UKEdMag: Hitting the language target by @reebekwylie

Speaking only in the language being taught.

I love teaching MFL. Nothing has challenged me more and I get excited by it every day. My own experience of MFL as a learner is so far removed from my pupils’ experiences today. My German and French lessons at school were probably similar to many others of a certain age. They were heavily textbook dependent (Longman Audio Visual French, I remember) and involved lots of copying from the board and exercises from the book.

The highlight for me was when we went into the language lab (remember those?) and operated our own tape recorder. That was independent learning! These lessons were OK for me; I’m a bit of a nerd and actually quite liked writing stuff down. So nothing prepared me for the complete sea change I was about to face at teacher training college.

When I started at St. Martin’s College 19 years ago, I felt like I was on the brink of something wonderful. The first 2 weeks in Lancaster felt like a slap across the chops. It was intense and exciting, uncomfortable and brilliant, all rolled into one. It felt like we were being ‘re-programmed’. We were shown how to do what we thought was impossible: teach MFL in the target language. In all my years of learning a language, we were never taught like this! Good grief, my German teacher barely spoke any German at all! How will they understand what we are saying? What if they don’t get it? What if I don’t know the word I need? So many questions and such a lot to discover.

I will never forget the feelings I had on placement in those first few terrifying weeks, testing this ‘new’ thing; fear, shock, joy, amazement. I became a gesticulating madwoman, getting out of my ‘comfort zone’ regularly and getting my pupils to understand me and more importantly communicate with me and each other in the target language.

And now, there’s nothing I can’t mime, or sing or find a suitable picture for and I have learnt how valuable classroom routines are in teaching pupils ‘real’ language. I have blogged before about ‘suspending reality’ ( and I absolutely stand by all the principles I have embedded as a result of my experiences at St. Martin’s under the tutelage of James Burch and Anna Bartrum. There is such a sense of achievement when you are passed in the corridor and someone shouts out “Bonjour Madame!” or “Guten Tag!”, or when a child approaches you in a lesson and says to you, without any kind of prompting: “Darf ich bitte Papier haben, weil ich mein Heft vergessen habe?” or when you are thanked in the target language for giving someone a sheet. But it doesn’t happen by chance.

The language that my pupils are now using is has been built up from classroom routines since September, or since whenever they started learning the language. It’s hard work at the beginning when you are using baby language to conduct your lessons, finding as many cognates as you can to get through to pupils what you want them to do. It’s built up in simple everyday routines, such as greeting them at the start of the lesson, asking how they are and using the potentially mundane task of taking the register as a linguistic opportunity, building up from “Darf ich helfen?” to “Darf ich die Namensliste machen?” to “Darf ich die Namensliste machen, weil ich sehr schnell bin.” It’s using team points as both rewards and another opportunity to speak in the TL, starting off with, “Darf ich die Teampunkte za?hlen?”, to “Darf ich einen Punkt haben?” to “Darf ich fu?nf Punkte haben, weil ich schnell war und weil ich fantastisch bin?”.

I have used team points, raffle tickets, fake Euros, sticky coloured dots and to bring the language out of them and now they speak it because they can and they want to because it is what’s expected of them! If they want to go to the toilet, they have to ask in the target language. If their marker doesn’t work any more, they ask for a replacement in the target language. If they have forgotten their exercise book, they tell me in the target language and ask for paper. I secretly hope that one of those situations arises, just so they have to say something in the target language! I have been known to manipulate such a situation!

It takes time. At the start of their journey, the register routine can take, what feels like far too long and it is tempting to shorten it and get on with the ‘content language’ until you realise that this is the content language! This is the language that they will be adapting and using later on, so it is worth all the time and effort. I have had pupils who have completed written assessments and included language from their classroom routines, adapted to suit whatever they were writing about. The ‘linguistic opportunities’ slow the lesson down, of course. But what’s more important, describing the contents of their pencil case or asking if they are allowed to go to the toilet?

I realise I am very fortunate to work in an amazing school, which has a very supportive attitude towards MFL. Our lessons are well renowned for being fun and lively and the staff know that they will probably be asked to speak in French or German when they enter our classrooms. To us, teaching in English is a very strange concept. I’m not saying that we never do it; we all get tired and sometimes resort to it, but we always feel very odd afterwards, like we’ve not done it right, that we’ve let our pupils down and that we’ve ruined the atmosphere we have built up. I have a handy tool to enable me to do it if something needs explaining that is too difficult for pupils to understand in the target language. I have an English hat. I ask if I am allowed to speak in English (All in the target language, of course!). When the pupils allow it, I wear the hat. If I forget to wear it, they remind me quickly. However, I use it sparingly and only when I really need to.

Some MFL teachers worry about how they are going to deliver their lessons in the target language. It is all I have ever known. I was lucky enough to be trained this way and I know it works if you build it up slowly and are not afraid of it. It even works in more challenging schools, like the one in which I worked before. Also, if I can do it in French, which is not my strongest language, then anyone can do it! I can’t stress enough how rewarding it is and how much it benefits the pupils.

Once they get used to it, they don’t see it as a barrier to learning, but more of a tool for learning. Occasionally I hear, “Miss, why don’t you speak in English?” but this is because it is challenging for them, which from a gifted and talented point of view, is a good thing. We are supposed to be challenging all pupils in all of our classes. We make them work hard from the minute they enter our classrooms. Even my objectives are in the target language! They might ask the question, but very soon after, they are getting on with their work and have forgotten why they asked it in the first place!

So, what am I hoping …

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This extract of the article first appeared in the July 2015 Edition of UKEdMagazine

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