Having a foreign language assistant or FLA is becoming something of a luxury in MFL classrooms. This is due to the current cash-strapped nature of many of our schools. However, if used effectively, they are such a great resource for a department and can help pupils to improve their speaking skills. I am going to discuss about how I have used them over the years to benefit my pupils and department.
For many of us, our knowledge of music, tv and film from another culture often stands still in time. Usually, it is either from our year abroad or early on in our career. I have used FLAs to help to keep this knowledge up to date with the latest artists and films.
This means that the pupils are seeing what is current. Otherwise, it is something that I watched or listened to 15 years ago as a first-year undergraduate. This is something that enables the target language culture to become part of the department. Also, it can really help with the engagement of our pupils as it is relevant to them.
Many FLAs will also source up-to-date articles and resources for use, if they have time in their timetable. The most effective can produce great tasks to accompany the articles, if they are shown how. Furthermore, I have personally used an FLA to help develop my Spanish speaking skills. This was when I first started to teach it at a higher level, it was invaluable CPD for me. Particularly for tricky vocabulary topics in areas such as technology and social media where things are moving so quickly.
Using the FLA out of lessons
More often than not, time and money permitting, I have used the FLA to work individually with sixth form students. This gives them time to speak with a native speaker and can boost confidence, due to a less pressured environment. When I worked in a large department with 40 – 50 A level pupils, it was tough to organise. So usually Year 12s would go in pairs and Year 13 would go individually for a 20 – 30-minute weekly conversation. I felt it was of great benefit to the pupils.
I always give a copy of my schemes of work to the FLA to guide the topics for conversation. Also, I would provide questions and prompts for extra support. However, the most proactive FLAs came up with their own questions, resources and games to use with the pupils.
Using the FLA in lessons
I have been lucky to have had a FLA for most years that I have been teaching. I tend to use them with GCSE classes, but in a different way to with sixth form classes. When I have had smaller, usually bottom sets, I often have the FLA working in the classroom. This forms part of a carousel of activities where they fulfil a specific function. This could be speaking practice or vocabulary games to build confidence. With bigger classes, I divide them into groups and send them out on a two-week rotation to practice speaking.
FLAs are a fantastic resource for an MFL department, but only if used wisely. Mostly, they like clear direction so that they can help to the best of their ability. So effective timetabling, communication and schemes of work/resources really give them something to hold on to when planning what they will do. If you have more than one FLA, as larger departments often do, it is a good idea to get them to chat to each other, so they don’t feel on their own when/if they are far away from home.
Recruiting the FLA
In terms of recruitment, I have used the British Council. Yet, I have found that the quality can be highly variable. So more often, my school and I have recruited directly or through contacts from local schools. This way you can keep them for more than one year and have them for the whole year if you would like. Self-sourced FLAs often live locally and are very committed to the school and department. This also means that they can work for more than 12 hours per week, which is such a bonus.
However, I realise that not every department/school can have this situation. It is worth trying to work with other schools in the area to share the resource and direct it to where there is need. FLAs can be a great way to improve speaking skills for our pupils, but understandably it is not always possible.