Misteaching takes many forms, but they all result in failure, frustration and misery. In the English-speaking world, misteaching usually takes the form of hopeful reliance on incidental learning, introduced as a reaction to the teaching typified by Dickens' Mr M'Choakumchild, based on his own experience at school in Camden Town. In much of continental Europe, the old ways persist, with, for example, a heavy emphasis on exercises in English that prevent people from learning to speak the language. The late Francis Holmes, who taught me French, was acutely aware of the problems involved in drill and skill methods, which, he said, prevented "even the bright ones, those who could handle the subjunctive," from learning to speak. His solution was to run supplementary exchanges between schools in Essex and Paris, with lessons in the morning and shared free time in the afternoon. It worked for some of us, but not all, as many of the English pupils kept together in their free time and spoke very little French. We learn from mistakes - on my first trip, I ordered a Perrier, thinking it was Perry, and un exprès, in the fond belief that it was beer.
What all forms of misteaching have in common is a failure to understand how the human brain functions, and how to develop it. Much progressive education is based on the idea that failure should be eliminated, and that the way to eliminate it is to redefine success, so that academic achievement is no longer its main criterion. Kenneth Clarke's recent memoir, Kind of Blue, has a succinct account of his encounters with progressive officials at the UK's frequently rebranded Department for Education and Science in the nineties. Their centrepiece was mixed ability teaching, which relies above all on incidental learning, as it is impossible for a teacher to focus personally on the range of needs in a class in which some pupils are reading Dickens, while others can't read the texts easily managed by children of six and seven. The grinding approach - M'Choakumchild, unlike Gradgrind, was misguided, rather than vicious - was taken apart by Truffaut in Les Quatre Cent Coups, and I saw it in Germany in the early nineties. I was asked to help a nine year old with his German homework, at which he was failing, largely because he was given endless exercises in German grammar without any explanation of its purposes and function. Unpacking the terminology - he was a German national - enabled him to make sense of the work and begin to succeed. The approach is consistent with current research findings on the formation and extension of neural networks in the brain. Whatever does not promote this process does not work.
The way to correct misteaching, from either source, is very simple - unpack, explain, and practise.
Two recent cases, with apologies for the clumsy phrasing in the interests of preserving anonymity:
M, in the Spanish school system, had been assessed as dyslexic in England and Spain, and could not read in English at all. She was not dyslexic, but did not know how to adjust her thinking to move from the regular Spanish system of Spelling to the English system, in which the letters tell us most of what we need to know, but not everything. In about half a dozen lessons over the internet, in which she chose to read a book appropriate to her age, rather than a primer, I taught M to adapt to English spelling so that she was pleased when letters helped, but not surprised when they didn't. Whenever she met an irregular or unusual word in a text, I would move to another with the same pattern, explain its origins, practise it, and have her father revisit it between lessons so that she understood. M's father brought the family over from Spain to take my wife and me out to dinner to celebrate, and yesterday he sent me an email saying that P was now doing much better, and didn't need any more help for the moment.
S required an A in a modern languages A level for university entrance, had top grades in other subjects, but had been "taught" the language to GCSE with little or no explanation of the finer points of its grammar, in the spirit of the "tolerance of error" advocated by the late, well-intentioned, Eric Hawkins. This had produced an A* at GCSE, but left S with no preparation for A level. Moving to a new sixth form, S was required to pay attention to things that were beyond his/her understanding, because they had never been explained. The teacher marked work thoroughly, but did not explain why things were as they were. Rectifying this in the months before A level got S the required grade, but after a good deal of anxiety that should have been avoided by accurate teaching in the first instance. A sixteen year old I'm currently teaching has the same problem in German. Approaching GCSE without any introduction to German grammar, the pupil writes what s/he thinks is German, emails it to the teacher, who enters the correct inflections and improves the phrasing. Pupil then learns by heart these, to him/her meaningless collections of letters, and reproduces it in what is known as "controlled assessment", without understanding a word. Once again, the approach is to unpack and explain everything, and pupil is much happier as a result.
I recommend Rachel Hawkes' Stimmt series of German textbooks as a way of avoiding such problems in the future. The reading problem will not be solved by a textbook, but by improving teachers' understanding of English spelling and how to teach it.
HEFCE has been spending £7.3m on yet another quango, routes into languages, that began in August 2013 and has so far had no impact whatsoever. It's unlikely that it will. The fall in applications reflects the fall in A level entries, which can be traced back to the gap between GCSE and A level and to the weaknesses in teaching at KS3 that have been criticised by HMI. There is no research on the impact of mixed ability teaching in all of this, and there should be. Spending money on quangos - and something between 150 and 200 million pounds has gone up in smoke in this way over the years - is no substitute for getting the teaching right.
A Level French sets out, in the words of Steve Glover, "to restore modern foreign languages to where they should be in the curriculum". This is a comprehensive site, with resources ranging from basic explanation of gender to commentaries on the most popular literary texts that pupils might choose for A level, and brings to the subject the kind of attractive presentation modern students expect, with clear explanations. It has been very well reviewed by the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association, and its clients include IB schools as well as A level. Teachers of A level French should make a bee line for this site, where they will find a most helpful friend.