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Life on the fast track

Wendy Adeniji reports on the benefits and challenges of teaching languages to GCSE in Year 9 or 10

While some say that modern language learning in England is reaching crisis point, with languages now officially optional post-14, others believe there is a great opportunity to try new models and start "thinking out of the box". Languages teachers will have to be creative and look at new possibilities if they are not to face near extinction at key stage 4.

Many departments are already ringing the changes. Some are engaging with short or vocation-related courses as alternatives or complements after KS3. Others have headed for the high ground and started new fast-track courses in KS3, with pupils learning a language in three or four years and taking their GCSE at the end of Year 9 or 10.

At Beckfoot School in Bingley, West Yorkshire, students have started taking a GCSE in Year 9. The first cohort - top sets only, in French and German - took their exams in summer 2003, and now this has been extended to include all pupils.

At Dixons City Technology College in Bradford, pupils in the top sets of German and Spanish take their GCSE in Year 10. Both schools report an increase in student enthusiasm for learning a language. Teachers report that coursework is accessible for Years 8 and 9, and that students are keen to use more creativity and imagination, for example when describing a "special weekend" (from the AQA syllabus).

There are disadvantages to tackle in a fast-track approach. Years 9 and 10 may be emotionally unprepared for taking public exams. The pastoral system is geared to preparing pupils for exams in Year 11 and both Beckfoot and Dixons have been alert to students whose confidence may need boosting as the exams approached.

Languages teachers also need to be evangelistic about the benefits of fast-track GCSEs to colleagues, students and parents, before they start teaching.

Liz Jordan, head of languages at Dixons, says: "It's vital to get the curriculum manager and heads of year on board at the beginning so that they can support pupils pastorally and be enthusiastic about the fast-track programme."

Some brighter pupils have complained that they may not get the A* they were hoping for in Year 11 (and perhaps have to make do with an A or B). This has been counteracted by the very pragmatic argument that taking a language GCSE at Year 9 and 10 can only look good on job and university applications.

At Beckfoot, Year 7 parents were sent a letter about the fast-track option starting in Year 8 and given the opportunity to voice objections. Di Harrison, head of languages, says: "By getting parents on board from the start we were able to count on their support the whole way through the course."

Teaching a GCSE fast-track course presents its own challenges and staff at both schools have had to adapt their methodology, although they report that this has only been of benefit and has actually improved their teaching technique.

At Beckfoot, the fast-track has been complemented by accelerated-learning techniques. Staff spend one after-school session a week working in pairs to create a bank of accelerated-learning resources for the whole department.

They also share good practice and try to move away from teaching something the way they have always done because it is easy, and to be honest with themselves and radical if necessary. Accelerated-learning techniques focus strongly on the three main learning styles, visual, aural and kinaesthetic.

Beckfoot pupils use colour-coded card for oral and coursework. Nine-square picture grids for games and as a prompt for speaking and writing are also a familiar feature. Accelerated-learning also emphasises starters and plenaries with a variety of activities in between, all features of good language lessons emphasised by the KS3 strategy.

At both Beckfoot and Dixons there is an emphasis on teaching language-learning skills. Students are taught how to read effectively, and then to manipulate the language for themselves. Grammar teaching has become more explicit, and the foundations of the KS3 Framework, with many of its objectives focusing on transferable learning skills and the manipulation of language, have served to support this ethos.

Liz Jordan trains her pupils to become more autonomous learners, partly through necessity and partly because she believes that this can only be good for them. "They can access and use reference materials such as verb tables much more effectively than previous Year 10 classes," she says.

But what happens after the fast-track exam has been taken? Different schools have adopted a variety of models. At Beckfoot, students who've taken GCSE in Year 9 can opt to take a second language GCSE from scratch in two years, or continue with their first language and cover the AS course in two years, to take the exams in Year 11. Some may do both. At Dixons, students who've done the GCSE in Year 10 will cover module 1 of the AQA AS syllabus (the listening and reading component) over the following year. At Leeds Grammar School, again with one year to fill, students may take the AS French exams in Year 11 - 40 did this for the first time last term. At all three schools, language courses take three lessons a week in Years 10 and 11.

Beckfoot's GCSE results this year for the Year 9 classes were: French 90 per cent A to C grades - three As, five Bs, 19 Cs and three Ds (entry 30).

For German (entry 31), the results were 93.6 per cent A to C grades - 11 As, four Bs, 14 Cs and two Ds, and the school is delighted.

Joshua Morton from Beckfoot School has started Year 10 this September with a German GCSE under his belt and is following the German AS course as well as starting Spanish from scratch to GCSE in two years. He could be one of the future languages graduates whom we so desperately need.

* The National Languages Strategy aims to promote language learning for life and the newly proposed "Languages Ladder" of complementary assessment encourages more flexible ways of learning a language. There are more case studies of fast tracking on the website of CILT, the National Centre for Languages: Wendy Adeniji is a PGCE tutor at the University of Leeds school of education

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