Ideas for teaching MFL in classes with weak literacy

A plea came through on the MFL Resources mailing list this week for ideas to use for languages teaching in classes with weak literacy skills, for whom sentences are a challenge.

This year, one of my performance management objectives is about improving my teaching across the ability range, so I have been collecting ideas, and I bashed out the following list of things to consider.

Firstly, there is a lot of overlap between KS3 students with weak literacy and the sorts of things primary language teachers do in KS2, so read up on primary languages. I can’t recommend Clare Seccombe highly enough – nearly every week she blogs something useful I can use in my secondary classroom.

Somebody’s blog recently had calligrams made up from parts of the body, so you draw a man out of words, and his feet say “pied pied pied” and his legs “jambe jambe jambe” and so on. Clare wrote about this too

Presenting paradigms of verbs as flowers or spiders – I had a practice on my whiteboard recently, and students liked this.

Practising drawing verb spiders and verb flowers ready for Y7 tomorrow

Half of the battle of teaching verbs in full paradigm is getting students to understand what you are doing, so I start this with personal pronouns in English, with a set of hand gestures (I, you, he, she with a single hand for singular, we you they with both arms for plural) and then an example of a full paradigm English verb, before finally moving on to target language pronouns and verb patterns. Even this is challenging with a room full of students who refuse to accept that “you woz” is not a correct use of English. (Even that I can understand – if everyone you know except teachers says “you woz” why shouldn’t you?)

Washing lines. If you work in a school where the facilities management people are not paranoid about things blowing the breeze and triggering burglar alarms, you can string lines across your classroom and get students to create things to hang from it. This can be bunting, posters, shapes of animals, with target language words on. If you are teaching clothes, it can be a washing line; a few weeks from now we will be celebrating April Fool’s Day which in France means poissons d’avril. They could be attached to a washing / fishing line instead of following children around the school and cluttering up every other classroom. (see also: paper aeroplanes)

Simple magic tricks go down very well with younger classes.

Cootie-catchers / fortune tellers / origami. Fortune tellers get them to practice spelling some simple colours and counting in the TL over and over again. Here are some links with resources and ideas: Dom’s MFL Page and TES.

Wordsearches are sometimes banned in some departments as the students almost always need to be working at a higher level than on individual words. And yet they have their place, especially at the start of the topic, and for getting students to focus carefully on every letter as a task to improve spelling. A nice twist on wordsearches is to make bespoke ones for individual classes and you hide the names of all the students in it as well as the TL words you want them to practice. This is easily done with electronic lists of students names and online serdworch generators. In my files I make sure I keep a list of the words I wanted them to search for and then to change the file from class to class I can add in the students’ names. To get from word level to sentence level, I have in the past got them to search for words in different categories (opinions, connectives, etc) and got them to use the words they find to build sentences.

Minibooks are something we spent a little time on in PGCE year and I have found there is a huge variety of different templates you can create reasonably easily. I can’t praise Clare Seccombe’s minibooks enough – this term we have done “row of shops” minibooks with older students who promised me they were not in fact too old for that kind of thing and hexagon minibooks to practice time, and for school subjects – pictures one side, sentences on other. The row of shops mini-books are now on display and getting lots of jealous comments from the classes who didn’t get to do them.

Treasure or Trash sorting exercises work with all sorts of vocab – you give them a pile of cards of words and they have to get the ones that meet your criteria into one pile and discard the rest.

Triptico resources – find 10 and word magnets are the ones I use most, and they’re free to all. It’s a beautiful and flexible set of apps to use on a smartboard, but that will work with any projector / computer combo. (I don’t have a smartboard and I’m not sure I want one! I do appreciate a large whiteboard and would love to have more than one in my classroom.)

Tarsia jigsaws – a free app from – it’s a pair matching activity that was designed for maths but awesome for languages too. The app gets you to make your own, but you can find somepremade examples here. I tend to give them to students on sheets and they cut them out then make them into puzzles; the first few pairs to finish stick them down on a sheet of paper and use that to help other pairs to complete it. It’s helpful to have a version of the completed puzzle yourself or at least the list of pairs you came up with to use as help, to project as an optional scaffold for the weaker ones. You can make the matching pairs numbers in figures and TL words; words in TL and in English; or for an additional level of challenge, concepts that link (eg les gants / les mains. la voiture / le gaz d’échappement) OK, that last bit is moving away from weak literacy classes somewhat.

There’s an amazing “minimum preparation, maximum effectiveness” games in MFL document on the TES here. This did the rounds on our PGCE year, and I found it again this week. We were doing animals in a class this week, and we ended up with some time at the end so we played “animals heads down thumbs up” – a game I did not know how to play last year, but all classes I’ve tried it with seem to know how to do it already from primary school. For animals, four people had an A4 sheet with an animal name written on it, and the students had to say “Je crois que c’est le (poisson / chien / chat)” (which was on the board as a support) – The class really enjoyed the game. It could be done with any vocab items.

Several lovely ideas in the document above relate to chanting – eg days of week written on board, class chants through over and over, teacher rubs days off one at a time until class can chant days of week from memory. Whole class chanting as one student tries to find hidden object – quietly when student is far away, loudly when student is near. “Chef d’orchestre” – student goes out, class decides on able student whose job it is to change the word that is chanted. When that person changes the word, the people near them change too, until the whole class is chanting the new word. The student who went out has to guess who it is who is changing. You can give them a TL phrase for the guess, or you can just be happy the whole class is chanting French words…

Random snapshots of my whiteboard

I started taking photos of the things I wrote on my whiteboard as a student teacher – it would normally be names of students who needed rewarding or punishment on the school’s computer system, and since I wasn’t in my own room I would have to take a record with me to type up in the staffroom.

A bit later I started taking the occasional snap of things I’d done in lessons I quite liked, or wanted to use again, or needed a record of the vocab I had given one class so that I could use it again with another.

Most of the time, I don’t spend a lot of time writing stuff on the board, because my handwriting isn’t very good, especially if I’m going quickly, and because it’s almost always easier and quicker for me to put my 60WPM typing into practice and make a quick powerpoint slide. Standard advice for new teachers is also not to turn your back on a class for longer than necessary as they might kick off when you’re not looking. Judging by mess in my classroom at the end of most days, there is still a fair bit of chucking stuff around the room going on when I am not looking.

Here’s a random selection:

Snapshots of my whiteboard

Introducing forming the past tense to Y8 in context of sport. We attempt to drip feed past tense phrases in lexically throughout all they learn, but we focus on getting them to understand better early in Y8.

Fiddly extra bits is not a technical grammar term, that would be “complement” or “predicate” but I’m not confident enough that those are correct. I’m also focussing on the AU part of jouer AU foot as students often omit this, and those who have learned German first pronounce it wrong. I have countered this with two little classroom games: “I say JOUER, you say AU! Jouer (AU) Jouer (AU)” and “How do we pronounce this? Yes that’s right, as in AU my goodness I can’t believe you’re still getting this wrong!!”

Snapshots of my whiteboard

Don’t know why I took this. Dictionary exercise to stage into better L4 sentences with opinions and reasons. J’aime le fruit parce que c’est sucré. I tell them they need CORN for Level 4 – connectives, opinions, reasons, negatives. Je n’aime pas les croissants parce qu’ils sont dégoûants ticks three of those criteria off straight away.

NB every time I have done this lesson there have been students who have confused the word they are looking up and come up with transpiration, so now I make sure I disambiguate sweet and sweat before we start. There are still some who don’t listen.

Snapshots of my whiteboard

Sport again, but with able Y9 so we add a variety of adverbs of frequency to try and get more sophisticated writing.

“Avec les extra-terrestres” – with aliens – is part of a little bit of fun I’m having trying to motivate boys with weird extra bits of vocab. Happily it works with girls too! The criteria say they have to use connectives, nothing about whether it has to be true. Indeed “It doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be French” is a bit of a mantra of mine. Last year in “describe your ideal house” we added “un bassin de requins” into the things we might have there (a shark pond). This year for sports I’m including avec les extra-terrestres and avec mon ami imaginaire.

We've been doing some maths in tutor time based on numbers in the news this morning

This was turning facts from the morning news bulletin in the car on the commute to school into a numeracy activity for my tutor group.

NB, “how old will you be in 2033?” was a less tricky question than I had envisaged. “Um, sir, we’ll be 33, of course.”

Going to try school subject Cluedo on Y7 in my penultimate lesson this term. #mfltwitterati

This was the first time I tried Cluedo, a speaking activity I got from Dom’s MFL.

It worked really well, so I do it now with all classes that will be quiet enough to let me explain the instructions. It can easily be adapted to use a wholly target language approach. In this case, students love the opportunity to say nasty or nice things about other teachers, although I do stress that we are doing a GRAMMAR exercise about FRENCH and it should not be assumed that they are writing truthful accounts of other real people in school.

On teaching practice, the German textbook Echo 3 got students to compare teachers using comparatives and superlatives. After a gale of laughter and some dictionary use I went over to find “Herr S ist der schwitzigste Lehrer” – Mr S is the sweatiest teacher. Can’t fault the German language skill, and if the task is motivating, go with it!

The Cluedo task above was used several ways in the same lesson – I usually play the game once – this takes 10-15 minutes as a whole class activity – and follow it up with “write two sentences based on this frame.” If students have already done a lot of writing, the extension might be to play the game in groups on tables as further speaking activity. Then, often, we will look at ways to extend the same sentence even further. The task above eventually resulted in this poster, which I still think I should frame and stick to my door:

Hmm mm.

One final thing on Cluedo – there was at least one student last year whose writing was improved by a whole level simply because he memorised a past tense sentence generated by an activity like this, and regurgitated it in his writing test. Brilliant. If some can do that, then it’s worth continuing with the activity.

Calligrammes and the ties that bind

I found this this afternoon as part of a useful post on how to use war poetry in MFL


And rather liked it. As she explains it came from a period when poetry was beginning to be a written rather than oral medium, and so poets could experiment with how things looked on the page.

Follow the link above for some super examples of students’ work writing poems in French related to war.

Anyway, apart from being a nice piece of work, I approve of the sentiment in the words.

That painful tie you wear, decorous and civilised: take it off if you want to breathe.