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May 29, 2010


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Well said sir - we are only limited by our own belief systems - sometimes can't just translates as won't try IMHO.

Nati Lopez

I absolutely agree! and added my 'granito de arena' to the discussion.

Stephan Rinke


you are so right! Lots of teachers I know seem to think that talking about language rather than talking the language without realising that the first will improve the latter and that the balance needs to be right...




Totally agree with everything you say here Chris. I can't see why you would want to stop halfway through bacause if we are aiming for anything in language learning, surely it's independent users of language who can create what they want to communicate by themselves?
I've had a few negative experiences on the TES(Scotland) forum - I won't be contributing there again, and I find that Twitter is a much friendlier, more positive and supportive place to connect with people.

Graham Davies

As I wrote in the TES forum:

You can work your way through Bloom's first three levels using the target language most of the time. But the top three levels are difficult to apply (at secondary school level but not in higher education) unless you switch to English - and I don't have a problem with that. As a secondary school teacher I often used English with years 7-11 to explain points of grammar, to give my students hints and tips about learning vocab, and to chat about cultural issues. I talked about the similarities between German and English words such as Haus/house braun/brown and set them tasks in which they had to find more examples. The obsession with 100% target-language teaching has held us back, I feel.

As Richard Hamilton pointed out recently in the MFL Resources forum, if students work in pairs on a computerised total Cloze exercise, practising a grammatical point (e.g. perfect tense of verbs conjugated with "être"), you can actually hear them explain the rule (in English) to each other. I have observed this happening many times.

I used a lot more German in the classroom when talking to my A-level students. As a university professor, I used English in my critique of translation classes but German for most of the time when teaching the language.

Talking about language is as important as acquiring the key skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking a foreign language. As an 11-year-old I was captivated by Fred Bodmer's "The loom of language", which played a major role in determining my future career. It's a great book for raising awareness about languages and their relationships with one another.

Graham Davies


The responders in the early replies to the original post on the TES appeared to subscribe to the "Target Language 100% of the time" school of MFL teaching. So yes, with limited language there is only so far you can go. As soon as I started finding out about Thinking Skills and Bloom I realised that valuable language learning can take place via English just as much as it can in the TL, and gradually abandoned the 100% TL method in which I had been trained.

In my experience pupils achieve a much higher understanding and appreciation of language and how it works if they get the change to analyse it by way of thinking skills activities and to discuss it in English. When they discuss, say, French, in English, they often use the TL words anyway to illustrate their points.

Of all my 14 years in the secondary classroom, the lesson I remember best is Y9 Spanish when I tested out my "Sophie's best friend" activity, and one group of 4 girls had a stand-up argument in the classroom about what the answer was. They were constantly quoting from the texts and justifying their opinions. It was amazing, and a huge learning experience for the whole class.

Isabelle Jones

Hi Chris It is all a question of balance isn't it? I have encountered the same kind of reaction when I mention Building Learning Power, which I also looked into. I always say: we are not like the other subjects, we are a medium but that also means that we can teach anything that is being taught in other subjects. Instead of backing into a corner, we should really promote this...

Graham Davies

Yes, Isabelle, it is a question of balance. As a subject area we have a lot in common with music. To be a good musician or a good linguist you need hundreds of hours of PRACTICE, but you can start talking ABOUT music and about language very early on. As Valleseco points out, there is a dichotomy regarding target language use 100% of the time and at the same time encouraging thinking skills and talking intelligently about what one has learned rather than just regurgitating words and phrases parrot-fashion. This just confuses teachers, especially NQTs.

Going back to my early years as a secondary school teacher (1965-1971), I cannot recall this being an issue. But then we were not subject to constant prescription and inspection. I just did my own thing, but I had a very good adviser who watched my lessons and gave me lots of useful tips: namely, the late, great Ted Wragg. The LAs in which I worked did not have inspectors and I was not aware of any kind of central control from the then Ministry of Education or national inspectorate.

Graham Davies

Steve Smith

Sure, talking about language is bound to be useful, but it also comes at a cost, because I also agree in general terms with Stephen Krashen that we make acquire language competence by hearing and reading the target language. The more we hear, the better we learn. He used the phrase "comprehensible input". Our art is to make that input comprehensible - hence our use of visual images, gesture, cognates and so on. We only have a limited time in the classroom and if we do not use it to supply target language we are likely to hinder a pupil's progress. I worry a little if we talk too much about the thing, rather than just getting on and using it.

Graham Davies

Yes, Steve, Krashen's concept of comprehensible input is crucial. Krashen's book on SLA sits on the bookshelf a couple of feet from my computer. The time element in learning a language is also crucial, as Steve points out. The main problem today is that too little time is allocated to MFL on the school timetable. My first full-time job, in a selective grammar school in Devon, began in 1968. Every child studied a foreign language up to O-Level. Most took French but one class took German - a choice was given on entry to the school. The timetable allocation was five 40-minute lessons per week for five years - around 120 hours per year. This generous allocation allowed me to spend some time every week talking about language as well as giving the kids practice in using the language. One lesson per week took place in a language lab - no computers at that time - where I was able to give the kids additional monitored listening and speaking practice. We had an excellent cassette library. A school exchange trip took place every year. Things have changed a bit since then...

Graham Davies

Chris Harte

Steve, comprehensible input is extremely important and indeed is how we approach designing each unit of our schemes of learning in KS3,4 and 5. We start of with rich stimuli - full texts, longer listening passages (usually in the form of a video where the visual supports the auditory) - we do not start off by teaching a list of nouns. As you rightly say, our job is to make this input comprehensible which we do through a wide variety of ways - one of which is analysing the language, evaluating what is useful and appropriate in certain circumstances, hypothesising rules based on the rich input and getting the students to then create "original language" based on the original input texts - this allows for differentiation as students can rely more or less on the original text (be it written or spoken) to create their own piece of writing or speaking. If you imagine it like an egg timer shape, we put appropriate whole texts in the top, work from whole text down to word level (first two/three levels of Bloom's) and then we support the students to understand how to put all of the bits back together to create their own whole text output. It is like in DT - here is an example of the clock you are going to make, let's take it apart, evaluate what makes it a good clock, analyse how the constituent parts fit together, then put the constituent parts together to make our own clock - some will produce more or less the same clock, some will bring into play what they learned when they were making bird houses last unit and create a cuckoo clock! I think we need to remember that we need to a blended approach to a language learning curriculum - better communicators in both the TL and in English, ict, rich input, intercultural understanding, developing better learners, developing higher order thinking skills (HOTS). Time would still be an issue if we had 6 hours a week - there never is enough. However, a strong argument to increase curriculum time for mfl is that you are not only delivering a linguistic curriculum, but you are also developing HOTS, getting the students to engage with web 2.0 technology, engaging them in global citizenship through our choice of content etc rather than teaching them how to say what is in their pencil case! I agree with Graham that there is confusion and mixed messages to NQTs depending on where they have done their PGCE - Newcastle (where I did mine) is a centre for developing thinking skills across the curriculum, others do not even make reference to them. I think the best place to do a PGCE will be York from September... What is fantastic is that we are continuing the debate - there is no one way to teach/learn languages and the more we share (merci frenchteacher.net/sunderlandmfl) the better!!!

John Connor

It frequently comes back to Ron Dearing's key phrase "meanings that matter". The whole Bloom/de Bono debate comes into sharp focus when pupils are engaged by cognitively challenging content. And we haven't even got to Maslow's Hierarchy of Need yet! When pupils have genuine ownership of language and can express genuinely sought opinions on matters with which they can authentically connect, then the higher levels of Bloom become more acessible. It's even better when the teacher doesn't know the answer. Greg Horton's work has shown how simple it is to get into this way of operating. I have no idea how old Lady Gaga is, so it's authentic for me to ask my pupils "Bueno, ¿qué opinas tú?", and then to get them to ask each other the same question. The conversation flows much more naturally, and they speculate, hypothesise, argue, agree, disagree, rebut another's argument, etc. The question "¿Cuántos años?" becomes more than a vehicle for practising numbers. And in any case when you ask a Y7 pupil how old they are, you have a pretty good idea of what the answer is going to be. It's not likely they'll say 35. Similarly, I have no idea who is going to win the Premier League next season (although I think I know who won't - sorry, Mr Harte!), or whether England will win the World Cup/retain the Ashes,but it all gives me a rich seam to mine. They know what's in their pencil case, so I have carte blanche to be more provocative and challenging. After all, if the old régime had been effective, we wouldn't have lost over 200,000 candidates for French GCSE since 2004. It's a no-brainer.


I've been following this exchange with interest, both here and in the TES. What is clear is that teachers must understand the importance of learning - and learning about learning.

Very often, as demonstrated by some of the comments in the TES, it is obvious that many teachers do not understand the importance of learning to learn for their own development, never mind their pupils'! I suppose that teachers should, above all, realise that they too are learners, life-long learners.

Acquiring the skills to learn is arguably the initial and most important step for any learner - and, by the way, I don't really mind if this happens in TL or English. Generally we fail to tackle this issue early on, as we should, and hope instead that learners would acquire the skills themselves as we plod along through our text books.

Think about it, why did you learn a language? Was it to be able to deal with the new and the unknown? or was it to be able to recall vocabulary lists and verb conjugations?

No wonder students are voting with their feet where languages are no longer compulsory at KS4.


Totally agree with your post and some really interesting responses here too.
No-one seems to have taken up the point that the 5th strand of the renewed framework for languages is - language learning strategies - which is not meant to be taught in the target language at all (though it could be). But then maybe if it's not done for us as a topic in a textbook we're really too busy to bother with that sort of thing perhaps?

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