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Pass perfect

Exam success is the key motivator, says Kate Corney, and for German this means basic confidence in the use of verbs. For three years now I have been involved in research into the production of materials designed to motivate disaffected 15 and 16-year-olds in French and German. What was labelled by some an interesting task in French has developed into a challenge in German. The complexities of the German language can result in students experiencing failure at an early stage and this perceived failure is a major factor in loss of motivation.

The route to motivation in key stage 4, as in other key stages, lies without doubt in exam success.

It is helpful that the grade criteria state so clearly what we need to teach. If we concentrate on the grade criteria for a grade C, recognising that in most schools students achieving a grade C or below in modern languages form well over 60 per cent of the key stage 4 population, the criteria state quite clearly that students must be able to understand and express activities in the past, present and future tenses. They must also be able to understand and express opinions. What does this imply for the teaching of German?

First, we must teach students to express simple opinions.

"Ich mag Deutsch. Es ist interessant" is a perfectly acceptable expression of an opinion. We must teach the present tense. If we assume that students are going primarily to be using this in the first person singular, it poses few problems in German, so long as we limit the number of verbs taught. We must also teach students to refer to activities in the future. In German we are lucky. For once this is easy and we should tell our students so. For productive purposes, we can simply teach students to use the present tense to refer to the future. We must, however, also teach students to refer to the past and this is where the main problems lie.

Students are most likely to need to refer to the past when talking about their free time and their holidays. We must, however, be careful not to allow these two topics to dictate the verbs selected, without due regard to the complexity of those verbs. When students meet the perfect tense for the first time we should select our verbs very carefully, so that they all follow a similar pattern. I suggest, therefore, in these initial stages, that we teach our students to cope confidently with the perfect tense of only three verbs, namely "spielen", "kaufen" and "machen". These verbs all form their past participles in the same way and they all form the perfect tense with "haben". Having understood this pattern, students can then use these verbs in a variety of activities, for example: Du horst Sound-Effekte. Schreib einen Satz fuer jeden Sound-Effekt.

Beispiel: Ich habe Fu'ball gespielt.

These three verbs will form the core of the perfect tense and for some students will be all they learn. It is always better for students to understand and use a little language really well than to be overwhelmed by an excess of language which they can rarely use competently.

Students who can cope with more verbs can add gradually to their list as they progress through further topics. When we deal with the topic of holidays some students will undoubtedly want to use verbs which form their perfect tense with "sein". Even these can, however, be avoided. When asked the question: "Was hast du in den Ferien gemacht?" students do not need to answer "Ich bin nach Deutschland gefahren". They can equally well, and more naturally, reply "Ich war in Deutschland". Of course, students who have coped well can be introduced to "fahren" and "gehen" in the past, but students who find German difficult can survive very well by competent use of their three verbs, "spielen", "machen" and "kaufen" and through appropriate use of "ich war".

Although these strategies simplify the perfect tense, we must not forget how often students can surprise us by their ability to forget it. I suggest therefore that we build into our key stage 4 teaching a structured programme for revisiting the perfect tense; each time we revisit it we can decide whether to add something extra, perhaps another useful verb, such as "essen".

Not only should students be able confidently to meet the criteria for a grade C, they should also be aware that these criteria hold the key to exam success. In other words, we must tell our students straight out that for exam success they must master past, present and future tenses and express opinions, as often as they can. For example, if they are asked: "Was machst du im Sommer?", they can answer "Ich spiele gewohnlich Tennis, aberletztes Wochenende habe ich Volleyball gespielt."

Now that all students study a foreign language in key stage 4, the time has indeed come for us to unravel the mysteries of the German language and to teach students only what they need to succeed.

Kate Corney is an adviser for modern languages. She has written Vital and Vorsprung, both courses for reluctant learners at key stage 4 which are published by Collins Educational.

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