Teaching grammar: Rote vs rules

When I was training to be a teacher, I didn’t learn how to teach grammar. I never had the impression that it was particularly important. Indeed, if your goal is to get kids a GCSE grade 4/5, it isn’t: you don’t need to know how the language works.

When I got to Michaela, we didn’t really teach grammar here either. Or, at least, that’s what I thought. In fact, we were teaching grammar, just by stealth. Over time, and as the school has moved into KS4 and finally KS5, we have thought more about grammar teaching: when to do it, how to do it, for whom to do it.

I love grammar. I enjoyed learning verb paradigms when I was at school. I think the rules of language are equal parts interesting and fun. It’s like a logic puzzle with a really satisfying outcome. And I love teaching it. I know that some MFL teachers feel differently, preferring to minimise grammar instruction in favour of communicative output: I can understand that perspective too, because while I love the rules of grammar, I don’t believe they are the right thing to teach all pupils.

At Michaela, we teach grammar initially by rote. Jouer, j’aime jouer, je joue, je vais jouer, j’ai joué… Pupils learn verb paradigms just like I did at school. They are different types of paradigm: not the full set of subjects, but what one might call the principal parts of the verb that allow pupils to work in different tenses and give opinions (GCSE: tick) – what we sometimes call a ‘Magic 10’. We drill them repeatedly. I’ll never forget a boy in my first Michaela form, who stopped doing French after KS3 in order to focus on other subjects (he had joined in Year 7 barely able to read): two years after his last French lesson, he was still able to say sentences with opinions in three tenses when I asked him at lunch how much he remembered (turns out, a lot).

Once pupils have a range of examples of a particular grammatical item (e.g., infinitives, perfect tense verbs in the ‘je’ form), we highlight the pattern by drawing the connection between the examples they already know. This backwards strategy is hugely effective: pupils are already confident in using various structures, but they experience a tiny ‘eureka!’ moment when they see how the examples are connected.

For some pupils, we stop there. For some pupils, particularly those who struggle, delving any deeper into the rules is at best a path of diminishing returns, and at worst a source of confusion and cognitive overload. Some pupils are best off learning structures and vocabulary by rote, and deploying them in appropriate contexts, without knowing the ins and outs of why the language is like that.

For many pupils, we keep going. We explain the grammar fully and apply it in lots of new contexts. Our current Year 12s are grappling with the COD and COI, but even there we have to be careful (because it’s really tricky!). While most of the students are not only able but desperate to understand the underlying grammatical rules, a couple are really struggling to understand: for them, we are drilling a few examples, in the hope that later in the year or the course, reference back to those rote-learned examples will help them with future examples, or that something will click at some point, and it will become clear. But it is very possible that it won’t ever click; it doesn’t for everyone.

As a naïve young trainee, if anybody had said “you shouldn’t teach grammar to all pupils, just to the strongest”, I would have accused them of being elitist, exclusionary, enemies of promise. “How dare we limit the kids!” I would have thought (except that nobody really spoke about grammar). Now, almost 10 years down the line, I am convinced that while languages can be for all, grammar instruction cannot.

As always, if you want to see more of how we teach languages at Michaela (where our pupils make more than 2 grades more progress than expected at GCSE, and our students get an average A grade at A-level), you are welcome to visit: you can book at michaela.education. We are also hiring in French: the advert is on the website and on TES. You can also contact me on Twitter (@jessicalundx) if you are interested in finding out more.


Reading and Listening in a Michaela MFL Classroom (KS3)

When I wrote last week’s blog I had no idea how much interest there still was in how we teach languages at Michaela! Thank you to the thousands of you who read the post, asked questions and retweeted. I hope some of you have been encouraged to come and visit and see it in action too.

A few people asked about how we develop reading and listening skills. We do different kinds of practice in KS3 and KS4 (the latter being more about developing the specific skills demanded by the current GCSE specification, e.g. successfully identifying and navigating traps involving negatives), but what we do in KS3 is helpful for both, I think.

Reading Skills

Reading is the way that we introduce all new knowledge in the MFL classroom. We never used to use pictures, but now we use them sometimes, where they add to the pupil’s understanding of the word or concept (most of our pupils have no conception of windsurfing, for example, so showing them a picture of a windsurfer is almost essential for their understanding!).

We read all the time. A pupil in a normal French lesson will read at least 600 words (in French and English) and more often closer to 1,000. In KS4, that normally goes up to 1,500-2,000.

We use knowledge grids, which mean that pupils are able to see the meaning of the French words most of the time. As they become more familiar and confident with the new language, we remove the English: we might cover it up with our hands or we might delete it from future iterations of the grid.

Far from becoming a crutch, this opens up two wonderful teaching opportunities. Firstly, it allows pupils to see at a glance the differences in French and English syntax (particularly around the order of nouns and adjectives) and for us to discuss that and give multiple examples to embed the principle.

Secondly, it encourages pupils to look for the connections between the French and English as a means of remembering the meaning of the French word. This week one of my Y11s observed that the word ‘noctambules’ might mean ‘night wanderer’ because he had made the link between that word, ‘nocturnal’ and ‘ambulatory’ (not sure where he got that second one, though). These are skills he developed in KS3.

The result of reading all the time is that our kids read confidently and accurately, but as importantly, they love reading and take great pride in reading out loud, translating and suggesting links and memory hooks. It is a joy.

Listening Skills

When we read, we repeat out loud. We embed excellent pronunciation, we work very hard on phonics at the beginning of year 7, and we continue that work throughout KS3 and KS4. This is because we know that so much of a child’s success and confidence in the language comes from being able to sound French. So as we read, we repeat. And sometimes we do actions and whisper and shout and accompany the word ‘rigolo’ with a little wriggle.

This is the means by which we introduce pupils to the connection between the spoken and written word, which then allows them to understand the spoken word in isolation. Once pupils understand the individual words well (which we check through hands up, TTYP – turn to your partner to discuss the answer before sharing with the teacher, or using mini whiteboards), we sometimes use textbook listening activities, but more often we will use a dictation. Our dictations might be:

  • French to English (we say the French, they write the English): this tests understanding
  • French to French: this tests spelling and phonic connection
  • English to French: this tests translation, spelling and production

We choose the type of dictation depending on the goal of that part of the lesson. It is then easy to correct, and to circulate and observe how well pupils are able to understand and write.

It takes a lot of time, and I would be a fool to say we are anywhere near realising our pupils’ full potential in this regard (I am much more confident in our reading practice). Listening is hard!

Keep It Super Simple

This week, while teaching my Y11s the principles of the GCSE role play, I gave them the acronym ‘KISS’ – keep it super simple. Of course they chuckled. But I would also like to give this to you! We are always thinking about how to keep what we do simple and effective: we don’t want our teachers working late evenings and weekends to be able to teach. A knowledge grid can take 10 minutes to write (or adapt – we have a central bank of them), and provide the basis for an entire lesson; a dictation can take one minute to plan. Once you’ve been doing it for… *gulp* nearly 8 years, as I have… you can do the latter on the spot.

Again, I hope this is useful to someone somewhere! Thanks for reading. We are hiring in a wide range of subjects (michaela.education) and you are welcome to visit!

Renaissance: How we teach French at Michaela (now)

Michaela opened in 2014, with the MFL department led by Barry Smith (hackingattheroots.wordpress.com). Barry’s methods for teaching languages were uncommon and, in some circles, controversial. However, our practices, based largely on his example, have led our pupils to achieve some of the best MFL GCSE results in the country. Our mean GCSE grade in 2022 was an 8.

As the school has grown and developed, so has our practice. As Head of MFL back in 2016-18, I loved sharing what we did, and now that I am back in the department full time, I hope that other language teachers will find what we do interesting and instructive. I hope to post a coffee-break (5-10 minute) article weekly. We teach French but these principles could apply to any language (I think…).

This week’s post is in response to a question I’ve often been asked: How do you structure a Michaela MFL lesson? The good news is, it’s nothing new! It’s just recap, presentation, PRACTICE, production. I’ve put ‘practice’ in bold capitals because that is the most important part of the lesson, particularly in KS3. Here is how a typical lesson might unfold:

Step 1: Activate/Recap.

Start the lesson by recapping c.10 phrases that pupils have already learned. This will get them into French mode and remind them of the key verbs, vocabulary and structures that they will need to prepare them for the lesson. For example, in a lesson on healthy eating (where they have already covered food), you might start with 10 sentences like “j’aime manger du chocolat souvent”.

Step 2: Introduce new language.

Instead of chanting or discovery learning, we use a knowledge grid for this. Our knowledge grids look like this:

 Où habites-tu ? C’est comment ?Where do you live ? What is it like?
1J’habite une petite maison avec ma famille. C’estI live in a small house with my family. It’s
2génial parce que c’est confortable, mais je doisgreat because it’s comfortable, but I must
3partager une chambre avec ma sœur, c’est nul.share a bedroom with my sister, it’s rubbish.
4J’habite à Londres, en Angleterre, et j’aime habiterI live in London, in England, and I like to live
5ici parce qu’il y a beaucoup de choses à faire.here because there are a lot of things to do here.

This means that pupils see the new language in context and full sentences, rather than as individual words. We read the French, discuss it, and translate it back and forth until it is familiar to pupils. We then give a list of relevant vocabulary/structures that pupils can substitute in. For example:

Une grande maison : J’habite une grande maison

Fantastique / spacieux : C’est fantastique parce que c’est spacieux

Un petit appartement : J’habite un petit appartement

Nul / trop petit : C’est nul parce que c’est trop petit

J’habitais / maintenant : J’habitais une petite maison mais maintenant j’habite une grande maison

Step 3: Practise new language.

We might do this using mini whiteboards: we say a short chunk in French or English, and pupils write it in French.

We might do this using dictation: we say a sentence in French or English, and pupils write it in French.

We might do this using word-finds: pupils have to cover the English of the knowledge grid and then find certain words/phrases in French and write them down or say them.

We might do this using reading or listening comprehension questions from a textbook, or of our own design.

The crucial thing is that we do not move onto production before we are certain that pupils can manipulate the language they have learned with ease. For me, this was the biggest difference joining Michaela – before, I was convinced that a successful lesson required independent production at the end of it; I now know that this isn’t the case, that lots of practise and getting better at recognising/translating is also a big win as a lesson aim.

Step 4: Produce language.

As I said above, this might not happen every lesson, but every three lessons or every few weeks. We start with translation into French, with pupils using and manipulating the language that they have been taught. Once we know that they are comfortable with that, we pose short-answer questions that pupils can answer using what they have just learned, and ideally also integrating knowledge from previous topics/terms. We do this both written and orally.

We don’t have formal plenaries, but as the lesson finishes (with pupils packing away and the teacher logging merits), the teacher will ask the whole class 3-5 questions on the content of the day’s lesson to check that they have recalled the basics. Pupils tell their partners and then the teacher will tend to ask some of the pupils who struggle a bit more – if they answer correctly, we can be reasonably confident that the whole class has grasped the lesson content.

You are, as always, warmly invited to visit the school and see it in action (book at michaela.education). If you would like to know more about something we do, please ask! You can DM me @jessicalundx on Twitter – I’m not very good at keeping on top of the blog comment function! I will try and write about it. We are also hiring in a range of subjects – if you like what you read, do get in touch to find out more!

Teach French à Michaela

We’re looking for an amazing French teacher.

Here’s some of what we do:

  1. The highest expectations of what pupils can – and do – achieve.
  2. The highest expectations of ourselves as teachers.
  3. Beautiful accents, exceptional pronunciation, fantastic range of knowledge.
  4. Lots of reading out loud, lots of questions, lots of translation.
  5. Unashamed teacher expertise and pride in our knowledge.
  6. Outstanding behaviour, allowing us to have great fun in lessons.
  7. Centralised resourcing, allowing you to focus 100% on your teaching.
  8. Great attention paid to minimising workload and maximising efficiency.
  9. Support in spades on an individual, department and whole-school level.
  10. Enormous amounts of love – of the kids, our subject and our school.

Here’s some of what we don’t do:

  1. Games, gimmicks, fads, learning styles, miming…
  2. Marking – we do whole class feedback, 15 minutes per class per week.
  3. Pictures – everything we do links to the written and spoken word.
  4. Individual or department detentions – it’s all centralised.
  5. Graded lesson observations, performance-related pay or targets.
  6. Anything that costs more in effort than we get in learning return.
  7. Bureaucracy and admin (at least, it is kept to the barest minimum!)
  8. Regular working at evenings and weekends.
  9. And…
  10. That’s all I can think of for now!

If you want to teach in a no-nonsense, equally challenging and supportive, joyful environment; with kids who know a lot and want to learn and arrive at every lesson ready to learn; with staff who work hard to be the best but have time to have a life outside of school, even during term time…


The Summer Project (#French)

In the past, my hands-down-favourite thing about teaching was being in the classroom, with the kids, bouncing off their energy and enthusiasm and teaching them French, and seeing them grow in knowledge and confidence and ability. That feeling only increased when I started at Michaela. The exceptional behaviour standards meant that we could have a real giggle, that my pupils would learn LOADS in an hour and their energy and enthusiasm would stem, in the main, from feeling clever.

But a new thing threatens to knock the act of teaching off its perch as my favourite thing about… well, teaching. And that is: resourcing.

We teach French very differently at Michaela, and in order to do that we make our own resources. Those resources are very dense – you can get loads out of a single text, or a single practice activity, and our emphasis on repetition and spaced practice means they get reused again and again. I have shared a couple of our knowledge organisers – one of those, along with other practice activities, normally lasts six weeks. We are constantly refining and developing the materials we use, but they are built on a solid foundation of the written word, lots of reading, lots of transparency and lots of beautiful language.

This Summer, from Monday 24th July to Friday 4th August, we are running a Summer Project to design and produce even more resources, with a particular emphasis on Key Stage 4. We – my colleagues and I – will be working for two weeks to design and produce the texts, activities, practice drills etc. that we will use with our pupils week in, week out, for years. I’m ridiculously excited!

Evangelical as we are about how we teach French, we want to share this experience with others, and give you the opportunity to come and work with us. We’ll be based at Michaela, and you will get an insight into the thought process behind our resources, a chance to work with Michaela staff to create them, and a chance to discuss the fun parts of pedagogy, like “what little story can we tell about the word ‘quelqu’un’ to help pupils remember it?” and “which idiom sounds more authentic here?”.

It would be ideal if you could do the full two weeks, so that you get the most out of it, but if you can’t do the whole two weeks that’s fine. Expect it to challenge everything you previously thought about language teaching! If you’re interested in taking part, drop me a quick email at jlund@mcsbrent.co.uk letting me know and I’ll be in touch!


Michaela French – How we use Knowledge Organisers

Knowledge Organisers are central to the French curriculum at Michaela.

What’s in them?

Each knowledge organiser is a text of around 25 short lines. The text is made up of around 10-15 full sentences on a variety of topics. The text is predominantly high-frequency vocabulary and structures that can be recycled in a wide range of contexts. We focus on PROFS (Past, Reasons, Opinions, Future, Subjunctive) and PIE (Proverbs, Idioms, Expressions). Here is an example from year 7.

We use full sentences so that pupils get used to seeing the language in context – as a result, when they come to write themselves, they find writing full sentences very easy. They also get used to the syntax of French, which is aided by the translation into dodgy English. They are crystal clear on the meaning of every word.

We try, as much as possible, to pitch the language very high, in the knowledge that pupils have plenty of support and scaffolding. The language is authentic, and meaningful, and interesting, and fun. It is written and reviewed by subject experts – the Michaela French team.

We have experimented with presenting the KOs in the form of questions and model answers. Here is an example from year 8. The downside is that pupils then see the language as specific to that question; they also miss out on the story-like element of the longer text, which serves to enhance their memory of the language.

How do we use them?

We begin by reading them aloud in lessons. The teacher reads and pupils follow, sheets flat, reading with a ruler. They hear excellent pronunciation modelled. They then read out loud, and correct one another wherever mistakes are made in pronunciation. We read for expression, projection, articulation and, of course, understanding. We use CUDDLES to draw attention to particular phonics, patterns and meanings. Teachers (and often pupils) create mnemonics to help with the memorisation of different words. We repeat this process regularly.

As time passes (we would usually focus on one text per half term), we would do more with the text. We manipulate the language within the text based on the grammatical patterns that pupils have learned. For example, if the text says ‘j’ai fait mes devoirs’, we would then conjugate to ‘il a fait ses devoirs’, ‘elle a fait ses devoirs’, ‘ils ont fait leurs devoirs’ and so on. We might cover the English and translate from the French to the English, and then do the reverse. We might practise negative forms, or change verbs from ‘j’aime’ to ‘je déteste’ etc. It is the springboard for a huge amount of practice.

We create several different versions of the organiser, in order to promote complete understanding and memorisation. We may present the French with the vowel combinations replaced by asterisks; the next version would have only the initial letters of each French word and perhaps the number of letters for each word and a cue for accents. The next version would only have initial letters, and the final version might only have a few cue words from the English. These additional practice versions take all of 10 minutes to create when the original organiser is made.

We can then substitute in other vocabulary. We can do translation sentences based on the text and other, previous texts that pupils have learned. We can do dictations and transcriptions of similar material. Pupils can do ‘freestyle’, ‘creative’ writing, but always based in the secure knowledge of some excellent French that they use as a model, that they can mimic.

Homework and Quizzes

Pupils use the Knowledge Organisers for their homework. Each week they complete one A5 page of Self Quizzing on a section of the knowledge organiser. The quantity (how many lines?) and nature (particularly tricky phrases?) set can depend on the capacity of the class. Pupils are encouraged to read aloud as they write, to CUDDLE carefully, to quiz themselves regularly, for 10 minutes at a time, in order to embed the language. When they do their quizzing, they begin by copying letter by letter to promote accuracy. Later on, when they know the language better, they can take a more Look/Cover/Write/Check approach.

Each week, after pupils have done their homework, they will be set a quiz on the lines that they have learned, as well as recapping previous organisers, or practising de-contextualised HFV (high frequency vocabulary). The recapping of previous material is very important, as it impedes the forgetting curve.





Teaching French at Michaela


We’re hiring another French teacher for September 2017.  We’ve been so grateful for the interest shown in the job, the tweets and retweets, the requests to visit and the applications we’ve received.  The deadline is Wednesday, 1st March, and I hope that, if you’re reading this and are looking for a new challenge, you’ll consider joining us as we approach the exciting challenges of Key Stage 4.  The advert is here.

If you want to know what teaching French at Michaela is like, read through my blog and the blog by the man who started it all, Barry Smith.  It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. And, if you want to see what it’s like, have a look at these videos and a listen to these audio clips of our pupils – they tell the story better than any blog can!

GCSE French, the Michaela way

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the new GCSE specifications in languages. In preparation for resourcing our Key Stage 4 curriculum, and tightening up KS3, I’ve spent a (quite enjoyable) few weeks reading blogs and articles about how teachers are planning to address the gap left by controlled assessment, prepare pupils for new kinds of reading and listening tasks and, most crucially, build up their writing and speaking capabilities in order that they can tackle the new exam. My colleagues and I have also analysed candidate materials produced by frontier cohorts, another fascinating exercise in benchmarking where our pupils are relative to those against whom they will be competing for those top grades.

As you can find out at our Michaela Mistakes event on June 17,  we do change our minds about a great number of things all the time, and change what we do in order to reflect what we’ve learned. It is inevitable that our ideas in the French department will develop over the coming few years as well, but I wanted to share a few reflections and ideas that will inform our planning and resourcing as we prepare for our first Year 10 cohort in September 2017. (NB. We are planning to use AQA.)


The specimen papers and candidate materials are clear on the paramount importance of mastering tenses. Luckily, we teach using Barry Smith’s PROFS, a hugely effective way of introducing and rehearsing key grammatical structures in a variety of tenses, designed to maximise the range of language pupils can use. PROFS stands for past, reasons, opinions, future and subjunctive. We start teaching this from year 7, and use it all the time in lessons. We start with the tenses of ‘aller’, ‘faire’ and ‘jouer’ (super useful!), and then use the patterns of, for example, auxiliary avoir + past participle to branch out into a wide range of other verbs. This is a sample of the range of grammatical structures and vocabulary that our pupils know by December of Y7:


Of course this is a mere fraction of the tenses and verbs that can and will be taught, but it ensures that even those pupils who struggle the most are able to employ key verbs in a range of tenses by the end of year 7. I hope that this will set them up well for Year 11 and beyond.


Understanding and responding to spoken and written questions is paramount. Each half term pupils complete homework on the basis of a knowledge organiser: in our case, sets of full sentences using a range of grammatical structures and topic-specific vocabulary. We plan to start structuring our knowledge organisers in the form of questions and potential answers. Pupils will then learn these answers at home and in preparation for their weekly quizzes, while the work that we do in class will allow them to build on, adapt and develop these answers with beautiful proverbs, idioms and expressions (PIE) – real, interesting, intricate French. This will facilitate not only the understanding of question phrases, but give them a bank of ideas from which to draw upon.

It was great to hear Dan MacPherson present at the MFL London Teachmeet back in December. His presentation, Planning for Spontaneity, planted the seed for preparing pupils over five years to answer questions ‘spontaneously’. Of course, even for the experienced language learner, there is no such thing as spontaneous speech: the underlying knowledge has to be rehearsed over a long period of time. Even I, as a semi-fluent speaker of French (I doubt I’ll ever be fully fluent!) use a very limited range of language in my everyday conversation – we need to prepare pupils in the same way. Vocabulary is one thing; the language in which you couch it is quite another.


As I wrote about a few weeks ago, CUDDLES encourage our pupils to focus very carefully on the patterns in French words. As a result, I am very encouraged by the accuracy with which our pupils write and speak, even early on in KS3. When comparing them to the sample writing assessments that I’ve seen, our pupils are in a really strong position, so we will continue with plenty of CUDDLES! Of course, accuracy is only a small percentage of the marks available at GCSE, but attention to detail is an excellent habit to foster and an easy win that could make all the difference!

Practice, Practice, Practice

We’ve always had huge amounts of practice in lessons, both written and oral. We have always used translation sentences as a means of practising using and adapting the French that we teach pupils. We will continue to do so, not least because of the translation components in the GCSE. Where we have used ‘dodgy English’ to support translations, we will over time encourage pupils to translate that into ‘real English’ – an extra step, yes, but one that over time will help pupils to translate into French much more accurately (and isn’t that the point, at least up to GCSE?). We’ll move from translation sentences to more loosely-structured writing activities, in order to encourage pupils to extemporise in response to questions. They’ll be hugely helped in this by what they’ve learned from their knowledge organisers.

I hope to post more thoughts and ideas in the coming months, but if you have any more suggestions, or want to tell me how you’re preparing for the new GCSE, please leave a comment!

We are hiring for September 2017 – if you’re interested in teaching French unlike anywhere else, read more here. We’re also always looking for Teaching Fellows in a range of subjects. Finally, excitingly, we’re planning a Summer Project to develop French resources, and we’re looking for collaborators: please get in touch at jlund [at] mcsbrent.co.uk to find out more.

Aides-mémoire – 2. Knowledge Organisers, Quizzes & Questioning

Last week’s post on CUDDLES attracted lots of lovely feedback and some very interesting questions. Most of the questions were about quizzes and knowledge organisers, and one or two were about how we get pupils to recall the meaning of individual words, phrases etc. Luckily, these three things – quizzes, knowledge organisers and recalling meaning – are all interrelated. In this post I will explain how we use knowledge organisers, resulting quizzes, and questioning in order to embed meaning into pupils’ long-term memory.

Knowledge Organisers

We start with knowledge organisers. As with other departments, we give pupils a knowledge organiser each half term, with the core knowledge we expect them to study, learn and remember in future years. We know that in order for pupils to remember their French, we need to repeat it a lot (A LOT) and so each knowledge organiser will contain lots of language that is repeated and recycled from previous knowledge organisers.

We have experimented with a variety of formats for knowledge organisers, but keep coming back to the same idea: full sentences are best. Some schools, when setting homework (and our knowledge organisers are the basis of our homework) will set a list of vocabulary on a particular topic, and then might test the pupils to see if they have learnt it. This is very similar to what we do, except we set full sentences, so that pupils are learning everything – grammar, syntax, vocabulary, jaw-dropping structures – all in one go.

Here is an example from a year 7 knowledge organiser, about 2 months in:


You can also see CUDDLES in practice here (and the eagle-eyed among you might notice where I’ve mistakenly put a ‘muet’ instead of a liaison!)

The full text is 25 lines. We will break it down into chunks, analyse it in the lesson, read it out loud with rulers under each line as we read, we’ll substitute other words for the ones in the text (‘j’adore faire, j’aime faire, je n’aime pas faire, je déteste faire, il adore faire, elle adore faire, ils adorent faire’). Then we’ll set some of it to learn for homework – pupils will do self-quizzing, copying each word carefully and thinking about the spelling as they do so. The text is parallel translated into dodgy English – a foundational feature of Michaela French – so that at every stage pupils are aware of the meaning of the words and phrases. As time goes by, we ask pupils to translate from dodgy English into correct English, to support them for when they’re asked to translate into and out of French in exams. For example, ‘Afrique du Sud’ becomes ‘Africa of the South’ becomes ‘South Africa’. This also encourages careful thinking about meaning.


Pupils are set homework in every subject, every week, on a specific day. On the day after (or, if the timetable doesn’t allow, two days after) the evening on which they’ve done their homework, pupils will be set a quiz on the section of the knowledge grid they have learnt. The quiz is normally supported with clues, and the pupils choose whether or not to use the clues – we find that those who need them, use them, and those who don’t, don’t. Clues can take a variety of forms:

Initial letters


Initial letters + number of letters

This is the same as the above, except we will add the number of letters in each word. I often do this just before the quiz (the above would be projected on the board), by asking “le mot ‘refreshing’ a combien de lettres?”. Because they’ve CUDDLEd the word, a sea of hands shoot up to tell me “Il y a quatorze lettres Mademoiselle”. We can also do the same for accents – “Il y a un accent circonflexe sur la lettre i, Mademoiselle”. For pupils who struggle, we often give them the number of letters in every word – this allows them to self-check effectively.

Asterisks in place of vowels


We use this format mostly in year 7 and for our pupils who need the most scaffolding. As the vowel combinations are often the most difficult for pupils to remember, testing their recall just of these can be really powerful. If they know how to pronounce the word ‘mais’, then it is important that they link the ‘ai’ sound with the ‘ai’ spelling.

Because pupils are quizzed in every subject every week, committing this knowledge to memory becomes habitual. We are able to be flexible and support pupils’ recall at the level they need, but still maintain sky-high standards for their understanding of the words.

The next important thing about quizzing is the sequence. Pupils will not embed language in their long-term memory if they are quizzed on a set of sentences in one week, and then those sentences are not revisited for ages, if ever. So we mix it up – the following week’s quiz might be 7 sentences from the material they’ve learnt that week, and 3 from the previous week; there might be an extension after four weeks in which they are tested on short phrases from a variety in previous weeks. We have to keep revisiting, all the time, so that pupils’ knowledge can be retained.

In response to a comment on last week’s post:

  1. The pass rate is around 90% for all classes. This is because we tailor the quantity set and the clues provided. There are no excuses for not learning the content properly.
  2. Failure to achieve this will result in a detention. This is standard across the school. Very, very few pupils fail their quizzes. We set them up to succeed.


Quizzing pupils the day after they’ve learnt the French isn’t enough – we need to keep the process of recall going by constantly asking them what things mean. This post on speaking gives a good idea of how much of our lessons we spend on constant recall of the French our pupils know. It’s amazing – a mix of whole-class choral response and cold-calling means that our pupils can instantly recall hundreds of words and phrases in French, with an emphasis on those phrases that are most transferable between GCSE topics and will showcase a wide variety of tenses and complex structures. We’re using a lot of ‘je ne fais pas partie de ceux qui aiment…’ at present!

So, there you have it: knowledge, quizzes, lots of questions. Next week, I’ll be blogging on how we’re going to try and tackle the new GCSE specification using a knowledge approach.

Are you interested in finding out more? Please get in touch at jlund [at] mcsbrent.co.uk (I’m getting about 20 emails a week at the moment, so I’ll most likely respond in blog form!)  We are also always looking for teachers to join us in teaching French unlike anywhere else, or those who might want to join us as Teaching Fellows.



Aides-mémoire – 1. CUDDLES

At Michaela, we think a lot about memory. We do a lot to design our curricula, sequence our content and construct our lessons to maximise retention and recall of information. We know that the more, and the better, you can remember, the easier it is to recall the necessary information to answer questions, solve problems or tackle unfamiliar situations.

In French, the challenge has always been to get pupils to remember the language that we teach them, and then to enable them to recall and deploy it in appropriate contexts. We want them to remember individual words and short phrases; how they are spelled and how they sound; and finally how to put them together to convey meaning with increasing degrees of complexity.

This is the first post in a series about how we encourage our pupils to memorise the language we teach. If you have read anything before about how we teach French at Michaela, you will know that we don’t take a normal ‘build from single words to full sentences’ approach to teaching the language. Instead, we prefer to present rich, dense and interesting texts from which pupils will break down and single out words and phrases that they will then employ in different contexts. It enables them to see, even before they have analysed individual words, how everything fits together at the end.

When we do focus on individual words – after pupils have seen them in context – we use CUDDLES.  It’s a marvellous acronym, devised by my colleagues Barry Smith and Fadila Bettahar, and it encompasses all of the elements of the written and spoken language that we want pupils to remember and internalise.  It brings together a lot of what we have been doing since Michaela opened in 2014, and have found useful. We do a lot of CUDDLING in the French department.

So what is (are?) CUDDLES, and what’s the point?

C – count the number of letters in each word.  When we are reading and breaking down and analysing new French words, so many spelling mistakes can be avoided simply by knowing the number of letters in a word.  When pupils start in year 7, we do this with every single word they learn: je suis allé is 2/4/4 for boys and 2/4/5 for girls “parce qu’il faut ajouter un extra ‘e’ à la fin parce que c’est féminin, Mademoiselle”, as the kids will delight in pointing out. We can gradually phase it out as they become familiar with the common spelling patterns and learn the key high frequency language by heart, but it remains useful for words where remembering the correct spelling is more heavily dependent on knowing the number of letters.  A good example of this is ‘malheureusement’, which all of our pupils know how to spell. They also know that it contains fifteen letters, that it’s ‘so easy’ (-se-) in the middle and that “la lettre ‘t’ à la fin est muette”. If they want to use the word, and they write it down, they are able to check once it’s written that it contains the correct number of letters. It’s a great tool both for memorisation and for self-checking.

U – underline the vowel combinations. We – teachers, visitors, our Twitter audience – are constantly amazed at how authentic our pupils’ French accents are, and this is in part down to the way in which we teach French phonics from year 7. (The other key contributor is practice – every lesson, pupils read out loud; we correct their pronunciation and accent obsessively; we reward them for excellent and accurate reading). The vowel sounds are the key lever in their pronunciation, and so whenever we meet words we focus on the vowel combinations. Every time they see an ‘oi’ they will underline it, and we will point out that this makes a ‘wa’ sound. Over time, they come to read ‘oi’ as ‘wa’ without having to think about it. We continue to underline vowel combinations for a long time, as it also focuses pupils on the spelling of the word: we draw comparisons between words with the same vowel patterns all the time to embed the link between sound and spelling (the third paragraph in this blog post gives an example).

D – double underline the double consonants. Again, this is about getting pupils to focus in on the spelling and sound of the word at the same time – as I pointed out to my year 8s this week, if you request ‘du poison’ instead of ‘du poisson’, then you have only yourself to blame. We value accuracy very highly, and underlining double consonants has huge value when it comes to remembering both spelling and pronunciation. At Michaela we do a lot of self-quizzing for homework, in which pupils copy out words, phrases and sentences in French, considering the patterns as they do so. They always CUDDLE their homework, and as a result they become habituated in noticing and recalling when there is a double consonant in a word, as they do with all of the other features of CUDDLES.

D – dot the silent letters. This technique, as with so much of what Barry Smith has been practising and promoting over the years, has had an enormous positive impact on how pupils learn French at Michaela. It’s also the simplest thing in the world – when presenting a text to pupils, be it on paper or PowerPoint, put a tiny dot under every silent letter. This is the cue for pupils not to pronounce that letter, and it is a huge confidence boost when they read. They see the letter, and read it, and know that it is there, but they also know that it’s silent. They learn that ‘-ment’ is pronounced ‘mon’ and is the equivalent of the English suffix ‘-ly’, and suddenly the pronunciation of ‘normalement’, ‘suffisament’, ‘malheureusement’, ‘heureusement’ and ‘rarement’ become ‘un jeu d’enfant’. The same goes for silent letters in the middle of words – pupils know  in words with ‘qu’ (of which there are a huge number), that the Queen always carries her Umbrella but that “la lettre ‘u’ est toujours muette”.

L – mark the liaisons. This one is all about pronunciation and authenticity. Where the majority of pupils would say ‘je suis allé’ pronounced ‘je swee allay’ (as indeed did I all through school), we also teach them that many French people would say ‘je sweezallay’, with a liaison linking ‘suis’ and ‘allé’. It’s a small thing, but it has a big impact on their pronunciation and their feelings of authenticity.

E – exaggerate your accents. Yes, you’re quite right, ‘accent’ doesn’t start with ‘e’, but the most commonly accented letter in French is é, and it was therefore chosen as our emblem for checking your accents. Plus, it fits in nicely with the acronym. We insist that when our pupils write in French, they exaggerate the size of their accents, both as a way of drawing their attention to their presence and ensuring that they think about the pronunciation of the resulting word. It’s another small measure that impacts how well pupils remember the pronunciation and spelling of words.

S – stories. We tell hundreds of stories about words every week, all as ways of helping pupils to remember the spelling of words. My favourite example of this is ‘quelqu’un’, a word with which pupils typically have problems owing to the number of ‘u’s. So we do a few things. First, we count the letters – 6’2. We dot the silent ‘u’s. Then we tell them a story: QUeen ELizabeth is going to visit another QUeen, with a feather (‘) in her hat who rides a UNicorn. The sillier or more bizarre, the more memorable. I will never forget my first time sitting in the back of Barry’s classroom as he explained the days of the week to pupils using the following mnemonics:

Lundi. Rhymes with Monday. It’s Miss Lund’s favourite day. It’s also the day we go to the moon – the French for ‘moon ‘is ‘lune’, so it’s ‘moon day’ in both English and French.

Mardi. On Tuesdays we go to Mars. Every day in French except Sunday ends in ‘-di’. It’s really easy to remember. Tuesday we go to Mars, so it’s mardi.

Mercredi. On Wednesdays, we go to Mercury, and we get there in a red Merc. merc-red-i. 8 letters. The classic mistake people make is they write ‘mecredi’ – you won’t.

Jeudi. On Thursdays, we go to Jupiter. When we’re there, we play ‘un jeu’, which is ‘a game’ in French. We see the ‘eu’ combination all the time, really easy to remember.

Vendredi. On Fridays, we go to Venus. When we get there, we find a vending machine, and guess what? It’s red. vend-red-i. No, Ryan, there aren’t vending machines on Venus.

Samedi. Saturdays are so boring – everything is the SAME. I do the same thing every samedi.

Dimanche. I have a word of warning for you. You will DIe if you go to MANCHEster with with MAN who eats CHEese on a Sunday. Don’t ever do it.

And that’s it. That’s how we do CUDDLES.

Of course, this is all about the morphology of the words – pronunciation and spelling. How do we embed meaning? That will be my next post, when I’ll talk about our use of parallel translations, questioning and quizzing: just some of the ways we help pupils to remember what these new words mean.

Are you interested in finding out more? Please get in touch at jlund [at] mcsbrent.co.uk.  We are always looking for teachers to join us in teaching French unlike anywhere else, or those who might want to join us as Teaching Fellows.