It's the Monday morning French class at Downend School, a technology college just north of Bristol. But far from yawning, the 12-year-old girls and boys are sitting still, apparently enthralled, as their teacher tells them a 17th-century tale about a sly fox who manages to outwit a vain crow.
It must be the way she tells it. In French, yes, but in short, simple sentences rather than the elegant if lengthier rhyme of La Fontaine. And she performs it with plenty of repetition and vigorous mime. The crow becomes a vast beak (two straight arms clapping together), while the fox is two pointed ears. "Sly" is a finger tapped knowingly against her nose.
First time through, the pupils understand little but their interest is piqued. She performs it again, but this time, as well as encouraging the class to join in with the gestures, she points to pictures illustrating the story on the whiteboard behind her. Comprehension is growing. At her invitation, the children leave their desks and form a large circle.
Next time through, they join in with some of the words as well as the gestures, before looking at the sentences that now appear on the whiteboard. They are starting to commit the story to memory. The next step is to get them to form small groups who work together on recalling the tale. Group representatives then come to the front of the class and perform it.
These young secondary pupils are learning French through a programme called Teenagers Telling Tales. Based on the teaching technique known as Story Making, it was developed by the International Learning and Research Centre (ILRC) in Bristol. The technique and stories can be adapted to any language.
The effect in the schools where it's been introduced has been dramatic. At Downend, modern language results at key stage 3 and beyond are at record levels. Teachers say that girls like the shared working and collective retelling, while boys are drawn in by the physical activity, the repetition and the chance to show off.
"It's well suited to the often tricky start of secondary school, when pupils arrive with very different levels of knowledge," says Jo Cole, senior consultant with the ILRC. "Telling Tales is an ideal way both to introduce them to a new language and to find out where they've got to with one they've already started."
Biddy Passmore is an education writer and modern linguist. For more information on the ILRC, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Get pupils telling tales in German with the highly recommended Erzahl mir eine Geschichte ("Tell me a story") scheme of work from QCDA_Resources.
Explore El Nabo Gigante, the Spanish translation of Alexei Tolstoy's story The Giant Turnip, with RHawkes' colourful PowerPoint resource.
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