How do you get whole classes of primary children to practise speaking French in a weekly lesson lasting half-an-hour? This was the question that faced Carole Nicoll, a specialist primary French teacher at Robert Gordon's College junior school in Aberdeen. Three years ago at a pop concert to which she had taken one of her children, she hit on the answer.
"It was full of primary-age children who knew every word of the songs and even had the same intonation as the singers," she says. "It caused me to start looking for a pop medium which could take in questions and answers and typical scenarios connected to primary French topics."
Rap was that medium, and the result was a package of songs on CDs and materials to teach French at primary level, which is now selling in the UK and abroad. It has been so successful that pupils are playing it out of school, increasing their exposure to the language. And as repetition and rap go together pupils are repeating phrases and sentences again and again.
The project won the 2003 European Award for Languages, organised by CILT, the National Centre for Languages. "The school had provided a fun-filled start to learning French, which prepares pupils well for secondary school," said the judges.
For the initial CD, Carole and her pupils devised 13 topics they would like to talk about with an imaginary French friend, including greetings, pets and colours. Actions were invented to accompany the songs and aid memory, for example, when they say "Bonjour" children mime waking up; for "Bonsoir" they mimic tiredness.
Then to make sure the accents were authentic she approached the TotalFinaElf school in Aberdeen, which educates children of French oil workers. The French pupils sang the songs, which she composed with the help of her pupils, and they were recorded at a local recording studio. Their voices were then merged with those of one of the school choirs. The first CD was an immediate success. "The children take the CD home with them and play it in the same way they play Justin Timberlake, and that way they learn the conversations and vocabulary. We find their accents are perfect," says Carole.
The children's French has improved in leaps and bounds. "In the early stages nothing is written or read - it's all listening and speaking and singing. By the time they get to Primary 6 and 7 (10 to 12-year-olds) they're ready for writing and grammar, because they have already obtained all the conversations they need to know.
Through her company, the Language Factory, Carole has published two more CDs and attached them to a book containing the vocabulary and lyrics to be learned. Thirty topics are covered with 120 songs - some raps and some more traditional. "It's not a course, but it is progressive," she says.
"Teachers can go into it and come out of it when they want and can use it from nursery to the end of primary."
Carole plans to create the same sort of package for other languages and perhaps for teaching English as a foreign language.