Adventures in my classroom – Getting students speaking with assistance from “the secret weapon”!


Strategies to get the most reluctant students speaking is a challenge and is a constant battle not least because overuse of a strategy can become ineffective and students no longer respond positively to it so it is our job to be creative! 

In my current school we offer French and Spanish and we do want to get students speaking using the target language. And lots of them do but there are those that just something extra to feel like they can take the risk and join in the fun. At these times and always for spoken assessment we bring out our “secret weapon“, it melts students resolve and excitement and joy takes over! 

Honestly! The secret weapon seems to flick a switch and reticence to ‘Parle en français’ and ‘hablar en español’ fades in to obscurity. Caution is thrown to the wind and they, the students, are on it, they are well up for it and desperate to please.

The secret weapon seems to have such a huge impact on confidence, motivation, engagement and students suddenly seem to just want to go for it. And it works in every class regardless of ‘ability’, weather type and time of day every time we have employed it. 

Students suddenly lose inhibitions and want to show us what they know can do, the quality of spoken French or Spanish dramatically increases because we have them hooked, recordings made on MP3 or videoed are evidence of their superb effort, to their creativity, understanding, effort and engagement. It is truly brilliant to see how the teacher just stands back enabling the groups to get on with the task(s) set and have fun. Brilliant! 

The quality and range of language spoken improves, accent improves and students dig deep to perform and rise to the challenge of assessment. For some it is dramatic or others small gains but gains nonetheless. What is this wondrous secret weapon? It’s simply and magically a dressing up box

The dressing up box is truly a collection of wondrous items including: 

  • a selection of fantastic hats; berets, flat caps, trilbys, sombreros, 
  • glasses oversized and googly
  • pirate attire (plastic swords, eye patches, plastic hooks and belts)
  • wigs and hair pieces; the more outrageous the better, very curly, mullet style and rainbow are probably the best!
  • paper money & plastic coins
  • head scarves

In addition to the shared ‘boîte de magique’ we do allow students to bring in props and we do get ‘onesies’ but not always. 

Where to get these items of joy and wonder? Toy shops, charity shops, tourist shops, Swedish shops – the large blue and yellow one and the very new one that has appeared on a high street near you! (Mine is Cardiff or Cheltenham) What seems unwearable and ever so slightly bonkers to you and I, seems to be what students will go for! However a little word of warning just please make sure there are plenty of items to go around as one item each doesn’t always cut it!  

Plus it’s always good fun to get involved yourselves for comedy value of course. 









Adventures in my classroom – getting them to speak in the target language 


As an MFL teacher who loves their job, and the students and who tries to incorporate fun in the classroom I always struggle when students suddenly are reluctant to speak. Honestly just when they are producing some beautifully creative and fun constructions some students seem to want to refuse to speak and develop their target language usage. I find this really rather frustrating and I’m not prepared to let them get away with refusing. 

There has been a lot of discussion recently in school and in the Twittersphere about the validity of teachers using the target language whilst gesticulating (madly) in support and is this worthwhile. I took some time and questioned this and concluded that of course it is! If we don’t model the language, the accent or the pronunciation for our learners how on earth can we demand they use it or feel confident using it?! I’m all for target language usage as I love the idea of speaking in another language to a native speaker. Nothing has brought me greater joy and the feeling of utter triumph that native French, German, Spanish or Russian speakers who could understand what I was saying and responding without a blank look upon their faces! Communicating effectively and with confidence, despite language errors is what learning a language is all about for me. It was, in that very first French lesson I had many years ago, and still is extremely important to me. And that is one of the reasons why target language usage is absolutely required by MFL teachers in classrooms to ensure that we are modelling usage and paving a way to create confident and competent learners who can speak! With this in mind I should say that target language should always be used except for when teaching grammar because more often than not we, like I am sure many other MFL depts., find ourselves reminding students of the grammatical terminology and concept in English to ensure a secure foundation of understanding on which we can then build upon in the target language.

One of the strategies we use across our MFL team is the use of talking chips, the Kagan strategy. This can be applied to any group, any year and any subject and encourages thoughtful and interesting responses, which for us, are in the target language. I went to a well known superstore (that usually has piles of catalogues outside and is famous for its small blue pens, I am sure you know the one) and purchased a poker set. Not to play poker in my classroom you understand, but to find a competitive and kinaesthetic visual reward that students could stack, collect and feel proud of. My set cost less than £10 though I am aware of teachers who have designed and created wondrous personalised chips and coins whereas others have opted for pirate treasure from a well known toy store.  Here are some of the ways that talking chips have had a huge impact in our MFL classrooms. I hope you can trial some of these strategies in your learning spaces and have as much fun as we have had as well as see the huge impact it can have in getting students of all ages and abilities to speak with consideration and increasing confidence. The following names are my nicknames for the different uses of talking chips that I use with my students.

  • Stack ’em high!

When students make a verbal contribution that contains key elements (that you have pre-determined and have informed them of prior to or at the start of the activity) simply reward them with a chip. I tend to use the same colour and choose another colour if there is a bonus element. For example this could be students using opinions and reasons in a sentence in the target language. If they give additional details verbally or use interesting connectives then I would reward these extra elements with a different coloured chip. Or using two tenses in a phrases the second tense is an embellishment so bonus reward. 

Students absolutely love this and enjoy the challenge of using a variety of interesting language constructions in order to gain additional chips. It is so motivating that students fall over themselves to volunteer and spend additional time at home researching new and interesting language that will, and frequently does, blow me away! I have had students begging to use talking chips as they have created something that they want to share with the class. An additional plus of this is that I can see visually exactly who has contributed and who hasn’t without remembering to write names on boards potentially embarrassing ones that haven’t yet. We all try to be aware and notice but this is an easy and visual way to keep track. 

  • Stop and Think!

We all have those students in our classes who are the most vocal and who will speak without thinking or might just speak over others because they are fizzing with ideas to share and this way of using talking chips will put almost a stop to this disruption allowing others, perhaps the less reticent in our classes, to contribute without being talked over. Issue chips at the start of the lesson as you meet, greet and smile the class but only to a selection of students who always contribute in the lesson. We have hour lessons so depending on the speaking activities planned for the lesson I might issue 2-4. My reason for doing this? Simply to stop the more confident vocally to ‘overcontribute’. This may sound daft but we all know through knowing the individuals in our classes and tracking their individual learning journeys that there are those quieter, more considered thinkers, who will happily allow the ‘louder ‘students to take their place and there are others who just won’t thrust their hands up to volunteer! 

The chips allows students to spend a chip everytime they make a contribution in the target language. Even members of my team thought this wouldn’t work but I can assure you it does. Incredibly it helps the student to consider their contribution rather than ‘blurting it out’. Spending a chip is a costly affair but when they do spend them I have found the quality and depth of response can be stunning as they have thought extremely carefully about what exactly they want to share which of course helps them as reflective learners as well as benefitting their peers.

I’ll be honest when I spoke to students launching this they weren’t at all impressed. It’s fair to say they looked slightly horrified, perhaps they thought I was being ungrateful, but quickly it has become a brilliant tool. One that is highly valued not only by MFL teachers but by the students who receive the chips. Most of them have seen this as a challenge to be even more creative in the target language and to ‘knock my socks off’ which can only be a plus as more interesting and challenging language are used in the classroom thus benefitting all of us!

  • Get ’em spent!

As well as the vocal students who always want to contribute we have those that will try to hide, this strategy is for these learners, the lovely hardworking but slightly reticent linguists who are maybe fearful of speaking and need the practice and encouragement to just go for it!

I issue red chips to chosen students as they enter the room I might issue three chips to them and their mission is to spend them all in the lesson. Students can choose when but they can only spend the chips when they speak in the target language using key elements in an interesting construction, it can’t be spent by asking me a question or for assistance in the target language. Students know what I expect from them and do push themselves to spent their chips. 

You might be thinking that you have some students who would refuse to speak therefore not spend their chips but when good quality constructions and sentences are created and shared by their peers these are rewarded with other chips so encouraging students to understand that if they spend the red chips they do receive praise as other students do in the class.

What do I do if students have any unspent chips at the end of the lesson? Well I simply add it to their total for next lesson and insist they speak, some students have tried this and it just means that the next lesson they have to do more speaking. Honestly this strategy works brilliantly with students who you think it wouldn’t. It’s very motivational and helps to change mindsets about speaking. It has had a huge impact in my classroom with some very challenging students to the point when the come to class and they see me greeting them with red chips in my hand some students have said ‘but I’ve been speaking loads Miss, I’ll do loads more today just to show you I don’t need those anymore’ And do you know what, they are absolutely right I don’t need to issue them. Simply seeing the red chips is motivating enough! Brilliant! 

  • Two chances

This strategy was developed by a fabulous teacher in my team with a particularly challenging class she had the pleasure of. Two chips are issued to each student as they are greeted with smiles at the door. These chips are used differently so might be a different colour or style to any other chips used. My brilliant colleague uses golden pirate coins from a toy store. This one class had a poor habit of calling out questions in English and despite being in KS3 it is a habit we wanted to break so she developed two chances. If students want to ask a question in English they can but they must spend a chip or coin meaning that each student can only ask two questions in English in one lesson. It’s that easy.

This has had a huge impact upon students listening skills, noise level in the classroom and their behaviour. It has been really interesting to see this strategy at work as it has forced students to settle more quickly, creating a focussed learning environment where target language is used and English is limited. It won’t work for all classes you might think but it certainly worked for this very challenging class superbly so it is definitely worth a try if this is an issue for you or a colleague you know.

Talking chips is a Kagan cooperative learning strategy, the introduction of which as had a huge impact upon getting our learners to speak more French and Spanish, the issue isn’t producing it perfectly but we see it as our responsibility to give as many opportunities as possible to create stimulating climates and chances where it can be used and developed. 

If you are interesting in finding out more about Kagan strategies follow @t2tuk or look at the Kagan UK website 

  Image thanks to

Adventures in my classroom – Y11 last lesson before their exams!


So today crept up really quickly. A colleague and I were talking first thing about how we had planned and organised Y11 provision, lesson activities weekly since September with our schools ‘100 days of Y11’ document (though clearly we started at 200+ days)

Today I had my last lessons with Y11 before their GCSE French listening and reading terminal assessments.  I had a double (2 hrs) with one class and a single lesson with the other.

The plan was to ensure that they left the lessons, my classroom and school today with a huge smile on their faces and bursting with confidence for their two final MFL exams. Of course I plan to see them for a final spaced learning / warm up session on Tuesday morning however I wanted to ensure that they left today having no worries at all about Tuesday.

The aim was to fill in the remaining knowledge gaps. Students have been assessing themselves since midway through Y10, and throughout Y11 in earnest, to identify the gaps in their knowledge. Once these gaps have been identified we support them in closing the gap so the terminal listening and reading exams are not a chore nor something to be feared but a pleasure. We call them ‘random vocab surprise’ exams as we don’t know which out of the many topics they are going to have 8 or 10 questions (depending on tier) to complete. And they know that it is their job to ensure that they don’t give any marks away as a result of ‘not knowing’. Armed with recommended vocabulary lists, 100 most common words, @michellecairns ‘ wordles, plus advice from the Principal Examiners on where students lost marks, alongside text books and various other revision sheets we got work to plug the final gaps, albeit creatively.

In our MFL dept we discovered the revision tshirts concept at #TMBristol and the fabulous NQT +1 insisted we try it in 2014. It worked so brilliantly that we knew students would enjoy the freedom to learn and create through this superbly calming and fun strategy was to be employed again.  Tshirts and coloured sharpies at the ready I let them get on with it and off they went, happy at being given a tshirt and a selection of sharpies to be creative.  Below are some of the fab revision tshirts they worked on. All of my students have taken them home to continue adding to, to ensure the gaps are filled. In the lessons students were settled, serious and tirelessly searching their minds for what they didn’t know. It was so brilliant to see.  I was, and am still so impressed at their amazing collaboration, tolerance and support for each other as well as creativity at a selection of songs being created and sung to learn ‘more random’ vocabulary to thwart the exam monster next week who’ll try to steal marks away. I even saw one student with completed exam papers searching for incorrect answers to ensure he nailed the topic should it appear next week!

#MFLallstars Processed with Moldiv

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In addition to this with Y11 classes we have been working on having a positive mindset with them to ensure that how they feel today and on Tuesday are the same, calm, relaxed and focused and ready to build upon and strengthen their controlled assessment marks. Walking them through their exams, we do a lot of walking-talking mocks in our school which I am sure many other schools do too but I wanted to take them to the spaces where their exams would be. I have been reading David Hodgson’s book – ‘The Buzz’ A practical confidence builder for teenagers. It has been a brilliant read and has helped me support the students I teach even more. (Definitely check it out! You won’t be disappointed!) Despite it being mid-lesson I took my class for a walk, the purpose was to visualise Tuesday morning, to talk about where we would look, where I would be, how they feel now and how this should be the same on Tuesday morning despite it being the exams. Their visualisations were brilliant, being very honest about fears that creep in and to deal with these swiftly and with confidence and also how they should and want to feel. I was blown away by how well they responded to this and I am certain that they will be more ready than ever to enter the exam room and do their absolute best based on my adventures with them today.

Back at the classroom we talked about the personal preparation plan. They know what is expected of them and this was a simple reminder to keep anxieties at bay.  Thanks to the brilliant @andyphilipday for sharing his Geography original which I adapted. Then back to tshirts it was for a final burst.

Inspired by @andyphilipday

Inspired by @andyphilipday

In the last 5 minutes of the lesson I decided to give them their revision goodie bags.  Everyone loves a gift and I thought that it would be fun to do it ‘revision style’ to keep them motivated and pepped up over the weekend. The revision bag contained a few items to help practically and emotionally. I have always bought Y11 students ‘lucky socks’ at this time of year again to keep anxieties at bay, so as they dived in to their bags one called out, ‘er Miss why socks?’ That was my cue, to inform them that they weren’t just socks!! They were lucky socks – blessed by fairies, leprechauns and any other good luck deity that they could think of.  Smiles spread across the room like wildfire and it was then I told them that they had to be worn on Tuesday morning, without fail.  Smiles turned in to grins as I recounted a student who tracked me down last year to inform me that he had completed his finals in Pharmacy and still wore his ‘lucky socks’ that I had bought him some time ago. He went on to say that for any exam he had ever completed since his GCSE French oral he couldn’t think about wearing another pair of socks.  I glanced around the room and the sparkles in their eyes shone and the wonder on their faces was an absolute joy to see.

Revision Goody Bag

I can’t wait to see their smiling faces on Tuesday morning, and their multicoloured lucky socks giving them confidence and helping them believe that they can absolutely do it.

Interestingly I was informed by several students who came dashing to my classroom at the end of the school day, that the quietest, most studious non-confrontational student in our class dealt with a peer belittling the gift of the socks in another lesson.  Apparently the quiet student walked over to the more vocal one and audibly cried ‘they aren’t just socks, she gave us LUCKY SOCKS’ then returned to his seat to continue working. The more vocal student was speechless. I’m astounded that a pair of socks can give such confidence!

Ultimately the MFL team have been working really hard to improve confidence as well as skills and knowledge and I hope that on Tuesday, and Friday, they stay afloat and are smiling.

Image thanks to @ICTevangelist

Image thanks to @ICTevangelist