About

Thanks for dropping by my blog!

Every now and again I post an article or two on all sorts of Modern Foreign Languages teaching which I’m enthusiastic about.  Please feel free to leave a comment – this is intended as a  place where the practical side of teaching a foreign language can be discussed – and if you find something useful or you think someone else might, please do share it using the buttons at the foot of each post.

I am Head of Modern Languages in a small 11-16 mixed comprehensive in East Anglia.  I’ve been teaching French & Spanish now for 20 years and over this time I have worked in 5 comprehensive schools, from very large to quite small, and I have been Head of Department in 3 of them.  For 3 years I ran a language school I had set up in Madrid.  For the whole of this time, my focus has always been very much set on the how? and the why? of our teaching.  I trained at St. Martin’s College, Lancaster, (now the University of Cumbria) under James Burch, Anna Bartrum and Jenifer Alison, who have been the most enormous support and inspiration all the way through from PGCE days to now, and after working with Wendy Bromidge (now Mrs Ward!) for 7 hugely inspirational years, I still want to be like her when I grow up.

In Madrid I taught at my language school, Hello James!, and ran courses in aspects of communicative methodology for MFL teachers in the UK and in Spain.  I’m particularly interested in teaching through the medium of the target language and incorporating visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles in everything that goes on in the classroom.  I regularly nipped over to the UK to run INSET courses for teachers of MFL and to speak at conferences and schools by invitation.  Some of these courses were filmed and released in DVD format and supplied to teachers and schools all over the UK.  Currently, they are unavailable… but watch this space!

You can find me on Twitter @JamesStubbsLang and LinkedIn.

And so, to teaching…

In my view, for the practical to be genuinely practical in terms of moving students on in their learning, what we do has to be born out of a thought-out rationale.  Otherwise we can spend a looooong time trying different things out on our classes which might work, might not, with little more to give us any prior clue than our instinct!

There are many ways to skin a cat, and also to teach languages.  We all have to make our own choice about how we’re going to go about it and this blog looks at how the choices I’ve made work out in practice.  It’s not intended to suggest that this is the only way!  Nevertheless, my choices have been made on the basis of certain values which I’ve always held dear in terms of teaching, and my decision as to which direction I want to go in in any particular course/term/lesson is made in terms of them.  These are some of the questions I ask of an idea:

  • Is it communicative? Is language used for real purposes?  Or are pupils using language just for the sake of it?
  • How will I run the activity in the target language? And what will the implications be on how I structure the lesson/previous lessons in order to enable me to run the activity, and pupils to engage in it, without resorting to their native language at any time?
  • What is coming out of the average mouth? In terms of quantity – how much opportunity does every pupil have to speak – and quality – is the level and complexity of their language appropriate to their stage of learning, or has it barely moved on since a year ago, a term ago, a month ago?
  • How does it move pupils on? Why is it worth doing this activity?  Is it just fun to do, or does it help, genuinely help, pupils to fulfil the learning objectives I have for them?  How?
  • How does it fit into my grammatical agenda? If I know the grammatical destination I’m trying to get pupils to, how does this help me to get them there, or how can I tweak it so that it does?
  • Is it multi-sensory? If my class is made up of a group of students whose preferred learning style is visual, auditory or kinaesthetic, (or a mix of at least two of those), does my activity/idea include everyone, or are the kinaesthetic learners, for example, left out?  How can I adapt it so that everyone is able to access and retain what I’m trying to teach them?
  • How are pupils involved? Do I need to bring any extra techniques to bear on this activity so that pupils are genuinely engaged?  How can I avoid anyone from becoming a spectator?
  • What changes do I need to make in order to make this suitable in a mixed-ability class? I don’t want to pitch the language so high that those who struggle most get left behind.  Nor do I want to leave it weakly in the middle so that those who can cope with a much higher level still feel unchallenged and the weakest still can’t access the lesson.  So how do I need to structure the activity, in how it’s run or set up, so that everyone can learn and make progress.  After all, my objective is not that they can “do” the activity, but that they learn more!

These are just some of the questions I want to consider on this blog.  Some of the examples I give come from teaching English as a foreign language, and others from teaching French or Spanish.  Regardless of the language of the examples, the principles and the rationale can be applied to a wide range of languages.  I love teaching, and I really enjoy learning from other teachers, too.  Please remember that none of the articles I post on here are intended to convey the idea that I think I’ve got it all cracked now, and I can pontificate via cyberspace on what we should all be doing!  In fact, it’s not having it all sorted that keeps me interested and keeps me searching.  So join in the discussion, and please – teach me a thing or two!  If you want to get in touch, please use the contact form below – your email address and message will reach me but they will not show as public on the blog.

4 thoughts on “About

  1. Hello James,

    Thank you so much for your excellent blog and your thoughtful reflections! Those are exactly the types of questions that I continue to work through as I teach my classes. I am a French teacher who also works in Spain, and I was exploring educational blogs when I came across this one. One critical part of growth as an instructor is being able to discuss and exchange ideas that will help our students learn more effectively. It seems from this blog and your website that you have contributed enormously to teacher training and growth.

    I appreciated your questions specifically related to the types of activities we choose for our students in the classroom. It can be tempting to think that just because students are using the target language, the activity is helpful. But like you mentioned, I often need to ask myself “Is is authentic and communicative?” “Is it helping students practice their grammar?” “Is it within their zone of proximal development, neither too easy, nor too difficult?” What have you found to be the most helpful source of new activities? I see in your blog that you have many different lessons and suggestions. Do you come up with most of those on your own, or do you exchange ideas with other people? Are workshops and books useful? There are so many ways to glean new ideas, so if you had to narrow it down, which venues have you found most useful for teachers to continue their search?

    Finally, I am very interested in your posts for Newly Qualified Teachers. Your calendar and time management strategy were excellent, as are the pace and ideas for “To get you started NQT” thought for the day. I was curious if you have specific group of teachers that you work with (those who have attended your trainings) or if you are writing to NQT who happen to find your blog? I am very interested in a coaching/mentoring program at my school, and I find that your insights are very valuable. Would you be comfortable with me referring new teachers to your blog? Would we be able to use some of your ideas (giving you the credit) in some of our meetings for teacher initiation week before the start of school?

    Thank you for your contributions to our profession. I admire your work and your methods and wish you the best with this blog. I will be following it!

    Regards,

    Marie

    • Hello Marie,

      Thank you very much indeed for your message, and for your very kind words. I’m really pleased you’ve found some things here you can use. I’ve been very lucky over the years to work with some really excellent teachers who have fired me up when thinking about new ideas. Training at St Martin’s College, Lancaster, was amazingly inspirational and there I learned about the rationale which makes it all work. This has been so useful when reading books on activities (I try to set aside 15 minutes or so every couple of days to work my way through a couple of books a term, either methodology or activities) because having the rationale clear helps me to work out what tweaks I need to make to an activity to make it fit what I do. Most of the time I use activities I’ve come up with myself or which have been sparked off by conversations with other teachers. I think workshops are very useful if they address the practicalities of how the ideas they show work out in the day-to-day realities of the classroom. I like attending workshops even if I don’t share the same teaching approach as the presenter – if it starts me off thinking it will often trigger another idea or it will challenge me on something in my own teaching which I may not have questioned for a while. Personally, I actually find it quite difficult to use other people’s materials so in the training sessions I run, I like to separate out what you ‘see’ as the activity, and the principles which underpin it. That way, another person with another style, personality, temperament, teaching situation, etc., can still use the activity and they also know how to adapt it for them so it still works, even though on the surface it might look quite different.

      For me, nothing beats being part of a like-minded team who get on well together and who are willing to talk about what they do and allow others into their classroom to see the successes and the stumbles. They don’t have to agree on everything and it’s good when they’ve all got different strengths (one uses a lot of songs in their teaching, another uses a lot of card games, etc.) and personalities. For many teachers, though, this isn’t possible and they get a bit stuck, and a bit lonely methodologically. This was where the idea for producing methodology DVDs came from. Seeing an idea in action is often easier than reading about it in print, and where teachers can’t get out of school on a course, this is the next best thing I think.

      I’m glad you’ve found the NQT material useful. You’re very welcome to use anything on this blog in your school and thank you for offering to refer new teachers to the blog. I do have a group of teachers I chat with, who I’ve known for years and used to work with, but the material on here is for anyone who finds it useful. I always refer those who attend training sessions, consultancies or courses with me to this blog, but it’s really for anyone who is interested in pursuing target-language communicative teaching.

      Thank you very much for getting in touch,
      Best wishes,
      James

  2. Hello James,
    I also trained at St. Martin’s College, Carlisle with the wonderful Anna Bartrum as mentor (2008). I therefore had the chance to be part of a half-day workshop ran by you. I preserved my notes from that day it was so inspiring. I was still referring to them until I discovered your blog last month! I am delighted to read your posts as I was starting to feel a bit dry in terms of ideas. So thank you very much.

    I have a question for you.
    You must have heard about the Accelerative Integrated Methodology (AIM) and Wendy Maxwell. I stumbled upon it about two years ago and I remember thinking it was the carbon copy of the way we were trained in Carlisle. Apart from the story-based approach (and using clothes pegs in place of “points” or “euros”) it was to me using the same vibrant, engaging and challenging techniques.
    I recently have attended one of the AIM approach and I felt right at home. I was therefore shocked when the facilitator told us that if as teachers, we were not using “the AIM kit” in our classes,we couldn’t claim to be AIM practitioners. Can I get your opinion on how I could class the St Martin’s method of training? My feeling is it is essentially the AIM method. I am hesitant to say this as there seems to be an idea that to use the AIM I must be specifically trained by them and only use their resources.
    Could I have your point of view on this issue James please?
    Kind regards,
    Cleo

  3. Dear Cleo,
    Many thanks for your message, and apologies for a very slow reply. To be honest, before I received your message I hadn’t come across the AIM or Wendy Maxwell and all I can comment on is what I see on her website. On a reasonably quick reading of it, it appears that there is a fair amount of overlap in the principles which I see as a good thing – both the St Martin’s approach and AIM base themselves on research into language acquisition. I think the centrality of the story-based approach and the fact that the organisation produces its own materials is enough to make it distinct: the St Martin’s approach is full of classroom routines and communicative interaction and progression, and yet in all of the routines and competitions, pupils have to ‘do’ something – and that something is completely open to the teacher’s own creativity. As I understand it, AIM requires the use of their own materials and, of course, that is something they can legitimately copyright. For that reason I think it’s also legitimate that to call oneself an AIM practitioner, a teacher would have to use the AIM materials. I’ve encountered this in other spheres outside language teaching where someone works on creating a particular training programme which is then made available more widely. For potential clients to have confidence in that brand, the owners need to protect its content and delivery very strictly, otherwise it can become a pedagogical version of Chinese Whispers. So although I’m sure the AIM organisation wouldn’t claim to be unique in all of its principles and techniques (it is, after all, based on other people’s research into what is now believed to be objectively true as regards how languages are learned or acquired), it may well be unique in how it presents its own interpretation of that research through its own materials. I guess it would be fine to use their materials and resources in amongst your own teaching if you have attended their training sessions and to include their training on your CV, but if you use their materials in combination with other materials, they may well not want you to describe yourself as an AIM practitioner. That’s their call, I think. As an aside, I have on a few occasions sat through training given by someone I’ve never come across and been presented with my own activity or a song I wrote myself with no credit given (and copyright breached!). I’ve also found some of my own materials on other people’s blogs and websites (very naughty). Even if credit were given, it wouldn’t entitle those who read or attend to say that I’d trained them. Just a thought!

    I hope that helps a bit. Thank you so much for getting in touch and for your very kind comments. I’m a bit behind on my blog at the moment, this term has taken me rather by surprise at how busy it is! I hope you find the other posts on here useful, and I wish you well for the rest of term.
    James

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