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


Crack the code!

November 17, 2011

The average non-Chinese person looking at Chinese characters may well think they are a mass of lines and squiggles which are  impossibly difficult to fathom.  According to Wikipedia there are 47,000 + characters in the Kangxi dictionary whilst this blog claims that there are in excess of 80,000 characters – a truly daunting prospect for a learner of Chinese.  Moreover, there is some disagreement as to the number you need to know in order to read a newspaper depending on which source you consult.  The HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi – the People’s Republic of China only standardised test for non native speakers) at advanced level is based on approximately 2,600 characters giving a total vocabulary of about 5,000 words.

Learners of Chinese will know however, that  the characters are made up of building blocks or components called radicals of which there are just over 200, so what at first might seem impossible to fathom actually can be decoded more easily once these have been learnt.  I’ve just recently come across Cracking the code website which offers learners a useful way of getting to grips with characters and how they are built up.

This site breaks the characters down into components which are classified as being derived from humanity, nature, culture abstract or “other”.  These in turn are broken down into further subcategories.  “Nature” for example is categorised into ‘earth’, ‘heaven’, ‘plants’, ‘animals’ and ‘animal parts’, each of which is then further subdivided e.g. “earth” components include those for earth, field, gold, jade, stone, mountain, hill, cliff, cave and valley.  Clicking on one of these individual components then brings up a screen showing details of that component.  This includes the meaning, a sound file, the number of strokes needed to write it, its “radical” number for the purpose of looking it up in a dictionary and a list of characters where it is used in combination with another radical.  The learner can then click on one of these characters to get the sound file and an explanation of the breakdown of the character and how they combine with other characters to create new words.

The site is easy to use and would be particularly useful for a learner with a basic knowledge of the most common radicals wanting to increase their vocabulary.  The one thing it does not seem to have are animated characters showing the stroke order, but these can be seen on the Nciku dictionary site.

Dictation revisited

August 2, 2011

Anyone of a certain generation will instantly recognise the words in the image (left)  from the dictation exercise.  This was how listening skills and, to a greater or lesser degree, grammar and spelling were taught, practised and  tested in the days before course books came with recordings on cassette tape or CD.  For those of us who were good at this sort of thing it became a game for example,  to spot the agreements with the preceding direct object in French (and other such traps designed to catch you out) but for those with weak spelling and an insecure knowledge of grammar I suspect it was a dull, dry exercise which further reinforced a sense a failure.   At some of my workshops there has been a look of horror on the faces of  a number of delegates if I announce that we are going to do a little dictation exercise, so even those who have ended up making languages their business have been mentally scarred for life!

I was surprised to discover in the course of doing some research for this post that until comparatively recently  the dictation as a test was part of the Edexcel GCE French O level test available to international centres, and although I would in no way wish to revive it as a testing method it does have some merits which are perhaps worth re-examining.

When I first started to learn Chinese about 5 years ago I soon realised that if I was going to make any progress at all I would have to do a lot of listening to get my ear tuned into the different tones so I started listening to Chinesepod.  As I hadn’t  paid to subscribe to the site I didn’t have access to the PDF transcripts, and so I treated the dialogues in the podcasts essentially as a dictation exercise.  I used to transcribe what I heard in Pinyin and I then used my dictionary (Oxford beginner’s) to look up and write down the characters;  in effect I was creating my own transcript.

I  later discovered that with the early versions of Chinesepod that it was possible to access a transcript (in both pinyin and characters) by clicking on the Show lyrics  tab for podcasts  downloaded into Itunes;  I could then check whether I had “got it right”.  Subsequently these transcripts accompanying the Itunes downloads only showed characters, but with some cutting and pasting into an online dictionary it is still possible to create your own transcript in pinyin.

In the course of the podcast the hosts would go through the meaning of each individual word/character so I could be reasonably confident that that I had chosen the correct character.  What this exercise made me do, and one of the great merits of dictation, was to listen very attentively, to  focus on the sound spelling link of the language, and even more importantly in Chinese, the tone.

It was this  homing in on the sound spelling link (together with the exceptions and the hazards, such as  the silent vowel sounds in French, to name but one)  that helped me to develop my understanding of spoken French all those years ago,  and to demonstrate my knowledge of grammar.  Of course there were lots of things wrong with dictation.  The texts were in often too long and dull, the speed at which they were  delivered was unnatural, they were rarely examples of authentic interchanges and didn’t prepare you for the cut and thrust of following the high speed utterances of a native speaker.  Furthermore they were seen as being totally in the control of the teacher with the learner in a passive role in as much as generating new language was concerned.  But that needn’t be the case……

Dictation actually has a lot going for it:

  • In a whole class setting all learners are involved – it is even possible to differentiate by providing lower ability learners with part of the text and they have to listen out for the words in the gaps
  • It fits in very well with self and peer assessment .  Pupils self or peer assess and set their own targets for improvement (PLTS – reflective learners); for example to do some additional listening practice in order to be able to discriminate between particular sounds.
  • It can be a useful settling exercise in a large noisy class.
  • It supports phonics work in focusing on the relationship between sound and spelling.
  • It is flexible exercise which can be adapted to individual, pair and group work.
  • Depending on how it is used it can lead to the creative use of language and interactive oral communication.

In an excellent book I’ve recently dusted off the shelf, Dictation by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri there are suggestions for “dictation” activities suitable for all ages and levels, and although the examples are in English the principles are easily adapted to any language.  It’s worth checking out..


Grammar through song

July 8, 2011

One of the real bonuses of having PGCE students working with you is that they often come up with fantastic resources and creative ideas for using those resources.  This song from the Lassie Singers is just one example and was used in a lesson I observed.  The lyrics are perfect for introducing relative clauses in German as well as for looking at adjectives and adjectival agreement.

Danke schön, Anke!

Pronunciation – does it matter?

January 18, 2011

“Does it matter?”

  If you are a teacher you’ve probably heard that question dozens of times;  does it matter if you don’t spell it right, does it matter if the grammar’s wrong, does it matter if you don’t say it right?  Of course the answer will depend on the context.  What are they trying to do?  Have they been able to communicate even if there are mistakes?  Are we trying to build their confidence and fluency,  in which case we might let a few errors pass. If our learners get too hung up on getting things right all the time they won’t experiment, take the risks and develop the skills of being creative language users.  If they are aiming for A* in their written controlled assessment at GCSE then it almost certainly will matter more – they will at least be expected to use their dictionary to get details such as spellings and genders. 

When it comes to speaking there used to be that concept of the “sympathetic native speaker”, but how sympathetic can we be?  Grammatical errors, the wrong words and mispronunciation can all get in the way of communication.  When teaching Chinese correct pronunciation takes on a whole new dimension because of the different tones, as we discovered in class yesterday when confronted with tāng and táng, the former meaning soup and the latter sugar or sweets – could make for an interesting meal if you get it wrong. 

For learners of Chinese there are a couple of useful sites that can help them work independently to  “tune” their ear into the different sounds of Chinese and learn to distinguish between the various tones.  New Concept Mandarin has an introduction to Pinyin with a table where you can click on any combination of initial and final and get the sound for each tone; this is also represented visually. 

There is something similar on Chinesepod, where they make the point that you can’t read Pinyin, just as you would English, something which learners find confusing at times.  Chinesepod also has all the sound files in downloadable form which can be useful if you are putting together resources. 

My learners often ask me the Chinese use Pinyin;  the answer is that they don’t, at least not apart from when they first start to learn to read.  Pinyin was developed as a way of increasing literacy amongst the Chinese population and certainly helps us non native speakers get into the language faster than we would do otherwise.  Another resource which I’ve just come across  is this song  (also accessible from the Chinese songs page) which groups the initials and finals together by similar sound; it then moves on to the tones.  I could envisage developing some actions to go along with it….

Actions associated with sounds is at the heart of Rachel Hawkes’ philosophy of teaching phonics early in the language learning process.  Her website has a wealth of resources for Spanish, German and French.

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