Specialist foreign language teachers serve up a few tips

With just 30 per cent GCSE uptake in modern foreign languages (MFLs) in 2006, there are gloomy predictions for the subject in Welsh schools. Some have claimed that teaching in the subject is insufficiently innovative and exciting.

Speaking at CiLT Cymru's annual conference in Cardiff last month, Estyn inspector Steffan James said: "It strikes me how few grade 1 lessons there are."

He was responding to figures from the Welsh inspectorate for 2005-8. They showed that only three lessons out of 47 departments in Wales were awarded the top grade.

But despite the statistics, some schools are bucking the trend. At this year's Languages Wales conference in Swansea, delegates heard how some students had learnt to referee a soccer match in three languages, while others had used MP3 players as teaching aids and some teachers are tapping into the latest research to spark a language revival.

Schools shared some of their best practice at the conference, including:

Soccer in three languages

As part of the Welsh bac qualification, students must study 20 hours of modern foreign languages. But many schools and colleges teaching the Welsh bac are now tailoring the module to suit pupils' vocational courses and future career hopes.

At Ystrad Mynach College in Caerphilly, sports students have been taught to referee a soccer match in three languages. In other schools, Japanese is becoming increasingly popular among students keen to break into the business world. Last year Cantonian High School in Cardiff became one of the first in Wales to teach Mandarin Chinese.

Pace is fast and interactive

More than three-quarters of pupils at Bryn Hafren Comprehensive in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, now choose to study French or Spanish at GCSE. This is twice the number taking MFLs at key stage 4 three years ago.

Amy Walters, head of MFL, attributes the rise to high-quality teaching and the good experience pupils have now at KS3. One crucial change has been to make three languages compulsory up to Year 9 instead of two: French, Spanish and Welsh.

"Welsh is taught the same way as foreign languages," said Ms Walters. "We used to be separate departments, but everyone is now teaching the same things in each language, so our pupils don't see Welsh as something different."

Teachers also make their lessons quick-fire and interactive.

"The pace of lessons is so fast that pupils don't have time to be naughty," she added.

More than 80 per cent of Year 11 pupils now achieve A*-C grades in GCSE French and Spanish.

Recordings boost conversation

At Argoed School in Flintshire, use of digital voice recorders, MP3 players and mobile phones in French and German classes has boosted conversation in the target language.

Kathleen Holton, head of MFLs, has pioneered their use in helping to improve the spoken word. Funded by CiLT Cymru's "Compact Project", she bought hand-held recorders for pupils to record and practise conversations, including vocabulary.

The recorders are particularly useful for Assessment for Learning. Recordings are played to the class and pupils are encouraged to comment on each other's skills.

Mrs Holton said all pupils enjoy putting their recordings on to MP3 players and mobile phones, and that she had noticed an improvement in pupils' oral exams this summer.

"We didn't have the total disasters of the past, where pupils clam up," she said.

Photograph: Neil Turner.

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