Sunday, September 06, 2009

Warning, rant ahead

I've just discovered this interview on BBC World with American expat Laurel Zuckerman. As you'll see from the interview, she's made a name for herself by writing a "docufiction" which roughly recounted her experience as a student preparing the Agrégation, which is one of the exams you can sit in order to teach in the French education system. Actually, it's not really news as the French edition of the book came out in 2007, as reported in The Guardian with an extremely misleading headline, although they, at least, interviewed other people. Here's why I think BBC World have given a deeply skewed picture of the situation in France.

Patrick Cox starts by saying "If you want to become an English teacher in a French public school, you have to go to a university and take an exam." Er, yes, just like if you want to become a lawyer, doctor, architect and so on. Why should teaching be any different? But what the article fails to mention is that Laurel Zuckerman took the Agrégation, which is the elite version of the CAPES exam I took. No mention of the fact that many "Agreges" go on to do PhDs or teach in Higher Education, where a more in-depth knowledge of the subject is required. The vast majority of teachers take the CAPES, so if you want to discuss teacher training in France, you should talk about the exam most would-be teachers actually take.

I described how the written part of the CAPES works a while ago so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that an oral presentation in English accounts for one third of the marks, while another third is based on your ability to evaluate teaching materials and discuss them with a panel, and the remaining third comes from your performance in the written exams, so Zuckerman's assertion that the ability to write a dissertation in French is more important than your level of English is just not true. In fact, being a native English speaker gives you an edge in some of the tests. And if you're going to work in the French education system, isn't it reasonable to expect a good level of French, so you can talk to your colleagues, take part in meetings, write reports and so on? If Mr Cox or Ms Zuckerman took the time to talk to any actual teachers, they would have known that there is a lot more to it than just the time you spend in front of the kids.

Patrick Cox goes on to say "it's a fairly standard assumption in language teaching circles that you're better off if you're being taught by a native speaker." I don't know where he gets that from, and in any case, it's a wrong assumption. You're better off if taught by someone who knows how to teach; at lower levels, it can even be an advantage to be taught by someone who's gone through the same process, who can understand and anticipate the problems. Zuckerman claims "In France, they constructed this whole, let's say, this idea that if you're a native speaker because you've never taken the time to really take apart the language and understand what kind of obstacles a learner might encounter, you can't explain the grammar properly." She dosn't seem to consider that that might actually be a fair point. I certainly couldn't have answered a lot of my students' questions without having done some study of the English language. When I ran a language department in an FE college in England, I was snowed under with CVs from peope who thought that just because they were native speakers, I would offer them a job despite their absence of any teaching qualification. It led to a pretty full waste paper bin.

She peppers the interview with anecdotes, like an inspector who thought that the plural of duck was duck or a teacher who mispronounced the extremely frequently used word Lutheran (because native speakers never mispronounce words ever, oh no...), but there's no evidence that this kind of thing is endemic. It's certainly not the case with any French teacher of English I've ever worked with. They may make the odd slip, just like I did when I taught Spanish, but they certainly weren't above coming to me with questions when they had a doubt about something.

Yet it is true that the level of English in France remains low compared to other European countries (though not, I suspect, as abysmal as the level of your average Brit in any foreign language). The assumption is that it must all be down to bad teaching, but I wonder. Having taught in a state school myself, I see teaching materials that encourage plently of oral practice, and not just traditional grammar-translation. In fact, the biggest resistance to more communicative approaches actually came from parents, not teachers. In the meantime, I've spoken with teachers from Holland who tell me that the approach in Dutch schools is very traditional, yet the stereotype is that they speak English better than your average Brit. Maybe it has something to do with cultural attitudes; the Dutch understand that few foreigners speak their language, so speaking foreign languages is almost as important as being able to read. Also, their foreign TV programmes aren't dubbed, so they get a lot more exposure. The French, like the British, speak an international language and the sense of urgency isn't the same.

If anyone at BBC World happens to come across these lines, feel free to leave a comment. I'd welcome the opportunity to point out to their viewers that the reality is more complicated than Laurel Zuckerman suggests. And I don't have a book to plug.


engelsk said...

Great post!

I'm coming to the possible conclusion that here in Denmark the ability to speak English to a certain level has become a part of the national identity, especially for the younger people - almost as if you can't be seen as properly Danish if your English isn't good enough. I think that could apply in some other smaller countries, too, where English is so essential for contact with the outside world. Oh, and subtitled TV makes a massive difference, I'd say.

M. le Prof d'Anglais said...

Thanks engelsk! Can I borrow your line "in Denmark the ability to speak English to a certain level has become a part of the national identity" if BBC World get in touch?

engelsk said...

You're welcome to. But remember it's only a personal opinion, not based on any research, of course.

Colin Cleavage said...

The assumption that natives are the best teachers is nonsense. I have learned three languages at further/higher level and the best teachers were always those who had made a professional study of the language from the point of view of the language they and their students speak.

A native teacher at university openly told us her English colleagues knew the finer points of her language much better than she did, which is why she only taught the advanced learners mainly the cultural background and poetry/music rather than grammar and vocabulary.

bartlet said...

Dear Monsieur le Prof d'Anglais,

I read your rant with interest.
Sorbonne Confidential, chronicles my experiences at Paris IV (dialogue with professors is VERBATIM) and sets the absurd practices I observed within a wider context. I ask, not just whether students’ poor results are linked to poor teaching, but what are the true costs of the competitive exam system to students, teachers and society as a whole. Throughout I juxtapose anecdotes with original source material so that readers may judge for themselves. Readers may get upset, but they can’t seriously maintain that what I describe didn’t happen or that the statistics I cite are invented.

It is misleading to compare the foreign language skills of the French and the British, as the economic importance of learning English is unique.
In France, English is now required for good jobs. Families with financial means invest heavily in private English lessons and language programs abroad to ensure that their children acquire the necessary skills, while children who depend on the public schools find themselves blocked. France's chronic underperformance in the teaching of English has become a question, not just of efficiency, but of social justice.

Below is a much-shortened resume in English of a Cahiers Pédagogiques article which may interest your readers.

Do to space limitations, I will send you the French article separately

Best Regards,
Laurel Zuckerman
Author of Sorbonne Confidential

97% of French children study English, most for ten years, yet, according to Le Monde, France ranked 69th out of 109 countries in TESOL and last in the 2002 European Assessment of English skills. Why?
Explanations include dubbed films, France's deep ambivalence towards the language and incompatible stress patterns. But I believe that the key is to be found in how France selects and trains its English teachers.
For budgetary reasons, French primary school teachers are encouraged to volunteer to teach English whether or not they speak the language or know how to teach it. As a result, Le Monde de l’Education estimated that half the students had “no oral skills in English” at the start of middle school.
In middle schools (collège) and high schools (lycée), official state English teachers are recruited through strict competitive exams which 90% of candidates fail. Here the problem is not the difficulty of the exam or the length of preparation, but the relevance of its content and the diversion of scarce national resources away from desperately needed teacher training.
Most teachers begin their careers by passing the CAPES exam. For them, the AGREGATION represents a much desired promotion. It is the exam they must pass in order to obtain more pay, less hours, higher prestige and more choice in assignments.
The key role of these exams in career advancement incites teachers to invest in improving their concours (competitive exam) skills instead of their teaching skills. Likewise, the immense resources invested in the concours system (preparatory classes, textbooks, professors, exam centers) are resources which are not available for teacher training. This allocation of resources has a negative impact on students’ results.

bartlet said...
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M. le Prof d'Anglais said...

To save some space, I've deleted the full text of Laurel Zuckerman's article, but here's a link it:

M. le Prof d'Anglais said...

Dear Laurel Zuckerman

Thank you for your response. Can I start by saying I don't believe the events you describe are invented, my point was that they you can't just take personal anecdotes and assume they apply nationwide.

I take issue with your claim that “It is misleading to compare the foreign language skills of the French and the British, as the economic importance of learning English is unique.” Research by CILT, the National Centre for Languages in the UK reveals that “Two thirds of [British] businesses cite foreign languages as a barrier and eight out of ten feel challenged by differences in culture and etiquette” (1). The British Government's response was to make languages optional after age 14!

In your article, I think it's disappointing that you seem to gloss over cultural factors in the first paragraph before drawing the conclusion that lack of English skills is down to bad teaching. I agree it's probably a factor with older teachers, but the training I received at the IUFM emphasised communicative approaches (the approche actionnelle) and a new generation of teachers is coming through, so I see every reason to be optimistic. But with the best will in the world, an English teacher in France will always have an uphill struggle when compared to a teacher in Denmark whose pupils are exposed to English when they turn on the TV in the evening. Parents will continue to invest in private tutoring for their kids no matter what goes on in schools. However good the teaching, those who can afford to will always try to do something to give their own children an edge. There's a whole industry of private tutors, not just for English, but Maths, French, History and so on.

Regarding your criticisms of the concours system as a whole, I agree that the system needs revising, but I don't have a problem with the fact that only half the tests are done in English. As I originally pointed out, there is more to teaching in a school than simply subject knowledge. That's why the CAPES has an épreuve préprofessionelle (which you fail to mention anywhere). It's also reasonable that teachers should have a good level of spoken and written French; imagine the reaction of a parent on receiving a school report card full of spelling and grammar mistakes! Furthermore, a teacher in a lycée may well have to teach some literature and culture, not just language (insofar as any language can be divorced from its historical and cultural context) so why shouldn't aspiring teachers be expected to demonstrate some relevant knowledge?

I agree that the teaching of English in primary schools could have been done a lot better; I suspect it was rushed, and they tried to implement it on the cheap without recruiting staff. But it also takes time to train people to work with primary age children, you can't just assume you can put a native speaker in front of a class of seven year-olds. But even then, when I taught kids in 6ème (age 11), I could tell which ones had done English in primary school without having to ask. It did make a difference.

Your point about the 90% failure rate is misleading. All that means is there is one job for every ten candidates; in other words, positions are highly sought after. But that figure includes the large proportion who sign up to the exam but never come to sit the tests, and those who haven't prepared seriously. This point was actually made at the public debate organised by TESOL France in 2008, and which you attended, so it's a little disappointing to see you still quoting the 90% figure, without qualification, in 2009.

I'm not saying the current system is perfect by any means, and there will always be room for improvement. However, my experience of teaching in both England and France leads me to conclude that a competitive exam is no worse that testing a candidate's ability to talk the talk in a job interview. But that's just my personal experience.


M. le Prof d'Anglais said...

Just to clarify, the épreuve préprofessionalle consists of taking a set of teaching materials and critically commenting on them. This is a crucial skill for any teacher who doesn't just start a lesson with "Open your books at page 36".

bartlet said...

Dear Monsieur le Professeur,

Thank you for your reply. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss. Actually we agree on quite a number of points, though of course not everything.

The impact of the high failure rate is perhaps the most important. (90% is the official figure, but you’re right about no-shows. I use 90% for lack of better.)
Why do I single out this extremely high failure rate for criticism? Because it’s wasteful of precious resources. And we need these resources elsewhere: for the continuing education and the retraining of tens of thousands of older teachers.
Think of the immense budgetary effort and mobilization of resources required to process AND ELIMINATE the vast majority of candidates who will consequently NOT become teachers. The money gobbled up by the selection process is no longer available to train working teachers. That is, for me, the most damning argument against the concours system. In economic terms it’s an opportunity cost. It robs teachers of needed training…

In the interview I mentioned “Lutherian” and “Duck are like fish”. My intention was not to mock the errors of non-native speakers. As you point out, we all make mistakes. (I know I do.) I recalled these anecdotes because the professor who said “Lutherian” and the inspector who corrected a young teacher for saying “three ducks” instead of “three duck” insisted not only that their version was correct BUT THAT FUTURE ENGLISH TEACHERS MUST REPRODUCE IT !
Unfortunately this attitude is not rare. In the international section of our local lycée there is a (French) English teacher who systematically refuses any input from native speakers, going so far as to punish the children if they contradict her in class. It is a woeful experience for a native speaker to be threatened with a bad grade for speaking correctly. The parents have protested repeatedly and unsuccessfully and now are resigned.
Many teachers, of course, are open minded and not averse to admitting a mistake and correcting it. Obviously, this comment is not directed at them. Colleagues suffer as much from this kind of behavior as do students, whose trust in authority is undermined…

I agree that France will never catch up with Denmark. But that is not really the goal, is it? The fact is that France did worse than 24 other European countries in TOEFL in 2008 and ranked last in the 1996 and 2002 European Assessments. From 1996 to 2002 its results relative to other countries actually declined. Why is this? How to do better?

Of course there are societal factors. But these alone do not explain France’s persistent underperformance.

Below is the 2002 Assessment of Pupils’ skills attempt to identify pedagogical weaknesses that might be improved (page 129):

“It would seem that for French teachers of English what comes first for learning a language remains grammatical correctness. This is why the representation given of learning a language is not conducive to communication. Teachers develop a hankering after perfection which hinders pupils. Thus it is necessary, in France, for teachers and for pupils alike, to have a perfect command of grammar in order to pick up the courage to speak, to express oneself. Furthermore French pupils did not have a wide range of lexical knowledge. The fact that they are constantly being corrected by the teachers leads to an excessive use of French during the English lesson: the teachers give grammatical explanations in French and pupils respond likewise to show they have understood an oral or written message. Teachers aim at “perfection” in
the message.”

Best Regards,

Laurel Zuckerman

M. le Prof d'Anglais said...

Many thanks for taking the time to respond to my points. A couple of observations:

Regarding statistics, here are the figures for the CAPES in 2008 (from the government website, link below):

Posts available: 942
Registered candidates: 4549
“Non-éliminés” i.e. showed up for the test and didn't hand in a blank copy: 3233 (71% of candidates)
Admissibles i.e. eligible for the oral test: 2074 (64% of “non-éliminés)

(942/3233)*100 = 29%
(942/2074)*100 = 44.5%

So 29% of those who showed up for the written exam, and nearly half of those who qualified for the interview stage, got a place at IUFM. Does that mean the remaining 71% wasted a year of their lives? Not necessarily, as some, like me, will have prepared via distance learning rather than full time study, and done other things during the year. Others will try again next year, but with the benefit of experience. In any case, so long as 3233 candidates chase 942 positions, the “failure rate” will be 71% regardless of the selection procedure.

I agree that marking 3233 sets of scripts and interviewing 2074 candidates will incur a cost. But let's contrast that with the English system; in England, when a school needs a teacher, they will need to advertise in the national press, sift through application forms, shortlist candidates, interview them and, after selecting, reimburse the travelling costs of unsuccessful applicants, who themselves may have to attend several interviews around the country before finding a job. I haven't done the maths, but suspect that if you multiply those expenses by every teaching job in the country over one year, the cost to the public purse must also be substantial, albeit less visible.

I am sorry to hear of the teacher in your local lycée; all I can say is that I've never come across that attitude myself, but every profession has its bad apples, unfortunately. We both agree that performance in English isn't as good as it should be. However, things have changed since 2002. The official curriculum for the Modern Languages in 6ème says the following:

Une langue est un instrument qui intervient dans la réalisation de la plupart des tâches sociales : il s'agit à chaque fois de mener à bien un projet, d'atteindre un objectif, de résoudre un problème, etc. Les tâches exigent en général la mise en oeuvre de la compétence langagière. En milieu scolaire c'est cette compétence qu'il s'agit de développer. La réalisation de tâches implique la mise en oeuvre de compétences générales, linguistiques, sociolinguistiques et pragmatiques. (...)
En termes de programmation et de progression, ceci implique donc que les compétences linguistiques (grammaticales, lexicales, phonologiques) et culturelles soient mises au service de la réalisation de tâches et ne soient pas considérées comme des fins en elles-mêmes.

It doesn't sound like what your local teacher is doing, but it is what new teachers are being trained to do in 2009, and what inspectors expect to see. It will take time for the new generation to feed through, but it is happening. It just doesn't seem to be widely recognised at the moment.

bartlet said...

Dear Monsieur le Prof d'Anglais,

Just one last comment (for fear of boring people).

Here are the stats for the agrégation externe d'anglais 2008:

1756 candidates registered for 128 jobs
(7.3% of the registered candidates succeeded; 92.7% were eliminated at some stage in the process)

Nombre de postes : 128
Nombre de candidats inscrits : 1745
Nombre de candidats non éliminés (c'est-à-dire n'ayant pas eu de note éliminatoire) : 879
Nombre de candidats admissibles : 304

All the best,


M. le Prof d'Anglais said...

One last comment from me:

Interestingly, what those stats reveal is that the biggest drop-off (around 50%) happens before the first test. I think a fairer comparison is to look at the success rate of those who actually completed the course and took the exam. You have to remember that it's very easy to sign up in the autumn, so the number of inscrits includes people who probably weren't serious candidates anyway.

What would be really interesting to know is how many of the Agrèg candidates also entered for the CAPES and later dropped out the former to concentrate on that.