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Express yourself

Alison Thomas tells how a school's approach to languages has produced lively, expressive writing.

Je n'aime pas mes parents, ils me traitent comme un bebe ... Ils ne voient pas que le monde a change et ils sont vieux jeux, ce qui fait que dimanche dernier j'ai fait mes devoirs - barbant!"

Was this penned by an AS student? Or a super-bright GCSE candidate perhaps? No. This parental put-down comes from a piece of Year 10 coursework written by a pupil of the Holt Language College in Wokingham. What's more, it is not exceptional. Since the modern languages department decided to take up the GCSE coursework option six years ago, it has seen the number of AA* grades rise from 15 per cent to 42 per cent. "We wanted to explore more creative ways of writing," explains head of modern languages, Samia Earle.

"But first we had to work out our teaching and learning strategies and decide how to put the grammar in place."

It has been a team effort from the start and every scheme of work has been redesigned to incorporate systematic grammatical progression. At the heart of the strategy, which is applied consistently in French, German and Spanish, lie two key elements.

The first is mind-mapping, designed to make grammar more interesting and fix it firmly in the mind. The process starts with an explanation by the teacher, and pupils then have to find a way of putting the same point across to someone else. "They can create any shape or design they wish, but it must have visual impact and fit on to a single sheet of A4," she says.

"Every one is different and even weaker students try really hard to find ways of making connections in order to explain it clearly. You also quickly discover whether they have absorbed it or not."

Once the grammar point is firmly established, a creative task follows. To reinforce the imperative, for example, pupils compose a rap about a disgruntled teenager who is bossed around by all and sundry. To practise the imperfect they bring in pictures of themselves as babies, to which they attach a paragraph about their childhood habits. "Because they are excited about the task, they come up with all sorts of things - 'I used to eat sand, eat spiders, vomit my milk!' Then we put the pictures up in the corridor and people have to guess who is who. It brings language alive, gives it a purpose," she says.

The second core element is the tool box, which contains key structures, such as "it is possible" or "one must", and pupils are expected to use these extensively, putting them into the negative or manipulating tense as required. They are also encouraged to rely on the tool box and vocabulary they already know, even when expressing complicated ideas. "When I first came here, able pupils used to write essays in English and then translate them," she says, shuddering at the very thought.

Used in conjunction with writing frames, the tool box enables less-able pupils to produce creditable pieces of work. At the top of the ability range, the only problem is persuading students to stop at 500 words. "They have become used to writing at length, applying tenses, adding extras like connectives to develop and extend their sentences. One of the games we play in Year 10 is to write the longest sentence possible using all of these elements without repetition," she explains.

Not surprisingly, improved confidence and powers of self-expression have impacted on oral skills and helped to ease the transition from GCSE to A-level. For staff there is an added benefit: top quality, highly original coursework is a pleasure to mark.

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