Four weeks into the autumn term, Year 7 is hard at work. Bent over their tables in groups of four, they are arranging and rearranging an assortment of cards spread out before them. There are some puzzled expressions and a lot of earnest discussion. Every so often someone turns aside to consult a dictionary or textbook before four heads converge again and another card is moved.
The setting is Vermuyden School in the East Riding of Yorkshire and these pupils are having their first taste of thinking skills. The theme is "friends and family" and each card contains a French noun preceded by the definite or indefinite article. Although they have had no formal instruction on gender and some of the vocabulary is unfamiliar, their task is to sort them into groups which have something in common. Patterns begin to emerge. This is the cue for advanced skills teacher Kylee Milner to lead a plenary, where she coaxes grammatical rules from the pupils themselves.
"Why did you put these particular cards together? What do you think 'le'
means? Why do you not find 'le' in front of 'grand-m re'? What is the difference between 'le' and 'un'?"
The final discussion establishes that "les" with an "s" on the end of the noun denotes plural, and the class is packing up to go when an alert individual spots a discrepancy. "Why does 'jumeaux' go with 'les' when it ends in 'x'?" he asks, providing his classmates with something to think about before next lesson.
Since October, Kylee Milner has been co-ordinating a team of volunteers from across the local education authority to develop and pilot thinking skills strategies. She admits that at first she had reservations about an approach which requires abandoning target language as well as conventional lesson structure. She uses it sparingly, however, perhaps once every three weeks, incorporating a variety of activities covering reading, writing, listening and speaking, and is now a firm convert. "By getting students to solve grammatical problems and come to learning conclusions themselves, you enable them to manipulate language and become more independent," she explains.
To illustrate her point, she cites her Year 9 top set French group, who have had several thinking skills lessons, including one on partitive articles and another on verbs. "It has made a huge difference to their written accuracy," she says.
"As part of our current topic, 'la sante', we have been looking at food and they can describe what they eat, have eaten and will eat and use 'du', 'de la' and 'des' correctly."
Her students seem to approve. "I think you get a better understanding because you have to discuss your ideas with other people," comments Georgia Thresh.
"You remember things afterwards because you worked them out for yourself instead of being told," adds Charlotte Harding.
Encouraging learners to think for themselves, ask questions and contribute ideas was one of the themes of a research project on able pupils launched by the East Riding several years ago. "Our ultimate aim was to raise aspirations and boost self-confidence," explains modern languages adviser David Stork. "There is a relationship between what students believe they can do and what they actually achieve."
One of the researchers' findings was that able girls are susceptible to low self-esteem. Another concerned the wider impact of methodologies introduced to extend the best linguists. The original intention was to select 36 students for monitoring purposes but their teachers soon concluded that focusing on a few high-fliers was inappropriate. "They discovered that what they were delivering impinged on the whole teaching group," he says. "At the end of the day it is about good teaching and learning across the board."
Alison Thomas is a languages consultant and freelance writer