Version 2.0 – First Steps

Previously, on ‘A drop of ink…’

‘I feel I should start by showing my pupils that they can be good at languages, to give them that sense of confidence and achievement that I felt in my school days, and engage them through an incipient mastery of French rather than because we do blindfolded obstacle courses or watch film trailers.’

I should probably clarify a couple of important things before continuing.

The first is that I am not out to criticise anybody’s practice.  The canon of MFL pedagogy comes from a long-standing tradition of people working really hard to do their best for pupils, and it has huge value.  I am also aware that what doesn’t work for me might be really effective in the hands of another teacher, or in front of another class.

The second is that I really, really like my school.  It is full of, as the slogan says, ‘the hardest working young people in London’, and that goes as much for the staff as the pupils.  My colleagues in the MFL department are hugely efficient and effective, and are already doing much of what I aspire to do.  The pupils work hard in their German classes, and are held to incredibly high standards, and that is part of what I’m aiming to achieve in my own lessons.

So, with that caveat of respect and deference in place, I return to my sense of unease.

Liam* is in one of my year 7 classes.  He’s a lovely kid, and started the year really keen.  In the first few weeks, he was alert, attentive, and cottoned on really quickly to what he was being taught.  After the first month or so, his attention and enthusiasm waned: things were getting a little bit harder, he thought.  Adjective agreements were where he first started to lose the plot.  Since then, he’s bimbled along below the radar: he no longer actively contributes in lessons, he is more easily distracted, he is rarely wrong but doesn’t try as hard.

Liam can’t speak French.  He can say a few set phrases: “Bonjour, je m’appelle Liam.  Comme ci, comme ça.  J’ai onze ans.  J’habite à Woolwich.”  But saying anything longer or more interesting seems to incite anxiety: “I can’t do it, Miss.”  This is in a school with a strong culture of growth mindset, where we constantly remind pupils that improvement requires only practice and determination.  He feels lost and disempowered.  I can’t blame him.

I haven’t taught the alphabet.  I haven’t taught spellings. [I am absolutely going to do all of these things in the first two weeks back!]  I did some phonics after half a term, but never embedded it enough to have a lasting impact.   But whatever I did or didn’t do, I created a classroom culture in which pupils felt physically safe and secure, were able to have a giggle and rarely stepped out of line behaviourally, but one in which many of them routinely felt unable to tackle the task at hand.  Most of my year 9s truly, honestly believe that French is hard, and that is devastating.

What did I do wrong?  Well, I didn’t teach the alphabet and spellings in the first few weeks, the very building blocks of the language (26 letters! How hard can it be?!).  It would be far more empowering, thought I, for them to be able to introduce and say a few things about themselves in French.  They remember what I taught them in those first few weeks really well, because they were fresh from the holidays and I’d spend an entire lesson on answering the question ‘Comment t’appelles-tu?’. The problem was, the moment it got more complicated than that, they started to feel underprepared.

I worked on the principle that you start with the stuff that they understand, and integrate and develop it into an introduction to things that they don’t yet understand: the new stuff, the lesson content, Vygotsky’s paradise.  This works fine, except you can’t develop the phrase ‘Je m’appelle…’ with a description, an adverb, a connective, a different tense, a new and interesting idea, or make it work in dozens of different contexts.  While pupils might remember that ‘j’ai’ means ‘I have’, you’ll get plenty more ‘je suis douze ans’ before they really know what they’re talking about.   They’ll also have limited use for ‘j’habite à Woolwich’ when they no longer live there.

One of the reasons I love teaching is the constant opportunity to start over, to refine and finesse and improve your practice, and to give yourself and pupils fresh starts whenever you need to.  So, when I do this again next year, I’m going to start with this:

  • French alphabet, spellings and high frequency words/vowel combinations. Demystify the language before they even start: here’s what this sounds like, here’s how you pronounce this, here’s what this means.  26 letters!  I relied very heavily on cognates in my first few weeks, which was great until the kids realised that not every word was a cognate or near-cognate.  Cue the immortal response from Gemma*, ‘Miss, if it doesn’t look like an English word then how do I know what it means?!’  [Answer: Gemma, I will tell you what all of the words mean, so that you don’t have to guess.  But you do have to pay attention.]
  • Phrases that they can use all the time, and that mean something. Somebody once told me that they introduce the language to year 7 through the medium of insults and colloquialisms: it’s better to hear a child say ‘ahh, Madame Lund, elle me prend la tête! Elle me tape sur les nerfs!’ than to hear them repeat ‘Je m’appelle…’ and the like endlessly.  Added to this, I have recently read about a set of phrases that are easily adapted to a range of contexts.  These are 10 variations of some key verbs (starting with aller, jouer and faire), which my pupils will repeat and reuse over the course of the Summer term, and into which will be inserted the new content.  In that way, I can get them understanding (and even using) phrases like ‘J’aime jouer au foot dans le parc, mais hier j’ai joué au tennis avec mes copains, et aujourd’hui il faut que je fasse mes devoirs après avoir fait la vaisselle.’ I’ll take it slowly, but it will be made much, much easier by the next resolution…
  • Tell them what every word means. I’ve done discovery learning, and it turns up some wonders: the child who identified the link between the Harry Potter spell ‘Tergeo!’ and the English word ‘detergent’, pupils who are able to intuit the meaning of whole passages from a smattering of familiar words.  But they remain just that: wonders.  While I’m impressed that Kaya and Sam can use their link-making skills to understand a range of new phrases and vocabulary, they’re spending a lot of mental energy trying to work out things that I can just tell them, and meanwhile Suki and Dave are hopelessly lost because they aren’t making the same links.  Better that I tell them what it means – what it all means, down to the last word – and then they can use their mental energy repeating, practising and familiarising themselves with the content in different ways so that, in the end, they’re using the language rather than trying to remember what it means because I hadn’t explicitly told them from the outset.

I say “next year” – I’m actually going to start a lot of this come April 13th.  But while my methods might seem long-winded and slightly diffuse, my aim is simple: I want kids to feel empowered and confident in my lessons. To enjoy French because of that, not because of a fun activity I might spend 4 hours and £14 devising on a weekend.  And, crucially, empowering them is not about removing deep thought or hard work – I suspect that they will find it really challenging – but rather about allowing them to spend their time committing to memory the things that I, as the teacher and the expert in the room, can tell them right first time.

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