6 essential props for the MFL classroom

This month, we’re welcoming David Shanks back with his 4th blog post…

In a recent conversation, a colleague pointed out that her journey in teaching had real parallels with her previous experience of the acting world. The similarities are indeed quite striking: the working in front of an “audience”, the improvisation, the regular re-runs, the tweaking of performances and the outward expressions of calmness, sympathy or seriousness when, on the inside, you may be feeling the polar opposite.

The teacher is the single most important resource in the classroom but, like with acting, props can come in handy and support a good delivery. With this is mind, here are my top six (low cost) teaching props:

1. (Silent!) Dice – one of my most used and versatile resources, dice are great for number practice (e.g. cumulative arithmetic in pairs) and for randomising virtually any speaking or writing task. We recognise that new language needs to be encountered and produced multiple times (in varied contexts over time) in order to commit it to long term memory and our active vocabulary repertoire. In my experience, students will repeat and consolidate chunks of language more willingly, and for longer, if an element of chance is introduced. The six numbers correspond nicely to conjugations of verbs, personal pronouns or tenses/topics/questions of your choice. You can also link them to prompts on the whiteboard or a worksheet to add further questions, unpredictable elements and variety to speaking activities. For students who struggle to generate content, or if their ideas lack originality, a dice can guide them through the columns of a writing frame numbered 1-6, with interesting results and novel constructions. The possibilities are endless and the contingent aspect lends itself to the more spontaneous language skills the new MFL GCSEs aim to promote.Tip: have a rule that if a student’s dice falls off the desk, he/she must miss a turn or lose a point.

2. Hotel bell – I have found the distinctive ‘ding’ very useful for behaviour management countdowns, running group “table quizzes” at the end of a unit of work or half term, signalling switches between the target language and English, and for having students ring during pronunciation work such as phonics bingo. A nice competitive activity for selected groups can be to have students ring when they think a student from another group has mispronounced something when reading aloud. They of course have to remodel the pronunciation correctly to get a point for their team. NB – don’t do this last task if you haven’t firmly established a secure culture of error and collaboration with the group (see tip 4 in my previous post for more on this). Otherwise, it could be rather traumatic for some.

3. Slide clicker – I heard it said that the invention of the blackboard was deemed by some to have been a disastrous development for education. That might be debated, but it was possibly the first time teachers turned their back on students… Personally, I’m increasingly sparing in my use of PowerPoint/slideshows for many of the reasons that have emerged from Cognitive Load Theory, but being able to project carefully selected resources, tasks, images, videos and cultural content is undoubtedly a massive positive in the MFL classroom. However, this can potentially leave teachers battling with interactive whiteboard software, stuck behind the computer and taking their eyes of students. A clicker can free you up to roam your class, maintain eye contact, better manage the classroom environment and better engage students with the most important teaching resource in the room: you.

4. A DIY visualiser – I’ve never had the privilege of working in a classroom with a visualiser but I’ve come to see the significant positive impact of projecting my own students’ written work as examples for the rest of the class. Modelling answers, peer assessment, example “examiner mode walkthroughs”, error spotting and simply celebrating success are all useful reasons to use your students’ work in this way. The beauty of advances in mobile technology is that the majority of mobile phones now have cameras and data connections as standard and you are probably teaching with one close to hand and a projector anyway. Set up your students to work, circulate, support, and take a few snaps of examples that are indicative of certain language features or success criteria. Ping these photos to yourself in an email (Microsoft’s free Office Lens is an excellent free mobile app for flattening images automatically on iOS, Windows and Android). At suitable point(s) during, and after the task, call students attention to review their peers’ projected work on the board and to discuss points/problems arising. Do the same for submitted work and homework, recycling the work in subsequent lessons. One school I worked in had no mobile data signal in my classroom so an old digital camera and a USB cable served me just as well and also cut out the emailing stage.

5. Fake phones – cheap fake telephones found in toy shops (or any old landline handsets you or your school may have lying around) are great for role play props and speaking practice. Over time I morphed this into an adapted version of musical chairs students enjoy. Pass the two fake phone handsets around the seated students, playing a target language song of choice (something by Téléphone for me!). Stop the music and the students holding the handsets have a conversation based on the topic you have been working on. They must include all the usual greetings, introductions and the correct register, dependent on the task context. The rest of the class must peer assess, taking notes and will be quizzed on what was said (to encourage active listening). I have been using this to practise the role play element of the new GCSE. An engaging plenary that, when set up correctly, engages but not at the expense of learning.

6. A target language jingles playlist – the MFL department at my first school kindly burned a CD of some 20+ classroom jingles for use in the classroom. The 30 second Countdown clock, the Amélie theme and Manu Chao soon became staple favourites of mine and my students. Nowadays, as I work across a range of schools, I compile and add to a list of links to songs and jingles online in a simple text document or a web browser bookmark file. Choose high-energy, short songs to finish up tasks and longer, calmer ones for extended individual work. Why not use music as rewards and to generate cultural interest? Set aside the last minutes of a certain lesson to ask your “student of the day” which song they would like to hear and why (in the target language of course!).

That’s my own personal list, but over the years I’ve seen lots of creative MFL teachers using a host of other props in inventive ways to support language learning. What are your top MFL teaching props?  Leave your suggestions in the comments below or tweet @HFLanguages and @OxfordEdMFL


David works as a Consultant & Lead Practitioner teaching and developing the MFL provision across the Harris Federation group of schools in London. He holds a PGCE in French from the Institute of Education and taught English in France and Maths/ICT in Norway before teaching French in London. He has delivered on MA, PGCE, TeachFirst and School Direct courses and leads the Harris ITE MFL Programme. He is a member of the Association for Language Learning Council 2017-2020, NALA, APPG for MFL, the British Council Language Liaison Group and KCL’s MA in Ed & Prof studies 2016-18 cohort. 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


One thought on “6 essential props for the MFL classroom

  1. John Bald says:

    V intersting ideas. I use a wireless mouse to allow me to move around, but am not at all sure about the link between ppts and what is known as “cognitive load” – we just need to make sure we don’t overload the ppt. You’ve sold me on the idea of a visualiser, though, as it can save time. I used to retype pupils’ work into Word, project it on a screen and manipulate it. This might be quicker, though I still like the flexibility of Word.

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