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.