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Bin and gone and learned primary English

France. A talking wastebin is helping 250,000 French seven-and-eight-year-olds to learn a foreign language.

Every day for the past year, a five-minute video has been the focus of a lesson. The video features, in the English version, teacher Mary, her class of six pupils, Clovis the caretaker and Wasty the speaking rubbish bin.

The characters have talked and sung their way through scenes which teach their infant audiences how to introduce and describe themselves, discuss their likes, dislikes and needs, ask basic questions, talk about other people, animals and objects, and express place and time.

A major reform, announced two years ago by education minister Francois Bayrou, promised 15 minutes' initiation in a foreign language daily for all elementary pupils.

English is by far the most popular choice, taken by more than 80 per cent of participating classes, followed by German (12 per cent), Spanish (4 per cent) and Italian (2 per cent).

M Bayrou's plan to bring in the measure for all seven-year-olds has not yet been achieved. After objections from teachers' unions - who approved the principle but said the reform was being rushed - the scheme was made voluntary. About 15,000 teachers in 10,000 schools took up the challenge, representing about a third of all CE1 classes (CE1 stands for cours elementaire level 1, the second primary year).

The programme, CE1 Sans Fronti res, is the first in France to offer foreign languages to so many pupils, so young; though since the early 1970s there have been local initiatives, notably in Alsace.

In 1989, Lionel Jospin, then education minister, launched EILE (Enseignement d'Initiation une Langue Etrang re) for pupils in year four of primary school, aged nine or 10. This is not yet universal, but the proportion taking it is rising each year. CE1 Sans Frontires is due to dovetail with EILE from September 1997, when the pioneer pupils reach that level.

One afternoon at the Ecole Elementaire Rue Emereau, in Paris, 19 infants from one of the two CE1 classes sit watching an episode from the video series about Clovis's birthday, excitedly joining in where appropriate. Afterwards their teacher, Gladys Charles, revises vocabulary and grammar, using glove puppets representing Babar, a soldier, Red Riding Hood and the wolf. The children vie to reply to her questions: "She is good, he is bad," or "She is wearing red, he is wearing green." Then Mme Charles asks their ages, and they compare their heights.

Since it began, CE1 Sans Frontires, has been under the scrutiny of a group of experts comprising researchers, inspectors and linguists from national, regional and departmental levels of the education ministry, and from the National Institute of Educational Research (INRP). During the year, its members sat in on 120 lessons; they found the programme was enthusiastically received by the children, parents and teachers taking part, and that pupils learned vocabulary and expressions best through songs, and the games shown on the video that could be repeated in the classroom.

In their report on progress so far, they note that the greatest problem is the lack of qualified language teachers. More than 70 per cent of those involved in the scheme said they were either beginners or had little experience at teaching a foreign language.

The report says: "While 90 per cent of them the teachers have no specific skill (linguistic diplomas or experience) overall understanding is generally satisfactory. On the other hand, the capacity to repeat a statement, give an order, launch an activity or correct a pupil very often remains inadequate; intonation is often approximate or 'French- sounding'.

"The teacher does not hear properly; often he is ignorant of the essential characteristics of the spoken language, or the processes of acquiring a modern language," the report continues.

Under EILE, secondary teachers and trained outsiders are employed to supplement the inadequate number of qualified primary teachers, but over the next decade the plan is to train and increase progressively the number of class teachers taking charge of the primary courses.

Christiane Luc, a senior INRP researcher, would like to build links with schools in Britain, with children perhaps using the telephone or fax to communicate.

Emilie Noubadji, an inspector with the Ministry of Education, who has responsibility for the CE1 project, would welcome more exchanges with foreign teachers, especially English-speakers.

"Exchanges are very limited because they are too expensive for us. This means there's a great disparity between the 80 per cent of pupils who choose to study English, and the training of staff which continues to lag behind."

Primary schools in Britain which would like to work with French schools can contact Christiane Luc, INRP, 29 Rue d'Ulm, 75230 Paris, Cedex 05; or, to investigate exchange possibilities, M Peton, Bureau DE B1, Bureau des Formations et des Recruitements, Directions des Ecoles, 110 Rue de Grenelle, 75007 Paris.

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