Modern foreign languages - Now you're talking

Sparking the imagination is a top way to make languages stick

When I think back to my best experiences as a learner, I remember things that captured my attention and imagination - and it seems the same is true for other beginners.

I asked my pupils, aged three to 11, what they enjoyed about learning languages, and they came up with a string of memories. A class I taught in Reception - who are now in Year 3 - always want to play a memory game involving painted toenails because a member of their class holds the school record for the game (he was four when he set it), and a Year 6 group remembered retelling the story of El Nabo Gigante (The Enormous Turnip) when they were in Year 2, with silly hats and actions.

And when I asked a group of Year 6s, they listed singing, rhymes and chanting as a favourite activity because they don't do that in other lessons. (They also said they could better remember things they learnt this way because they recalled the tune or the rhythm as well as the words.)

Towards the end of Year 6 we do a unit on a Spanish cafe, and one activity involves writing a song about ordering food to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas. The task means recalling vocabulary, but it is more demanding than that because learners have to consider whether the rhythm of the words they choose fits the tune, making them concentrate on stress patterns and syllables. It also offers the opportunity to be imaginative, because each group wants to be the most original and, perhaps, the funniest.

This type of creative task, using language in "unusual" ways, is popular in other year groups too. In response to the story Fuera de aqui, Horrible Monstruo Verde! (Go Away, Big Green Monster!), Year 3 used 2D shapes from their maths lessons to create faces, feature by feature, with a photograph taken at each stage. They then wrote their own (simplified) version of the story, saying hello to each new facial feature, and then telling it to go away, using the photographs to create a comic strip.

The sense of achievement - "I wrote a story in Spanish!" - was echoed in Year 5 when they rewrote a section of a famous Spanish poem, La Primavera by Antonio Machado, and went on to write their own poems about seasons in Spanish. Many of them were unsure about writing poems in English, let alone Spanish, and here the language learning fitted well with their literacy lessons. Year 4 was equally proud of their work in Healthy Heroes week, creating superheroes saludables (healthy superheroes), and building on their previous learning about sport and food in Spanish to create a clean-living hero and unhealthy enemies. They did something no other class had done and, in a theme week, that holds great sway.

What do these activities have in common? They were all led by the learners, all involved independence and imagination, and all involved a challenge. The learners enjoyed themselves, feeling a sense of achievement when they had finished. And I enjoyed "teaching" them, because each learner was able to stamp their individuality on the task.

Lisa Stevens is a primary language educator and international co-ordinator at Whitehouse Common Primary School, Sutton Coldfield



For some ideas on how to combine playground games with language learning, try a Teachers TV video featuring short dramatised clips of native French- speaking children presenting scenarios to use in the classroom.

For German lessons, try rhawkes' resource to introduce young pupils to colours (and the verb "haben") while linking them to paintings.

Find these resources and others at

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