Sunday, 27 November 2011


I was delighted to be able to share a few strategies to improve students' pronunciation in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) this Friday as I view good pronunciation as one of the most effective ways to boost students' confidence in their own ability as linguists. Indeed, if their accent in the foreign language is not at least understandable, performance in exams and in a real life context will be poor and lead to demotivation.
As mentioned in the article, practising pronunciation is a challenging activity for teenagers who often perceive it as a threat to their own British identity at a time of their lives when they are not too sure about their identity anyway. Using puppets or drama techniques like role-play can help but what else can be done to help students improve their pronunciation in the foreign language?
Phonics Phonics Phonics
Teach basic pronunciation rules through examples and regularly re-visit key sounds through starter activities. Use mirrors and discuss with students how some sounds come through their noses or from the back of their throats.  Focus on how foreign language speakers stress certain words and do not pronounce specific letters e.g. “s” for plural in French or “nt” at the end of verbs. For Spanish and German, show how "regular" the sound patterns of language are and get students to decode and pronounce sophisticated words they have learnt in other subjects.
Practise Practise Practise 
Provide opportunities for students to practise individually, in pairs and small groups. Tongue twisters and rhymes are great for starters, with students listening to a model and then practising in pairs to encourage self and peer correction.
Make practising pronunciation into a game. Play vocabulary games like noughts and crosses with two teams or in pairs and make accurate pronunciation one of the criteria for scoring points. Encourage students to correct each other’s pronunciation and step in if needed to clarify pronunciation rules. Some students could volunteer to be "pronunciation expert", in charge of reminding the class of a specific sound e.g. i always sounds "ee" in Spanish, "oi" always sounds "wa" in French...
Use poetry, riddles and rhymes to make students more sensitive to pronunciation patterns. A simple exercise where students have to match rhyming words can really get them to reflect on pronunciation patterns.
Music is a wonderful tool to get students to look at language in terms of sounds and rhythms. Get your students to sing difficult words, they will slow down and their pronunciation will improve instantaneously.

Songs and raps in the target language can be used effectively as pronunciation models. Students listen to the song or rap, the teacher identifies a repetitive structure as a model and students write their own lines and practise them. The raps or songs can then be peer-assessed with a focus on pronunciation.

Using Technology such as Voki, the speaking avatar site, can provide a good model in the target language through its text-to-speech facility. Students can also give their avatar a voice by recording themselves and get their pronunciation assessed by their peers verbally or through comments. Other sites like Blabberize can enable students to make a photo "speak" and will also motivate them to try different sounds and voices. 

Get students to practise at home by recording speeches using Audacity, the free audio recording software, or listening to model answers and making notes about the pronunciation, like where silent letters are or which part of the word is stressed. Making them aware of inflection, the patterns of stress and intonation in a language, is the most difficult unless students are quite musical. Students could just demonstrate whether they think the intonation is going up or down.This can be very good to get them to realise that in Spanish, for instance, the penultimate syllable is often stressed whereas in French it tends to be the last syllable, which explains differences in how the language sounds.  

Finally, getting students to improve their pronunciation will not only mean better exam results in languages but also students developing a more positive self-image as linguists.  This should also lead to improved self-esteem and impact on their overall school achievements.
What strategies do you use in your classroom to make your students more aware how the language inflections, rhythm and specific sounds? 

Sunday, 13 November 2011

AQA Course: Feedback on 2011 GCSE Examination in Modern Foreign Languages, 11th November 2011, York.

I attended this course in York hoping to find out ways to improve GCSE results through understanding better the pitfalls of this new exam. However, the frustration shown by the majority of the teachers present, particularly as regards the severe and /or erratic marking of the speaking and the writing Controlled Assessment, unfortunately hijacked parts of the training.
2011 Examinations compared with 2010 Examinations 
It was stressed that the grade boundaries had to change considerably to mirror the changes from a very small cohort to a full one in 2011. The concern was that very little support was provided to allow teachers to give a reasonably accurate predicted grade for the first co-horts going through the new GCSE examination.
Daring to be more creative
As could be expected, a lot of teachers “played safe” in their choice of topics and relied on topics that had been also part of the previous specification. Some tasks with a more imaginative setting/ content were suggested including:
Being in a celebrity relationship (Context: Relationship and Choices)
Pressures and problems at school  (Cross-context) for speaking
and, for writing:
Free time and the Media (Context: Free Time and The Media)
A job application (Context: Current and Future Jobs)
Some examples of speaking tasks linked to the same topic-holiday-were also given to show how bullet points could be differentiated for higher ability students e.g. Where do you normally go on holiday?/ Tell me about last year’s summer holiday.
For students to gain confidence in their Listening skills, it was suggested to give a reading activity based on the transcript as a homework task before the actual listening activity in class.
At stage 1 anything is permitted but the task must not be given in its entirety or with just a bullet point changed. However, individual bullet points can be practised and marked individually.
In 2014 the GCSE examinations will all become linear-everything will happen in the summer with no early entries in January.
The majority of centres adapted AQA tasks or devised their own tasks. Some tasks were more creative: interview with an air crash survivor, being in a celebrity relationship, big brother interview…
Schools set either the same task for the entire class or differentiated task on same topic.
For retaking the writing, the same topic can be used but the title and all bullet points have now to be changed.
It is important to have the task ready at the start of stage 1 for the teaching to precisely cover all the points needed to cover the task.
Speaking/ writing: In speaking all bullet points have to be addressed whereas in writing, the title is the most important. In fact, bullet points are not compulsory for writing tasks and are often used to support weaker candidates.
A broad title for the writing ensures that everything produced by candidates is relevant but it also makes it very difficult to organise tasks for student to retake in that specific context.
There is also sometimes some confusion between title and scenario E.g. Write a blog your holidays and what went wrong. The titles and scenario need to be different and there is a need for consistency. For instance, if there is a mention of a competition in the scenario, it must be mentioned in the task written by students.
When there is an overlap between the writing and speaking tasks, it is not appropriate to use the same bullet points, both tasks need to be “sufficiently different” to ensure students produce a very different outcome.
For speaking, the recorded time begins as soon as the teacher asks the first question relating to the first bullet point.
Stretching the More Able
Teachers need to ensure that opportunities are provided for more able students to reach the top band.
Opinions are essential: to get 3-4 and above a minimum of 2 opinions are required. They can be basic but they must be there to justify the mark.
Developments are also very important. They are instances when candidates offer extra language not specifically requested e.g. adding extra pieces of information, opinions, facts, etc…
In the best speaking tests, students need to take over and present each one of their bullet points like a mini-presentation e.g. 5 bullets = 5 mini-presentations
More able students need to be able to narrate events to get in the higher band and they also have to justify their opinions twice, which is where a lot of centres lost marks. The 2 different opinions and 2 different reasons could be introduced by par exemple, parce que etc…
For the Range and Accuracy, to get into the top band, a minimum of 2 tenses (any 2) is required but it is not needed for the 5-6 band.
Demain je vais au marché does not count as a future tense.
Able students must have a variety of tenses e.g. 5 different tenses (higher candidate) as a greater range of tense will add to the complexity.
Variety of expression is very important and students must actively be taught to use synonyms and how to express same things in lots of different ways.
The use of moods does not count as a different tense so if a candidate uses present indicative and present subjunctive, it still counts as one tense: present.
5 out of 5 for pronunciation seems to be more common for Spanish & German as the pronunciation is more phonetically regular.
There were some issues with high ability students who did not meet the 4 minutes minimum required for the speaking test. This meant that they could not get 10 for communication but they still could get 9.
Teachers do not need to push weaker candidates to do all 4 minutes as they would not get a 10 for communication anyway.
A strong emphasis on memorisation can have an adverse effect on students’ pronunciation e.g. verb endings in French, so it is very important to practise and record models and students at stage 1.
To assess the Interaction and fluency, teachers need to consider how much students hesitate and do not know what to say next.
4 or 5 bullet points seem to work the best for most candidates but teachers must not ask questions out of the order. 
Unpredictable Questions
Unpredictable questions should also be very simple e.g. in the present tense, using cognate…  Students must answer the unpredictable questions in a full sentence with a verb in order to score for their answer. It is also essential for the teacher to print all unpredictable questions on the teacher’s sheets sent to the board.
You need between 4 and 6 different unpredictable questions for a class of 30 to ensure that it remains unpredictable.  You can link unpredictable questions with broad topic e.g. do you like ice-cream for the holiday and all unpredictable questions must be answered at the end of the test.
Teacher may want to get students to prepare 30 questions making it clear that the bullet points for the tasks will be drawn from there. At Stage 1, the teacher should not move on until students are comfortable with all the bullet points.
Planning Sheets and Dictionaries
If conjugated verbs are left on the planning sheet and students use them, students will be marked down.  le/ la are counted in the number of words.
It was stressed that students should not be actively encouraged to use a dictionary at stage 3 because of the time it can waste. However, using the verb tables in the dictionary can be a lot more useful to help student to proofread what they have written.