Thursday, 2 September 2021


Yesterday I was browsing posts on the Secondary MFL Matters Facebook group, and saw a reference to the website, which can be used to generate sentences and retrieval activities from a sentence builder.  (Thanks Marissa!)

I've had a play with it this morning (up early as daughter #1 had an early shift at work!) to see what it does.

First of all, you click on the "Get started" button, and this takes you to your "sentence builder" grid.  I entered some simple pets sentences:

There are 10 boxes altogether to structure your sentences.  The next step is to click the "Generate sentences" button, and choose how many sentences you'd like sentencify to generate for you.  I chose 8.

Then you need to type in the English (L2) for the sentences generated.  The sentencify user guide suggests copying and pasting into an online translator as a short cut - I pasted mine into Google Translate (ssshhhh!) and then just had to change turtle to tortoise.

Once you have your sentences in the L1 and L2, click on "Generate activities" for the options for the retrieval activities.

The first is the Match Up:

The activity is designed to be completed online, but it would also be possible to copy and paste into your paper-based activity or PowerPoint.

The second activity is "Unjumble":

The original L1 sentences are jumbled up and students have to rewrite them in the correct order.  It's worth noting here that the program wants the sentences to have the format of the singular pet followed by the plural pets, but grammatically speaking the order could also be the reverse of that.  This is something that you may want to consider when designing your sentences, especially if you are going to ask students to complete them online.

The third activity is "Fill the gaps":

and the fourth is "Translate":

The final activity is "Drag and drop":

To be honest I'm not entirely sure of the aim of this activity.  Each one I generate turns out in a different format!  If you have used the drag and drop, it'd be great if you could say in the comments how you've used it.

At the top of the screen there is also a "Create a test" button.  You can generate a test where students have to translate either L1 sentences to L2, or L2 to L1.  

Once you have finished your sentence builder and sentences, it's possible to save them, but remember to copy the code that is generated for your activity, as you'll need to enter this to open it again.

There is also a function for entering impossible sentences into the sentence builder and using hashtags to clarify which words can go together:
I had a go with this, and it takes a bit of trial and error to get enough variation in the sentences:

Finally, it's also possible to put emojis into your sentences.  I saw this on the sentencify Twitter account.  I didn't know before that pressing the Windows logo key and the full stop together brings up an emoji menu!
The resulting "sentences" will be more useful for some of the activities than for others.

I enjoyed exploring the site and can see how it will be useful in particular for generating quickly and easily lots of sentences from a sentence builder, as well as retrieval activities.  Have a play and see what you think!

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Language Policy


You probably remember the announcement from the DfE earlier this summer that money is being made available for the teaching of Latin in secondary schools.  

I said at the time that, while I am a big fan of Latin having studied it to A level and used it in my M.Phil. thesis, I think the proposed £4million being set aside for secondary Latin could be much better used for putting into practice the recommendations of the White Paper, and ensuring that all children in primary schools receive a quality languages education.  I wrote to the DfE saying as much on 31st July:

"Having studied Latin to A level, I am pleased to see the plans to ensure that Latin is taught in KS3 and KS4 in the state sector. However this is another project aimed at the secondary phase. They have the Mandarin project, NCELP and now this Latin project. I have been a teacher and independent consultant of KS2 Languages for 12 years. Since the first injection of money for special projects shortly after statutory languages in KS2 were introduced, there has been no funding or support for primary languages forthcoming. Are you able to assure me that you are taking on board the recommendations of the White Paper "Primary Languages Policy in England: the way forward" which was published by the Research in Primary Languages Network (RiPL) in March 2019, and allocating to KS2 language teaching some funding in order to ensure that all KS2 children receive a quality languages education?"

Today (almost a month later) I received a reply:

"Thank you for your email of the 31 July sharing your thoughts on the launch of the Latin Excellence Programme.

You are correct that the NCELP hubs, the Mandarin Excellence Programme and the intended Latin Excellence Programme are all aimed at the secondary phase of languages education.
We are aware of the RiPL White Paper and its recommendations for the Department for Education, as well as the distinct challenges which primary schools face when teaching languages.

Currently the Department’s priority is on funding of programmes which focus on secondary school teaching of languages, with the aim of increasing GCSE uptake. This links to the government’s English Baccalaureate ambition and, in the case of the NCELP programme, follows up on the 2016 Teaching Schools Council’s MFL Pedagogy Review which encourages secondary school teachers to build on pupils’ language knowledge from primary school.

The Department continues to review all existing and intended programmes, as well as recommendations from the most recent research, in allocating funding to priority areas.
Thank you for writing to the Department on this important matter."

So good news for secondary schools, not so much for primary languages.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Music and Languages


Thanks to my Google news alert, I've come across today this study by the University of HelsinkiPrevious research has shown that having a music-related hobby can boost language skills and can positively affect the processing of speech in the brain.  This new study by the University of Helsinki shows that the reverse is also true: learning another language can positively affect the processing of music in the brain.  

In one of my schools I share the PPA coverage with a specialist music teacher, and we often talk about what we are teaching the classes.  She told me towards the end of last term about the new Model Music Curriculum (MMC) for Key Stages 1-3 (March 2021).

This document is "non-statuory guidance for the national curriculum [in music] in England", "a practical framework through which the statutory requirements of the [music] curriculum can be met".  It's designed for specialist and non-specialist teachers in the primary sector, and specialist teachers in Key Stage 3.  I've been having a look at it today to see if there is anything that we as language teachers can contribute, or indeed if it offers any useful advice for us in the languages classroom.

My first thought when reading the document was "I wish we had a document like this for Key Stage 2 Languages!"  It is in fact one of the recommendations of the White Paper that we should have some non-statutory guidance for core curriculum content.  This is something that came up during the many and varied discussions at the weekend about the DfE's plans for teaching Latin in secondary schools.  Those £4 million would be a huge boost to the primary languages community and to ensuring that all children in Key Stage 2 receive a quality languages education.  But I digress....

Secondly, it was interesting to note the time recommendation for music in primary schools: "pupils should receive a minimum of one hour a week...may be short sessions across the week."  This is the same as the widely accepted recommended time for languages, so we can understand how difficult it can be for primary schools to fit everything into the timetable.

Music, particularly song, features prominently in the Key Stage 2 programme of study for Languages, and I have written before about using songs.  Children should be taught to:

  • appreciate stories, songs, poems and rhymes in the language
  • explore the patterns and sounds of language through songs and rhymes and link the spelling, sound and meaning of words
Music from the country or countries where the language is spoken is a facet of cultural understanding, and can also contribute to other aspects of the curriculum, such as expressing opinions.

The MMC covers the key areas of singing, listening, composing and performing, and I think it's the areas of singing and listening that are of the most use to us as language teachers in choosing songs and music for our lessons.  Here are the recommendations for the six year groups that I think will help us:

Year 1 (age 5-6)
  • simple chants and rhymes
  • simple songs with a very small range (mi - so) (3 notes)
  • pentatonic songs (songs with a 5 note or 5 tone scale)
  • call and response songs
I found this very interesting.  Quite often I find what I think would be a great song for Year 1, only to discover that they find it difficult.  I can see now that that the reason is often that the melody is too complex.  I'm going to look into chants and call-and-response for Year 1 as I think these would work well with them.  (If you know any, it would be great if you could put them in the comments!)

Year 2 (age 6-7)
  • songs with the pitch range do-so (5 notes)
  • songs with a small pitch range
Year 3 (age 7-8)
  • unison songs, do-so range (5 notes)
  • perform actions confidently and in time
Year 4 (age 8-9)
  • unison songs, do-do range (8 notes, 1 octave)
  • rounds and partner songs
Year 5 (age 9-10)
  • broad range of songs
  • 3 part rounds and partner songs
Year 6 (age 10-11)
  • broad range of songs, involving syncopated rhythms
  • 3 or 4 part rounds and partner songs
I think that seeing this progression in singing will help us to choose appropriate songs for our lessons, and therefore songs that children will be able to sing easily.

The MMC has a long list of suggestions of music for children to listen to.  Some of it links to the languages that we teach.  As I said before, children can listen to music and express their opinions of it, or you can play the music softly in the background while they are working.  Pieces of music can also be used for timing: "This piece of music lasts 5 minutes, so that's how long you have to complete this task."

Here are some suggestions of composers you could choose, in order to complement the music curriculum:

JS Bach


de Falla

The Spanish list is very short compared to the others, so I've made a wider list (here as much for my own reference as anything else!)

Manuel de Falla


El amor brujo
Cuatro piezas españolas
Noches en los jardines de España

Isaac Albéniz


Suite Española no.1 and no.2 for piano

Enrique Granados


12 danzas españolas

Joaquín Rodrigo


Concierto de Aranjuez

Francisco Tárrega


Recuerdos de la Alhambra

Antón García Abril


film and TV composer

Paco de Lucía


virtuoso guitarist and composer

Tomás Luis de Victoria


choral music

Juan del Encina


choral music                                                            

If we are thinking culturally, then the 20 countries where Spanish is spoken each have their own styles of music:


Tango, Chacarera, Chamamé


Kullawada, Morenada, Caporales


Torada, Cumbia


Cumbia, Vallenato, Currulao

Costa Rica

Calypso, Chiqui Chiqui


Rumba, Salsa, Mambo, Cha Cha Chá


Yarabi, Pasacalle, Bomba

El Salvador

Cumbia, Hiphop, Xuc


Garifuna, Marimba music

Guinea Ecuatorial

Soukous, Makossa


Punta, Reggaetón


Mariachi, Cumbia, Danzón


Soca, Punta, Chicheros


Salsa, Calypso, Saloma


Guarania, Paraguayan Polka


Zamacueca, Festejo, Cueca

Puerto Rico

Guaracha, Bomba

República Dominicana

Merengue, Bachata, Salsa


Tango, Milonga, Candombe


Jarapo, Salsa, Calypso

Music and language learning have been shown to be mutually beneficial, so let's harness those links in the classroom!

Monday, 19 July 2021

Writing by hand

A week or so ago my Google news alert led me to this article: Handwriting Is Better Than Typing When Learning a New Language, Study Finds  

In a study, a group of 42 adult learners were tasked with learning the Arabic alphabet ab initio.  One group wrote it out on paper, another group typed it on a keyboard, and a third group watched and responded to instructional videos.  It was found that the first group, who were writing the alphabet on paper, learned the letters more quickly than the other groups, and also were more able to apply their new knowledge to other areas, for example using the letters to make words and recognising previously unseen words.

The article goes on to say: 
The research shows that the benefits of teaching through handwriting go beyond better penmanship: There are also advantages in other areas of language learning. It seems as though the knowledge gets more firmly embedded through writing."

This finding that physically writing on paper benefits and strengthens learning is not new.  A quick Google reveals other similar articles, some dating back 10 years.  Here are some of them, with information pertinent to language learning highlighted:

  • Writing by Hand Boosts Brain Activity and Fine Motor Skills, Study Shows (2020)
    When writing by hand, you are not only activating the motor cortex to make your hand physically write, but also motor planning aspects of the visual cortex to visualize the letters in your mind, language networks in the central and temporal lobes to actually communicate, and networks associated with reading and spelling,' Wiley [Colbin Wiley PhD] explains. These processes tie into the parts of the brain that have to do with learning and memory."

  • Three Ways That Handwriting With A Pen Positively Affects Your Brain (2016)
    "Handwriting increases neural activity in certain sections of the brain, similar to meditation."
    "Handwriting sharpens the brain and helps us learn....  
    Apparently sequential hand movements, like those used in handwriting, activate large regions of the brain responsible for thinking, language, healing and working memory."

  • Bring Back Handwriting: It’s Good for Your Brain (2019)
    "The fact that handwriting is a slower process than typing may be another perk....because typing is fast, it tends to cause people to employ a less diverse group of words. Writing longhand allows people more time to come up with the most appropriate word, which may facilitate better self-expression."

  • New study suggests handwriting engages the brain more than typing (2020)
    "Researchers noted that the differences between brain activity while handwriting and typewriting were more pronounced for the adults than for the children, but said the findings still 'provide support for handwriting practice providing beneficial neuronal activation patterns for learning.'"

  • Why Cursive Handwriting Is Good for Your Brain (2020)
    "Data analysis showed that cursive handwriting primed the brain for learning by synchronizing brain waves in the theta rhythm range (4-7 Hz) and stimulating more electrical activity in the brain's parietal lobe and central regions. 'Existing literature suggests that such oscillatory neuronal activity in these particular brain areas is important for memory and for the encoding of new information and, therefore, provides the brain with optimal conditions for learning,' the authors explain." 
    "The use of pen and paper gives the brain more 'hooks' to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain.....A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write, and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning."
    The same article also cites a study which showed that handwriting may facilitate young children's
    learning to read.

  • Better learning through handwriting (2011)
  • "When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard."
    This article also refers to another language-based study, which had similar outcomes to the one at the start of this post.

  • Why You Remember Things Better When You Write Them Down (2020)

  • "Your memory of handwritten words is tied to the movements required to make each letter. This might be what helps the memory of what we’ve written hang around in our brains a bit longer. Meanwhile, pressing buttons on a keyboard activates fewer areas of the brain, so we forget what we’ve typed faster."
    "This makes perfect sense when you think about how humans first evolved the ability to read and write. The process was highly connected to physical touch as, for thousands of years, handwriting involved carving symbols into rock or pressing them into clay. Our minds and bodies are primed for this kind of physical interaction with the world. But typing is a far cry from creating the shape of each individual letter by hand."

There is clearly a lot for language teachers to consider here.  In the primary classroom, writing in books is done by hand with either a pen or pencil (gaining your pen licence in Key Stage 2 is a rite of passage!).  However, as I've mentioned before, there is a lot of writing and preparation for writing that is not done with pencil and paper.  Will these "writing without a pen"activities be less effective because of the way that the writing is done?  Should children be physically writing earlier in the learning process?

Children begin writing by hand in EYFS (Nursery and Reception), by "writing recognisable letters".  They develop their fine motor skills by learning how to hold a pencil correctly.  This work is then continued into Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, where it forms an integral part of the National Curriculum for English.  

By the end of Year 6 (age 11) children should be able to write "legibly, fluently and with increasing speed".  Handwriting is expected to become automatic by the end of Year 6.  Automaticity means that children can produce the letters without having to think about the process; if they can form letters automatically, they will not have to devote cognitive attention to their handwriting, and therefore will be able to focus more on the task that they are completing.

Many of my Year 6 pupils have beautiful handwriting.  They are taught cursive, via one of the popular schemes such as Letterjoin or Berol, which is explicitly practised most days.  They can write any words to practise their handwriting, and so can write keywords from any subject area, including languages.  Others, though, do not, for one reason or another and despite interventions, have the neat and cursive writing that is required, often choosing to print and sometimes not forming certain letters correctly.  It is worth noting that all the work on handwriting is done in Key Stage 2.  Once children get to secondary school, handwriting does not feature as a skill to be explicitly practised as part of the national curriculum, so it is unlikely that these students' writing will improve.

I have heard that some secondary schools are choosing to do all writing using electronic devices, so that students will not be handwriting.  This, according to the article that I first mentioned, is also happening in schools in Norway and Finland.  This is, I think, overlooking the significant benefits that writing by hand can obviously bring, and the many years of handwriting practice and development that has taken place in primary school.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Languages in the KS2 curriculum in September 2021


Yesterday saw the publication of the Language Trends 2021 report.  Its headlines have been widely reported in the press, for example in this article in The Guardian.

The report has found that:

  • during the first lockdown (March-June 2020) language teaching was discontinued in 53% of primary schools
  • during the most recent lockdown (January-March 2021) language teaching was suspended in 1 in 5 primary schools (20%) due to the pandemic, the impact being felt most acutely in more deprived areas.
  • the pandemic exacerbated challenges that schools already experience with the delivery of languages
A year ago, last July, the DfE released guidance for schools preparing to welcome all their students back in September 2020.  Languages were included in the list of subjects that students in KS3 should be learning in Key Stage 3 as part of their broad and balanced curriculum, but there was no mention of languages on the list of subjects for Key Stage 2.  Following consternation among members of the primary languages community, Baroness Coussins, chair of the All Party Parlimentary Group on MFL, clarified the situation, stating in the House of Lords that schools were expected to continue with teaching a language in KS2.  It's concerning to see that in some schools languages have still fallen by the wayside.

Last week, on 2nd July, the DfE published Teaching a broad and balanced curriculum for education recovery.  It's heartening to see that this year languages are mentioned, and indeed have a whole section to themselves:

There is also this section, which makes it clear that children need to be present for all stages of the learning, as gaps in their knowledge will make it difficult for them to progress:

Many children are still withdrawn from languages lessons for interventions, often for English or Maths, and therefore miss the vital small steps of learning that will help them to make progress.  This makes it clear, I hope, that withdrawing children from languages is not ideal.  It's likely to have less of an impact on other subjects:

It's also worth noting that this guidance, although non-statutory, is for all maintained schools, academies and free schools.  It also states that schools should continue to teach a broad and balanced curriculum in all subjects.  Hopefully the teaching of primary languages will pick up again in the 2021-22 year.