What is happening to modern languages? Uptake at A-level has fallen steadily in the past few years. Given the current shortage of modern language teachers, this is an alarming trend. What is going wrong?
Simon Green is language teaching adviser for the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research and co-ordinator of Trinity and All Saints Comenius Centre, Leeds. He believes that part of the answer lies in the lack of intellectual challenge at key stage 4. "Intelligent pupils find that a lot of what they do is transactional, undemanding and somewhat repetitive," he says. "If they switch off at KS4, they are not likely to come back later on."
He is running a series of one-day in-service training courses, which examine learning styles and suggest strategies for stretching the more able. Based on an idea which has been widely trialled in France, his approach shifts the onus for creativity from the teacher to the students and encourages the active manipulation of language.
He starts by establishing a context and asks the pupils to invent the characters who inhabit it. When these individuals meet, all sorts of things can happen. They might get involved in a fight or become victims of a dramatic event such as a train crash. Outcomes can be oral or written, and range from detailed newspaper reports to letters and simple postcards, thereby facilitating differentiation.
One person who has put his ideas to the test is Pat Hutchinson, head of modern languages at King Edward VII School, a mixed-ability language college in Sheffield. A firm believer in the value of teaching grammatical concepts from the outset, she prepares the ground thoroughly before appealing to her pupils' powers of invention. "They respond well because it's different and it's fun," she says. "It's a very effective way of consolidating and extending the work we do in other lessons."
She cites the scenario one group created, which bore a striking resemblance to a well-known coffee advertisement. "A man and a woman who lived in the same apartment block bumped into each other one day on the stairs. He asked her out for a meal and they fell in love. It was hilarious. It also brought in the past tenses of lots of key verbs."
The effectiveness of involving students in their own learning is corroborated by a two-year research project on able pupils conducted by David Stork, adviser in modern languages in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
His findings highlight the importance of high expectations, short-term targets and a clear understanding of the lines of progression in the language learning process. Schools which have adopted strategies to address these issues are already reaping rewards, not only with more able pupils, but across the ability range.
His research also points to the benefits of extnding language learning beyond the classroom. To this end, the local education authority has launched a pilot project involving Year 9 pupils from several schools, who are working in groups towards a single outcome. Their project is "Being young in East Riding". No group contains more than two people from the same establishment, and communication is through face-to-face meetings, e-mail and video-conferencing. They will meet in July to make a presentation in the target language to an audience of parents, pupils and teachers.
Ian Gathercole, of the Bristol and West of England Comenius Centre, agrees that pupils find it stimulating to leave their familiar environment and work with their peers from other schools. His is one of several Comenius Centres which have piloted master classes for able pupils.
Last July saw the introduction of half-day sessions in Spanish and German with support from the Spanish Embassy and the Goethe Institut. It is a small step, but the classes were well received and this year they will include French.
Phil Drabble, modern languages adviser in Sunderland, has organised a similar project on a larger scale as part of Sunderland's commitment to improving provision for children with special needs - including the more able. In a bid to raise the profile of languages and bridge the gap between GCSE and A-level, he ran five Saturday morning sessions, involving nine teachers and 80 Year 10 pupils. The common theme was "human relations", but teachers were free to interpret this as they wished. For the final session, each group produced some written work and participated in a piece of drama. Outcomes varied enormously, ranging from a German version of The Jerry Springer Show to the filming of a simulated attack in a French street.
The group also spent some time at Newcastle University, where they had access to state-of-the-art resources and facilities. "Universities are falling over themselves to get people in," he says. "It's worth finding out what your local university might have to offer." The students who took part in this project are now in Year 11, and 51 have just returned from a weekend in the Lake District spent combining intensive language study with outdoor activities.
It is encouraging that so many young people are prepared to give up their free time, and the feedback has been positive. But the real proof will come with this year's exam results and subsequent take-up at A-level. This is something Phil Drabble will be scrutinising carefully.
Alison Thomas is a former languages teacher
COURSES RUN BY SIMON GREEN
Birmingham on April 10, contact Birmingham Comenius Centre, tel: 0121 303 1190
Exeter on November 23, contact CILT conferences, tel: 020 7379 5101, ext 232. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Leeds on an autumn date to be fixed, contact Trinity and All Saints Comenius Centre, tel: 0113 283 7226