MFL (arguably the subject which needs it most, since a language is in a constant state of flux) is pitiful. I have not had any subject-specific CPD in the 8 years I have been teaching and I funded my attendance at the ResearchED event myself. Generic CPD is often only minimally relevant to MFL. I was a delegate this year on the OLEVI Outstanding Teacher Programme and, as with other generic teaching courses I have attended, so much of what is discussed surrounding pedagogy is difficult to apply to our subject. SLT are unaware of (and sometimes disinterested in?) the optimum conditions for language learning and timetabling is frequently inconducive to this process. In my current school, we are lucky to have the curriculum time allotted to MFL as recommended in the review, with 2 hours per week in Y7/8  (although this was reduced from 3 per week in 2015) and 3 in Y9, Y10 and Y11. However, as an example, I teach my Y8 group period one on a Wednesday and a Thursday and my Y10 group as a double lesson on a Thursday, then a single lesson on a Friday. Lessons last an hour. This means that Y8 go 6 days, and Y10 5 days, without any TL input. I personally feel that lessons of 40 minutes would be optimal – I can often see the students hit the 40 minute mark and begin to get restless. If these were then spaced more evenly across the week, how much better would the conditions for language learning be. As the review tells us, “lengthy gaps between lessons can result in less good retention, so wherever possible concentrating lessons into long periods occurring less frequently is to be avoided.”

The review’s central tenet is that the core components of a language course are trifold: vocabulary, grammar and phonics. Explicit teaching of grammar, Ian told us, is essential for a student to really “know” a language. There was some debate in the room about this, since there is apparently not a shred of research to support the claim that grammar teaching is essential to second language acquisition/learning. I intend to blog later about my thoughts on grammar teaching, which have changed considerably since I was an NQT. The only comment I will make now, is that the written French of native speakers is frequently inaccurate. In particular, silent letters at the ends of words, such as “s” and “t” are often misused, as in “ça vous fais du bien” and “é” / “er” are also mixed up, as in “c’était un acteur sous estimer”, not to mention the disappearing “ne”, as in “je savais pas qu’il était mort.” I picked all of this up from the internet in less than 5 minutes. Can we really say that a French person doesn’t “know French” because their grammar is inaccurate? In any of the cases above, is there any communicative ambiguity or breakdown? And aren’t we asking a lot of our students, if we expect them to “know” and manipulate L2 grammar better than a native speaker? And do they need to in order to achieve communicative competence at GCSE level (of course, the new spec says they do, but that’s a different story)? More on the rôle of grammar at a later date…

Regardless of whether you agree with the recommendations made in the review, Ian’s session certainly contained some general MFL teaching strategies and ideas which made a lot of sense. When teaching vocabulary, he argued that the lexical items we teach should be those of greatest relevance – in other words, informed by frequency of occurrence. The insistence of coursebooks on teaching through topics (this itself coming from exam specifications) leads to “hopping around” and prevents essential repetition of vocabulary over time. In order to retain a word, students must meet it between 4 and 10 times, preferably in different contexts – and I would suggest also across a reasonable period of time. Whilst most textbooks do refer to high frequency words and attempt to build them in across topic areas, these are usually conjunctions or adverbs of time – “little words” which help students to structure their writing/speaking, but are not useful of they haven’t retained enough vocabulary from prior learning to write or speak anything they perceive as meaningful in the first place! The review points out that “a consequence of not attending to frequency of occurrence in vocabulary choice is pupils realising that they cannot say or understand basic things in the language.” I think that this is a huge problem and, along with the students’ own perception of topic relevance, causes serious motivational barriers. Only the other day, an able Y10 student asked me when they would be likely to discuss their reading preferences, if ever they went to France or used French in the workplace. Ian also recommended that ITT courses provide student teachers with a range of ways for teaching new vocabulary and reminded us that there is often nothing wrong at all with simply giving students the new vocabulary, ensuring it reaches them error-free, and then providing ample opportunity for them to encounter and use it.

Phonics obviously came up again in Ian’s session and the review recommends that MFL teachers learn techniques for teaching phonics from their primary colleagues, who are well-versed in doing so for L1. I can definitely see the value in secondary MFL teachers working more closely with teachers in primary. It seems to me that this would be a working relationship of high reciprocal value: we, in secondary, could tailor our teaching of grammar to what students have learned in their L1 literacy at primary and could also teach them L2 phonics, using methods with which they are already familiar. Our primary colleagues could also benefit from our expertise in MFL teaching, which is too often woefully inadequate at primary level (through no fault of primary teachers themselves, who are often expected to teach with only a GCSE – if that – whilst also operating under huge pressure to get primary students to meet Michael Gove’s exacting standards).  Free phonics resources are available here – thanks to David Michael Shanks for the link!

In my next post, some thoughts on SLL, following my reading thus far (which is still minimal!).

Jo Facer: What To Do Less Of In Lessons

The very first thing to say about Jo Facer is that she is incredibly charismatic, with absolute passion for, and belief in, the Michaela system. I did start to make notes on Jo’s presentation, but she was so compelling to watch and to listen to, that I stopped pretty quickly. Jo had no PowerPoint presentation to support her talk (these are absolutely forbidden at Michaela School) which meant that I would have had to reply on memory to even take any notes – and as Gianfranco Conti tells us later on, we have a 2 second retention capacity when listening to spoken language, with signals we receive being usurped after 2 seconds by new input. I’m not sure that I agree that there is a need to totally ban PowerPoints and believe that they can be a supportive tool but would certainly agree that it would be a refreshing move for my teaching to pull away from them. I tend to find PowerPoint a really convenient vehicle for realising my thought processes when lesson planning and for providing me with a structure for my lesson – sometimes more for me than for the students. I supposed I would say that I think it’s a genuinely useful planning tool, although often more as a tangible realisation of thought than as an inflexible set of activities. One thing I will say is that I believe wholeheartedly that thought, learning and the act of writing are inextricably linked. I used to like using PowerPoint for teaching grammar: discovering the joy of animations to remove infinitive endings and add tense endings back on in different colours, all at the click of a mouse, was a revelation back in the days of teacher training. Now, though, I perceive real value in modelling grammatical processes in black and white on the whiteboard, in front of students. This, to me, is true interaction. Students coming up to an interactive whiteboard, clicking on pictures or moving text around with pens, is FUN and they enjoy it – and have, unfortunately, in many cases, been led to believe that this is what they are entitled to and can expect from a “good” lesson –  but the act of sharing your cognitive process, through writing and talking, is truly interactive; it invites your students to share your headspace and to go through with you the cognition of grammar. It helps, perhaps, that I love grammar and that I relish in sharing the beauty of these processes with students, and that doing so has given me moments of insight and understanding, lightbulb moments, if you like, that have genuinely helped them to “get it.” Circling the semantic part of an infinitival verb and explaining that it’s the bit that holds the meaning of the verb, underlining the infinitive ending and explaining that this is the bit which contains the verb’s grammatical role – this really helps the students to understand WHY we take off the infinitive ending to form a tense: because the grammatical role is changing and we need to keep the MEANING of the verb but show the change in its grammatical role in the sentence. They get to witness – and engage in – the THOUGHT process because I am in front of them, writing and talking and making tangible the cognitive processes of language rules. I’ve meandered a bit but my point is – going back to the chalkboard and away from the automaton that is PowerPoint has real benefits. I suppose it’s a bit like the Krashen’s interface – the more remote we make the thought processes underlying a language’s system of rules by placing colours and fonts and pixels and whiteboards and between our minds and those of our students, the harder we may make it for cognitive processes to cross the interface and become embedded. I’ve always loved how a game of chess is like the visual representation of the players’ thoughts; a genuine linking and interaction of two people’s thought processes made visible through the game board and its pieces (also, and tangentially – if you haven’t, read Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game). I think in providing students with her thought processes and engaging them in the act of writing them down, Jo Facer is following a similar process: removing the barriers.

Returning to Jo’s presentation, at Michaela they do not do “activities.” They also – I think – don’t subscribe to allowing students to learn deductively, preferring to tell them what they need to know to be successful, relentlessly quizzing and correcting them until these processes are simply part of their written and spoken repertoire. To be completely honest, I don’t know enough about Michaela School and its methods yet to make informed comment. I would have liked to see Jess Lund talking about MFL teaching, but the lure of Gianfranco was too great! It is clear from what you can see online of the work produced by Michaela pupils that they are taught very quickly to be competent at output. It seems to be a very “Pavlovian” system: the students are taught what to reproduce and what makes successful output – and from what I can tell, taught extremely well – and then they are drilled and quizzed, with praise for being right, and demerits (or disapproval?) if not. As a result, they are incredibly keen to do well and to share what they can do in the classroom. They like and respect their teachers and the praise motivator is strong. My concern, based only on what I know, is that more able pupils may not be given the “guided freedom” to experience the real joy, excitement and ownership of interpretation and discovery. I am prepared to be corrected, though – as I say, I don’t know enough yet about how it all fits together.

One thing I did like was the move away from individual to collective feedback. I still think that there is a place for individual feedback, just not with the regularity that some  SLT teams currently enforce for classroom teachers. I really liked the idea of reading students’ work and intervening promptly to re-teach areas of weakness. Returning to the interactive nature of modelling, talking and writing in the classroom, I can 100% see the benefit of giving feedback in this way and believe it would have a far greater impact upon students’ learning and progress than written marking. The promptness of the feedback and intervention is pivotal to this process and freeing up teachers’ time, by removing the necessity to write a WWW and EBI (or the patronising 3 stars and a wish), each time the books are marked, enables them to identify the learning needs of a group and act to correct them, whilst the time frame is still meaningful. Teachers can still have conversations with individuals during the course of a lesson if their learning needs are not met by the group feedback.

I’d definitely like to know more about the Michaela system and, as above, am more than prepared to stand corrected if I have misunderstood or over-simplified their educational ethos. Jo also talked about behaviour management, but I think that is a whole other blog post…

Next time, session 4 and Ian Baulkham on reclaiming subject knowledge in MFL.

Steve Smith: MFL Teaching: It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

First of all, this session was fun for me on a personal level alone; Steve taught me more than twenty years ago and, alongside his colleagues, instilled in me a genuine passion for language learning. I have a lot to thank him for and it was a lovely added extra to be in his classroom once again on Saturday (and I can remember playing Alibi!).

Above and beyond that, though, Steve’s session left me with one clear thought: I really, really need a clearer personal methodology. I need to have an informed rationale for why I choose to teach the way I choose to teach. As part of his session, Steve asked us to think about whether we are “inputters or skill-builders” in terms of the way we approach imparting language to our students. I – and most others in the room – leant instinctively towards the description of a skill-builder: explicit learning, with a focus on form, and conscious acquisition. This is largely because I have never really seen much evidence, in my own classrooms, of genuinely natural acquisition, except amongst the most able (and even then, is it natural or are they just skilled learners with natural aptitude?). It’s also because I have had serious doubts that the conditions for anything other than minimal natural acquisition can be met in the school context. With 2 hours a week at KS3 and 3 at KS4, we are lucky in comparison to some schools with our curriculum time. However, in 2 hours a week, where some of that time will naturally be given over to English for the purposes of progress, and where all but the most motivated students will have very minimal exposure to or interaction with the TL in between times, can we really expect anything other than very minimal natural acquisition of language? I’m genuinely not sure. I do think, though, that with well-planned and judicious use of TL in the classroom, you can at least embed routines which lead to “spontaneity” in the classroom space. When Steve showed the lists of classroom activities associated with each model of teaching (input and skill-building), I realised that I definitely do a good combination of both types of activity, but without always really thinking about how I believe the learning is actually taking place. So, whilst my students are getting a balanced diet of activities and do actually make progress (promise!), I think that what Steve was getting at, was that having an informed opinion about how you believe second language acquisition actually happens and planning your lessons accordingly, according to your OWN model of methodology, will lead to a good language learning experience for students. If you have ownership and belief in what you do, you are more likely to do it passionately and to do it routinely – and, as Steve points out, you get good at what you practice! With this in mind, I have bought myself a copy of Second Language Learning Theories by Rosamond Mitchell, Florence Myles and Emma Marsden. I hope to gain a good understanding of current and historical theories, in order to work out exactly what it is I believe about the processes of second language acquisition. To aid in embedding my own understanding and developing my own thoughts, I hope to blog sometimes about what I learn – though I will admit that I am very bad at reading non-fiction and have to concentrate and make notes or end up reading the same page over and over again, with nothing going in, so it may be a while coming!

SLL Book.jpg

Steve blogged recently about “the weak interface” and also referred to this in his presentation. He explained that Krashen believes that anything learned explicitly cannot pass into long-term memory, as it has to pass through a sort of conscious to subconscious interface. Nick Ellis argues that this interface is a weak one, which I assume implies that he disagrees with the principle that explicit learning cannot become implicit or natural. I’m not sure what I believe. I think it is probably true that no matter how high the level of competency gained by a second language speaker, who acquires that language in the main explicitly, there is never the same inherent, natural ability. Our first language becomes part of who we are and how we engage with and understand the world; our second language, I think, can only ever enhance that, a wonderful, life-changing enhancement, but not the same as the innateness of the first. But perhaps my opinion will change as I read and learn!

Steve also suggests that, in addition to having your own beliefs about methodology and allowing them to inform your practice, having strong, generic teaching skills will also have more of a bearing on student outcomes than subscribing to a prescriptive methodology. He recommends Doug Lemov of Teach Like a Champion – another book I’ll be reading once I have just a bit more free time…!

Again, these are only snippets of Steve’s talk – the slides from his presentation can be found here:

In my next post, Jo Facer of Michaela School on what to do less of in lessons…


David Michael Shanks: 3 Ways Forward in MFL

The first session I went to on Saturday was David Michael Shanks, of Harris Federation (he’s on Twitter as @HFLanguages) and it got the day off to a great start. David’s session was full of useful, practical ideas to make teaching and learning better and I genuinely came away buzzing. Some of the key ideas for me were that a lack of phonics in the L2 learning experience leads to student frustration. This ties into Gianfranco Conti’s ideas about listening – more on that later! – and made me realise why the pronunciation of a large number of students just never really seems to improve. And, honestly, made me feel a bit stupid for not recognising the need for it myself. I have always made reference to French sounds in lessons, some on a regular basis, and have done some one-off phonics stuff previously, but it’s clear how deeply this needs to be embedded for students in order for both their speaking and listening to progress effectively. Some students just seem to pick up the phonetic rules of the L2, despite the lack of structured phonetic input, but the majority do not. It’s something I’ll now be doing in the majority of lessons in a far more rigorous way, focussing upon particular phonemes / graphemes in a lesson and then doing some reading aloud and then some targeted listening around the same sounds. I actually can’t wait to see the progress my students will make in pronunciation. It’s also made me realise that the way you are taught to plan on ITT courses just doesn’t make the grade. To get the very best from students and to give the very best to them, meaningful and structured planning which actually teaches SKILLS and doesn’t just continually force students to complete exam-style activities without any real preparation in the skills needed to do so, is absolutely key. I have always pointed out patterns between L1 and L2 in lessons when they have arisen, but I have never genuinely empowered my students by giving these to them explicitly, towards the beginning of a course. It now seems strikingly obvious – these are like keys to a code. Why would you NOT give students all the equipment they need to help them crack it? So often in the past, I have expected students to make these connections themselves, when they have simply never been taught to do so. My own experiences as language learner definitely set me back as a teacher. I was hopeless at PE and Science, but really just took to languages. Grammar made sense to me the first time and some of the grammar and vocabulary I ended up knowing how to use came through genuine natural acquisition. I can remember being taught grammar points that I already knew how to use, without ever learning them explicitly (which speaks volumes about the talent of my own L2 teachers and their skilled and judicious use of TL). As a result, though, I didn’t have a typical L2 learning experience and had ABSOLUTELY NO CONCEPT of what my students would find difficult to grasp and the amount of repetition with vocabulary and grammar that they would need. It was certainly a shock to the system. David’s presentation reminded me that, despite my practice being a million miles away (at least, I hope!) from what it was during those first few years, I still have improving to do in terms of honing planning and activities in lessons to genuinely empower students with the access keys they need to be the most efficient language learners they can be.

Another activity I liked, to embed grammar and syntactical patterns for students, was a really easy-to-prepare starter, involving narrow vocabulary – in fact, just one noun – placed in a variety of grammatical sentences / constructs. There’s an example on his presentation (link below) and again, I’m blown away by its simplicity but high efficacy for embedding language.

David’s thoughts on the use of technology to enhance learning were also fab. I loved the idea of using technology to bridge the gap between formal and informal learning environments. Another delegate mentioned that she uses a Facebook page for L2 interaction with students and I absolutely love this idea for getting them engaging with the language in a real context. It’s definitely something I am going to look into doing with my current Y10 and can see it being a brilliant way to get them to describe a photo by commenting on one I add, or answer questions on a video for listening, sending the answers by PM or give their opinion on a question / topic posed by you. I am super excited by this! In a similar vein, he also mentioned two websites I had never come across before: Kaizena and Showbie, which allow for more interactive marking, with speech comments – SO much more meaningful and quick; I have always been a huge proponent of verbal feedback – and video links etc. David also suggested setting speaking homework for students, where they record a presentation of themselves speaking. I LOVE this and think it has great potential for the new speaking tasks at GCSE – role plays, photocards etc. You could record questions and leave gaps for students to record their answers.

Finally, check out the Plickers – I loved them!

These are only a few snippets of David’s presentation – it can be found in its entirety here:

In the next instalment, Steve Smith’s session on Language Teaching Methodology…ResearchED

ResearchED MFL & English Oxford 2017

This weekend, I went to my first ever education conference. Although I’ve been nominally on Twitter since 2009, I have only recently discovered the huge network of teachers out there, sharing practice, ideas and methodology. It’s genuinely something amazing and having tapped into it, I am feeling a renewed sense of enthusiasm and enjoyment in a profession which, let’s face it, can be challenging at the best of times! It was via Twitter that I heard about Tom Bennett’s ResearchED and the conference for MFL and English teachers on 1st April 2017. Unfortunately, I delayed buying a ticket just hours too long – having looked one morning, by the afternoon, they were all sold out. In an unusual twist of good fortune, I got an email the week before to say I had a waiting list place. Coming from North Yorkshire, I travelled down the night before and stayed with a friend in Bracknell. Giving due regard to my poor navigational skills, I left early the next morning, which gave me time to get a rather tasty breakfast at The Art Café on arrival in Oxford. Oxford itself is a place I’ve never really explored, being an old Cantabrigian myself, but it is definitely a place I’d like to see more of, not least thanks to Phillip Pullman, who has lent such a sense of enchantment to the town. Its names – Oriel, Ashmolean, Bodleian – seem full of magic and fairytale fantasy. The building in which we were lucky enough to spend the day was impressive in its architecture and form and above and beyond the obvious magic and beauty of the place itself, it was really something special for me to be part of a coming together of like-minds. The enthusiasm for education, teaching and learning was palpable throughout the day and there was a genuine and lovely sense of excitement at meeting colleagues and at knowing we would soon be listening to people speak who were passionate about teaching our subjects and prepared to impart to us some of their incredible knowledge and experience.

In this series of blog posts, I’ll be talking about the main things that I took away from the exceptional people I heard. Tomorrow, I’ll be focussing on the first session I attended, led by David Michael Shanks, on the 3 Ways Forward in MFL: Technology, Networks and Research.