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Audrey McKie

Languages optional at KS4

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So, to me it looks as if there's a double-whammy here: if your teaching in MFL is way below standard, then the minute the teaching environment becomes hostile, MFL dies off suddenly and dramatically, in much the same way that someone suffering from starvation will be killed off by a cold virus that an otherwise healthy person would hardly notice.

Excellent point. And, of course, it applies to almost all areas of education, not just MFL!

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David writes:

In my experience it is the 'structural factors' which play the most important role in education. If, for example, a pass at GCSE in a modern foreign language was a requirement for a university place (as, I understand, are passes in Maths and English), then the numbers of GCSE entrants would shoot up overnight.

A pass in a modern foreign language used to be compulsory for entrance to university, regardless of the subject the applicant intended to study. To enter London University (where I studied from 1961 to 1968) you had to have an O Level in Maths, English and a Foreign Language – plus three other O Levels and two A Levels.

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A pass in a modern foreign language used to be compulsory for entrance to university, regardless of the subject the applicant intended to study. To enter London University (where I studied from 1961 to 1968) you had to have an O Level in Maths, English and a Foreign Language – plus three other O Levels and two A Levels.

We still encourage our youngsters to take a language as we seem to be aware that top universities will prefer a candidate with a language to a candidate with similar aptitudes without a language.

I also heard through the staffroom grapevine that ultimately the education system was moving towards a Baccalaureat-type system, which could be pretty good news for Languages if it is anything like the real thing. However, I am not exactely sure how younsters (and teachers) would perceive the fact that they have to take 10 subjects to the final exam... Another good debate between those in favour of study in bredth and those in favour of study in depth. As for teachers it puts back in the frame the big problem of teaching pupils who are very disinterested. We already know how difficult it is to teach demotivated pupils aged 14-16 but what about those 16 and over? That would be a whole new kettle of fish!!

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> a Baccalaureat-type system<

England and Wales have always adopted a different line from other European countries when it came to the organisation of upper secondary education. Some argue that the three A-level curriculum is the "gold standard", marking out the UK as a centre of academic excellence. Others would counter with the argument that this provision is simply "higher education on the cheap", allowing UK universities to run 3-year degree courses while continental ones took 4 years to reach a comparable standard.

I certainly enjoyed specialisation at 14+ at my 1960s grammar school - we had arts and science sides, and I ended up taking just 6 O-levels, four of them languages - English, French, German and Latin. However, when I became a teacher, I realised how narrow such a curriculum was. You can see the same thing happening when some teenage "genius" goes up to Oxford to study Maths or Science, emotionally immature and contemptuous of any academic discipline other than the one or two they have elected to study. The newspapers used to celebrate the achievements of these precocious individuals, who gained, say, an "A" in A-level maths at the age of 12. I always wrote in to the paper asking why they didn't report how the same student was getting on with English, Science, History, Geography, MFL etc. The silence thereafter was deafening!

I strongly believe that secondary education is about breadth, not depth. Breadth of learning is essential these days when it's extremely unlikely that people will be doing the same job all their lives. There's plenty of opportunity for specialisation at tertiary level, and if that means universities getting an extra year to compensate, so be it. I began as a linguist teaching French and German up to A-level and now I'm a special educational needs teacher, wondering why I didn't make the switch to SEN years ago.

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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I agree with David!

I strongly believe that secondary education is about breadth, not depth. Breadth of learning is essential these days when it's extremely unlikely that people will be doing the same job all their lives.

Interestingly, we have a very similar background. I went to a highly selective boys' grammar school (1953-1961), passed O-levels in English, French, German, Latin, Maths, History and General Studies (1958) and A-levels in French, German and Latin (1960). I studied German (major) with French (minor) at Queen Mary College, London (1961-64), did a PGCE course at Goldsmiths' College (1964-65), read for a PhD at Queen Mary College, London (1965-68), while doing a bit of part-time teaching in secondary schools in London. I taught full-time in secondary education from 1968 to 1971 - and this is when I realised how narrow my educational background was. I moved into higher education in 1971, where I taught German at degree level.

My interest in ICT dates from 1976. Who could believe that I would have switched from my PhD research topic (A Lexicon of Terms used in Medieval German Heraldry and the Tournament) to ICT?! There is a link, however. Once I had gathered all the data for my PhD I needed to organise it. I approached the computer services department to see if they could help - and they did.

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However, I am not exactely sure how younsters (and teachers) would perceive the fact that they have to take 10 subjects to the final exam...

I've taught the International Baccalaureate for some years. I don't unerstand the reference to 10 subjects. Our students take six subjects, one each from: maths, science, native language, foreign language, and "man and society", and one more which can either be a fine arts subject, or another choice from the previous list. Three subjects are taken at standard level and three at higher level.

This seems to work well. The spread of six subjects guarantees the breadth, while the three higher level subject are studied in considerable depth. The compulsory "Theory of Knowledge" class attempts to tie together the learning across the six subjects.

As far as the number of exams is concerned, there would appear to be fewer than under the present English system in which, over a period of three years, students may take 10+ GCSEs, 5+ ASs and 3 or 4 A2s!

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>Interestingly, we have a very similar background.<

Indeed we do, Graham! I attended what was then a direct-grant boys' grammar school with its own entrance exam which I sat at the age of 7 in 1954. To my 4 O-level languages, I added Maths and Chemistry, proceeding to A-levels in French, German and English Literature in 1965 and 1966. Then I did a joint honours Modern Languages BA at the University of Leeds before heading back north to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne for my PGCE. I did my long teaching practice at the school where I still teach in South Shields. I began my career teaching French and German to A-level and switched to learning support during the 1990s, when I qualified in special educational needs via an Open University Advanced Diploma.

I've always enjoyed studying, so when I began teaching I enrolled on a part-time MA by exam and dissertation in "20th century German Life and Letters" during which I finally got to grips with history, a subject I hadn't even taken to O-level when I was in secondary education.

I then did a part-time M.Ed by thesis on the teaching of English and French in East German schools. It was fascinating finding out how language teaching could be overlayered with party politics to reinforce the ruling ideology in the GDR. I did a tour of East Germany in the mid-1970s, which was then a relatively unusual destination for westerners. I enjoyed the research so much that I took ten years to complete my thesis, which ended up very long indeed. There's an ICT connection here. My deadline for submitting the thesis was the end of the Easter holidays 1983. Just before the holidays I found out that the margins of my manuscript were too narrow for the binder. So I spent two weeks typing the thesis again on my old typewriter, with my fingertips slowly reducing to bloody ribbons as I hammered away morning, noon and night. Thank goodness my father offered to do the photocopying, otherwise I would never have completed the job. Everything worked out in the end, although my fingers took a while to heal.

And then what happened in 1983? The BBC micro came on to the scene and I purchased a 32K version for £300 and installed a WORDWISE chip inside to provide myself with a word-processing facility. I could have spared myself all the grief and pain involved in retyping my thesis if that machine had arrived a few months earlier! Still, technology, and more importantly its associated pedagogy, has given me a lot of pleasure over the years and the opportunity to attend educational conferences in interesting places (Hungary, Canada, Japan among others) with fellow teacher-enthusiasts, first as a listener and then as a presenter.

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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David writes:

I did a tour of East Germany in the mid-1970s, which was then a relatively unusual destination for westerners.

What a coincidence! I spent a month at Karl-Marx University in Leipzig in 1976, attending a refresher course for teachers of German. I lodged (unusually for that time) with a family. It was an unusual destination for Brits in those days - I've written a little bit about it in another section of this Forum.

David writes:

And then what happened in 1983? The BBC micro came on to the scene and I purchased a 32K version for £300 and installed a WORDWISE chip inside to provide myself with a word-processing facility.

I bought a 32K BBC micro in 1983 and installed a WORDWISE chip too! The BBC micro still works and is packed away in my attic. I bought a Commodore PET around two years earlier, and managed to pick up a good word-processing package from a computer fair. I wrote the first CILT guide on computers in language learning with the Commodore package in 1982. The computer studies dept at Ealing College introduced me to word-processing in 1977, which is when I began to use the college computer to organise my research thesis.

And we met at the University of Victoria, Canada, at the FLEAT III conference 1997, didn't we? We get over to Victoria regularly (home of the Hot Potatoes team, Stewart Arneil and Martin Holmes). We have relations on one of the nearby Gulf Islands.

Small world!

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I realise that David and I may be taking this thread a little bit off track, reminiscing in this way, but our experiences show that bridging disciplines is a very fruitful experience.

I used to teach German in the context of ICT at Ealing College. It was one of the special options that students could begin in their second year. They were taught about ICT in German and in English, read texts about ICT in both languages, and had to produce: a project dealing with an aspect of ICT in a German speaking country - which they researched during their year abroad - and a translation into English of a demanding German technical text of around 1500 words. It was a popular option and was highly relevant to the careers that some of the students eventually took up.

In order to revive languages at KS4 maybe we have to think of ways in making languages appear more relevant or interesting, especially to boys, who often regard languages as "cissy" (which is well-documented in numerous articles). French is often considered a "girls' subject" by boys.

There's a debate going on right now in the Linguanet Forum on teaching languages in the context of sport - which makes pretty good sense these days when you consider the international dimension of sports such as football. I've cited the case of a school in the North of England inviting French footballers from Bolton Wanderers to the school to talk to the children in French. How about French for football fans?

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Making the language more relevant is probably the key - and it's amazing how difficult many teachers/textbooks find this.

To give one concrete example …

I was visiting a local secondary school last week with an Erasmus scholar, and the lesson we had to watch was about the passive. A very enthusiastic teacher, who had great rapport with the class, took a group of 16 year-olds through a pre-Chomskyian grammar-translation exercise based around a twee drawing of a mouse being caught by a Heath Robinson contraption ("the mouse is lifted up by the crane").

One of the exercises I use starts with 'passive cards' where each part of speech is printed in a different colour. The students first have to just make sentences (without using the same colour twice). Then they have to turn the cards over … and they discover the subject becoming the agent and moving to the end of the sentence when they read the counterparts on the backs of the cards. (E.g. "Edison invented the lightbulb/The lightbulb was invented by Edison").

Then they go on to an exercise where they work at a workshop that was burgled last night. They have to turn their friend's spoken sentences ("They broke down the door and opened the safe") into what they would write on the insurance claim form (The door was broken down and the safe was opened).

Now, I don't claim that this is a fantastic way of doing it, but at least there's a storyline behind it that more grown-up students can relate to. There's also a point in doing the exercise.

We language teachers often get all excited about features of language which aren't actually very interesting or relevant. Gender is one of these areas, in my opinion. Apart from demonstrating that you're a foreigner, what's the problem with saying 'le femme' instead of 'la femme'? Sooner or later you have to get it right, of course, but it surely isn't one of the areas that beginners should be spending such a lot of time on.

To give you an English example, what's the difference between the verbs in the following sentences?

a. He took his clock-in card from the rack.

b. He took a look at the clock.

Did you notice that sentence b contains a delexical verb? And so what if it does? I don't think I've ever had a learner who's even noticed that until I've pointed it out.

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David writes:

We language teachers often get all excited about features of language which aren't actually very interesting or relevant. Gender is one of these areas, in my opinion. Apart from demonstrating that you're a foreigner, what's the problem with saying 'le femme' instead of 'la femme'? Sooner or later you have to get it right, of course, but it surely isn't one of the areas that beginners should be spending such a lot of time on.

I'm inclined to agree. There are a few instances in German where a difference in gender changes the meaning, e.g. "die See" ("sea"), "der See" ("lake"), but the context usually makes clear what is meant. Most Germans wouldn't bat an eyelid if you were in a restaurant and ordered "ein Kaffee" (which could be a gender mistake or a case mistake) instead of "einen Kaffee" (masculine gender, accusative case). You would still get a cup of coffee.

I've always argued that knowing vocab and pronouncing it correctly is more important for the purposes of communication. Without vocab you are lost, and even then there is a wide degree of tolerance. If you are in Africa and someone suddenly shouts "Big cat, him come!" I think you would get the message that a lion is on the loose.

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One of the exercises I get Swedish teacher trainees to do is to put this list up on the board:

Pronunciation

Grammar

Vocabulary

and then ask them to rank them according to:

1. How difficult are they for learners?

2. How important are they for learners?

3. How difficult are they to teach?

4. How important are they to teach?

5. How important are they to academics, text-book writers and drafters of national curricula?

The results always put pronunciation last (of course), as being both difficult to teach and less important than grammar or vocabulary. In fact, most teacher trainees (who are amateur language teachers by definition) think that what they'll be doing as language teachers is teaching grammar.

Then I ask them to think about foreigners like me speaking Swedish, and to try to identify what it is about our Swedish which makes it difficult to understand. The answer, of course, is our pronunciation.

My conclusion from this highly-unscientific survey is that one of the most important developments which needs to take place if more pupils are to become interested in foreign languages is for language teachers to change their attitude to what a language really is, and how people learn them.

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I've taught the International Baccalaureate for some years. I don't unerstand the reference to 10 subjects.

I was talking about the French Baccalaureat and I did have to take 10 subjects even if I was already specialising. Indeed, as well as studying most of the 'common' subjects I had to decide aged 16 whether I wanted to go on the 'Science@ Bac, the 'Litearure' one or the 'economics' one. This was lalready a specialisation as most of my time table was dedicated to literary subjects (French, 2 languages, History and Geography and phylosophy), on top of that I had to do physics and Biology, Maths, PE, and 2 options (Extra English and Ancient Greek): total 10!! I feel priviledged in the sense that I did get a very wide range of skills in all the subjects as well as some very specialised skills in my dominant subjects.

I apologise if I hadn't made my point very clear before hand. I just assumed that if it had the same name it was the same thing. Indeed, some schools in my home town offer the German Abitur and pupils are tought the French curriculum through the medium of German but eventually sit a German-style exam and receive a certificate which is recognised by both educational systems. This is something that woukd scare a lot of people off, however I think that the rationale behind it is excellent. Rather than see Languages as an end, it is merely a medium a tool to be used to achieve something else. To support this argument, I can only say that very few of us learn a language for the sake of it, instead they learn a language in order to be able to access skills/knowledge/etc that they would not be able to should they try to do it with their own language. Interestingly enough, in the Textbooks Avantage 2 (Heinemann) and to a lesser extent Auf Deutsch 2, there are interesting chapters dedicated to 'other subjects'. I really like those chapters because they prove the point that you can do allsorts in a language, it's on;ly there as a means of communication. Unfortunately I always break my teeth on them because they require some background knowledge that pupils don't have (especially for the History and geography parts). After all, isn't it what universities do on their language courses? Teach about the language or the culture related to the countries where the language is spoken, in the loanguage. It makes it so much more to the point.

A.B.

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I rate pronunication and listening skills highly.

Our local Chinese take-away is great. The people who run it are charming, and I have no problem communicating with them face-to-face. But when we phone through an order, they often fail to understand us, and we can't make sense of their replies. This has resulted in us getting some interesting combinations of dishes - but I'm all in favour of being adventurous!

Teaching pronunciation and listening skills is quite labour-intensive, isn't it? I think ICT can help here - but in the end pronunciation is best judged by a human being. We have quite a high degree of tolerance, e.g. most English MT speakers are not put off by foreigners getting the "th" sound wrong, pronouncing it as "z". It's not really a crucial sound, I guess: Cockneys say "Forty fousand feavers on a frush's froat", and many Irish pronounce "th" as "t" or "d". But the "l" sound is often crucial. A Japanese colleague used to talk about a "General Erection", which is not what he meant - or maybe he did!

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I think the best thing you have to bear in mind is communication, understanding what you are told and getting yourself understood.

I was told on a course at University that teachers shouldn't encourage perfection but communication. I agree to some extent. the lecturer said that when you go to a foreign country all you need to be able to do is

1. find food and drink

2. find shelter

3. find your way (understand to go to legal places, it was in the context of immigration and assimilation).

I thought this was such a good argument but unfortunately, we can't quite stick to it. you have to be able to master reasonably all the skills required by the language in question: vocab, grammar and pronunciation.

I agree that understanding people with strong foreign accents can be quite difficult for me, as a foreigner. For example, I had to complain about a bill (as I had to recently) to someone in a call centre. The person I was talking to had a strong Asian accent, which I generally find difficult, and he in turn found it difficult to understand me. Conclusion, I never managed to get to the bottom of the problem and probably got ripped off by the company he worked for. Somewhat less amusing than the odd Chinese dish...

I find that a lot of effort is put on listening skills in schools in Britain, and results in the exams are genertally good, higher than speaking or writing. Or maybe is it just my school and the fact that we are 2 Natives in the Department. To me it is the most difficult because there is only the sound to help you and once it's gone, it's gone... going back to phone conversation, I find it the worst. It feels tlike being in the exam room and to top it all, asking people to repeat every thing they say twice or three times can be irritating for the one and frustrating to the other...

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