ORGANISING the annual French or German exchange trip can take up a huge amount of secondary language teachers' time. But most believe that the effort is worth it.
However, such trips now have to compete with a growing number of skiing holidays, outdoor pursuits and other overseas expeditions offered by schools. Parents therefore want some reassurance that money spent on foreign exchanges actually helps to improve children's language skills.
Until now, there has been little research evidence either way. Feedback from teachers involved in the Dialogue 2000 project, which enables 16 to 18-year-olds to spend up to three months in France, suggests that the time is well spent. But there has been no systematic investigation into the value of pre-GCSE exchanges.
A recent study conducted at Cambridge University school of education has now addressed that oversight. We measured the impact of French exchange visits on pupils at three Cambridgeshire comprehensives (Comberton Village College, Hinchingbrooke school and Jack Hunt school).
In all, 68 Year 9 pupils were interviewed and tested by the research team before their trip and shortly after their return. The Comberton pupils spent nine days in France, Hinchingbrooke six days and Jack Hunt 11 days.
The study found that most progress was made in listening comprehension. Sixty-one per cent of pupils improved their listening score following the visit.
There was also a marked improvement in the written test. It consisted of open-ended, extended writing tasks in which pupils had to describe their family and home in the pre-visit test, and their partners' family and home after the visit.
The vast majority of pupils wrote much longer pieces in the second test, an indication of greater confidence in the foreign language. Having something new and interesting to write about might also have acted as a spur. Just over half the pupils (51 per cent) gained a higher overall score in the post-visit witing test and the improvement was most noticeable in the inclusion of idiomatic language, expression of opinion, use of verb tenses and syntactical coherence.
Speaking skills also seemed to improve (45 per cent scored higher overall), but the gain was less marked than in the written work. Longer immersion in the target language would be needed to make significant headway in this respect.
Asked how they had benefited from the exchange trip, most pupils mentioned "knowledge of French ways of life", "learning new vocabulary", "understanding spoken French" and "expressing myself in spoken French". In general they underestimated the progress they had made in writing - only eight pupils felt they had improved in this area.
The host family seemed to play a key role in determining whether or not pupils benefited linguistically from the experience. There was a strong correlation between improvement in speaking and writing and how much they communicated in French with their partners and family. There was also a strong link between pupils' improvement in written and oral competence and the degree to which their family corrected their mistakes.
All bar one of the pupils whose writing had improved said their family encouraged them to speak French, whereas only 36 per cent of those who scored a lower mark said the same. Thirty per cent of those whose writing improved said their family "always corrected them", and 70 per cent said they "sometimes corrected them". By contrast, only 9 per cent of those who obtained a lower score in the second test said they were always corrected, while 54 per cent said that they were sometimes corrected.
Our research also suggests that most of the pupils were more motivated on their return. Even so, we will have to wait for the GCSE results in 2001 to see if the effects are long-lasting.
Dr Michael J Evans is a lecturer in education at the University of
Cambridge. He can be contacted at the school of education, 17 Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1QA.
Tel 01223-332888 or