How do you get Year 11, set 3, to master the art of writing a simple holiday postcard? One day, I concocted a song incorporating useful expressions. Far from spurning this idea as a childish activity, students insisted on singing it at every opportunity. Examination practice became fun instead of a chore and the melody and rhythm helped to fix language patterns in their minds.
"A little bit of music triggers memory, that is why the advertising world uses it," says Steven Fawkes, BBC education officer and president of the Association for Language Learning.
"Many popular songs are repetitive, which makes them particularly useful with lower-ability pupils. People can join in at different levels."
One way of making life easier for composer and performers is to take a familiar tune and give it new words. Fawkes wrote this ditty for beginners to sing with all the gusto of "Hi Ho" in Disney's film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
"Salut! Salut! Salut! Comment vas-tu?
Moi je vais bien, donc ... demain. Salut! Salut!"
For older students, he uses the same device to reinforce areas that may be causing difficulty. This adaptation of "We shall not be moved" consolidates the use of French partitive articles.
"Je n'ai pas, je n'ai pas de pommes (twice) J'ai des oranges, des ananas, des pamplemousses, Mais je n'ai pas de pommes."
While music can provide light relief and focus attention when pupils begin to flag, for maximum impact it should be integrated into the flow of the lesson. In this case, preliminary activities include a guessing game on the overhead projector, which requires pupils to put fruit in an empty basket while he turns away and asks questions. "J'ai des fraises?" "Non." "Alors, je n'ai pas de fraises. J'ai du raisin?" and so on.
As an extension activity pupils are asked to compose a new version of the song. "They delight in coming up with humorous alternatives such as 'Je n'ai pas de slip'," he says.
"It is a chance for them to play around with language. Because the song has a clear structure, they can't go too far wrong."
Teachers can also use pre-recorded material from television programmes and course books. Authentic songs provide another useful resource, even those with complicated lyrics that are not appropriate for learning by heart.
Pupils might be asked to listen for specific vocabulary, identify words that rhyme or try to catch the chorus.
"It is important to devise activities with a language focus," says Fawkes.
"You can't just play a song and expect the class to listen in rapture.
Teenagers are very critical."
Steven Fawkes expands on these ideas in Classic Pathfinder: Inspiring Performance (CPF3), published by The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT), and due out in March Tel: 020 7379 5110 Year 11's postcard
Hallo Gabi! Wie geht es Dir? (spoken)
Wir sind in Italien, das Wetter ist gut. (twice)
Wir bleiben noch mehrere Tage.
Ich bin jeden Tag im Schwimmbad geschwommen,
Gestern frueh ist mein Freund angekommen
Ich hab' mit ihm Tennis gespielt.
Ich kaufe mir Kleider und andere Sachen.
Ich werde vielleicht einen Bungeesprung machen! Das Essen ist toll. Das Essen ist toll.
Ich habe viel Pizza gegessen!