Thursday 11 July 2024

Boosting numbers at GCSE in your MFL department: Stage 1, focus on the curriculum

As we approach the beginning of the summer holidays, I wanted to reflect on my first year at Princes Risborough School. It has certainly been a challenging year but also an exciting and successful one. What the team has achieved in just nine months, I think, is very special.  The main success has been to move from 22 students studying MFL at GCSE between French and Spanish, to 70 (48 in Spanish and 22 in French). There's still a lot to do but lots to celebrate too!!!

I wanted to share with you what our strategy has been to boost the numbers at GCSE in the department and raise the profile of languages in the school. 

I must talk about the THREE PILLARS:

1. Creating a mission statement. 

2. Designing a rich and clever curriculum, underpinned by our mission statement

3. Educating students and parents.


This is key! The mission statement should be the core of any department, our unique selling point to students, parents and SLT. This should be our intent and must be underpinned by the school own mission statement.  It must also reflect the context of the school we work in.  Finally, it has to be agreed by the whole department so there is ownership by all members of what we want to achieve by the end  of our learning journey in MFL.  

At PRS the MFL mission statement is Languages, a life-skill to achieve.  The school big mission and logo is aspire and achieve so we wanted to show that in order to be successful in life, a language is necessary as it is a life-skill, such as being able to swim or ride a bike. This urge in the mission statement places languages at a high level: you must learn a language as it is essential, it is a life-skill and by doing so, you will achieve!

Once agreed, our mission statement was turned into big banners which were displayed in our MFL corridor and underpinned our BIG MFL CURRICULUM INTENT AND PEDAGOGY:

Our big intent in the implementation of our curriculum, underpinned by our mission statement is for our students to achieve FLUENCY by the end of their language learning journey. We believe that FLUENT oral communication is the core for MOTIVATION and RECRUITMENT at GCSE and beyond. This journey starts at Y7 and will culminate for many, at Y11.

You can have a look at our intent and pedagogy document in this document here.


Our curriculum was then underpinned by our mission statement and big intent. We had to create a curriculum which will lead our students to achieve FLUENCY and will create the foundations of success at GCSE. This meant that students had to experience success in MFL and had to be able to communicate as from day one, using high frequency structures and incorporating from day one, the vocabulary that will be required at GCSE.

To help us retrieve these key structures and create nuggets of success, which could be retrieved constantly in any studied topic from Y7 to Y9, we came up with the concept of the 5 MAGIC POWERS:

1. Using more than one tense: through high frequency structures which can be applied to any topic, such as "suelo, solía, decidí, me gusta, me gustaba, me gustaría, or quiero" followed by infinitive.

2. Giving opinions

3. Giving reasons

4. Using reported speech "mi amigo dice que" or/and talking about someone else

5. Using high impact expressions and/or idioms "lo que más me gusta es"

We also embraced the concept that less is more, so we decided to teach only 3 topics per year at KS3. All this was embedded in Sentence Builders and a lexicogrammar approach to teaching languages, which allowed us to scaffold the teaching/learning process to suit all abilities and help students experience success. It worked!


This was essential. We had talks for parents and students where we explained what is the eBacc, what it required and the implications if a student did not study a language at GCSE: they would not get the eBacc! To help us with this, we created posters and leaflets using Canva. This is the link to our "Why study languages" poster. Depending on your school context, you may have to educate SLT! We were lucky at PRS at SLT were behind us and understood the mission.

We also delivered presentations to parents about why students should study languages at GCSE.  This is the link to our parents' presentation.

In this process, we also invited David Binns from Sanako to talk to our Y9 students.  David gave an extremely entertaining and engaging talk from the point of view of employers, on how more desirable, potential employees who can speak a language can be and how much more money they can earn!  

This 3 pillar strategy worked for us in just a few months. This was just stage 1. Stage 2 will focus on extracurricular activities and project based learning. 

However, for numbers to be high at GCSE, just focussing on extracurricular activities and culture is not enough, although it will be fundamental at a second stage, once the curriculum, intent and pedagogical approach (achieving fluency and experiencing success) are well rooted in the department and the school.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Making instant Google Form Quizzes with AI to practise the productive Skills (GCSE ORAL/WRITING EXAMS)

Happy Easter everyone!  I thought I would share with you a short post on how to use AI to create Google Forms Quizzes in seconds, using the Chrome Extension Brisk Teaching, which you can download from the Chrome Web Store here.  I heard about this extension from Joe Dale, guru of all things technology and languages, and inspired by his brief, I thought of making it work to practise the productive skills of Writing and Speaking with my current Y11 students, once they are back from their Easter Break. 

Brisk Teaching is very intuitive and very easy to use. Once it is downloaded as an extension, make sure you pin it in your Google Task Bar. 

Brisk can create a wide range of tasks, based on any web text showing in your screen, this could be a website, a google doc, a google slide etc.. I have just explored the "Create" feature properly, but the extension also has a " Give Feedback"  feature which will create automatic feedback, after you give a rubric and/or what you want to focus on, on a given text.  This could be really useful when marking Y13 long essays or for History/English teachers. 

However, I just focussed on "Create". This is what I did after downloading the extension:

1. I opened a google doc where I had lots of sample of questions in Spanish and English to help students prepare for the oral exam.

2. I clicked on the brisk icon on my task bar and the extension opened up at the bottom of my screen, as the picture above.

3. I clicked on "create" and then "Quiz", which opened the following menu: 

4. I change the language to "in Spanish". This is great, as my text had questions in Spanish and English but the app, ignored all the English input and just focussed in the Spanish questions.

5. In the box "what should the quiz cover?" I pasted the questions from my document that I wanted the quiz to be based on, I started with those referring to Theme 1 in the AQA GCSE syllabus. 

6. I ignored the grade, and chose "long answer" instead of "Multiple choice", as well as "20 questions" (that is the maximum) from the following box. 

7. Brisk then, will ask you if you want your quiz in Google Forms or in  a Google Doc, this is useful if you just want to create a quiz for a worksheet. I chose Forms and that's it! 

Brisk created a 20 question quiz, based on the questions I had pasted, in Spanish for students to write a paragraph. I just have to share the Quiz with my students and look at the responses.  I carried the same process for Themes 2 and 3 and ended up with 3 quizzes covering potential questions for the forthcoming GCSE General Conversation oral exam. 

How can I see this working?

The whole process to make the three quizzes took me around 4 or 5 minutes so I saved a good hour of work.

I want to use the quizzes for my students to carry out as a self-testing mechanism, where they can open the form and write, without looking at any notes, anything they can on the given question.  Great to practise oral and writing skills. 

I am planning to go to Exampro, choose writing exam bullet points from the 90 words task and the 150 words task, save it to a Google Docs, and then use Brisk, to create a quiz based on the bullet points from different written tasks. 

As a teacher, I can see my students responses and spot common mistakes which I can then address as a class, either from a Grammatical point of view, or form: have they covered our 5 Magic Powers? I can also focus on individual feedback to specific students.

The extension will work brilliantly to make a reading comprehension interactive quiz, in seconds, on a given website for A level. In fact, Brisk can also rewrite the content of a website to make it more accessible, a little bit like Diffit, which is excellent in the case of original native articles to work in the MFL classroom.  

The "Give Feedback" feature as mentioned above, would be excellent to give feedback to students on something they have written in a google doc. Brisk even gives you statistics of the displayed text by telling you how long was spent writing it and how many pastes it had! so excellent to see if your students actually wrote an essay themselves or copied and pasted from different sources. 

Overall, I think this is a fantastic FREE extension that can really reduce our preparation teaching time massively.  Thanks, Joe!

Sunday 17 March 2024

GCSE: Getting our students ready for the Speaking and Writing Exams.

I have not written anything here for quite a while, simply because I have not had the time after starting a new job, mentoring trainee teachers and changing the SoWs of the whole department from KS3! 

However, as I have started planning my strategy to support my students in the final weeks/lessons before their GCSE exams, I thought I would share some strategies that are working well for us. Just to remind you my context, a teach in a non-grammar school in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire. 

I have inherited a lovely Y11 mixed ability group, where half of the students will sit the Foundation Paper and half the Higher Paper.  My students need lots of support. So these are some of the strategies I have adopted with them since September and am focussing on up to the oral/written exams.  

We use AQA but the approach described below can be applied to any board.  In our case, we will finish teaching the syllabus next week, just before the Easter break. This means that we will have three weeks, 3 lessons a week, to focus A LOT on the Speaking exam and indirectly the Writing paper, after the holidays. 

Time-Writing Tasks

These have taken place since September. The idea is that I choose a past paper writing question, on topics covered in Y10. I always choose Q2 from the Higher AQA Paper, requiring 150 words, even for my Foundation students. I have high expectations and this allows me to motivate some of the students to believe in themselves, get better and maybe trying the Higher Paper after all! 

If too challenging, students can write 90/100 words.  In a lesson, I give them the exam question, we translate the bullet points. We discuss ideas on content snd model together an answer based on their knowledge. Then for h/w, using our model answer and their notes, they prepare the writing task and next lesson, in exam conditions and during 30 minutes, they write down their task. 

We do this every two weeks and it is invaluable to make sure writing skills get practised periodically. 

The 5 Magical Powers

To be successful in the previous task and to do really well in the oral exam, especially the General Conversation, students need to fulfil certain criteria.  This is what I call the 5 Magical Powers:
  • Use of different tenses (at least three)
  • Giving opinions 
  • Giving Reasons
  • Talking about someone else, in its simple form, the use of reported speech mi madre/amigo dice/dijo que..
  • High Impact expressions
We embed these Magical Powers in our SoW as from Y7! In fact our mark scheme at KS3 is based on how well these powers have been achieved in a written/oral task. Click here for a Blogpost on this. Looking at the new GCSE, still these criteria are present so something that is not going away!  

To help students to use the Magical Powers, we created the following document, with examples of the Powers to practise as from Y10. This document has been printed in A3, laminated and displayed in the students' desk.  Click here for a copy.  Students also have their own laminated copy for their bedrooms! 

I have talked extensively about the Powers before, but one of the elements I developed recently is the use of LINKS or NUGGETS.  

What are the NUGGETS?

My Y11 students were really struggling with verb endings so I thought of using LINKS or NUGGETS, basically expressions acting as shortcuts,  which can be used for different tenses, without having to conjugate a verb.  I still expect most of my students to use verb endings but, if they struggle, in a moment of panic, the nuggets work wonders. Similarly, those students who can conjugate well and easily can alternate traditional conjugation with the NUGGETS, as these are also examples of High Impact expressions (a Magical Power), widening their use of vocabulary!

How do they work? If students do not remember the endings for the present tense, especially for irregular verbs, they may use Suelo/Suele/ Me gusta/ Podemos/Se puede. In the Preterite, Decidí/empecé a, in the Imperfect, Solía, in the future Voy a and in the Conditional Me gustaría. The NUGGETS or LINKS are very popular because once you use them, you just need to use the Infinitive after them!!

They also help weaker students to understand that an infinitive can never be used without the support of a NUGGET or LINK.  When we practise sentences, for example, we always do it using a verb ending but also a LINK/NUGGET if it is possible.  This has helped my students a LOT to avoid grammatical mistakes regarding verb endings. 

The nuggets or links work so well that these are introduced as from KS3, so they become a second nature for students when they reach KS4.

Embedding the General Conversation in all lessons

This is the core! We have a bank of questions, many taken from the Photocards, which students have been working on since the beginning of the year. Ideally, should start doing this in Y10: every time a topic is covered, students write model answers to some model questions for the given topic and practise them in lessons with lots of games throughout the two year course! 

I make it clear they must not learn them by heart but it is good practice to have an idea of what can be said for each topic, transfer the answers to flashcards and do active learning/ testing as from Y10. We make sure these general conversation questions are embedded in our Scheme Work and all our lessons aim to reach fluency/communication having these as our final goal!

I like this approach as we don’t only tackle the oral aspect, but also the writing tasks, basically productive skills. 

My current cohort of students need lots of support to help them practise the General Conversation, so we practise the questions with MWBs.

I use the following Flippity Ramdomiser Task where a question for each theme appears. Click here for the example. Students then, answer in their MWBs the question referring to their Nominated Theme, to start with, to the best of their ability.  At a second stage I will ask them to choose a question from a non-nominated theme. 

To promote spontaneity, when practising these questions, you can ask students to answer the question using a specific structure. Check this other Flippity activity which we carry out once students are more confident with their answers

Preparing a Revision Schedule

It does not matter where I have taught, students find revising for their language GCSE very tricky!  So, years ago, I started preparing a revision schedule using Padlet. In fact, I have polished this practice over the years and now I create a revision schedule for their Mocks, another one for the Oral practice, to be carried out as from Easter, and once the oral is out of the way, I will prepare another one for the Reading, Listening and Writing exams.  This is our oral revision Padlet.  Our students and their parents were really grateful for this as I showed the schedule to them last week during Parents' Evening!

Made with Padlet

Practising the Role-Play

Students can find this section of the exam very challenging as the prompts found in those Roleplays can be particularly odd. 

What works here is practice, practice, practice, so students can get as close to the 15 points as possible by being accurate and being concise! This is hard to understand as we always encourage them to extend answers! Well for the Roleplay, No! 

I always make a selection of past Roleplays and to start with (mid Y10 and beginning of Y11) I spend time going over the bullet points, analysing them and explaining what is “a detail”, which can be any piece of information! 

Example: ¿Qué hiciste el día de la excursión? 2 detalles: fui a un museo (detail 1) but instead of saying another activity, which requires conjugating a verb, hence risking making a mistake, students can just say por la tarde/con mi clase/ por la mañana/ con mi profesor (detail 2). It will score the same as saying: y vi muchos cuadros! 

I always start practising the Roleplays together as a class, with MWBs, so I can check for understanding and spot errors that we can comment on. This can take up to one lesson! 

At a second stage, after lots of modelling, students can move to practise the Roleplays in pairs. For this we have an oral booklet, click here, with Roleplays, Photocards (from specimen and past papers materials) and examples of general conversation questions. On the booklet, I include the Teacher’s sections, so students can practise easily in pairs or on their own, testing themselves! 

I also spend time practising how to ask questions. This is key! What’s the easiest way to ask a question in French, German, Spanish that would fit nearly any topic/situation? For me is, what do you think of? In both ways: the polite and familiar forms. Also, do you like…? Finally, depending on the Roleplay,  the question is there? is very useful! 

In my experience with these three questions students can answer the Roleplay well! What about having some starter, retrieval practice quick fire task  focussed on asking questions? This should be second nature! As the exam approaches, have a roleplay as a starter activity, to be carried out using MWBs

Practising the Photo Card 

I use a similar approach for this component to that used with the Roleplay but emphasising the idea that, in this section, they need to extend answers by giving reasons and providing examples using a different tense. 

We do this via MWBs with the whole class. We focus a lot on the first question: what is there in the photo? And use the PALM acronym (describing people, action, location, mood). Then, to stretch students we talk about imagining a little story using the structure: Creo que acaban de + infinitive (I think they have just….) or Creo que están a punto de + infinitive ( I think they are about to).

As with the Roleplay, having our oral booklet with all the Photocards and the teacher’s input is key! Once we do lots of modelling together with MWBs, students can then practise in pairs or individually with these. 

Tip: have a look at the questions used for the photocard by your exam board and include these questions, or similar ones, as part of your oral General Conversation model questions. These questions keep appearing in a similar format year after year, and by including them in your bank, students will be familiar with the questions even if they are surprise ones! 

Good luck to all Y11s!

Sunday 12 November 2023

The Language Show 2023

What a wonderful weekend has been with the Language Show in full swing! It has been a huge honour to take part in it with two presentations: one on gamification, with lots of practical ideas to gamify your lessons at all the stages of learning and another on Dictation, with the lovely Suzi Bewell.

Why I believe in gamification, what are its benefits in the MFL classroom or which are my favourite games to play in the classroom with and without the use of technology. All is explained in my webinar presentation, which you can find below. Remember you can access the actual webinar recording for the next three months.

Saturday 22 July 2023

Feedback to Feedforward: designing a Marking Policy for KS3 and the new GCSE

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about how to tweak the KS3 curriculum taking into account the new MFL GCSE specifications. It was great to see that not much change was necessary per se, and the important goal, definitely for my team, was to put into place a rich curriculum targeted to reach Oral Fluency by the end of Y11, where real communication opportunities, international collaboration and cultural embedment in our SoWs were the key foundations, under the umbrella of a common departmental/school vision and what we know of cognitive science.

The next step is to create a clear Marking Policy anchored in meaningful feedback to move forward. It is what I like calling Feedforward.  I wrote about this in a previous post on different ways to provide feedback: Spinning the plates.  I wanted to design a clear Marking Policy that would not require my team to mark books every two weeks for the sake of it but would spell out different ways to provide feedback to students' work/performance in the classroom with the intention to check for understanding while providing clear steps for pupils to move forward. 

Nevertheless, it was important that we all had a common and clear benchmark against which to assess students' work for key pieces of productive work, especially towards the end of a learning unit. For that, I thought it would be a good idea to use the 5 Magic Powers + amount of communication/information given, as a way to help students to monitor their work and for us teachers to mark it:

1. Using more than one tense

2. Giving opinions

3. Giving reasons

4. Using reported speech

5. Using high impact expressions

The idea is to provide 5 points per Power, depending on how well each element  has been fulfilled/mastered in a productive task, giving a total of 25 points, similar to the new AQA GCSE Mark Scheme for Writing, and a further 5 points, in the case of Oral tasks to assess Pronunciation and Fluency. 

One may argue that real communication and fluency is not the sum of a specific list of elements, imposed on us, let's admit this, by the GCSE exam. In fact the new GCSE criteria for speaking and writing is very, very similar to the current one, at least in the case of AQA. I can't agree more, being fluent is more than that.

However, I see many benefits when using this benchmark:

1. We tackle some of the elements that will determine success in the inevitable final GCSE exam. This is vital. If students, as from Y7, are familiar with these elements and these are fully embedded in their language output while being fluent, in the communicative contexts when this is appropriate (we would not use 2 tenses or reported speech to perform a transactional conversation in a shop or a casual chat with a friend), the learning journey at KS4 would be much more approachable.

2. Students LOVE to know that what they are learning is actually something typical of a later stage, it makes them feel clever! ANCHORING IN CHALLENGE like Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby call it in their book Make every lesson count. It is the power of having high expectations, regardless of our students' attainment.

3. In my experience, these powers/elements work because students will always have something to say, which helps with fluency, developing motivation and self-efficacy. This doesn't mean that students speak in big monologues, but will always have something to answer when prompted with questions such as: What's your opinion on this? Why do you think this? and what happened next? 

4. The elements, especially the high impact expressions, are underpinned by real idiomatic expressions, frequency words and common verbs  that native speakers use constantly in their oral interactions: "puede ser" "suele" " puede que" " hace que" "ojalá" "si pudiera" 

Of course, this mark scheme shouldn't be used with all pieces of productive tasks but only with key pieces of writing/speaking at the end of a learning unit, when the communicative context is relevant and allows this criteria. 

When giving levels within the command of a Power: there are 3 levels with points assigned to it.

Let's take the Power: Covering the points of the task + Using more than one tense. 

There are three levels: 

Excellent command of the power, with a clear explanation of what it would be expected for this.

Good command and its explanation.

First Step: You are in the right path to command this power! This allows students to have a positive engagement with their work and a clear pathway of what is required to get to the next level. There's no failure, students just move up level at their own pace. This is important for resilience: Mistakes are the first step to learning!

This is, of course, still a working document, which I would expect to tweak, modify etc.. as the year goes by. This is the link to access the whole Marking Policy with the actual mark schemes for key pieces of writing at KS3, adaptation of the new AQA GCSE mark scheme for official end of year exams and the current GCSE KS4 mark scheme for timed writings and oral tasks for Y10 and Y11. 

Marking Policy example

Boosting numbers at GCSE in your MFL department: Stage 1, focus on the curriculum

As we approach the beginning of the summer holidays, I wanted to reflect on my first year at Princes Risborough School. It has certainly bee...