The teachers at Michaela speak a lot. They are founts of knowledge. They might spend the majority of lesson time talking. Much of that is instructional; a lot of it is questioning. Rapid-fire, constant questioning is a feature of many Michaela lessons. Critics of traditional teaching methods might imagine a silent classroom in which the teacher talks at length and then the pupils write down their answers to questions or do practice drills. If you were to visit Michaela, you would see a huge amount of interactivity, hands shooting up to demonstrate recall and to ask and answer questions. The kids are proud of their contributions, and they have plenty of opportunities to make them.
With respect to speaking, the Michaela French department is no exception. You can’t shut us up. We love the sound of our own voices. We’re actors and actresses with audiences of 30 children four or five times a day. What you may not be able to glean from the way in which we describe our teaching is how much the kids talk too. (And shout and chant and sing and try to outdo the opposite classroom with the volume of our alphabet and number recitations – it gets pretty loud).
Last week, I wrote about how we read. Nearly all of our reading is done out loud, which allows pupils to practise and perfect their pronunciation (if you listen to the examples in that post, you’ll see that it’s working!). We also read out loud individually. How does that work in a classroom of 30-odd pupils? Each pupil puts their hands over their ears, and then reads and re-reads a passage of text so that they can hear themselves but not anybody else. It works. We can then walk around and catch any errors or encourage better pronunciation of particular words and phrases. We can also nudge those who are not putting in enough effort into their projection, articulation and expression. At the end I also give merits to pupils who have put real thought and effort into those things. Pupils can then read out loud one at a time to the whole class with a greater sense of confidence. This opportunity to practice beforehand is perfect for less confident pupils to go over the text a few times before reading to others; it’s perfect for all the others to develop a sense of the meaning of the text and read with expression, in addition to understanding.
The teachers read out loud a lot as well. We do this in a very theatrical fashion, with a hammed up French accent and putting deliberate emphasis on accents and the sounds of particular vowel combinations – we’re overemphasising the pronunciation because pupils so easily under-emphasise it. We intercut our reading with notes on what we’re reading – either to do with the meaning or the morphology of the word. Remember, this is all done as a parallel text, so the meaning of the words is already clear.
“J’adore fAIre mes devOIrs – my homeworkS, in French, c’est au pluriel, mais évidemment les lettres ‘s’ sont [they all chime in ‘MUETTES!’] – en Écoutant, É-cOU-tan, la lettre ‘t’ est muette, il y a un accent, quel genre d’accent, oui un accent aigu – de la musique – of the music. Mais franchement – franchement, onze lettres, fran-che-ment, the -ment means ‘ly’ in French, like normally, normalement – je prÉfÈre lire – I prefer to read, regardez le mot ‘préfère’, il y a deux accents, quels accents? Oui, un accent aigu et puis un accent grave, it makes a mountain towards the f…”
In this way, reading a short (10-15 lines) passage of text, and repeating the bits they know less well, can take up to ten minutes. We ask questions while we’re doing it, and get pupils to commentate on the words as well. They really enjoy putting their hands up to interrupt with observations we might ‘forget’, saying things like “alors, Mademoiselle, évidemment il faut souligner les voyelles AI dans le mot ‘faire’.”
Much of the rest of the speaking in class is done as rapid-fire translation:
Yesterday – Hier – I went – je suis allé – to the stadium – au stade – with my brother – avec mon frère – but unfortunately – mais malheureusement – one must say that – il faut dire que – it was – c’était – rather boring – plutôt ennuyeux – because – parce que – I don’t like – je n’aime pas – to play at foot – jouer au foot. So – Donc – it is rare that I go – il est rare que j’aille – to the stadium – au stade – because I prefer – parce que je préfère – to stay at home – rester chez moi – where I watch the telly – où je regarde la télé – having done my homeworks – ayant fait mes devoirs. Tomorrow – Demain – I’m going to go – je vais aller – to the swimming pool – à la piscine – with my mates – avec mes potes – and it will be great – et ce sera genial – because I love to swim – parce que j’adore nager.
There are hundreds of similar phrases that we construct using regularly recycled, wonderfully rich and varied vocabulary. Our Year 8 pupils can translate at length on a range of subjects, including language learning itself:
Pour moi, et évidemment c’est un avis personnel, si on veut maîtriser une autre langue, la chose la plus importante, c’est la lecture. Ça va sans dire. Mais ça ne vaut pas la peine de lire si on ne réfléchit pas en lisant…
This can go on for several minutes!
As a result, our classrooms are full of pupils speaking French. Reading out loud, translating beautifully, and giving answers about spellings. This is a typical exchange with my year 7s:
“Le mot ‘introverti’, comment ça s’écrit (how that itself writes)? Ikram.”
“I-N-T-R-O-V-E-R-T-I [note: this is spelled using the French alphabet]. Mais Mademoiselle, il faut ajouter la lettre ‘e’ à la fin si c’est féminin.”
“Oui, tu as raison (you have reason, you’re right). Et comment dit-on ‘me interests’, Alex?”
“Moi, je dirais ‘m’intéresse’”
“Oui, c’est ça. Mais est-ce qu’il y a un accent? Oui? Quel genre (what type) d’accent?”
“Bah, Mademoiselle, ça crève les yeux, il y a un accent aigu sur le premier ‘e’.”
We don’t use pictures for anything. We will have to at some point, in order to enable pupils to respond to the image stimuli in the new writing and speaking exams, but for the moment they use the written and spoken word as their cue. We don’t play games. And – this is the bit that might ruffle practitioners elsewhere – the pupils hardly ever speak to one another.
There are a few reasons for this:
- It’s unnecessary. There is plenty of opportunity to speak in lessons, to practise pronunciation and use all sorts of language, transactional and otherwise. We also quiz pupils in the yard or at lunchtime – many is the breaktime I’ve sat with a few pupils and listened to them reading and quizzed them on their French.
- It prevents misapprehension and the reinforcement of mistakes. Two pupils speaking French to each other increases the likelihood of speaking poorly and going uncorrected, or developing bad habits with regard to accents and phonics. If we can listen to what they’re saying the vast majority of the time, we can reinforce good habits. This is helped by the fact that 59 minutes of every hour is active teaching time – our slick routines and transitions mean that we have far more time to listen to each pupil read and give answers.
- If we allow pupils to speak to one another, even for brief periods, the outcomes they get are completely dependent on the individual motivation of the pupils. The vast majority of our pupils would dive into the task with real focus and willingness; the small minority would use the chance to just talk and not engage with the task. If we give them the chance to do that, we allow them not to make any improvement, or do any practice, in that time. This is unacceptable. We’re thinking about carefully designed tasks that involve pupils quizzing one another on specific key bits of language, but that’s further down the line.
The results: our pupils speak great French with competence, confidence and superb accents. They love reading out loud, answering questions, pointing out things about the words and pronunciation throughout the lesson. They also – of course – love shouting the alphabet as loudly as possible to beat the kids in the opposite classroom. And they love it when you get to ‘seventy’ in the number chant and they can go ‘soixante-dix’ and adopt a ‘duh!’ face when they’re doing it, remembering the time they thought it might be ‘septante’. And, importantly, they understand everything they say, which only adds to their sense of mastery.
If you’re reading this with incredulity, I don’t blame you. What the pupils at Michaela can do is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a classroom. I’m going to try and sort out some videos to post on the school’s Youtube channel so you can see all this in action. Of course, the best way to see it in action is to come and visit the school – we love visitors, and the kids love showing off what they can do. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d be happy to welcome you any time, give you a tour and you can stay for lunch and speak to our lovely pupils.