SLE, Modern Foreign Languages and consultant, Independent Thinking

3 Feb 2020, 5:00


Making every MFL lesson count

By James A Maxwell


Crown House Publishing




30 Nov 2020

Crista Hazell finds a useful guide to getting the best out of MFL lessons but worries about rushing its implementation

Making every MFL lesson count is a book whose simplicity should not lead anyone to underestimate it. Like the other subject-specific counterparts in Allison and Tharby’s edited series, it is faithful to the original themes – challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning – and applies them to the particular demands of teaching modern foreign languages.

Each chapter commences with a realistic scenario that could take place in any language teacher’s classroom. Throughout the chapter, Maxwell clearly presents the key discussion points that emerge from it, and what research and best practice suggest about how to navigate the situation.

This scenario-based approach is great for developing readers’ thought processes, questions and understanding. A consistent focus on ensuring the learners in the scenario have purposeful lessons which build language knowledge and skill acquisition makes sure every paragraph and sentence is useful. There is no divergence from that singular goal.

Each chapter ends with several reflective questions to encourage synthesis and to consider classroom implementation. This is not a book to idly stimulate your thinking. It is a very thought-provoking read – there’s no doubt about that – but first and foremost it is about impact.

While there is much to be gained from reading the book from cover to cover, you really don’t have to. Any busy MFL teacher could easily read the chapter most pertinent to their particular area of need and learn a significant amount quickly. Supported by research and cognitive science, they would find themselves trialling new ideas in their own classroom in no time.

There is no divergence from its singular goal

What commends this book the most is that it is as relevant to the novice teacher looking to extend their practice as to the experienced one looking to refresh or enrich theirs. Because increasing output, confidence and engagement in the MFL classroom is its goal, there is no teacher for whom this book is not useful. In fact, while it is a great read for individual MFL teachers to reflect upon and review their practice, it may be even more impactful for whole departments to read together.

In the age of ‘deep dives’ and MFL teacher shortages, this book also functions as an accessible primer for non-specialist leaders who need to develop a detailed understanding of the departments they manage and support.

Maxwell is sensitive to the specific challenges MFL faces with issues including uptake, retention of knowledge, engagement and perception, and presents information throughout each chapter which can assist in finding solutions to some of these. Whether it’s curriculum design, sequencing, grammar, or knowledge organisers and their use, the research the author refers to throughout the book is varied, recent and relevant. The book draws on key findings from the Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review (2016), the Education Endowment Foundation and Sutton Trust to name but a few. For practical classroom solutions, it is informed by the likes of Gianfranco Conti, Jess Lund and Steve Smith.

Maxwell is clear that this is not a ‘how to teach MFL’ guide, nor a silver bullet to cure all ills. But, as we all struggle to balance full timetables and increasing demands with continuing to provide the best learning experiences for our students, this is a useful research digest for MFL practitioners. Presented by a seasoned and passionate MFL teacher and principal, it is sensitively put together to ensure we do not sacrifice quality for content and, indeed, do make every MFL lesson count.

Nevertheless, this is a small book, and its recommendations are far from exhaustive. Absent from it are any references to the time and support required to implement these strategies successfully. Yet maximising on its lessons will require careful evaluation and incremental change, appreciating and building upon the good that teachers and departments are already doing. Without this, increased workload and potential confusion could result. There is much to be learned from Maxwell’s book. It and MFL teachers alike deserve better than its lessons being rushed or reduced to faddishness.

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