Water, water everywhere….

October 2, 2013


Water, water everywhere is the theme of this year’s National Poetry day, an annual “nationwide celebration of poetry for everyone everywhere”.  It falls on the first Thursday in October which this year just happens to coincide with Germany’s National day, or Tag der deutschen Einheit, on October 3rd.

When I was learning German (many moons ago!) both my grandmothers, a maths and art teacher respectively, took great delight in showing me what German they knew by reciting a German poem – Die Lorelei by Heinrich Heine.  I’m sure that the reason that they could remember it word perfect years after first coming across the poem was due to the repetition of sounds, rhymes and rhythms. They may even have heard and learnt the words set to music.  If so that too would have helped to fix the words in their mind.

The story of the Lorelei luring the fishermen to their death on the Rhine whilst combing her golden hair fits perfectly with the theme for this year’s National poetry day, so if you are tempted to give it a go here are a couple of videos that could be used to introduce it to students.  The first is a spoken version of the poem showing the text with the music of the song version in the background:

The second version the song version without text but is of a boat trip on the Rhine:

Of course is the weather is not so good on National Poetry day maybe a rain inspired poem might fit the bill rather better?

Having got into the theme of water poetry I had a look for French as well.

For younger and beginner learners of French how about this poem entitled La Mer by Paul Fort?  Paul Eluard’s poem Poisson is also quite accessible.  A wider collection of water themed or inspired poems can be found here as well as this anthology put together by a class  from Grenoble.  Finally I found some examples of water inspired poems written by French school children.

With the requirement for pupils to be exposed to  literary texts under the new national curriculum there’s no time like an occasion such as National Poetry Day to get started…

An Inspector calls

July 5, 2012

I had a great day down in Croydon yesterday at the Exploring Excellence in MFL conference.  As promised I have uploaded the slides from my keynote address An Inspector calls.

In my talk I referred to the subject specific guidance for Ofsted inspectors making subject survey visits;  the full document can be downloaded here and the information about changes to the inspection framework from September onwards is here.  I also referred to the Ofsted report Modern Languages:  achievement and challenge 2007 -2010.

I have written in previous posts about some of the things covered in my talk, such as making the most of occasions like Mother’s day to develop intercultural understanding and the use of Wordles.  I also referred briefly to Greg Horton’s group talk project and gave an example of a joke as an authentic resource.

When it comes to using video clips and audio clips there are a couple of useful tools that can help you make the resources more accessible to your learners.  Many video clips, such as those from Youtube can be downloaded using Realplayer and then converted using Realplayer software to other formats including .wmv (to play using Windows media player) and .mp3 audio files.  Audacity is a very useful free recording and editing tool which can be used to slow down the speed of an audio track;  I have written about how to do that here.

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.

Getting ready for Chinese New Year

January 16, 2012

Chinese New Year (春节 Chūn Jié or Spring Festival) is almost upon us – Monday January 23rd.  This year is the year of the dragon (龙年 lóngnián), the fifth animal of the Chinese zodiac.

I was looking for a suitable video of the story to show the pupils in my Mandarin club and came across this version in English which is attractively illustrated.

I also found a song about the animals of the Chinese zodiac (十二生肖歌  shí’èrshēngxiào gē).  It has a catchy refrain in which the Chinese for the animals of the zodiac are repeated in order – useful for fixing this in the mind! This version is in pinyin and is relatively easy to follow, although the last word doesn’t match with what is sung.  This other version is slower, has images of the animals and the meaning of the song, but otherwise is just in characters, so not so suitable on its own for my KS3 club.  However, I’ve done a transcription in characters and pinyin for use with beginners.

Picasso and the art of dictation

September 16, 2011

When I wrote about dictation I suggested that whilst dictation in the past may have had a bad press there are ways in which it can be done which can be more engaging.

One way is to do a “Picasso dictation” whereby the pupils show their understanding of what they have heard not by reproducing the text but by drawing a picture.  This can start as a whole class activity with the teacher describing a picture, e.g:

  • Dessinez un grand rectangle horizontal.
  • Divisez le rectangle en trois bandes égales verticales.
  • La bande verticale à gauche est verte, la bande verticale à droite est rouge et la bande au milieu est jaune.
  • Il y a une étoile jaune au milieu de la bande jaune.

At the end of this the teacher shows the picture of what has been dictated (in this case the Senegalese flag) so that the pupils can check whether they have understood correctly

This particular example is linked to a unit of work looking at countries, flags and international events and can be preceded by a collective memory exercise to teach the core high frequency vocabulary needed to be able to describe flags e.g. à gauche/droite, au centre/milieu, en haut/bas etc and the shapes that can be found in flags e.g. un carré, une bande verticale/horizontale, une étoile etc.

In a collective memory exercise the pupils work in groups.

  1. Each group has an unannotated plan or image.
  2. One member of each group comes up to the front of the class and is shown the annotated  image/plan.  He/she studies it for a short period (e.g. 10/20/30 seconds) and tries to memorise as much as possible.
  3. He/she returns to the group and dictates/spells out the words he/she can remember and where they are located on the plan.
  4. The next member of the group comes up and stages 2 and 3 are repeated until the group has managed to replicate the image/plan that the teacher has.
  5. They then discuss the strategies they used to complete the task.

Once the pupils have some sort of grasp of this core vocabulary they are ready to do a Picasso dictation which then can lead on to pupils “dictating” descriptions of a flag or other image to his/her partner.

Any image (photograph/painting etc) can be used as a stimulus for Picasso dictation but there are some which have the scope to introduce some intercultural understanding to a topic such as “ma chambre”, “ma ville” as well e.g. Van Gogh’s room in Arles, Monet’s Rue Montorgueil, Matisse’s Ma chambre à BeaurivageThere is also scope for pupils be creative and to describe images they themselves have produced/photographed.

The power of song

April 21, 2010

In the workshops I have been doing in phase 3 of the new secondary curriculum support programme for the Association for Language Learning I have included a session on using songs because they can be such powerful aids to language learning.  Indeed at a recent meeting for Links into Languages trainers we were asked to think back to our early language learning experience and to share that with those around us.  Although I can’t claim to recall my very first lesson I do remember that my first year of learning French, somewhere around the age of nine or ten (yes there WAS some primary language teaching going on in the sixties), was spent using magazines published by Mary Glasgow called “Bonjour”, a title which of course still exists to this day.  Although I can’t remember whether the accompanying tapes were reel to reel or cassette such is the power of song that to this day some forty plus years later I can still visualise the classroom in which those lessons took place and can recall the words of one of the songs we learnt:  “Un elephant qui se balançait sur une toile d’araignée…” 

So, if nothing else songs are a great aid to memory – helping through rhythm, music and repetition to fix sounds, words, phrases even whole grammatical structures in the mind.   I’m sure I’m not the only teacher to get a brief rendition of “Quelle est la date de ton anniversaire?”  from the “Kilo de chansons” collection in response to a date related question!

It’s also worth noting that whilst consideration of VAK learning preferences (all the rage some years back with the backing of the then DfES), current resources in support of the SEAL agenda on the National strategies site has a questionnaire based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  According to his theory musical intelligence is one of the nine forms of “intelligence” which individuals have in different combinations and strengths, so let’s make sure we remember and include those “music smart” pupils when we are planning learning and teaching.