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The software that talks the lingo

Within a decade all junior pupils will have the right to learn a language, but how will schools cope? John Bald recommends an innovative system developed in Kent.

The Government's languages strategy is due to be be announced next week and is likely to set minimum standards for 11-year-olds. The introduction of modern foreign languages into the primary curriculum was last attempted more than 30 years ago. It fizzled out, chiefly because there were too few skilled linguists, but also because a major study showed that primary French, as it was then being taught, made no difference to children's results at secondary school.

That debacle should ensure that we approach the Government's new initiative with foresight. Consider the scale of the problem: 650,000 children in each Year 6 alone, taught by 20,000 to 25,000 teachers, all of whom have other things to do. Most are no more confident about teaching languages now than in the 1970s and this will not be corrected by presenting model lessons on videos - we do not become musicians by attending concerts. We have a small number of highly skilled advisers, but too few to make an impact.

The big change since the 1970s has been in technology. Glynis Rumley, project officer for primary languages in Kent for the past 13 years, has used audio cassettes and video, and now CD-Rom, to bring native-speakers of foreign languages into the primary classroom. Pupils learn to adopt accurate French pronunciation from the beginning and teachers do not need to rely on their own understanding of the language in order to teach it.

The CDs and tapes are supported by a meticulously planned series of short lessons and enable teachers to build up knowledge, skills and understanding, and to do as much or as little as the school wishes. Methods are strongly interactive, with songs, jingles and action games. The language is carefully thought through at each stage to help build up an effective understanding of grammatical structures. For example, a standard US army marching song is used as a framework for these deceptively simple questions and answers in French: As-tu un frere?

Oui, j'ai un frere.

As-tu une soeur?

Non, je n'ai pas de soeur.

The children insert the answers for their family. The rhyme establishes masculine and feminine, positive and negative, and also the change to "de" after the negative, which is standard in French but defeats many GCSE candidates. In addition to the Kent materials, Rumley recommends two song cassettes: OK! Chantez by Sue Finnie (Nelson Thornes, pound;22.50) and Un Kilo de Chansons by Jaspar Kay (Nelson Thornes, pound;28.20). These need to be carefully matched to the class, but the best are unforgettable.

Un, deux, trois, Compte avec moi, Je suis le comte, Le comte Dracula.

The real breakthrough, however, comes with the CD-Rom which, because of its price, can be used for individual work and homework, and with whole classes. The CDs use videos shot in German and French, with Spanish, Italian, and English versions in the pipeline.

Pilote 1 Interactive is the first of three shot in Wasquehal, in northern France, and features the staff and pupils of Noirbonnet Primary School. Rumley's talent for inspiring co-operation comes through clearly in fast-moving and inviting presentations from the French children and teachers, giving the basic information offered in each section a charming individual touch. This CD covers greetings, names and ages, numbers to 39, the alphabet, colours, family and pets, days and months, dates, birthdays and Christmas. The script is tight, with strong visual support, and everything is easy to understand.

The next two CDs cover shopping and getting around town, and also have a clearly defined series of skills. The enthusiasm of foreign embassies and teaching agencies, such as the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, means all of the material is being transferred to CD as quickly as Kent's facilities permit.

Rumley has trimmed her initial presentation of the materials to a half-day, which includes discussion of the principles involved, as well as teaching techniques. Kent has also produced a useful video-based in-service pack (pound;42.24), though this does not yet include the CD.

Teachers' enthusiasm for Rumley's approach is as positive as that for the National Numeracy Strategy, and with even less dissent. Eric Spear, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, says she has enabled all teachers in his school to teach French effectively and Diana Fawcett, who is seen confidently teaching on the in-service video, confesses that she "hadn't taught, learned or had anything to do with French for 20 years" before using Pilote.

Kent has taken full advantage of its proximity to France by, for example, organising 500 teacher exchanges. Special advantages do not, however, account for the enthusiasm of the German, Italian and Spanish governments for the work, or the demand for its application to English as an additional language. Rumley had an award during the European Year of Languages 2001, but she and her Kent colleagues are still a long way from receiving the recognition in the UK that they deserve. The best way to ensure that primary children get the full benefit from her years of development work, and from Kent's pound;1.1m investment, is for every school to buy a Pilote 1 CD-Rom pack and start using it.

Pilote 1 CD-Roms are sold in packs of sixPrices: pound;35 for the first and pound;15 for each additional pack

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