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.

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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..

 


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.


What’s in a name?

October 10, 2010

One of the best ways that I have found of motivating learners is to get them “hooked” onto the culture right from the beginning.  The revised KS3 framework and the accompanying exemplification materials has stacks of practical ideas for developing skills in learners; one of the examples for the intercultural understanding strand looks at exploring what’s in a name.  What are the most popular names in the TL country?  Why are these popular?  How have they changed over time and why? Whilst the authors of the framework probably had European languages in mind when they were writing these materials the same questions and activities can equally well be applied to Chinese.  So here are some suggestions:

  • Giving a student a TL name (or indeed encouraging them to choose their own) immediately gets them into the “feel” of the culture of that country.
  • Pupils can chose their own Chinese name from a list, based on the particular attributes they like.  This website can generate a Chinese name based on your English name but taking account of whether you want to stress a particular attribute, such as beauty and appearance, wealth and fortune or even mind and intelligence! 
  • The Chinesetools website enables pupils not only to generate a Chinese name based on their English name, but also to create a seal (as in the example of my own name above), a piece of calligraphy, or to put it on a painting (there is even a choice of background!)
  • As with European languages names on their own can be used to practise pronunciation and reinforce phonic patterns.
  • Names can be read out for learners to identify the tone.
  • Names with the same Pinyin spelling and with the same tone, but different characters can be introduced to demonstrate the importance of learning and understanding characters.
  • Pupils can be challenged to identify the radicals in names and what the significance of that might be (many boys’ names have the “man” radical in them whilst girls’ names often have the “grass” radical and are names for flowers or precious stones).
  • Pupils can be challenged to identify the characters used for names in other words e.g. the radical in the girl’s name 玉  Yú (Jade) is also found in the boy’s name   国 Guó (country), which in turn is found in the Chinese for many countries i.e. 中国Zhōngguó  (China), 美国Mĕiguó (America) etc
  • Just as we have the Smith and Joneses the Chinese have the 百家姓 bǎijiāxìng or the 100 most common surnames.  These are listed on  this site.  For more information about this list  have a look at this site – if you hover your mouse over the names on this site you can find out the meaning and the pronunciationof each surname.
  • And finally, this clip from the BBC’s learning zone has a little bit about the meaning of Chinese names.

WWW or the wonderful world of Wordle

April 30, 2010

 

The image above is a Wordle of the importance statement of the MFL  programme of study.  It is a word cloud created by a free online application at www.wordle.net/  which randomizes text and displays the words according to the frequency of the words used (the more frequent the word, the bigger the word).  It has tremendous potential for use in the classroom in terms of developing language learning and thinking skills:

  1. As a starter – to introduce new vocabulary or topic.    At a simple level pupils can be given a wordle of vocabulary or text  from a new topic area and they can work individually/ in pairs/groups to identify which words they know, which ones they can guess (cognates) and which ones they need to use dictionary skills to work out.  At advanced level learners can be give a wordle of a text which they use as a starting point for a discussion trying  to predict the context.
  2. To apply their knowledge about  language to categorise the words in the wordle.  e.g. nouns/verbs/adjectives or to classify nouns by gender.
  3. As a plenary/tool for AfL – e.g. a wordle created of TL and English words which pupils have to match up or a wordle in the TL in which they demonstrate their knowledge about language  or phonics or their ability to use language creatively.
  4. To demonstrate understanding of phonics by classifying words by their phonemes/letter strings.
  5. As a revision aid – a summary of a particular topic or context or as an aide-memoire.
  6. To help pupils develop presentation and spontaneous speaking skills.
  7. To show the results of a class survey or poll or as a display.
  8. To promote creativity – pupils are challenged to create sentences/stories etc from words on a wordle.
  9. As a tool in a listening exercise – pupils cross out the words they can identify in a spoken text.
  10. To encourage self reflection (PLTS – reflective learners) and to  improve written work – the frequency count in a wordle will highlight words that can get over used e.g. “intéressant” or “lustig”.  A  wordle can also make it easier for pupils to spot their own mistakes (e.g. in the incorrect use of accents) as it breaks up the normal order of words, thus making it less likely that they will simply gloss over their mistakes.

These are just some of the few ways in which a wordle can be used and they are dead simple to create as you can see here:

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