First MFL lesson of the year

Updated from original in 2014.  This is a summary of things that I have tried and their various strengths.  For any ECT/NQTs looking for a more detailed walkthrough, I would recommend Silvia Bastow’s website, particularly this

The one thing my PGCE never prepared me for was what to do in the first lesson of the year.  I’ve now had 8-9 attempts.  As a result of different heads of department, changing schools a few years ago and different policies, I have tried many different ways of doing the first lesson of the year.  I’ll come to these later.

The biggest help you can give yourself is a strong start.  As readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of football and a particular club which might explain the lack of Liverpool/Man City in the following examples.  A strong start normally makes for a good season:

  • 1960 Tottenham – won first 11 games, won the league.
  • 1993 Man Utd – won 13 out of 15 opening games, won the league.  This made EverydayMFL very happy.
  • 2003 Arsenal – won 10 out of 13 opening games, won the league.

I would argue the same applies in teaching, however if you don’t manage a strong start with a class, then let me assure you that it can improve over time.  If you find after a few weeks that you are struggling then I would suggest:

  1. Talking to someone in your school.
  2. Observing others with similar classes and seeing how they manage them.
  3. Any material by Tom Bennett, Tom Sherrington and Shaun Allison Their writings were invaluable in my early career.
  4. This shameless self-promotion blog.
  5. And this blog from the same shameless self-promoting author.
  6. Bill Rogers “Cracking the hard class” is also worth a read.

How do you give yourself a strong start?

Have a Seating Plan.  Students enter the room and I tell them where I want them to sit.  Seating plans are an invaluable tool in pre-empting behaviour, learning names and establishing that it is your space they are entering.  Students with various needs will have arrangements made for their seating.  This can be done entirely in the TL (again setting standards high).  Students line up outside the room and are greeted before being asked in TL to sit in a particular seat.  As for where to sit students, I generally go with boy/girl pairings never in alphabetical order.  Some with particularly tricky behaviour records will be strategically placed, according to any intel that we have on them.  SEN/PP are also carefully considered.  Knowing who your SEN/PP students are is important.  I had one colleague who had texts of 2 tables put together, students would essentially be sat in a square and they would put them on the top right and top lefts (as they looked at it from the front).  That way they always knew.  If students disagree with the seating then I will offer them the opportunity to discuss it at the end.  If they refuse to take that opportunity then follow your school’s policy regarding defiance.     

Have every resource ready and accessible.  Slick and professional is a good way to start.  If your school has a number of sheets to glue in then make sure you have the sheets.  Make sure you know where you can get more from mid-lesson if needed (a friendly colleague or a central supply).  Make sure your PowerPoints, mini-whiteboards and whatever you intend to use are ready.  This highlights that you are in control, you are organised, you pay attention to detail and you want to maximise the time they have in the classroom.  Transitions are smooth and disruption free.  

Be prepared, start to embed routines and look calm.  Most groups will likely be quite compliant in this lesson.   It is a honeymoon period.  Do not be fooled, many students will push your boundaries over the next few weeks.  This could be through disruption, defiance or non-completion of homework.  Be ready to use the systems and don’t be afraid to do so.  Don’t be afraid to call home positively or negative in the first few weeks.  Don’t be afraid to keep a student back for a few seconds at the end for a quiet word (if time allows).  Routines are key.  If you are using a 5,4,3,2,1 silence/silencio/Ruhe system then make sure it is clear and there are consequences for anyone who falls foul of it.  It will pay off in the long run.  

Consider the student.  Some students will already have written your subject off.  Consider painting the big picture briefly at some point.  How is this subject useful?  Draw on experiences you or others have had.  I could line up 20 teachers in my school who openly have expressed regret at not learning a language.  How can you convince them that learning languages is: fun, relevant and useful?  Consider how you can create a feeling of “can do” and success in the early weeks.  Rosenshine suggests that students need a success rate of 80%.  How are 8×6 and 9y5 going to have a success rate of 80% in those early weeks?

Smile while being firm and fair.  I remember being given the “don’t smile until Christmas advice” on my PGCE.  No!  You can smile as long as you are doing your best to be firm, fair and consistent.  It’s ok to get things wrong occasionally, we are human beings and it does happen.  The key thing is how you learn from it and what you do next.  

Do not lower your standards at all.  High expectations are crucial.  It may sound harsh but will pay dividends long term.  I learnt this the hard way in my first few years.  Behaviour matters, effort matters, trying matters and homework matters.  Reward the good stuff and make sure there are consequences for the negative stuff.  Stick to the school systems as pupils will realise that you are not to be trifled with.  Occasionally, you may need to adapt your approach depending on how the class have come in.  For example, if there was a fight at lunchtime, everyone was soaked by a sudden shower or students have just come from an extremely boisterous lesson elsewhere.  This does not mean lowering your standards, expecting less work or being soft.  It is simply adapting to the evolving situation in front of you.  

If that is how we are to be in our first lessons, then we can now consider: what we do, and more importantly, what the students do.  The first decade of my teaching career involved a variety of approaches.  Here are a few “first lessons” that I have tried.  

Admin first approach

The pros of this approach is that everyone starts from the same point and all the necessary stuff is done.  Rules can be established and students are very compliant in this lesson, often regardless of ability.  In the past, this has included gluing in various sheets, going through and copying out some classroom expectations.  My rules generally were phrased positively.  Sometimes I asked students to sign underneath if they understood.  This meant I could hold them to it later if they were not playing ball.  I cannot remember my exact rules but I imagine they would have been something along the lines of…

In this class:

  • We try our best every lesson, every week.
  • We use Spanish wherever possible.
  • We are kind and we respect others.
  • We present work neatly.
  • We start tasks immediately.

My main issue with this is that sometimes there is not enough time for a language based activity or fun.  This means that students are left waiting until the next lesson for the real learning to start.  A lot of subjects also take this approach and it can get a bit monotonous if students have done it 5 times before they reach your lesson.

Lesson learnt: if showing the kids what to put on the front of their book never write an example name like “Lionel Messi” as some Year 10s don’t know who he is…as a result I taught Lionel Messi for a year, and she did alright in Spanish.

Information Gleaning Approach

Often following shortly on the heels of the “admin first” approach, the teacher may set the students a series of sentences to complete in the back of their books.

My three “go to” sentences were these:

  • I enjoy Spanish lessons particularly when …
  • Aspects of language learning I find difficult are …
  • If my last Spanish/French/German teacher were here they would say…

The latter generally is answered quite honestly.  They also give you an idea about which activities the class enjoys least (often listening, remembering lots of vocab, speaking in front of others or writing long paragraphs).  This then informs your planning for the first few weeks as you can build up to these and scaffold accordingly.  It is also quite helpful with some pupils to follow up on it later in the term.  “You said you found writing long paragraphs hard last year, has it got any easier?”

Sometimes I phrased them as questions:

  • What aspects of language learning have you been good at/struggled with in the past?
  • Which skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing) do you feel you are good at, and why?
  • If your previous teacher were here, what would they say about your performance in their lessons?

This can often be quite useful as long as students are silent when doing it.  The information needs to come from them unaffected by their peers.  If you refer to the information gleaned in subsequent lessons then this shows the students you value them.

Lesson learnt: really effective if kids are silent but also if they are lazy or unmotivated then they will probably not finish this.  That in itself is information enough.  The question is then what are you going to do about it?  

Engage then admin.

In my second year of teaching, I tried this approach of having a normal lesson first with a number of good fun activities to start the year.  It really worked with a couple of year 7 groups and year 8 groups as it allowed them to have a sense of achievement and the emphasis was on learning rather than admin.   We then completed the admin in the second lesson.  A short summary of rules were given and I made sure students kept to them.  There was a focus on speaking and listening as students had no paper to write down anything.

Lesson learnt: Short summary of rules is crucial and mini-whiteboards need to be available.  Routines around the use of mini-whiteboards need to be established quickly.

The Quiz

I tried this once and I know a great many colleagues who do this.   I even saw it on a Sixth Form Induction day lesson.  A short quiz about Spain in the first lesson is one way to fill the remaining time after admin and expectations.  I can understand the pros.  It neatly introduces the subject.  It teaches the students some cultural knowledge.  It allows you to show what you are passionate about: Spain/France/Germany/Italy.  However, I have a few reservations.  Firstly, students with low cultural capital are instantly disadvantaged.  These are also the students less likely to value MFL for the reasons in the quote below:    

“The reasons commonly put forward for the low levels of student interest are usually that English adolescents (a) do not see the relevance of foreign language learning to their future careers ; (b) since most people around the world speak English, they do not feel the urgency to learn it; (c) see foreign languages as some kind of hobby, that you do in your free time or before a trip to get by in the country you are travelling to; (d) do not feel culturally close to the target language civilizations.”  Gianfranco Conti 2015

Secondly, Gianfranco Conti highlights the importance of self-efficacy as a factor in motivation.  Why start the year with a quiz that most students will fail on a subject to which they are not “culturally close”? Conti describes self-efficacy using Bandura’s definition: “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.”  Why would we not take the first few lessons to really build confidence?  Surely it is more important that students leave our early lessons with the motivation and the belief: “I can do this.” 

Lastly, there is an opportunity being missed to embed routines around target language, speaking activities and having fun using the language.

That’s a lengthy answer to “Why don’t I do quizzes in the first lesson?”  Feel free to disagree in the comments below.

The Hybrid

In my current school, we seem to manage a hybrid of both “admin first” and “straight in”.  Books and sheets are swiftly given out.  Rules and expectations are outlined.  We then get straight into learning or revising content from a previous year.  If it is Y7 then we will start on meeting and greeting.  If it is Y8,9,10,11 then we will get started on the topic for the term.  Personally, I have never been a fan of quizzes about the country in the first lesson.  I prefer that they leave my room feeling that they can do something in the TL, or have learnt something. That doesn’t mean that the cultural stuff is not important but when it comes to culture, I prefer teaching them the various cultural aspects as they arise, or linking them to a topic.  I have yet to write a post on teaching culture so maybe that will come at some point.

Lessons learnt: So far this hybrid model seems to be may preferred method.  It makes expectations and rules clear but then gets on with the first priority: learning.

2 thoughts on “First MFL lesson of the year

  1. Pingback: Plenty to come from EverydayMFL | Everyday MFL

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s