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Body language

Ann Keane adds signing - a mix of gestures and expressions - to the variety of techniques she uses to make sure French is not a 'groan' subject

French is not a "groan" subject at our school. I have come to the conclusion during my 24 years of teaching that the approach has to be multi-faceted - to appeal to everyone, with plenty of humour and praise to instil confidence. I include masses of oral work, with a lot of repetition disguised in many different ways: miming, singing, dancing, role-play, acting, poetry and now signing.

I was inspired to start signing with children when I attended a CILT course given by Marion Carthy in 1998. Signing in this context is a mixture of mime, rhythm and visual clues to help children remember how to say a word and what it means. I have found it more effective than any other method and it has worked particularly well with Year 5, who only have French once a week.

I have built up a bank of visual signs that represent key words and phrases. For example hands on hips in a fairly aggressive stance is a signal for the children to say Comment t'appelles-tu? A scratch on the head in a puzzled way is O habites-tu?

We speak at the same time as we do the actions. We say Quel age as-tu? and unfurl our bodies from a bowing-down position to becoming taller through to full stretch. For J'habite ..., hands are held together over the head to make a house shape.

For a recent topic on weather, after showing the pupils flashcards I ask them to stand as they sign, in this way reinforcing the weather phrases: Il - put one hand out as if to shake hands

fait - the other hand

froid - hugging themselves as if cold

chaud - would be a hand wiped across the brow (obviously il fait is always the same sign).

Classroom language can also be remembered this way:

Excusez-moi, Madame, je suis en retard - tapping wrist watch in rhythm with the syllables

Je ne comprends pas, Madame - hands on hips and swaying in rhythm with a particularly aggressive Madame

Je ne sais pas, Madame - shrugging shoulders and open hands apart (a kind of Gaelic gesture).

Year 5 pupils have also been taught to ask for things using signing with Tu

as? Je peux?

Tu - pointing directly at someone

as - drawing a capital A shape in the air

Je - pointing to throat

peux - arms wide in a gesture of supplication.

I was thrilled when a pupil said: "Tu as un Kleenex? Je peux?"

I have also used signing on the topic of what pupils think of different lessons and, more importantly, J'aime and Je n'aime pas. For example:

J'aime - a finger traces the mouth and pupils say "J'aime" emphasising the m (Mmmmmm, delicious)

le Francais - use both hands in a speaking gesture, like two mouths opening and closing quickly

C'est super - both thumbs up and enthusiastic voice.

Je n'aime pas is a hand passing over the face from top to bottom, changing the expression on the mouth and pas is almost spat out.

I also use signing with Years 6, 7 and 8.

Year 8 lessons include:

Demain - holding out two hands, palms upwards as if pushing something away (deux mains)

Je - pointing to throat

vais - putting wrists together and make a V with thumbs.

Hier - a step back while tugging the right ear twice to fit in with the two syllables

J'ai - a dramatic movement across the body where a seatbelt might be.


un - a clap above head

deux - drawing number in the air

trois - drawing number in the air

quare - two hands clawing like a cat

cinq - sink down

six - draw in the air

sept - draw in the air

huit - cutting down the wheat, a scything gesture a couple of times

neuf - one hard stamp with right foot (I've had enough)

dix - hands up, showing 10

onze - index fingers pointing up on head to make horns

douze - show 10, and draw two in the air

treize - hands up showing 10, drawing three in the air

quatorze - one hand makes clawing gesture followed by other hand clawing

quinze - gesture to suggest a pile of cans

seize - point to myself. "Madame Keane says she's 16!"

dix-sept - hands up showing 10, and draw seven in the air

dix-huit - hands up showing 10, and make a scything action

dix-neuf - hands up showing 10, plus one stamp with right foot

vingt - mime driving a big van

vingt-et-un - van, hand behind ear and clap above head

trente - stand in a T shape, arms out, head bowed

quarante - a disco dance bringing fists up to mouth rhythmically as if eating carrots

cinquante - sink down to floor holding nose

soixante - using both hands about 30cm apart draw a large S in the air

soixante-dix - a large S and hands up for 10

quatre-vingts - both hands clawing and the van

quatre-vingt-dix - as above and hands up to show 10

cent - right hand up in a theatrical gesture, as if to launch into a song.

Signing is a new experience to most of the pupils but they accept it as readily as any other classroom activity. My efforts are rewarded by their enthusiasm and the accurate way they are able to speak and understand French in a relatively short time with such confidence.

At Ashton middle school, signing is here to stay.

More ideas

* When introducing key words and phrases, repeat them as many six or seven times and ask the pupils how many times you have said them.

* Hold up muddled words from a current topic, for example, clone - oncle.

* Hold up a long piece of card with letters on it to represent each word, for example, C d l p d q? C'est de la part de qui?.

* Start a word and say "Completez" and make a finishing off gesture. For example:

bav - bavard

tim - timide.

* To improve accuracy when writing, hold up a piece of card with three phrases or words, one of which is correct. Pupils say which number it is. For example:

1. Jhabit

2. Je habite a

3.0 J'habite ....

* As a listening activity, speak very quickly and very quietly and then say to the group "Expliquez en anglais".

* Once pupils are familiar with the language and structures taught, ask them to read a dialogue or a short passage in pairs saying alternate words.

* An amusing way to familiarise pupils with vocabulary after an initial flashcard introduction is to say "Mettez vous en forme..." and in groups they use their bodies to make the shape of that item.

* To practise listening and speaking for oral assessments in Year 8 ask three or four pupils to say a few sentences about the topic, then five other pupils act as judges and give them a score out of 20.

* To make sure pupils are listening to each other, ask a question such as "Qu'est-ce que vous avez fait hier soir?" to five or six children, then ask: "Quel personne a regarde EastEnders hier soir?".

* "Dessinez ... l'air." Pupils stand up and draw what I say in the air.

Ann Keane is head of French at Ashton CE middle school, Dunstable, Bedfordshire

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