Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Primary Languages: Play on!

Last week my attention was drawn to an article published by the TES, "The 10 greatest shortcomings of modern language provision in England" by Dr Gianfranco Conti, a linguist who has been teaching in Malaysia for over ten years.  To say that this article has caused uproar in the languages communities over the past week would be something of an understatement.  I think that if Dr Conti had published this article only on his blog, I would have ignored it.  However this article was published and its content therefore validated by the TES, a national publication that speaks for and to the profession.  This means that Dr Conti's words and views will have a much greater readership, carry greater weight and therefore have a greater impact.

I am going to use this blogpost to express my concern at the way this article, now part of a national, educational publication, portrays primary languages and the way in which they are currently taught.  This is my personal reply to the article, after discussion with colleagues and a lot of thought of my own.

What does the article say?  Here is a screen-capture of the part I will be discussing:

1.  "Primary teaching is too ludic"

First of all, what is 'ludic'?  The OED defines it as "showing spontaneous and undirected playfulness".  It comes from the Latin ludus.  Wikipedia informs me that "In ancient Roman culture ... an elementary or primary school attended by boys and girls up to the age of 11 was a ludus.... Students were taught maths, reading, writing, poetry, geometry and sometimes rhetoric."  So if we were being ultra-pedantic we could say that yes primary teaching is ludic, because it is like that of an ancient Roman ludus.

But I digress.  Back to the OED definition.  With this choice of adjective, Dr Conti is implying, I think, that the activities in the primary languages classroom (and as Key Stage 2 is not specified, I am going to include Key Stage 1 in my reasoning too) are unplanned and tokenistic, without linguistic or other educational value.  This is far from the truth.  Yes, we play a lot of games in language lessons in primary schools.  Some of our students are four years old, and we need to be considerate of their physical and emotional maturity.  The learning needs to be accessible to them.  In EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage, i.e. nursery and Reception) children are assessed to see if they have reached a "Good Level of Development" (GLD) by the time they enter Key Stage 1.  This assessment is often carried out through observation of their play.  While playing they demonstrate what they know, and they use it as a way to explore concepts, to co-operate with their peers, to show sensitivity to others' feelings and to form positive relationships.  This approach is continued to a certain extent in Year 1, so we can't ignore it in our language teaching.

I'll admit it, I very often plan games into my lessons, for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, as, I know, do many of my KS2 virtual colleagues.  Although to call them 'games' is a bit of a misnomer.  I prefer to think of them as "activities which practise certain language points in a fun way, and which often involve practising with a partner, a key KS2 Framework for Languages objective".  The games always have a linguistic and/or more general educational purpose, and they increase the children's motivation and desire to learn.  They contribute to an enthusiasm that we hope they carry into their secondary languages careers.

Looking at my plans for last week, what games did we play?  Not many, as it turns out.  We were finishing units and therefore busy with summative speaking and writing tasks.  Here are some:
Year 1 Spanish: we threaded coloured beads onto shoe laces.  This practised fine motor skills and showed me that they had read and understood correctly the colour word cards that I had given them.
Year 2 Spanish: we played Which card? with our new words.  I shuffled the flashcards and hid the top one.  The children had to take turns, listen to each other and think carefully to work out which card was on the top of my pile each time.

Other games that I play regularly are Trapdoor, Battleships and dice games.  And of course we use dominoes and Tarsia puzzles. They all have a purpose.

Primary teaching is not ludic in the truest sense of the word.  We play games with the children because they enjoy it, because we enjoy it, and because these games allow us to support the language and to move the learning on.

2.  "...giving an impression that MFL learning is all about fun, songs, drawing and playing"

Language learning (not MFL - we can do ancient languages in KS2) should be fun.  We should enjoy learning it, shouldn't we?  I would hope that the 'fun' activities are built upon in Key Stage 3 and beyond.  There are certainly plenty of descriptions of and suggestions for fun activities on the many posts in the Secondary MFL Matters Facebook group.  So I hope that's the case.

I think the most important thing is to have a balance of activities, isn't it, a variety?  My Year 6 classes indulge in some fun language activities but they also work hard on building texts with complex sentences which contain conjunctions, intensifiers and adjectives.  And yes we might do some drawing to go with it, once the writing is finished.  You have to let them kick back sometimes.  The pressure on Year 6 is horrific.

As for songs, primary language learning is about songs.  And why?  Because it's specified in our curriculum document.  The National Curriculum says we have to teach them songs, so we do.  And it's fun.  I've often overheard children singing a Spanish song to themselves around school, but I've never heard them recite a dialogue or a list of nouns.  The melody and rhythm ensure that the words in the new language stay in their heads, and they enjoy taking the song home.  My husband failed O'level French twice, but he can still sing Savez-vous planter les choux?, although we don't let him very often.  Again, I would hope that secondary students are still allowed to sing the occasional song.  I once had a hard-to-reach Year 10 French student who came alive the lesson we used this song.  He learned to play it himself on his guitar.  Music is immensely powerful, and its benefits on all learning are well-documented.  But, like, games, it's not the only thing we do.  It's all about balance.

3.  "Primary should be the place where pronunciation, decoding skills, spelling, agreement, learning strategies and all the other basic skills...are taught"

Of course it should be, and it is.  Not least because all those things are listed in the National Curriculum document.  The article suggests that for the most part this does not happen, mostly because of all the games we play.  (I'm just thinking how tiring an hour of playing games would be.)  The games actually help us to do all that other stuff.

A great deal of great work is done in the primary languages classroom, often unnoticed and unmarked by senior leadership teams, by Ofsted and by secondary colleagues.  You only have to pass by the Languages in Primary Schools Facebook group to find examples of that.  The group has over 3700 members now, and is therefore the best barometer that we have of current practice.  I really do hope that this article does not add fuel to the fire of those secondary colleagues and others who believe that teaching a language in primary schools is worthless and that they should all start from scratch in Year 7 regardless of their previous experience.

4.  So what do we need to put right, if anything?

In some primary schools these "basic skills", or the requirements of the national curriculum, are not taught, for a number of very well-documented reasons.

a. Time allocation
When the new curriculum was introduced, the DfE did not specify or give any guidance on the amount of time that should be dedicated to language learning in Key Stage 2.  Ofsted also has been careful not to be specific, but we do have some hints as to what they think is suitable.  My opinion is that an hour a week is what is needed to go into the depth required by the "substantial progress in one language" of the National Curriculum.  Many schools are not lucky enough to have this amount of time.  Sir Michael Willshaw wrote in May about how languages and science are being pushed out of the primary timetable by English and maths, a point of view that he reiterates in the recently-published Ofsted annual report.  As a body of language teachers we need to continue to strive to gently persuade these school leaders of the benefits of language learning and the need to ensure that it is timetabled sufficiently.

b.  Subject knowledge
Some schools have employed subject specialists, which is good for the children and for the provision of languages.  However it does have an impact on the continuing professional development of staff who may leave the school and go elsewhere, only to find that they will be expected to teach a language there.  Some classroom teachers find themselves doing their best to teach a language that they either haven't touched since they themselves were at school, or that they have never learned.  The curriculum was put in place quickly in 2014, with next-to-no funding or training available to enable schools to overcome this difficulty.  Too many children are being taught a language by someone who is not enthused by it, and that can't be right.

c.  Transition
I've written before about this one.  It is by no means an easy one to solve, and the cause of so much strife between primary and secondary teachers.  Please talk to each other, and then please listen to what they have to say.  That's all.

So to conclude.  There are some serious problems underlying the teaching of languages in primary schools, just like there are in secondary schools, from what I understand.  I haven't stood before a class of secondary students since 2009, so I don't think it's my place to comment.  We are now in the third year - only the third year - of languages being compulsory in Key Stage 2.  But those of us in a position to do so are working behind the scenes to do whatever we can, wherever we can and whenever we can.  We see the positives and the gains despite the obvious difficulties.

In short, I found the article to be an over-generalisation of what happens in the primary classroom.  It demonstrates a lack of understanding and knowledge of primary methodology and of the current curriculum for Key Stage 2 Languages.  Although Dr Conti stresses that it is an attack on the provision, it does feel like an attack on teachers, who somehow have allowed this to happen and who are perhaps happy with the status quo.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Lost in translation?

Earlier this week there was a discussion in the Secondary MFL Matters Facebook group about the pitfalls of doing translations into English with Key Stage 3.  I found everyone's comments interesting to read, partly because I no longer teach KS3 and partly because I have been working on some new translation resources for Light Bulb Languages.

On hearing about the difficulties that people had encountered with their classes, I decided to give some translation a go with my Y6 Spanish class.  We have been working this term on places in town, saying what you can do in the places using se puede and infinitives, and building up complex sentences using conjunctions, intensifiers and adjectives.  I prepared three texts of different levels.  I explained to the class that I was giving them a challenge, partly to satisfy my own curiosity, because we do a lot of English-Spanish work but not so much Spanish-English, and partly to give them a taste of things they might do in Y7.  (Most of the class will transfer to the local secondary school where Spanish is the language taught.)

This student is in the top quarter of the class.  The translation was carried out unprepared and unseen, with no access to exercise books.  This student has not only translated very well the language that we are currently practising, but has also risen to the challenge of the language, such as opinions, that I have brought in from previous years and previous topics.  They have also considered the sense of the English that they are writing, with phrases such as "there is no school" and "I don't like the cafe much".

I found this a very interesting exercise.  It was useful to see which children were willing to take risks and make a decent attempt to make sense of something they weren't too sure about.  I could also see that there were certain structures - hay and se puede in particular - that the children are happy to use in Spanish sentences and which I thought were embedded, but which they can't tell me the meaning of.

I'm definitely going to have another go at translation with them in the new year, particularly after the chat I had with the Year 6 teacher this morning about how the same class have been talking about roots of words and linked words in their recent English lessons.  We are always making links between our new Spanish words and English, often with a view to enriching their vocabulary.

I've been collecting ideas for translation activities, which I will list here in case you too are after some ideas.  Of course I'd love to hear about any successes that you have had with translation!

  • Translate poems or song lyrics
  • Groups or pairs translate different sections of a text and then come together to connect them with suitable language
  • Match up English and the target language
  • Translate sentences or text into the target language using words provided, e.g. in a Wordle
  • Give the first letters of each word or a number of letters to support the answer
  • 5 in a row, where each player has to translate the text in their squares correctly to win them (example of 5 in a row)
  • Pelmanism
  • Dominoes
  • Fill in the missing words and then translate
  • Tarsia puzzles, joining up English and target language words and phrases
  • Follow-me speaking activity
  • Translate the sentences in the target language using a writing frame for support
  • Blue Numbers, where each square has a different sentence to translate
  • Pairs of sentences in English and the target language each have different parts missing, so you have to use one to translate the other, like this activity
  • Find the translation: students have a list of sentences.  Translations are posted around the room and they have to find them
  • Gapped text in the target language, with phrases at the bottom in English which have to be translated and inserted in the correct place
  • Translations with errors to correct
  • Crossword - write the clues
  • Parallel texts - put chunks of text in order
  • Re-order jumbled sentences in order to translate them correctly
Many thanks to members of the Secondary MFL Matters group for all the ideas!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Northern Primary Languages Show

Yesterday, 5th November, was the inaugural Northern Primary Languages Show at York St John University.  I was invited to speak, and gave a presentation about games that you can play in your languages classroom.  I only had 45 minutes, so I presented 33 games that children can play sitting down at their tables.  I had to draw the line somewhere!  Here is a copy of my slides.  You can find all the resources (and more) on Light Bulb Languages and some of the games are described in more detail in this blog post.  Please get in touch via the comments if you have any questions about any of the games.

Ready to play? from Clare Seccombe

In addition to presenting, I was lucky to be able to attend some of the other sessions.  Here are my sketchnotes:

I also saw some French books that look interesting:

Cache-cache cochons

C'est à moi, ça

Tout en haut (does anyone know it this is available in Spanish?)

Finally, last month I got to visit Nathalie Paris's Bibliobook (mobile library full of books in foreign!) and heard her talking about some stories that she likes to use.  Here is the sketchnote from that day, which I've finally finished!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Back-to-back-to-back Book

This minibook has popped up on Pinterest in a few different guises.  Basically, it's a number of identical, symmetrical shapes which are folded in half and then stuck back to back.  They fulfill the minibook criterion of fitting a lot of writing into a small space.

I made the one you can see in the picture to try it out.  Here's how I did it:

I made my symmetrical shapes using the AutoShapes function in MS Publisher.
You could also use PowerPoint.  I printed out 3 copies of this sheet.

I coloured in each shape.

and then added some writing.

Then I cut out the shapes and folded them in half.

Then I stuck the shapes back to back.

My 13 year old, bored on the first day of her 7 week summer holiday, made this one.

If you are considering making one of these with a class, my tips are:
  • make absolutely sure that your shape is symmetrical
  • try to make your shape easy to cut out, as neat cutting is important when it comes to fitting it all together.
  • Use your imagination!  Use a tree shape for the seasons, a cloud for weather, an apple for food....
These could be displayed on a flat surface or hung from the ceiling to really save on display space!

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The importance of looking outwards and forwards

My name is Clare.  I am a teacher.  I have been a teacher for 21 years.  I have been a teacher for 21 years in the City of Sunderland.  I have lived in the City of Sunderland for 22 years.  My husband and my two daughters were born in Sunderland.  I was not.  I was born in South London, and then grew up and went to school in Surrey.  I chose to live in Sunderland.  I guess that makes me an immigrant.  I have always done a job that could have been done by a local.  And the vast majority of teaching jobs in Sunderland, especially in primary schools, are done by locals.  It is unusual to hear an accent that is not Geordie or Mackem.  It is a little more common in secondary schools.  But it has never bothered the children I teach.  I think that is because they assume that I am French and/or Spanish, and that is why I talk differently to them.  My daughters get me to copy them saying things like "The giraffe laughed in the bath", but then they admit that I sound weird.

I think it's good for children to hear at school accents that are different to theirs.  It makes them realise that there is life and therefore possibility and opportunity outside of Wearside.  Because it is a very insular place, with comparatively little social or actual mobility.  It is this fact that has motivated me throughout my career as a teacher of languages.

In 1997 I volunteered to attend a meeting on behalf of my department at the secondary school where I worked at the time.  It was a meeting held by the local authority about something called Comenius European Education Projects, about which none of us knew anything, but which the blurb on the leaflet made look quite interesting.  This meeting was to change the course of my career.  Comenius projects have had various names since then, most recently coming under the Erasmus+ aegis, but they remain essentially the same: a group of European schools sets up a partnership together and receive funding from the European Union to enable them to do a collaborative project.  From the beginning in 1998 of the first project that I co-ordinated until the last project that I was part of in 2009, I worked with colleagues in France, Spain, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Estonia and Lithuania.   I personally learned a great deal from all of them and was able to travel to places that I know I would never have seen otherwise.  The students also learned a huge amount from their European counterparts.  They found that there were some differences in their cultures and ways of life, but there were also many similarities.  These differences gave them cause to reflect upon their own culture and their own way of life.

I hope that this was enough to arouse sufficient curiosity in some of them to want to explore the "world outside", that it gave them the courage to look outwards and try something new.  Because on Thursday 23rd June, 61.3% of the 134,324 Sunderlanders who turned out to vote in the referendum (out of a possible 207,207 voters) ticked the box that said "Leave the European Union".  They chose to turn their backs on the millions of Euros that the EU has invested in the City over the years to help to regenerate the area after the closure of the mines.  They turned their backs on the efforts made by the City Council to forge links with and to open doors to communities in other countries.  They turned their backs on the efforts made by many of the City's schools to show children the wider world.  They turned their backs and decided that it is better to look inwards and backwards.

I wrote this rationale in 2001, but its words still ring just as true today:

"We are living in a rapidly changing, “shrinking” world.  Technological advances and economic and political changes have produced an increasingly global society of which we cannot fail to be aware.  Pupils of XXXXXXX  XXXXXXX are conscious that changes are taking place, but perhaps not of what these changes could mean for themselves and their lives, chiefly in their position as global citizens.  They remain traditionally insular in their attitudes, and have little access to, understanding of, or means of communication with the “world outside”.  Our pupils are, after all, the adults of the future, and should complete their education and enter the world of work fully cognisant of the opportunities that are open to them globally and equipped with the skills and attitudes that will enable them to live successfully alongside their international neighbours."

Our political landscape is currently changing by the hour, and uncertainty about the way forward following the Leave vote continues to increase.  I intend to go into my schools this week and continue to fight the good fight of the language teacher, to show the children that there is a world outside their window and that it is a colourful, interesting, friendly, welcoming and wonderful place.  We do not yet know if they will have access to the freedoms of movement and labour that we have enjoyed, or if schools will have the opportunity to access the funding streams that will enable them to participate in eye-opening projects with other schools in Europe.  But I have every confidence that we will find a way.  We have to find a way.