Alex Bellars finds a book that has something for everyone, and could easily be a whole series in its own right
I do like a nice ambitious title which really draws you in! (One of my favourite books of recent years is Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, or, for all you non-Swedes who fancy a linguistic challenge Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann in the original Swedish.)
And Crista Hazell has certainly aimed high with the title of her first book for Independent Thinking. The goal: a one-stop-shop for all MFL teacher needs, covering research-based theory, practical pedagogy and skills-based techniques in equal, bountiful measure.
From the newest NQT to the grizzled veteran of the chalkface, there genuinely is something in here for everyone, and all delivered in a friendly, accessible style that will surprise no one who has read her blog.
Those who would count themselves among the more traditional-leaning on the professional spectrum will be delighted with the evident foundation of her work on educational research in phonics and decoding. For my part, as someone who (if pressed) would tend to place himself more in the so-called progressive camp, it is the focus on creativity, on fun and on “the power of lucky socks” that really does it for me.
The enforced hiatus could lead to a rebirth of our subject
If I have one minor criticism to make, it is that in trying to cover all these bases and keep all the plates spinning at once, Hazell has talked herself out of a potential series of books. Each of this volume’s themes could easily be developed into a book-length exploration in its own right, yet the book serves as a punchy introduction to them all, a handy compendium of all the key issues specific to teaching MFL and the latest thinking on how to do it well.
As Hazell points out early on, even in a current political context that sees many questioning the value and effects of globalisation, our pupils would be well advised to equip themselves with real-world language skills. It is a vastly more interconnected world than a mere few years ago, and our ability to collaborate with others across linguistic and national boundaries is vital to the future of our country and our natural world. MFL is not simply about language acquisition but cultural capital writ large, and a way to build immunity against populist nationalism.
For this reason, the most crucial section of Hazell’s book for me is chapter nine, in which she explores the reasons for the worrying decline in language study in the UK and goes on to offer her recipes for arresting it. I was personally delighted to find that this includes being wary of the current trend towards a narrow, utilitarian “knowledge organiser” approach to curriculum, and instead espouses a broader perspective that embraces the cultural and cross-curricular aspects of MFL learning and teaching.
The closing chapter, entitled “MFL and the wider world”, contains an invaluable list of organisations, networks, websites and tools to further develop one’s craft. As Hazell herself concedes, it is not in any way exhaustive. Yet it contains plenty of ideas for any MFL practitioner to broaden their professional engagement. Among them is a reference to the Association for Language Learning (ALL) – of which Hazell is one of 12 elected board members – and its series of MFL webinars.
Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t always easy for teachers to physically meet up for quality professional development. Given that it is all the harder now and for the foreseeable future, if there is one thing on her list I’d most strongly advocate, it is to join ALL (and the burgeoning group of #MFLtwitterati) and help Hazell deliver on this book’s promise to make language learning exciting, inclusive and relevant.
In this way, the enforced hiatus of much of our practice could lead to a rebirth of our subject. You will certainly spend few better hours of isolation to that end than reading this book.