Learning language to argue with is much more motivating than learning vocabulary for the sake of it, observes Alison Thomas
It is Tuesday afternoon, and two Year 10 groups at Gordano School Technology College in Portishead, north Somerset, are discussing uniform.
According to the French class, the jersey is too big yet the sleeves are too short, they fray easily and the logo is childish. Meanwhile, in German, one lad would rather wear a pink miniskirt with an Arsenal shirt while another questions the British obsession with uniform when German students can wear what they like.
This mixture of frivolous banter and serious comment is a far cry from the usual bland utterances about white blouses and black trousers. But this is an unusual department. So much so that teachers sometimes abandon what they have planned to make way for students' preoccupations.
"On November 5 I forgot about Guy Fawkes but they didn't. We spent half an hour talking about fireworks and parties," says Peter Morris, advanced skills teacher and until recently head of department.
This willingness to take a lead from the learner lies at the heart of an approach he first tried several years ago and is now embedded throughout the department. Students and teacher alike must ask permission to speak English, otherwise target language is the norm.
The first expression beginners learn is "How do you sayI?", and from then on they can ask for anything they want. Part of the board is reserved for requests, which they collect in their exercise books. Teachers try to recycle these as the lesson progresses and incorporate them into homeworks and reinforcement activities.
So what do pupils ask for? "Interesting vocabulary you won't find in any textbook, and high-frequency language," Peter replies, adding that research into the use of English reveals that 100 words make up 50 per cent of what we say. These are now integrated from the start into schemes of work - vital expressions such as "can", "was", "will" and "should have". But surely they don't teach the conditional perfect in Year 7?
"No, but we drill the pattern and formalise the grammar later," he says.
"If pupils are familiar in French with je vais plus infinitive, why should j'aurais du present a problem?"
He makes the same point in the context of pets. "Those who have lost pets ask for words like 'cried'. If they know j'ai onze ans and j'ai un chat, j'ai pleure is no different. We lay the foundations when motivation is high and before the hormones flood in. How often do you hear 'J'ai onze ans' in a GCSE oral because it was taught in Year 7 and it stuck?"
Drilling is central to the methodology and posted in every classroom are toolkits which combine high-frequency structures with a variety of complements. Another key strategy is to reward risk, and here it is the willingness to experiment that counts. Where weaker students are given credit for simple statements, others are expected to elaborate.
When learners are given free rein, mistakes are inevitable and teachers try to balance the importance of accuracy with the need to sustain the natural flow and encourage participation.
"You won't generate spontaneous conversation unless you listen to what people say," says Peter. "If someone tells you 'Mon p re est morte', you don't respond by correcting agreement!"
Although textbooks provide the framework for schemes of work, the books themselves are sparingly used. Teachers turn instead to the school network for a vast bank of materials designed to combine core structures with recurrent language requests. Drawing on youth culture, these include web pages, edited to make them more accessible, together with teachers' own imaginative compositions illustrated with images downloaded from the internet.
One piece which provides practice in using negatives sees Gollum in a gift shop trying in vain to buy his "precious". Another, on the subject of television features, has the unlikely combination of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne and Cherie Blair voicing their "opinions" on reality TV and other programme genres. There are plans to add video to the collection and when the department acquires interactive whiteboards, more than 1,000 attractive, original resources will be available in the classroom as well as the ICT suite.
While extensive "real" conversation has a huge impact on oral fluency, the benefits are apparent in other skills too. In the modern languages department, a collection of Year 8 students' articulate reflections, in German, on Iraq, includes comments such as "George Bush is mad because he is war hungry" and "Tony Blair is a tree hugger although he is Prime Minister".
According to Peter, even weaker pupils write at length, albeit with some inaccuracy, and their superior receptive knowledge enables them to read quite complex texts. GCSE results have shot up, and last year 80 per cent of the first group to be taught this way for the full five years gained A*-C grades.
A recent European Award for Languages is another indication of the department's success. Perhaps most encouraging of all is the students'
On a trip to Germany, staff from another school were astonished by students' eagerness to try their language skills. In class, too, they are keen to speak - especially boys, who respond well to this approach. Peter believes self-confidence is the key: "Because they can follow lengthy texts and express their own ideas, they feel fluent. It's a 'can do' subject."
"CAN DO" TIPS
* Identify high-frequency structures and engineer situations to practise them. Je suis and ich bin open doors, je m'appelle and ich hei'e lead nowhere.
* Design wall posters to provide support.
* Listen to what pupils say and respond appropriately.
* Reward risk. Peter Morris has a multi-coloured clapperboard in the shape of a hand. Every clap signifies 110 merit, which pupils log in their exercise books.
* Introduce conflict to liven up mundane topics - eg a dialogue practising directions could take the form of an argument. "It's not first left! Yes it is! No it isn't!". "Boys in particular thrive on conflict," says Peter.
* Set open-ended assessments that give scope for self-expression rather than testing single words.