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Gather round,we can chat in French

Lessons in an informal setting are helping pupils to concentrate and learn language skills without being embarrassed, says Eleanor Caldwell

Circle time, a concept devised by Jenny Moseley, the author of self-esteem books for children and adults, was originally designed for primary classes as a structured forum for sharing thoughts and feelings. Now it has been drawn into the curriculum at secondary level for teaching modern languages.

Second year pupils at Crieff High School, having worked in a circle for one period a week in S1, are in no doubt about its benefits for learning French. They describe the lesson time as "enjoyable", "co-operative" and "motivating" and agree that they are gaining confidence and, consequently, learning more.

Principal teacher Christine Ross explains that the language of the circle is, at all times, French. The aims are to avoid breaking the circle, to create a ripple effect of language from pupil to pupil, but primarily to make learning and speaking French a stress-free experience.

In practical terms, most aspects of language can be practised. Question and answer sessions include a teddy bear named Serge. When asked a question, he confers with a pupil, who then passes on the answer and Serge to his neighbour. The Crieff pupils say they enjoy reverting to childish chat with the bear because "he focuses our thoughts".

During practice of verb forms, the paradigm is first clapped out, then recited around the circle, with pupils passing a ball - sometims across the circle - to maintain the rhythm. The ripple effect crosses the diameter when the ball is thrown to individuals across the circle. When the apparently effortless results of learning come unstuck and a pupil forgets an answer, a conciliatory hand gesture allows him to pass on that point without further comment.

The pupils don't feel anxious if they don't have an answer; it is never a problem. "We try our own best," says one boy.

The youngsters emphasise the importance of being able to look at everyone when they speak. "It's good compared to sitting at desks because we all have to take part," says one girl. "There are no distractions," says another. "We don't even have a pen in our hands to fiddle with."

The class includes a normal range of ability but the pupils feel undaunted if they are not one of the best. "You can try to copy the good ones, though, without feeling embarrassed," says one boy.

Another positive spin-off, says Ms Ross, is the pupils' attitude towards homework. When she asks them to learn a verb for the next circle time, they seem to prioritise it. "I see them highlighting it in their planner," she says.

Not all members of Ms Ross's department use circle time. "It's not something you can do unless you feel comfortable with it and always stick to the rules," she says. She would not encourage a casual supply teacher to experiment with the method.

However, this original circle time class are enjoying showing their new teacher the ropes.

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