It's late June at St Paul's School, Milton Keynes and Year 8 are working on places in town and prepositions. Not a word of English has passed their lips since they entered Wendy Bromidge's German classroom and the lesson rattles along at a cracking pace. She covers at least 14 different activities as she swings from whole-class demonstrations to pair work and back again and there is a heavy emphasis on competition - against the clock, against the teacher, against each other. There is plenty too for the kinaesthetic learner. On one occasion students accompany a drill on prepositions with appropriate gestures, on another they race their partners to read lists of nouns posted around the room.
Pace, variety and non-stop target language are equally evident next door, where Ceri Bacon's Year 8 Spanish class is practising the same language areas. Every student receives a flashcard, but first they have to identify what it is from her description. Then they are out of their seats arranging themselves in alphabetical order, which they achieve remarkably quickly, with the exception of one lad who hovers by the line looking bewildered.
Ceri appeals to his classmates for help and they duly oblige. "Gracias," he exclaims and slides into his place with a smile.
As the lesson continues they practise prepositions, rearrange a jumbled dialogue, build sentences - it runs to 15 activities this time, but who's counting? One is a card game and although speed is of the essence, no one takes a peek as they wait with bated breath for the signal to start. Their self-restraint stems from superb classroom management and a strict code of practice established from day one. "The first time we unpack the cards, lay them out and put them away again," explains Ceri. "It seems horribly mean, but they soon realise that if they want to have fun they have to follow the rules."
Until this year, pupils arrived at St Paul's in Year 8, yet despite the late start GCSE results are above average for the school. They do particularly well in the listening papers, which might seem surprising as they never hear tapes. However, when you compare the uninspiring content and stilted delivery of much recorded material with the speed and sophistication of the language they are exposed to every day in the classroom, it is not surprising at all.
"Il s'agit de deux criminels qui kidnappent un homme politique dans un bateau dans l'Ocean Atlantique." Head of department James Stubbs rattles this off so fast that despite my fluent French even I have to concentrate.
He is practising the third person singular and plural of regular and irregular verbs with Year 9 in preparation for a piece of writing on their favourite film. Working in pairs, students replicate each sentence by rearranging cards in response to his prompts, repeated three times. As he counts down to zero and sounds a horn they must put their hands on their heads. Anyone who touches a card from now on is eliminated from that round of the competition and misses out on the ultimate prize of a mini chocolate bar.
The activities that precede this sophisticated exercise are varied but the outcome is always the same. Again and again students match "Il s'agit de" (it's about), plus noun and "qui", plus verb and ask themselves the question: "C'est singulier ou pluriel?"
James likes keeping them on their toes - literally. Sometimes he brings them to their feet, sometimes he throws a large striped beach ball, which goes back and forth between teacher and students as different individuals take to the floor.
Another of his strategies is to invite them to address their partners - perhaps to repeat the outcome of a class discussion or to confer on a question. "Imagine how many words the average person utters in a lesson," he says. "If you ask volunteers to put their hands up, it may be none at all. This way ensures a response from everyone and also takes the pressure off the individual."
The level of participation is certainly remarkable. Equally striking is the students' use of target language, not just for given exercises, but for everything they discuss, including grammar. They particularly enjoy small group activities where they take it in turns to be the teacher. "They like telling each other off: 'Put your hand up! Wait for me to finish," says Ceri.
"Lots of language is exploited in a natural way and when they ask for new expressions we speculate on how we might put the language together. It grows from what we are doing and creates a context for real language use."
The digressions that ensue are not a problem as the department has abandoned textbooks in favour of a scheme of work designed around its specific teaching strategies.
"It has been developed from things we have done that work well, not imposed. The core grammar must be covered, but exploitation activities are just suggestions," says James.
The other factor that gives teachers latitude is the mixed-ability policy, which allows them to follow the same group from Year 8 to Year 11 without worrying about set movement. This unusual arrangement obviously does not hold back able students, but what of their weaker classmates? They are not discouraged, according to Ceri, who cites their attitude towards vocabulary tests as a telling indication. "We set individual targets and they are constantly asking what they have to do to get these raised," she says.
The intense concentration across the board bears this out, together with the smiles and whoops of glee when someone wins a competition or catches out the teacher. This is one school where you never hear the plaintive refrain, "Why do I have to learn French, German, Spanish?" Not even in the target language.
* Contact James Stubbs
Tel: 01908 669735