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A mix of chance and challenge

Alison Thomas visits two schools where language learning that is developed through multi-sensory activities and a competitive edge is proving effective

What motivates pupils in languages? How do you engage and sustain their interest? Four years ago, the languages faculty at Swanwick Hall school in Derbyshire launched a project to address this issue by focusing on the three major preferred learning styles, which are visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (movement).

The results have been remarkable. The proportion of pupils gaining A to C grades at GCSE has increased from 32 per cent in 1997 to 71 per cent in 2000 and the success of the project recently earned the school a European Award for Languages.

"It has had a particular impact on boys," says Peter Rodgers, head of languages. "They are the ones who tend to swing on their chairs or find an excuse to wander and they tend to favour kinaesthetic learning styles. " His solution has been to give them something to do with their hands, making extensive use of dominoes, board games and flashcards to consolidate vocabulary and structures. "The visual element is provided by the pictures, the kinaesthetic by the act of turning over a domino or card or throwing a die," he says. "It may seem a little thing, but it actually makes a difference to pupils' attitudes. They forget what they are doing and get through an awful lot of practice, especially if it's tied into a competition."

Some of his materials are home-made. Others come from published packs such as Miniflashcard Language Games. He finds visual stimuli lend themselves to differentiation because the same image can generate a simple or complex response, depending on ability and linguistic knowledge. He cites a game using picture cards of physical activities and a die covered in happy and not-so-happy faces. At a basic level, a football accompanied by a die with a broad grin would elicit "J'adore jouer au football." With more able pupils, he might demand extra layers - perhaps a reason "parce-que je suis sportif" followed by a caveat "mais je deteste faire de la gymnastique, parce-que c'est fatigant".

Sometimes he introduces a second pack to prompt the combination of two verbs within one sentence. This can lead to "Quand j'ai joue au football, je suis tombe" or "Apr s avoir joue au football, j'ai regarde la television."

"It is surprising how quickly they develop the technique of making it up as they go along," he says. "They never know what they will turn over next and the element of unpredictability increases motivation. It also extends their vocabulary as it makes them say things they wouldn't come out with otherwise."

The Miniflashcards teachers' book has suggestions for turning simple activities into games, but what happens whenpupils do not know the answer or cannot agree on what is acceptable? "Sometimes they have serious rows and the teacher has to arbitrate," says Peter Rodgers. "I don't see this as a problem. On the contrary, it shows they are involved. Because they want to win, they listen closely to each other and are often highly critical. 'Huit heures demie' might be rejected out of hand just because the 'et' is missing."

At St Paul's Catholic school in Milton Keynes, French teacher James Stubbs also uses multi-sensory strategies to capture attention and reinforce learning. When he introduces the perfect tense, for example, his pupils have to throw themselves into it body and soul. "J'ai" is accompanied by a stamp of the feet, "je suis" with two - one for each syllable. "Regarde" requires touching an eye with one finger and tracing the acute sign in the air with the other. For "la tele" pupils draw a square in the air.

This is one small part of a fast-moving, carefully structured lesson plan for a mixed-ability class in the second half of their first term of French. Whole-class activities include repetition, chanting and a team game. There are three short bursts of activities to be undertaken in pairs and a brief written task. He also uses a lot of visual stimuli and students are invited to speculate, memorise and work things out for themselves. Above all, the language is firmly rooted in context and the seeds of progression are sown.

Phil Drabble, modern languages adviser for Sunderland, believes this is the key. "Students need to understand how language fits together and solid foundations must be laid at key stage 3," he says. "At the moment, far too many don't even know what "je suis" means or understand the difference between "je" and "j'ai". The emphasis on structure in the revised Order for the national curriculum and the new QCA schemes of work is a move in the right direction. They will only be motivated if they can see themselves progressing and are given the tools to use language to their own ends."


CILT Links bulletin No 21 contains a detailed explanation of James Stubbs's lesson plan. He is also preparing a video for publication. E-mail:

For more information on Swanwick Hall's project and other European Award for Languages winners, see Phil Drabble is one of three speakers at a Comenius conference on motivation and progression - Leicestershire Comenius Centre November 7 and West Sussex Comenius Centre November 27.

Steven Fawkes, president of the Association for Language Learning, and John Trafford, its past-president, will lead seminars on motivation at Language World, November 4.

Miniflashcard Language Games. Tel: 020 8567 1076.

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