Lifeboat tasks

When I was on teaching practice a senior leader introduced me to the concept of a lifeboat task – something to have in reserve for the times when the class in front of you finishes all the work you had planned in record time.

The concept was not introduced in time to save me from a very long and desperate game of hangman with some very able Y7s who must have finished their secondary education by now.

The best of these are ideas that need very little prep, and there is a super document on the TES of “minimum preparation, maximum effectiveness” tasks that did the rounds in my PGCE year and which I definitely recommend.

The simplest of my lifeboat tasks is a game of noughts and crosses or connect four where each square in the grid has the initial letters of a sentence that has been worked on in the lesson, eg “HSJRGD” as a cipher for hier soir, j’ai regardé Grand Designs. Students have to guess the sentences before drawing a naught or cross for their team.

But I also have a small selection of simple printed resources that have helped me out no end from time to time when the class is quicker than anticipated.

my lifeboat task file

Clare Seccombe’s hexagon booklets

I have a wodge of blank hexagon booklets that students can use in many different ways. This works as an extension task for fast finishers as well as a whole class lifeboat task.

Follow the link above for Clare’s template PDF and some examples of how to use it. (telling the time, verb conjugations)

It’s a great example of HOTS not MOTS (higher order thinking skills not more of the same) because you can get the students to consider it as a teaching tool.

Lifeboat tasks - strip bingo

I have some blank sheets for playing strip bingo on, made by simply drawing horizontal lines on a landscape sheet of A4 and guillotining into strips. Students put one vocab item from the a constrained list into each square. You call out the vocab items. Students are only allowed to score the two outside squares of their sheet, so you have to have a way of calling the same vocab item more than once (return the paper to the hat, for example.) If you call the item from the outside of their strip, they tear it off. You have to be strict about keeping the discarded paper safe ready for throwing away and not making a mess with.

Students get excited at the name of the game – strip bingo – so I make a point of clearing up that it’s called that because it’s played on a strip, not because anyone will have to remove clothing.

It ought to be possible to play this game without providing a preprinted strip for the students, but I find they do not listen to instructions and many do not draw the boxes so they can tear the strip off properly. At least the first few times through, it’s quicker to provide them with a sheet.

The same is also true for my final suggestion, aural dominoes. For this, students pick a sentence from their work, which they write in the target language and in English on a small sheet. They then tear the English off, you collect all the English strips, and you get them to pick a new one at random. Then it should be possible for a student to read their TL sentence, another student to hear and understand it, and read the English translation, and then start a chain. Each new student reads aloud the English of the TL sentence they have heard before then giving a new sentence which someone else in the room should have the English for. This can be quite a long activity – up to 20 minutes – until the students are used to how it works and get a bit quicker.

Aural dominoes template.

What are your go-to lifeboat tasks?


The wug test is something you do to prove that young children are internalising the rules of the English language. You show them a wug, and there is a short dialogue: “This is a wug. Now there are two of them. There are two _________ ?” Most children over two or three will know the answer is wugs.

I was just googling this and found there’s a wealth of wug related material.

Firstly, there’s a lovely website with many of the original drawings, from 1958.

This is quoted in the wikipedia page for Jean Gleason, who devised the test and a bunch of others I’d not seen before. “This is a dog with QUIRKS on him. He is all covered in QUIRKS. He is a _________ dog.” and even better, “This is a very tiny wug. What would you call a very tiny wug? This wug lives in a house. What would you call a house a wug lives in?” which prompted the commenters to speculate – wuggery? wug-wam? wugloo?

Then this fabulous cartoon.

breeding wugs

Then this…

wug life

Some lovely comments on Arnold Zwicky’s blog.

I once tried to use wugs as a spring board to talking about German plurals but it proved counter productive. We got a little bit obsessed with wugs and kinda didn’t pay a lot of attention to the actual real point of the lesson.

Oh look, you can even get a wug mug!

Music to learn verbs to

I’ve been doing avoir to the Pink Panther theme since finding this lovely TES resource at the very start of my teaching career.

Last week I found I didn’t really have anything for haben and wasn’t that impressed with my options. I went googling and found some absolutely lovely Mozart songs for both key German verbs that are very catchy, slightly silly, and will be used by me for ages to come.

I even wonder if we can get them into the soundtrack for foreign trips.

(slightly chipmunky, also very reminiscent of Sound of Music – I can imagine curtain-clad pirouetting alpine children singing these)

(This is from the Magic Flute and I’m quite interesting in trying to find sheet music. It’s classic choral harmony and I can’t hear it without trying to busk through all the parts)

This is also a great excuse for singing the Queen of the Night song. Not that I would ever do that in front of a class (ahem!).

Up until now I had been doing both sein and être to the tune of Michael Finnegan. You have to include the English in this to work as well. “Ich bin, I am, du bist you are, er ist he is…” and so on.

Both sein and être also work nicely to the Mission Impossible theme. You can fit versions of the whole verb both to the bass introduction and the treble theme once that kicks in.

There is also this balmy and awesome aller song to complete the trio of vital French irregular verbs.

The images are starting to be dated, and some classes can be obsessed with the visuals whilst not listening to the actual French, but it still plays well with most groups. I generally use it with older classes as we start really working on the near future tense. Using mixed / boy and girl bands to explain ils and elles is inspired and chimes much better with students than “on the day the priest visits the convent, they turn from elles to ils.” (although I still tell that story too)

If you are actually going to sing the songs yourself to your class, you need to practise privately before trying to do it with everyone, so you can be consistent with your underlay (how the words fit the tune.) This is why several bemused colleagues have put their head around my classroom door in the last week to find me singing Pink Panther in a darkened classroom. Even my set of personal pronoun hand gestures isn’t moving enough to turn the occupancy lighting back on.

These wonderful youtube videos mean you can use song to teach verbs even if you are the sort of teacher who does not sing yourself.

Stop press – here’s a version of the Pink Panther powerpoint converted to a youtube video!

My differentiation on this – ALL do the jazz hands on vous allez MOST sing all the words SOME sing in tune.

GCSE results

I’m a little fascinated by the table that Steve Smith has reproduced here which stretches the not inconsiderable period from 1993, including 1994 when I got my A* in French, all the way to today, including a small group of students I taught. Of all the people getting GCSE grades in French in 2014, I taught 0.008% of them for less than half their GCSE! Go me! There were 13,000 of us who got A* when I did and 16,000 this year.

All of this slightly silly numbercrunching led my friend Matthew to produce this graph


And I wondered about the relative popularity of French, German, and Spanish, went back to the amazing home of GCSE data tables and produced this graph:

mfl entries graph

Spanish is clearly now more popular than German and is continuing to climb, but is a long way away from “replacing French” as this Independent article claims.

Some other points – you can see why it is hard to get a languages teaching job if you have no French at all. And yet it is increasingly common for strong languages graduates only ever to have had the opportunity to study one language at school.

The Indy article speaks of Spanish as an important world language gaining in popularity but I’d argue this is a very North / South American perspective. German is far more common in Europe as this fascinating Wikipedia paragraph points out:

German is the main language of approximately 95 to 100 million people in Europe, or 13.3% of all Europeans, being the second most spoken native language in Europe after Russian (with 144 million speakers), above French (with 66.5 million) and English (with 64.2 million).

I guess we are not talking European Union languages for the factoid about Russia to be true. Spanish languishes in 5th place in Europe.

I left university in 2000 with a 2:1 in French and German with an equal emphasis on the two languages. French has always been my stronger language and I still have a much wider vocabulary and more comfortable grip on the grammar. By the end of my degree I felt a bit of a failure in German – my language module marks were the lowest, I was very poor at university level translation, and I pretty much made a promise never to become a German teacher.

On the way into teaching, however, I was made to feel that my German skills were vitally important, and that anyone who could vaguely pronounce Staatsangehörigkeit or spell Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher had a moral responsibility to wade into the modern languages battle and staunch the flood of candidates away from German.

My students regularly ask why they can’t learn Spanish and I only have flippant answers. There’s no-one in school who could teach it, for starters. If you want to learn Spanish, the school would have to fire all the current language teachers and hire new ones. My favourite flippant response to “Why can’t I learn Spanish?” is “I’m not stopping you. Feel free.”

Checklists in MFL – building on marking has a post about checklists which is helpful, taking Mr H’s idea and running with it.

Here’s a way I’ve been using something similar to raise achievement in all my KS3 classes this year.

Our assessment scheme means all KS3 students do two or three pieces of formal, levelled writing which contributes to their termly reports. Last year I found they were too happy to keep making the same mistakes and not make any progress in their writing, so this year my idea to prevent this was to get them to look at their previous piece of writing before planning the next.

Since we are trying to help them prepare for GCSE controlled assessment the KS3 writing they do is planned and prepared in class, learned off by heart and then regurgitated under test conditions with maybe a cue card to help.

Our school has the Purple Pens of Progress as this year’s Ofsted gimmick – we mark in green and they respond in purple. So at the start of every planning lesson I make them write, in purple pen in their book:

My target level is ___.
This time I am aiming for ___.
To achieve this I must write __ sentences and include
My feedback from last time was

This makes them engage with the marking feedback I spent hours writing on their last assessment (which is copied by them to a sheet in APP folders which they carry around with them at all times, so they should always have a copy). It makes them engage with the marking criteria to preempt conversations like “But I wrote LOADS!! Why didn’t I get a L6?” They know before they begin what features they need to include and a minimum length for their writing piece.

The most common things I tell them they need to include are

* three sentences in French learned off by heart (for people going L2 -> L3)

* five sentences and CORN (L3 -> L4)

(Corn is connectives, opinions, reasons and negatives – they have sheets in their book and I have a display – the CORNwall – that helps with this.)

* 7 – 10 sentences, CORN and another tense (L4 -> L5)

* 10 – 12 sentences, CORN, two other tenses, “very few mistaks”.

(The Y9 helpsheet talks about tenses and accuracy and has “very few mistaks” in it as my little joke to amuse myself. It was a loooooong time through the year before any student noticed.)

Food topic in MFL

We’re just moving into a food topic with Y8 at the minute and with my five classes last year and four this year, it’s now something I’ve had a bit of practice in.

My first lesson is about breakfast food and opinions, so it starts with a textbook vocab list and pictures – students have to match the target language words with the pictures and then write a vocab list in their books.

Then I get them to generate English words to fit the sentences “I like bread because it’s _____” and “I don’t like cheese because it’s _____” and they go off to the dictionaries to find the words they need. They need to be able write sentences like this – opinions and reasons – to get through level 4 in the National Curriculum for modern foreign languages and do well in their end of term exams.

I like doing it this way because it means each different class has a slightly different word bank and when I’m marking 250 versions of the same thing there is enough variety to keep it interesting for me.

They have to run the words by me at first so that I can advise and guide a little – they will need delicious and disgusting, so they have to have those. If they want to look up “sweet” I make very sure they know the difference between “sweet” and “sweat”. I can point them in the right direction to make sure they are looking for adjectives and not nouns, and that they know that the squiggle represents the headword again and so on. I can stop them trying to find dialect or youth speak words that I know won’t be in the dictionary as well as talking them down from things that are too complicated. (“mouth-watering” last year turned out to be “qui met l’eau à la bouche” which didn’t fit properly with parce que c’est and so meant an awful lot of corrections in one set of books)

This year’s students have all wanted to know the word “bland” which caught me a bit on the hop. Happily our native speaker teaching assistant could tell me the French is “fade” without me having to resort to I didn’t know that word as a 12-year-old, but learned it a little later on at a very memorable family dinner. It turns out they have all learned it in food technology, so it’s nice to have a bit of cross-curricular working.

I’m currently avoiding marking a set of books where some of the words they went for were mouldy, divine, and rank, so I am getting sentences like j’adore les croissants, parce qu’ils sont divins, and je déteste le fromage parce que c’est nauséabond.

Which is nice.

A little later on to get them using connectives more creatively, and get them practising future and past tenses for levels 5 and 6, I will be getting them to do these Barry-Smith-style sheets which I have put on the TES.

Writing about Food (French)

Writing about Food (German)