The Alternative 7 Back-to-School MFL Ideas

This month, we’re welcoming David Shanks back with his 3rd blog for us…

And so, school is no longer “out for summer” and another lengthy wait to hear Alice Cooper’s classic on the radio begins. We are learning new student names, dusting off the teaching cobwebs and are most proud of our shiny new stationery and immaculately organised planner.

A quick search of the usual education media aimed at teachers will show many excellent “Getting the school year off to a good start” and “Top tips for your NQT year” articles already circulating an impressive accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience. Below is an “alternative” list of 7 back-to-school MFL ideas. La rentrée is famously frenetic so let’s dive in:

  1. Decorate and personalise exercise books

Have students decorate, personalise and then put a plastic cover on their exercise book. We know from behavioural economics what makes us feel good about our work and that things we invest in are things we value. Anecdotally I’ve observed that my students who have had ownership of the design of their exercise book and spent time doing it tend to bring it to class more regularly and keep it neater and more organised over time. It also helps me differentiate whose book is whose more quickly. I encourage students to be creative and set two conditions for the decorations: 1) It is related to the target language culture or language; 2) It is not offensive or inappropriate. I show them examples like those below and tell them they can include key vocabulary resources, drawings, pictures, films, music, sports teams, quotes and anything else relevant to them and the subject. As well as the rationale above, they simply look great!

  1. Embed target language routines independent of the teacher

Well-established and well-practised routines are pivotal to effective learning and classroom management. Often, we ask students at the start of a lesson “What is the date today?”. Why not extend this further and have a default expectation for more information and incorporate speaking? Click here to see a training video I made for trainee teachers on how this can function efficiently with the date, weather and time each lesson. The example is quite basic but illustrates that within 2 minutes of starting the lesson students have asked and answered 3 TL questions themselves, only lightly facilitated by the teacher. The students’ applause at 35 seconds in the clip is also indicative of idea 5 below.

  1. Establish a “slow chat” target language routine in student books

This is a written and more open-ended version of the routine above. Many schools have students copy titles and learning objectives at the start of lessons (I reserve comment on this as a practice!). This often leads to numerous students waiting with a few minutes of dead time while others complete these basics. Why not occupy those waiting with a cognitively stimulating, creative challenge you don’t need to explain each lesson and then start everyone on the first main activity at the same time? I tell all students that their margin (or a page at the back of their book) is their comment page on which they can write anything they want to me (provided it’s in the target language) at any free point in the lesson. You may need to give ideas and guidance on what to write initially for example “how you’re feeling and why”, “what you really did this weekend”, “your film/TV/music recommendations for the teacher” are some examples. Some students will take this and run with it. You’ll learn a lot about them in the process. Additionally the variety of the content when marking books and writing your replies is refreshing. Some might even quote Che Guevara at you!

  1. Page numbers and contents page

Just given a new exercise book to students? Why not have them number all pages with digits and the full text version of the number, along with a contents page for homework. This is a nice activity for the following reasons:

  • it’s a zero-prep task for the teacher
  • it revises numbers if the topic doesn’t feature explicitly on your scheme of work this year
  • it allows you to specifically refer students to previous work/resources in their book when marking (e.g. “see adjective agreement sheet p8”)
  • it helps you and students organise and navigate their work through use of a contents page
  • it can be a good independent learning task – don’t given students the numbers so they will have to source them themselves
  1. “Give it a go” attitude and a culture of error acceptance

Creating a positive learning environment, beyond the physical, in terms of the affective domain and mutual support is important in all subjects. However, I would argue it is even more important in MFL where our calling on students to speak a foreign language can be a highly stressful and uncomfortable experience for many. Without straying into the topic of behaviour management and praise/rewards, it is worth pointing out the importance of embracing error and building a dynamic of common endeavour in your MFL classroom. The one thing I sanction the hardest and fastest in lessons is students mocking or laughing at others’ mistakes, mispronunciations or “funny” accents. Nip this in the bud. This quickly leads to students helping one another out more, being supportive and be willing to try. Similarly, visibly praising and rewarding those who give it a go and get it wrong will soon create a more positive and communal learning environment.

  1. Celebrate all languages – a “Teach the teacher” book

It is important to value and celebrate linguistic diversity and the language skills many of our students already have. Hole-punch an exercise book and hang it by the board with something like “Teach Mr Shanks words and phrases in your language”. Tell students they can add to this any time before or after lessons. Through this I’ve learnt a whole host of greetings and phrases from Welsh to Twi and most languages in between and beyond. This has often led to students hanging back after lessons to talk about languages and really help build relationships and student confidence in MFL.

  1. Two zero-prep homeworks

  • Mobile phone in target language – give students the task of setting their phone in the target language and using it for the week. Have them create a L2-L1 vocab list from the words they manage to work out. Students’ familiarity with tech interfaces mean they can more readily infer meaning than from a text list e.g. the red button probably means delete/cancel, the top right link probably means sign in/out etc. I’ve adapted this with various groups to include sending text messages to people in the TL or setting them a task in class e.g. change your wallpaper, change the time zone to France and back etc. Be ready for some students teaching you how to say “automatic keypad lock delay” in the TL!
  • Dictionary homework – this is good to jog the memory on dictionary skills and develop metalinguistic language. Simply have students create vocabulary lists based on any criteria of your choosing. E.g. 5 nouns you could fit in a matchbox, 5 adjectives to describe an elephant, 5 verbs you could do at the swimming pool. Choose various themes to link the words and set subsequent writing or speaking tasks in which they must include a certain number (or all) of the words they sourced.

I hope at least some of these will be new to you and that you might want to try them out in your MFL classroom this year. Let me know how you get on by commenting here or contacting me @HFLanguages.  If you’re an NQT, look out for an article in the same vein written for you, in the upcoming Autumn edition of the Association for Language Learning’s brilliant Languages Today paper publication. Have a great year liberating students from insularity and fighting the languages fight!

David works as a Consultant & Lead Practitioner teaching and developing the MFL provision across the Harris Federation group of schools in London. His main interests lie in creativity, technology, assessment and research-informed MFL practice. He tweets regularly as part of the #MFLTwitterati and can be contacted on @HFLanguages

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