Skip to main content

Using literary texts at KS3

I have been reading a brand new book called Success Stories from Secondary Foreign Languages Classrooms (Models from London school partnerships with universities). It is edited by Colin Christie and Caroline Conlon and published by UCL/IoE Press. The book consists of eight chapters written by various academics and teacher trainers working on PGCE courses in the London area.

I'll blog a bit more about it in due course, but here I'll focus on one chapter written by Fotini Diamantidaki and entitled Using literature in the key stage 3 modern foreign languages classroom.

Fotini begins by putting the topic in context, referring to the latest DfE national curriculum for MFL and its inclusion of the directive that pupils should "read literary texts in the language... to stimulate ideas, develop creative expression andf expand understanding of the language and culture."

A general justification is then provided for teaching literature. Fotini says that literary texts

1. are authentic (another requirement of the national curriculum);
2. provide a more intimate insight into the lifestyle of the target language country by exploring characters' thoughts and feelings as well as the customs of the country);
3. provide a rich source of vocabulary;
4. motivate pupils by engaging imagination and creativity.

A project is then described of which the aim was for teachers to identify and use texts with KS3 classes in the London area. Feed back from teachers and pupils is referred to, along with a few examples of texts used mainly poems). the feedback was mixed, with more than one teacher reporting that the classes responded poorly, mainly because the texts were too hard.

This is not surprising, is it? One of the fundamental principles of language teaching, in my view, is that the language presented should not be too much higher than the level the pupils are working at. If your text contains too much new language (both grammar and vocabulary) it will be off-putting and inappropriate for target language interaction. It's not surprising that most teachers in the project described above went for poems. Let's look at one quoted in the chapter by Paul Eluard, used by a teacher in the context of the Dans ma chambre il y a... topic:

Dans Paris 

Dans Paris il y a une rue;
Dans cette rue il y a une maison;
Dans cette maison il y a un escalier;
Dans cet escalier il y a une chambre;
Dans cette chambre il y a une table;
Sur cette table il y a un tapis;
Sur ce tapis il y a une cage; 
Dans cette cage il y a un nid;
Dans ce nid il y a un œuf,
Dans cet œuf il y a un oiseau. 
L'oiseau renversa l'œuf;
L'œuf renversa le nid;
Le nid renversa la cage;
La cage renversa le tapis;
Le tapis renversa la table;
La table renversa la chambre;
La chambre renversa l'escalier;
L'escalier renversa la maison;
La maison renversa la rue;
La rue renversa la ville de Paris.

Now, I have to ask what the point is of using this text. If the aim is to practise grammar we have, as well as il y a,  the use of demonstrative adjectives and the past historic. The vocabulary includes a limited range of rather random words connected with house and home. Do we want to confuse pupils with the past historic at this stage? Are there better ways of introducing and practising demonstrative adjectives? (You could ignore it, or just deal with any questions from pupils about it.) Is the content stimulating for pupils? Does the fact that it is authentic make it more motivating? "Here's a real poem by the writer Paul Eluard". Pupils just love poetry, don't they?

If you take the view that the poem can lead to an interesting discussion about cause and effect and the humorous nature of the poem, I would suggest that this could be done in a minute and provide little of use in terms of communicative possibilities, practice or linguistic progress. Okay, no doubt you could do some phonics work, but you can do this with any text. You might argue that we have a duty to open pupils' minds by exposing them to poetry, but I would respond that our main aim is to teach a language in the most effective and interesting way possible. I'm not sure this is.

With any text I always ask: what can I do with this? To me the above looks like a classic case of shoehorning a text into the scheme of work just to tick and box and follow a DfE directive.

The chapter provides precious few examples of prose being used in classes. This is not surprising since it is too hard and brings into focus why the DfE requirement for literature at this level is misguided. One example from French is quoted - the oft-used Le Petit Nicolas. The lessons described revealed nothing new: teacher reading aloud, pupils reading, looking at drawings for support, discussing a summary of events in English with a partner (is this really useful?), a booklet of oral and written activities delving more into the detail of the language and translation of sentences.

I must say that, having taught from Le Petit Nicolas once, I never did so again. The humour of the text just does not get through to pupils, even quite able ones. Once you have to explain it, the point is lost. What's more, the content is out of date and deals in caricature and stereotype. Why would you use it?

This chapter left me no more convinced of the value of teaching literary texts at KS3 (or KS4 for that matter). If you work in an academy, independent or free school you could (bizarrely) choose to ignore the DfE instruction. However, you know that eventually, if your pupils take a GCSE they will have to deal with very short extracts of literature in the reading paper. This becomes, de facto, the national curriculum. Bear in mind that there are few marks for these bits of the GCSE and that the questions can be answered using generic linguistic skill. There are no marks for interpreting meanings beyond the purely linguistic. If I were still leading a department I would suggest to my team that they pay little attention at all to literature at KS3 and not much more at KS4.


Popular posts from this blog

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

Making words memorable

Most teachers and researchers would agree that knowing words is even more important than knowing grammar if you wish to be proficient in a language. As linguist David Wilkins wrote in 1972: "Without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed."One of the frustrations for teachers is pupils' inability to retain vocabulary for productive use. A good deal of research has been done over the years into how pupils might better keep words in memory. Two concepts which have come to the fore are spacing and interleaving.

Spaced practice

A 2003 review of the literature by P.Y. Gu reported that most studies show that students frequently forget words after learning them just once.  Anderson and Jordan (1928) discovered that after initial learning, then one week, three weeks and eight weeks thereafter, the recall success was 66%, 48%, 39% and 37% respectively. Other studies have produced similar results. Unsurprisingly, these researchers recommend, space…

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…