Beyond the text book

April 23, 2013

Looking forward to meeting teachers at Anglia Ruskin University today for the event organised by Routes into Languages and OCR.

We shall be looking at ways of addressing some of the issues identified by Ofsted as being in need of improvement in the report Achievement and Challenge, and developing pupils’ language skills that do not rely on the use of the text book.

A .pdf copy of my presentation is also available here.


Lesson plans

March 3, 2013

The following articles I wrote for Teach Secondary magazine have recently been published on their website:

KS3: Understanding grammar and parts of speech

KS3: Discussing Halloween

KS4: Improving speaking skills

KS4: Conversation

KS4: Olympic values

 


Memory power – how does your garden grow?

March 6, 2012

I love it when students tell me about sites they’ve found/are using as it’s an indication to me that they are really switched on to independent language learning. A month or so ago a colleagues drew my attention to Memrise, a site for helping you learn vocabulary by stimulating the brain to make connections between a word and its meaning.  The “mem” is in fact short for mnemonic and could be in the form of an image, story, phrase, audio or video and so on.  I had a brief look at it when my attention was first drawn to this site but it was only when one of my year 12 students mentioned recently that she had been using it that I gave it a closer look.

Memrise is a wiki and aims to provide a fun way to learning languages and facts by creating a community of learners who share their own “mems”. The concept is simple; your memories start as “seeds”, you nurture them in your “greenhouse” (or short term memory) and finally you can harvest them in your “garden”  (long term memory).  Over 50 languages are available and once you have created your free account you can access any of the courses within each language.  The “courses”  are created by members of the Memrise community and can be anything from the vocabulary featured in a chapter of a course book to a thematic list of words.

When you start a “course” the words appear as flashcards; there are also sound files and you can see what “mems” have been created by other users which could help you learn the words.  The words are presented in groups and every so often you are “tested”; this takes various forms from multiple choice recognition to writing the English for the word, or writing the word in the target language.  In the case of the latter there is a bank of special characters that can be used in the case of French/German words etc that require accents or umlauts.  You get instant feedback and you hear the word spoken.  This stage of the learning process is the “watering” where words are constantly revisited whilst new words are introduced.  Once the words are well established in your short term memory (after several “waterings”) they are ready to be “harvested” or transfered to the “garden” of your long term memory – you will get an email telling you when your “plants” are ready for this process.  Even here your “plants” will need periodic “watering”.

I had a look at a few of the Mandarin courses first and was impressed with some of the visual mnemonics especially those where the character is essentially a pictogram.  There are also some great “mems” where complex characters are broken down into their individual elements or radicals such as 青 (green) being made up of the radicals “one” + “earth” + “moon” where we can think of the whole of our natural (green) environment.  Amongst the “courses” are the Asset languages Breakthrough word list, various HSK word lists and vocabulary from individual chapters of text books such as Jinbu, the Edexcel GCSE course book and Chinese made easy. 

For learners of other languages the same principles apply.  Amongst the French  “courses” I found both the OCR and the Edexcel GCSE word lists;  AQA is probably there as well if you scroll through the courses for long enough. Amongst the German courses there is one based on AQA AS vocabulary and one on Edexcel GCSE vocabulary.  If you don’t find the exact course you are looking for you could always create one for your learners, or get them to do it – there is a dictionary for each language!

If learning 50 + languages is not enough for you there are also courses where you can acquire knowledge, such as the wild flowers or trees of Britain, or the names and faces of the members of the British cabinet or the Chinese Politburo standing committee!!

All in all it’s a great way to learn vocabulary and the emphasis on making connections and frequent revisiting helps to make it stick.


Didcot flip charts

November 23, 2011

As promised here are the shots of the flip charts created at our session last Friday.  It was good to meet you all there and thank you for all the fantastic ideas you shared.


Let’s speak out for languages

September 24, 2010

The annual GSCE results have once again thrown the crisis facing languages and language teaching in this country into sharp focus.  BBC radio 4 devoted a whole hour to the subject and there has been much comment in the press, notably amongst the broadsheet newspapers. 

Whilst the You and Yours programme on August 31st highlighted many of the positive benefits of language learning  both to the individual by way of personal development, and to the country as a whole  in terms of having a linguistically skilled and culturally aware workforce, there was nothing radically new about what they discussed  and it neglected to address some of the issues that have dogged language learning and which continue to have an impact on the uptake of languages principally at KS4 and beyond. 

The programme sparked a flash meeting debate amongst a number of language professionals which picked up on several of the points made in the discussion including the old chestnut of having to be able to talk about changing a car tyre for the GCSE oral.  Unfortunately there was no one on the You and Yours programme to point out that this is no longer the case with the new GCSE courses, and that the controlled speaking and writing assessments can build on the flexibility of the content free KS3 curriculum.   The issue of severe grading was also discussed and Helen Myers, chair of the London branch of ALL, was invited to go on the programme a few weeks later to talk about this. 

This week, in the build up to its AGM, the Association for Language Learning is encouraging all language professionals to have their say – so here’s mine from the perspective of the secondary sector and as a former regional  subject adviser for the secondary curriculum…

  • Languages and language skills need to be valued as a key functional skill in this country.  Whilst attitudes such as “we’re no good at languages” and “everyone speaks English” prevail we are almost fighting a losing battle.  However, if we give in we are disenfranchising and disempowering our young people in what is an increasingly global and mobile workforce.  In virtually every other country, certainly in Europe and possibly in the world, there is no debate as to whether young people should be learning languages beyond the age of 13 or 14 because it is seen as an essential skill, over and above all the intangible benefits that language learning can bring by way of opening minds, intercultural awareness, the development of personal learning and thinking skills and so on.
  • In the media this message and debate needs to move beyond the broadsheets and radio 4 to a far wider audience through those channels which attract the attention of young people and in many cases their parents as well.  After all as language teachers we spend quite a lot of our time countering stereotypes which are propounded in some of the more rabid and xenophobic headlines of the tabloid press.  Wouldn’t it be great if one of those papers suddenly started affirming the value of languages (interviews with sports or other media personalities talking about why languages are important to them) and the importance of understanding other cultures?  Whilst on the subject of the media, wouldn’t it also be great if greater use were made of subtitles rather than dubbing when interviews are broadcast on TV?
  • One of the most motivating experiences for a language learner is to encounter the language and culture at first hand.  I am fortunate enough to work in a school where we still run exchanges, but in our risk averse society we are the exception rather than the norm.  Wouldn’t it make a difference if there were a commitment from the government to cut some of the red tape and make it easier, not more difficult, to run all kinds of trips abroad? And further, when we do run trips we must also remember to get the students who have been on them to “sell” them to their peers.  This week I sat in on an assembly given by the students I accompanied on this year’s SSAT/Hanban summer camp in China.  Their  presentation in which they talked about their first hand experience of encountering  another culture and the impact that that experience had had on them was far more compelling than anything I could have done.
  • Serious consideration should be given to making languages in some way compulsory beyond KS3 (which for some pupils now ends in year 8 rather than in year 9) with greater use being made of alternative accreditations to GCSE; accreditations which may be more appropriate to many learners’ needs.  These should have wider recognition and the government should make a commitment that they will continue to attract points and count when it comes to the league tables.
  • Whilst league tables remain in place the issue of severe grading of GCSEs needs to be taken seriously so that there is parity between languages and other subject areas.  The performance indicators introduced in the wake of the Dearing report also need to be taken more seriously and senior management teams held to account if there is insufficient uptake at KS4. 
  • Until we get some of the changes outlined above our greatest battle is often, and will continue to remain, within our own establishments.  There is a worrying trend of schools moving towards a 2 year KS3 which needs to be addressed not to mention the situation in many schools where language departments are fighting for time on the curriculum, for appropriate timetabling and resources.  We need to continue to challenge curriculum managers and timetablers over allocations such as one hour a week, two lessons timetabled on the same day, one language timetabled to be followed by another, languages set against subjects which may be perceived as more popular/easier in GSCE option blocks, and other such horrors.   In order to do this we need to convince our senior management teams of the value and importance of languages beyond the league tables, perhaps by taking a lead on a whole school initiative such embedding the international dimension or  the PLTS.
  • We need to make sure that what we do at KS3 is engaging and motivating so that young people want to keep learning languages.  We must celebrate and build on their prior learning at the primary stage and take advantage of the fact that the secondary curriculum has no prescribed content so we are free to go beyond the text book and to treat it as our servant rather than our master.   There are now many schools where some exciting and innovating work is being done and I would hope to see some continued commitment from government to support ways in which this can be shared and built upon.
  • If we are stuck with curriculum models and timetabling which don’t serve us and our learners can we at least persuade senior management teams of the benefits of, for example, the use of technology such mobile phones in the classroom to engage and motivate.   I was struck on the SSAT/Hanban summer camp I attended in July by the way in which the Chinese students were constantly using electronic dictionaries on their phones/Ipods  etc to look up words when communicating with our students.  We also need  to encourage our students to download/listen to  podcasts, songs you name it in the TL or to watch videos  on their mobile devices in order to increase their exposure to the TL.   Even if they did this for just 10 minutes a day it would make a huge difference to their listening and ultimately to their speaking skills; I and some of  my KS5 students regularly use Chinesepod in this way.
  • Finally – September 26th is the European Day of Languages – Let’s celebrate all the positive things that we are able to achieve!

 


Tower Hamlets SLN meeting 01.07.10

July 1, 2010

 Tower Hamlets SLN today!   As promised here are the slides from today’s presentation which can find on the presentations page.   

You can find further links to some of the resources I mentioned in this posting about  the ALL Cambs meeting in May.

Here also is the link to the Cola cola Charter for football.

A PDF version of the MFL framework and the exemplification materials is available on the National Strategies site.


Stevenage SLN meeting 30.06.10

July 1, 2010

It was good to meet with teachers from the Stevenage SLN yesterday.  We focused mainly on the issues to do with the new GCSE specifications and considered how the foundations are laid at KS3 or even earlier!  Slides are available on the Presentations page