All posts by amacleanmfl

A teacher of foreign languages in a secondary school in England.

Exploiting Netflix in the classroom

“What we learn with pleasure we never forget” Alfred Mercier 1816-1891

As a languages teacher I am always keen on finding ways to make the learning process relevant to young learners. Without a doubt, learning a language takes a great deal of commitment, practise and patience. Just like learning any difficult skill, the best way to achieve success is through using different methods. This motivates the students and they are then more likely to apply themselves.

Language teachers have always recommended that students watch films in the target language to improve linguistic skills. In this post, I will not go into the reasons why this method of study is beneficial but how I use it with teenagers in a classroom setting and what I gain from it.

Firstly, I had to find appropriate content for the age of my students which they would find entertaining. For my Year 11 class I chose “Unbreakable Kimmy” which is rated 15. For my younger students I opted for ” A Series of Unfortunate Events”. You may think this task to be straightforward but with a classroom full of teenagers, they have different ideas about what is acceptable and interesting. Namely, films/programmes which are rated 15/18 are the most popular. It is important that the content is appropriate for an educational setting and not to be swayed by “My mum lets me watch it” or “Go on Sir! We won’t tell anybody.”

With older students we watch 10 minute slots in the target language with English subtitles. Their first task is to make a small tick in their exercise book when they hear a word they recognise. What I am trying to achieve is for students to focus and avoid losing concentration. Next, I am trying to train their ear to the rhythm of the language. This is a very important skill for GCSE listening exams where understanding one or two words in a short description is the key to getting the answer right. I explain to student that listening for gist and not being overwhelmed by trying to understand everything is an important language skill to develop. Another activity is to give students a list of short expressions from the programme and they have to translate them after having watch the clip. It is necessary to have expressions where there are unknown words and encourage them to work things out from context.(Avoid using dictionaries here) Next, students work in pairs to manipulate the expressions. For example, changing from past tense into the future tense or changing the subject of the sentence. I am pleased that I now have older students who have continued to watch content on Netflix in the language they are studying.

With younger students I prefer to have subtitles in the target language and the audio in English. There are a number of reasons for this. The main one being, several students would struggle to  comprehend the English in the time allowed. I tend to do the same activities as with older students. So, when they see a word in the target language and they have to put a tick in their books. It never ceases to amaze me how students of all ages are surprised that the language they learn in class can be seen in a wide range of authentic situations. They have the impression that the language they are studying only appears in exams and textbooks! Also, they are starting to understand that to be able to communicate effectively in a foreign language requires a solid base of a few hundred words embedded in the their long-term memory which is feasible for most learners to achieve.

Finally, students request that I do this activity more often so use this as part of my behaviour management strategy. If the class gets noisy and start to talk over me, they know they won’t be able to do the activity later which often leads to the students managing each others’ behaviour which is a godsend at the end of a tiring day!

Growth Mindset In Practice

The school where I teach has been working hard to embed the key values of the Growth Mindset theory. Each year, I do an end of year assembly to celebrate the success of students who have applied this philosophy to their language studies. Below is a video which demonstrates how much progress one can make in language learning  in a relatively short space of time. Also doing events like this keeps me motivated and out of my comfort zone. The written test involved both colloquial and formal language. I remember once being told that you can’t teach Year 7 pupils “En ce qui me concerne” or “Ce que j’adore le plus” (as far as I am concerned/What I like most) nor the irregular past/future tenses so early. Apparently that is for KS4. However, in my view learning “je m’appelle” or “j’ai douze ans”are as demanding as the previous phrases. I believe we need to get away from labelling phrases/language structure this way. What is essential is that they are taught them when they are ready.

Unfortunately, the camera suffered a technical fault and stopped recording but you do get a feel about the demand of the test.(From 5 minutes onwards on the video) Two students managed to translate all verbs and phrases 100% correctly. More importantly, they were able to apply this knowledge in a creative manner. Most impressively, they did all of this in 12 minutes. The pupils watching played their part beautifully repeating to a deafening level “Allez!” as a way of cheering on their respective House groups.

 

The Transparent Classroom

“I learnt that I still have a lot to learn”

Maya Angelou

This is my first post for some time. I created a blog as a way to improve my teaching and collaborate with others who are also excited by how the internet can revolutionise how languages can be taught. However, I very quickly realised that if I was going to improve as a teacher then I needed to keep teaching myself new skills and continue to be a “struggling” learner. So, I basically left the blogosphere and now I devote some of my spare time on acquiring new skills which give me a great deal of enjoyment as well as making me a better teacher. I do believe that having empathy in the learning progress is essential to developing well structured learning activities.

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Some colleagues at my school have this sign at the entrance of their classroom. (Myself included!)

Having said all this, I still remember reading blogs by inspiring teachers on how they were trying to improve. For instance, Chad Evans from the US, blogged about the “Transparent Classroom” and this idea resonated with me and is something I always wanted to pursue. In a nutshell, this initiative is about allowing all stakeholders to have an opportunity to see teachers in action. It also helps with developing a good relationship between the home and the classroom which is an important factor, in my opinion, for improving standards. So, I am about to embark on allowing parents/guardians watch me teach a group of twelve year old students for forty minutes.  Will I be nervous having parents observe me? Yes, but I am more excited by what I am going to learn by the experience of interacting with them in a classroom setting.

Watch this space!

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Year Learning French and Spanish

My name is “Leonardo” and I have studied French for two terms with Mr Maclean. I have also spent the Summer term learning Spanish. Before starting High school, I did some French at Primary school. However, the way I was taught was very different to now.

I remember in my first lesson with Mr Maclean, he played us a video of him being egged and he urged us to use a website called Memrise. This motivated me to work hard at home so that I could egg him at the end of year. In lessons this year, we did lots of speaking activities and we played with a soft toy called the “Doudou”. We also learnt about “power” verbs which allow you to make your own language. At the end of lessons, Sir would play us funny songs in French or Spanish and give us sweets. Sometimes at lunchtime, Mr Maclean would show me how to learn/use different verbs tenses. I would also be made to do translations and say things out loud.

I can speak Gujurati and enjoy learning new languages. Next year, I intend to continue learning Spanish.

How learning the guitar has made me a better French teacher

Who dares to teach must never cease to learn John Cotton Dana

It has nearly been a year since I started learning the guitar and it has been a wonderful experience on so many different levels. And yes, I have made some pretty basic mistakes along the way. The main one being trying to learn on a cheap acoustic guitar. I now know that a poor quality instrument will lead to frustration and very sore fingers. Thankfully, my progress has improved greatly because I bought a better guitar.

So, how has playing this instrument made me a better MFL teacher? Firstly, the guitar is the first thing I pick up after school and it helps me to de-stress. Being able to do something non-teaching related helps me to recharge the batteries for the next day. When I practise, I analyse fingers movements etc and what seems so simple will take hours of dedicated practice. This makes me think about how I teach languages to students. Nowadays, I always spend a little bit of time in lessons going over words like “je” “j’ai” “le” “une” “a” “est” etc I have noticed that students do find the constant revision of these words useful.

I am very fortunate to have found an excellent guitar teacher and during our hour-long lesson, I’ve noticed how much new learning I can cope with before I want to stop. Generally, I can cope with 15 minutes practise of a difficult skill before I need to stop. The feeling I get is “I’ve had enough now, let’s do something I am quite good at” Then with my teacher, we practise something which needs refining but is less challenging. Basically, I like getting things reasonably correct. Also, I enjoy the sound that I am producing. I love it when I have mastered a chord change which has taken many hours of practise and I enjoy getting it right.  The skill which is a challenge will be practise later by myself over the coming weeks.

This is now how I structure my lessons, the first part of the lesson  is a warm up which allows students to reconnect with previous learning. Next, there will be a section of the lesson which is challenging, here students will be forced to think quite hard and will be making mistakes. The latter part of the lesson is consolidating on previous learning from lessons which may have taken place six months previously.Here, I try to help students to refine their skills. Like me, students enjoy getting things right and producing sentences/language quite naturally. The following lesson we go back to the challenging element of the previous lesson and gradually improve. I like to set homework which focuses on areas which students find difficult.

In short, I now dedicate more time in my lessons to deliberate practise than before and it seems to be paying dividends in terms of pupils’ enjoyment and progress.

Now, I am keen to teach myself some music theory and I know that Memrise.com will be an invaluable learning aid in this endeavour.

How I am trying to create a spontaneous speaking classroom in MFL

In my previous blog I wrote about creating a climate for spontaneous speaking in a classroom setting. Now, I want to get down to the nitty-gritty of words that students should aim to use with a degree of spontaneity. Firstly, for this to happen, students need to practise learning the key vocabulary. In my view, Memrise.com is without doubt the best way of helping students learn new vocabulary fast. However, for it to be truly effective, the teacher has to reinforce the vocabulary in a variety of contexts which forces students to use their listening, writing, speaking and reading skills. The new vocabulary must be seen in context. Memrise is great but it won’t make students use new vocabulary with spontaneity. So, what words or phrases do I want to hear spoken in a mixed ability classroom? I think there are five elements to this question.

1) As the teacher, I want them to learn short phrases which can be easily manipulated by the students themselves to create new language independently. For instance “On dit que” means “people say that” by dropping the “on” we can add a whole list of possible alternatives such as “Mon prof dit que/John dit que/je dis que” . When I first start teaching a class of complete beginners, I always start with “Je pense que/ Je crois que/ Je sais que/ selon moi/” These phrases are always used when answering questions. As the class progresses we add more complex opinions such as “En ce qui me concerne” (As far as I am concerned)

2) Choose language that students actually say in English in your lessons and teach it to them in the target language. For instance, I play a number of language games with my classes and sometimes I cheat. They generally say ” You’re cheating/it’s not fair/I know you’re cheating because you are smiling” Now, they say it in French quite naturally. This is useful with behaviour management too and can sometimes diffuse potential confrontations. For example, a student refuses to move seats because they are constantly off task and distracting others. I have taught them to say things like ” you are rubbish, you’ve got bad breath, I want to leave the class, I am fed up with you” Once, they have said these types of phrases to me, they are more likely to move because they got rid of some of their frustration. I’m happy too because I got them to practise using key verbs in a context. Win-Win!

3) Insist that students use vocabulary all the time. All language games, asking questions, checking work, going to the toilet, music lessons etc must be said in French. Given that I occasionally reward volunteers with a sweet, the motivation is quite high. I also encourage students to shout at each other in the target language. The key phrases we hear are “you are lying, it is my turn, you’re kidding, you’re crazy, I don’t agree, you annoy me”. These exchanges are conducted in a playful manner and students understand fully the rules about treating each other with respect.

4) Never give students a sheet with key words in both the target language and English. As John Lennon once sang I’ll say it again, never give students a sheet with key words in both the target language and English. In my view, this kind of “support” disincentivises students from actually committing words to their long-term memory. My students have a sheet like this in their exercise books with some of the key words they have learnt. IMG_3502 5) Working with mixed ability students means that I ensure they learn phrases at their own pace. For those who struggle with retaining new words, I focus on words like “please,thank you, it is my turn,I am called” etc. Whereby more able students will construct very long sentences sometimes using words from the above image. Well, you maybe wondering does all this blah-blah I have been writing about actually work in practise? Below is a video by year 7 students who had been studying French for seven months.

In my next post, how to make farting in your lessons a catalyst for spontaneous talk! (With video hopefully!)

Developing a climate to facilitate spontaneous speaking in the classroom.

“Small changes can make huge destination differences” Steven Covey

In this post I would like to reflect on how I encourage spontaneous speaking skills in my classroom. I believe in order to achieve this “holy grail” for most foreign language teachers, the steps to achieving this must be broken into minute detail. Therefore, I won’t be writing about the type of language I employ nor the activities I use which promote this. I intend to blog about this in the near future. In my view, it is important to create an ambience for spontaneous speaking to take place. With this in mind, when I start a new class, I ask them to choose a new French/Spanish name. I supply them with a list of possible names with its etymology. However, students are free to choose their own too. Allowing pupils to have ownership over their name means they are more willing to buy into other speaking activities in the future. Also, it is a fun way for students to practise using “Comment tu t’appelles/ elle/il s’appelle?/¿Cómo se llama/ te llamas?” because they don’t know what others in the classroom have chosen. To be honest, in the past I felt a bit stupid making students ask each other’s names when they already knew the answer. This also has the added bonus that you can practise these structures for some time while maintaining interest of the class. It usually takes a class at least a month to know each other’s French/Spanish names. With my classes, I also enjoy analysing the phonics of the language through their names too. image for blog Now, for the most important bit. You never again address students with their real first names. No matter what the situation, for example, if you bump into a pupil at the local supermarket, at parents’ evenings (I have yet to meet a parent who has shown any concern in me using the French/Spanish names), in the canteen, when you have to reprimand them, and even when they are no longer taught by you . You always address them with their chosen foreign name. The reaction from others is often quite amusing, it goes something like this “Why did he just call you Gabriella?” and the student will generally reply with pride “it’s my French name”. They buy into the idea that they actually have a French/Spanish name and subconsciously develop a French/Spanish persona which makes spontaneous speaking easier to achieve in the classroom. In the last two years, I only had four or five students who have requested that I revert back to their given name which, of course, I fully respected. So, my top tip for creating a spontaneous speaking classroom – allow all students to choose a foreign name which is indicative of the language which you are teaching and consistently use it no matter what the occasion!

Improving my teaching of writing skills (Part two)

This post follows on from my previous blog about how I am trying to improve the writing skills of my Year 7 students (11-12 year old) in a foreign language in test conditions. Like most teachers, I am not a great fan of spending hours marking barely legible work. Thankfully, there are a number of websites which can help with this. This leaves me with more time to analyse the weaknesses and strengths of students’ writing skills. Obviously, once students have produced written work in test conditions there will be a number of mistakes which one would like to reduce.  Personally, I am not a teacher looking for perfect writing because if we try that then we risk losing creativity. As far as I am concerned, the message should be communicated well with a few errors here and there. To achieve this I mainly use three different websites which are Memrise, Conjuguemos and Socrative. Together they allow me to create exercises which improve the accuracy of students’writing.

 

I use Memrise to improve the spelling of keywords especially those which include accents and apostrophes. Also, Memrise helps students build a more varied and interesting level of vocabulary. It also aids students to remember the little words such as “some” “the” “at” etc. In my experience students use the word “le” (the) very liberally. They need to understand its meaning and think carefully about each word they write.

 

Conjuguemos is a website which looks at a bit dated now. However, it allows me to personalise the work so that students are more likely to engage with the text. For example, I often use the names of students in class in exercises which helps with motivation and concentration. The site will mark the work for me and I can export the work into a different format too.(Excel)

 

Socrative is quite similar to Conjuguemos but it has a more modern interface and I can download the results in a larger variety of formats. Also, students do not require complicated login details which save a lot of time and hassle in the ICT suite. Like Conjuguemos, I can personalise the activities which makes the learning more fun and relevant to the students.


I do hope you have time to look at the different Year 7 learning activities which are on the above Slideshare. I do give a brief explanation about why I have created such learning opportunities. Please bear in mind that most of the questions/activities are based on work produced by students which require improvement. Using these sites mean I never have to set homework during the lesson. I generally have a quick flick through a variety of exercise books after the lesson and make learning activities based on the students’ written work, their questions/answers during the lesson and generally how I felt the learning has evolved over the past few lessons.

 

Finally, online learning offers a great range of differentiation opportunities which are quick to create. This is very necessary if I want a good rate of completion.

Improving my teaching of writing skills

For the past year or so I have been wondering how to prepare Key Stage 3 (11-14 years old) students for the new GCSE in MFL (A public exam taken at 16) . Like most people, we hear bits of information from Ofqual, DFE and newspapers etc. about a return to written exams in MFL. I understand that this will happen along with translations. Until we see more detail, it is quite difficult to adapt, in my opinion, our teaching to the new exam format. For example, will students have access to a dictionary during the written exam? I know a number of teachers who have expressed concerns that controlled assessment doesn’t actually evaluate the skills that it is supposed to test.  I do have sympathy with this viewpoint and therefore welcome the new changes coming into place.

 

My thinking at the moment (this is likely to be modified over time!) is to encourage students to regularly revise key vocabulary (Memrise is without doubt the best online application for this) and to use a dictionary judiciously. For example, a general rule of thumb is to seek one word from a dictionary for every two/three sentences that they write. This encourages students to write what they know and not want they want to write.  However, for those students who struggle, I do encourage the use of a textbook/writing frames.  Personally, I find it very frustrating when students don’t put into practice the words and phrases they have been taught and know. There is a tendency to try to translate their thoughts from English directly into the target language. This inevitability leads to students attempting to write complex sentences which include a variety of tenses as well as colloquial language. Obviously, given that they are relatively novice writers in the target language, their work is strewn with basic errors and is difficult to understand.  I always hammer the same phrase to students “Write what you know not what you want to say.”  As a teacher, I do try to teach language which is both relevant and fun in order to mitigate against this issue.  Lastly, I do believe this technique will help students when faced with the daunting task of writing in a foreign language in an exam hall.

 

Given there will be a time limit to the writing test, I include one in my assessments too. Therefore, in order to complete the writing criteria successfully, students need to communicate with a degree of fluency. Also, I set aside five minutes for students to check their work. Common errors are spelling mistakes, (especially accents) agreements and missing words such as “has” “is” “am”. In my next blog, probably in the New Year I will write about how I create learning activities which help students to write from their long-term memory with more accuracy.

 

Why our teaching assistant is so brilliant!

 

I am very fortunate to have such a wonderful teaching assistant called Julie working with me. Since joining the school last year in May, Julie has worked really hard on acquiring the relevant subject knowledge in order to be able to assist the students effectively. Like me, she is a massive fan of Memrise which is a fantastic learning tool.

Within eight or nine weeks, Julie was able to lead the learning during certain periods of Year 7 lessons. Please bear in mind that she had never studied French before. (Thanks Memrise!)For me, it is important for the students to see that you don’t have to be “fluent” in order to use a language effectively. Also, Julie has such a wonderful presence when she is teaching from the front. Her ability to model language is done with real skill and humour. She always carries out the learning tasks with a wonderful big smile and an energy which creates a climate for learning to be effective. In my view, students learn best when the ambiance is relaxed and happy.

Now, she has complete control of half of the classroom and her questioning techniques are very good. Students automatically seek her out for guidance and feedback. In the students’ eyes (and mine) she is the teacher. Julie’s management of behavioural issues is first class and it has certainly influenced me. She is always positive and chivvies the students along. However, she is no mug and the pupils can’t pull the wool over her eyes.

Year 8 have recently just started a taster course in Spanish and Julie got stuck in straight away. She is not afraid of making mistakes and having a go and the students appreciate that. I know she has been working on improving her Spanish as well as her French which clearly demonstrates her excellent work ethic.  She is also comfortable leading the teaching in more challenging classes and is able to engage them.

Without doubt, having a teaching assistant like Julie really does make an important difference to the students’ learning. Finally, it makes me a better teacher because I am able to focus more on individual students during the lesson.

I just wish that I could have her in all my classes!