Three degrees of ‘Contification’ – two guest posts by Vicki Brownlee and Mike Elliott

Another instalment, in our series of posts in which language educators from around the globe share their experiences with aspects of my language teaching approach. This time around I thought of sharing two posts rather than one, because the teachers who authored them, Vicki and Mike, showcase two very different pproaches to incorporating EPI or elements of it in their teaching practice, both very interesting in their own right. Although quite divergent in many ways, they converge on the same core principles which I swear by and constitute the pillars of EPI. Two brilliant posts, as inspirational as and fascinating and the previous ones by Julia, Chloe and Heather. Enjoy.

Post 1: Vicki Brownlee (Head of Languages @ Howden School, East Riding, England)

When I discovered your work I had been using what I described as ‘chunking’ along with LAM (only I didn’t give it a name) for just short of 10 years but I had only used it with one type of pupil – the lowest ability – the pupils, who in year 9 (age 13-14) needed a focus to keep them on track as they would be dropping languages at the end of the year. So they were doing OCR ASSET languages but then we moved on to AQA FCSE! I wrote an article on it for an SEN magazine at the time as ASSET we’re shocked at the number of entries from SEN pupils that we were sending them.

I didn’t use these techniques with any other classes, despite the fact that they were showing results with these lower ability classes. Why? Honestly, I have no idea! I felt the need to teach ‘conventionally’, I thought it was limiting them or I just hadn’t transferred my ideas to other groups? But honestly who knows!

The by-product was that I was starting to see these upils SEN pupils in my GCSE classes and they were ending their GCSE courses with their highest grades in French. I was really lucky that I had some amazing TA’s through this time that ploughed on with the techniques that they had seen me use in KS3 as these pupils moved into mixed ability classes at GCSE – thanks to Karen, Lisa and Jack!

Alongside this I was studying for my masters in psychology and beginning to look more at a psychological level as to how the brain worked and learned, but when I first encountered your LAM and chunking work, it was like someone was affirming what I had been ‘trialling’ with these children (one class in each year group in KS3). So I immediately pushed on and began rolling it out to all classes. It took time for the pupils to buy in and in the last 18 months the department has now ‘bought in’.

We still have textbooks, but in KS3 they are used to guide topics and for a bit of assessment not as a day-to-day resource. I won’t be replacing or renewing them as the bits we don’t like we just don’t use, whether that is units or whole chapters.

In the last two years we have also reduced the curriculum content massively and planned using interleaving, recycling etc so that the whole approach is more joined up. I am still refining some areas and finding what works well with different ability groups and still feel speaking could improve further, however I am very happy with the reading and writing side of it all.

In starting a lesson we always begin with a recap of key structures at 3 levels – red (the easiest), then amber and green. We use a couple of key structures or sentence starters for red; amber looks at recent work and green slightly trickier and from further back. They do this, as they do most of their tasks, on a mini whiteboard, making this all a win in terms of marking!

During the modelling phase we make use of sentence builders with translation activities with the teacher reading sentences in the L2 and the pupils translating into L1 and moving on using this like a dictation. This is the perfect way to highlight elements of grammar that you want pupils to notice.  In the next phase, pupils love the mind reader game, which we play in both the spoken and written form – we play as a whole class and in small groups!  The games are so useful as pupils are hearing and seeing the target language so much. Delayed Dictation has proved exceptionally useful at highlighting and teaching a technique, which is invaluable when listening to longer texts.  Delayed translation is a further and equally useful version, which again practises an essential skill needed in listening.

The Sentence Stealer Game is extremely popular.  Pupils still love games such as 3:1 for whole class translation into L1. I am gradually building a bank of narrow reading activities that I personally find more time consuming to make, but a focused and excellent resource.

As we begin to move into the structured production phase, we begin to remove some of the sentence builder support and again use activities such as delayed dictation and translation.  We also use a range of activities such as one pen, one dice (L1 to L2) and translation based tasks.  Tangled translations are fabulous and can focus on specific structures with careful planning. Pupils can choose to translate into or from the target language to produce their response and the more able will do both! Pyramid Translations take a bit more organising and setting up to ensure that the ‘jobs’ are correctly allocated but the outcome is highly engaged pupils producing some fabulous L2 work.

We also do a weekly low stakes test of core structures that we have identified for each year group. The set of phrases starts at 20 for year 7 going up to 80 for year 11. They mark it themselves and we look for perfection in terms of spelling and accents etc. The aim each week is to equal or preferably improve on a previous score. The whole process takes an absolute maximum of 10 minutes but this has been invaluable and was implemented long before the Contifying of lessons and followed my reading about the usefulness of low stakes testing!

At the end of the lesson I make use of exit tickets (written or verbally) and recap 5 slips – where pupils note five things from that lesson, five from the previous lesson and five from earlier in the topic or a previous topic. This is helping them to see the links in their learning and how they are building a level of complexity in what they are able to do. Pupils love the game ‘boxes’ and we often play for 5 minutes at the end of a lesson, using it as an opportunity to revise receptive and productive chunks rather than just vocabulary.

With a series of templates these activities are very quick to produce with the chosen vocabulary. I use the same resources and activities in sequences of lessons expecting the level of independence to increase or just by adding an extra column to the sentence builder to add a layer of additional complexity or additional pronouns etc. Having everything the same means I rarely have to ‘waste’ time explaining how to do a specific task and we can just do the task. Pupils are writing more accurately and are gradually gaining more independence and autonomy. They are feeling as if they are understanding more too (comprehensible input) and this, along with other measures, I feel is instrumental in our increased uptake for GCSE and the steadily improving outcomes!  It is harder to implement in KS4 with the sheer volume of vocabulary to be covered but we will plough on and keep doing our best to Contify as much as possible.

I am loving teaching again and reading and educational research to justify what I am doing – thank you! My only issue is mini whiteboard pens – I can’t keep up with the quantity we use and the pupils are practising so much!

Vicki has been teaching for just over twenty years and has worked as a GCSE moderator and examiner too. She has always had a keen interest in SEN teaching and recently undertook an online part-time Masters Degree in Psychology with University of Derby. Vicki is currently a Head of Department in a small rural 11-16 school in northern England, where there is currently a huge growth in languages. The school currently teaches Spanish and French (despite her degree being in German) and they have just started the process to introduce Chinese with the help of the Confucius Institute. Vicki has found learning Chinese alongside the pupils to be an enlightening experience and has been introducing Conti methods and activities to the teachers from the Confucius Institute!

Post 2: Mike Elliott (Head of Languages @ Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, Amersham, Buckinghamshire, England)

KS3 French Curriculum Redesign: A Case Study

At the end of each unit in my Year 7 French class, I ask students to complete a Google Form, offering them the chance to comment on their perceived progress, to identify their personal targets, and to see whether they have met the learning objectives for the topic. This particular link contains responses to the question “What have you particularly enjoyed? Have you made progress?”. A useful starting point, perhaps, in determining whether the KS3 Curriculum that I started to redesign is heading in the right direction.

Some of the comments are very flattering (!), but the ones that I really like are these:

“In French, this term I have enjoyed the active games where we get out of our chairs. I have also enjoyed the activities on the board. Overall French has been great and my favourite lesson this term.”

“I have enjoyed playing the interactive games such as ‘voleurs’, where you steal other people’s cards by guessing the phrase they’ve picked.”

“I have enjoyed that we do lots of talking and not just taking down notes.”

“I have enjoyed everything we have covered and I feel as if I have improved massively in pronunciation of French words I am or am not familiar with.”

“I liked learning about the town in French over again and learning about sports.”

Now, it could be that I have a very able cohort (I have), but I have been pleased that the things that we set out to do have largely been achieved. There is reference above to: more speaking; games where students get out of their seats and interact with others; clear improvement in pronunciation; learning a new topic whilst recycling elements from the previous topic. All of these things have led to a purposeful classroom dynamic, following a bespoke Scheme of Work, and referring to agreed department principles. I don’t think it is finished, but I do think we have made a promising start, and, personally, I am excited and motivated to keep revising and developing. What follows is an account of the steps I have taken to redesign the KS3 French Curriculum at the school where I work. It is not intended to be a “this is how you do it” piece, but rather “this is how I did it” and let’s start the discussion… !


Redesigning the KS3 curriculum was an obvious thing to do given the changes to the GCSE and A-level specification. On the one hand it could be argued that this was obvious anyway, given the increased importance of students being able to express their ideas spontaneously and freely, and no longer having the luxury of controlled assessment tasks, where students could focus on just a small topic area which could be revised, rehearsed – perhaps copied from an older sibling – and then reproduced in test conditions, earning up to 15% of the final GCSE grade. On the other hand, why not objectively reflect on the status quo, and consider making improvements.

It was clear to me as well that there were a number of inspirational teachers around the country who were coming up with new ideas, and new approaches, in order to improve students’ best chance of success, particularly for Speaking and Writing. I attended the Inside Government Conference for Modern Foreign Languages conference in October 2018 and was impressed by Ian Bauckham, who shared some of the key findings from the Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review, which I subsequently downloaded and read closely. I was already aware of Gianfranco‘s work, and had already read a number of other articles on the Language Gym looking at various strategies, including implicit vs explicit routines, the importance of comprehensible input, the importance of self-efficacy (one of many words / concepts that I needed to look up!), and all these things were pointing me to the same conclusion: that less is more and, in a lot of cases, textbooks are not the only answer. Some colleagues and I were concerned when looking at the GCSE Textbook – particularly for the Higher Tier – where there were double pages that were almost entirely inaccessible. I accept there is a strong argument to review the current mundane GCSE topics to improve motivation, but I think a bigger factor for motivation is the reward associated with being able to access and understand material. So, if it comes down to a choice between mastering concepts and ensuring that all the mundane topics are covered, it seems clear to me that mastery should be prioritised, even if this means you don’t cover everything. 

Anyway, I became increasingly convinced that going more slowly and focusing on developing confidence, enjoyment and self-efficacy was going to lead to greater motivation, greater enthusiasm and, perhaps, greater uptake throughout the Key Stages. There were also other things that I picked up from various Language Shows over the years: Rachel Hawkes commented in one of her sessions that, despite the fact that she has written or contributed to a number of textbooks, the perfect textbook doesn’t exist in languages, because every chapter would repeat the previous chapter as well as adding new content from the current chapter, so an ideal textbook in languages would be almost exponential in terms of chapter length. In another session, some were talking about making KS3 “grammar and structure heavy”, but light relatively in terms of vocabulary, because once the structures were well understood, it makes it far easier to manipulate those structures in KS4 just by switching the key vocabulary. I was increasingly interested by the idea of knowledge organisers too, which seemed to be paying dividends at the Michaela School and elsewhere, as well as increased focus perhaps on the importance of phonics, and the introduction of good pronunciation earlier on. I was also interested by an AQA GCSE Feedback comment, where they had expressed surprise that so much ‘KS3 vocabulary’ had been misunderstood in one set of exams. This goes to show the importance of recycling and of revisiting vocabulary throughout. 

Starting to build

In the gained time after the exam classes left last year I started seriously thinking about how to restructure the KS3 curriculum. I was already very convinced by a lot of what I had read on the Language Gym blog in particular, and I put some of these ideas to the Head of German and the Head of Spanish. We took a whole day off timetable, to agree our key principles, ready for an official launch to the rest of the department, making sure that we were all singing from the same hymn sheet, and that we were all equally invested in making this a success. The key principles that we agreed were as follows:

  1. Focus on mastery not content: one unit every half term doesn’t make sense for any number of reasons, so why put yourself under unnecessary pressure to cover lots of content quickly and superficially?
  2. High(er) levels of comprehensible input: making students feel more connected, more involved, more engaged and give them a greater sense of reward in what they’re doing.
  3. Lots of recycling of grammar and vocabulary: think very carefully about opportunities to revisit key vocabulary, and to recycle what has been learnt in different contexts.
  4. Communicative functions (cf. Conti): an eminently sensible starting point. What are students going to want / need to do? These become the learning objectives for a unit of work too.
  5. Schemes of Work to contain key vocab & structures, assessments driven by key vocab & structures (“fair” assessments)

In addition to this was an acceptance that Listening and Speaking is probably neglected at times, so we agreed to put more focus on these skills. This resonated with me as my eldest son was 2 at the time, and it was fascinating to watch his speech develop, solely based on what he heard, and this hammered home the point that we are hardwired to learn languages through listening, so why not make this a bigger part of the classroom experience. “Sentence stealers”, “Quiz-Quiz-Trade”, “Mind Reader”, e.g. have been great, and have helped to maintain that sense of progression, enjoyment, and enthusiasm throughout the year.

We also agreed to make key structures and key vocabulary very clear and very explicit in the Schemes of Work, and to ensure that assessments were fair, and encourage and reward ‘thorough processing’, demonstrating real understanding of a text (as opposed to demonstrating good multiple-choice guesswork, or an ability to deal with the demoralising puzzles, riddles and red herrings typically found in Listening or Reading questions).

Practical steps

So, practically, what did I do? I looked at a number of different Year 7 French SoWs, some taken from exam websites, some from other schools, which I then compared with what we normally do. I decided early on that this curriculum redesign would need to be done over a few years at least, so I wanted to have a rolling plan. I decided that four topics felt like a more reasonable number to complete in one year, and I decided not to start with the classic “My name is… / I am 11 years old /  I live in …” topic, based on our school context. When students from a nearby independent primary school arrive in Year 7 having completed Tricolore 2, and they are in the same class as students who have never learnt French, it is easy for both ends of the ability spectrum to be put off, either because it seems like easy, tedious revision or because you feel that everyone in the class is better than you. It creates an unwelcome dynamic.

So I thought perhaps something like “Town” might be a leveller. There may be enough new stuff in that topic for everyone to feel as though they are getting something out of it. Then, I thought we could move on to Sport, and then Talking about Oneself and then Family. I was building up to a point whereby in the third unit, in addition to the classic, hello, my name is, etc, they were able to talk about hobbies too, why they do them, which ones they do when it’s hot, what there is in their town to enable them to do their hobby, etc. and therefore drawing in things that had been previously learnt. For instance, take the sentence “In my town there is an ice rink”. We have a preposition, a possessive adjective, the phrase “there is” which will be used in probably every topic (weather, in my family, …). I was also thinking about introducing the ‘oi’ sound in French (patinoire). All of these things will be revisited frequently, and intentionally. For a hastily-prepared Christmas lesson, it was relatively simple also to go from “the station is next to the church” to “the Christmas tree is next to the television”, and from “in my town there is an ice rink” to “in my stocking there is a present”. 

Getting a little ahead of myself here. Before thinking about key structures and vocabulary, I first thought of the communicative functions (taken from Gianfranco’s magic twelve). Once I had decided on the main Units, I picked the relevant macro functions for Year 7, and then started thinking about the micro-functions. This is where the post-its came in handy. Once I had macro and micro functions in place, I started to think about the key vocab and structures, etc. I have devised sentence builders, although I have tended to opt for relatively short phrases, mainly to facilitate mini-whiteboard work. I may consider extending these in the future. You can see some of the work in progress below:


Once I had shuffled around the Post-Its, I started to create a document like this, which – once formatted – I am happy to share. It breaks Units down into the following: macro communicative function; micro communicative function; key vocabulary and structures. From then, each Unit is broken down into suggested lessons.

I have not had any real need to use a textbook this year, other than judiciously-chosen pages which match the topic well (and then, only for cover work or listening homework). When required, I have created most of the Listening tracks myself, recorded on a small voice recorder with USB, and then embedded into Google Slides), although there is a lot of listening happening through the various sentence builder / whiteboard activities. I have created two booklets to cover the first two units (the next two are on my to-do list) and I have included a number of activities, some of which can be completed in class, some as homework/cover, and some that include thorough-processing tasks, modelled on some of Gianfranco’s ideas. Example booklet below: 

What next?

Repeat for Year 8. I need to take on board the successes of this year, and at the same time implement feedback from colleagues and students. I remain utterly convinced that these changes have been massively beneficial, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my lessons with Year 7 this year. Sure, it’s been a lot of work, but most Year 7 resources are ready to go now, bar the odd tweak here and there. If we can continue to harness students’ enthusiasm, interest and motivation that can only be a good thing. I am aware of recent posts questioning the benefits of comprehensible input over engaging culturally-rich texts and, as with most things, a hybrid approach, blending a number of these key ideas is probably best. I am sure, however, that the short term pain will be worth it when enjoying the long term gain. Right, where are those post-its?

Mike Elliott is the Team Leader for Languages, and Subject Leader for French, at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School.


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