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.