9th March 2001 at 00:00
How do language teachers get pupils to listen? Tony Elston offers handfuls of classroom ideas.

Chief Inspector Mike Tomlinson's finding that there has been a rise in poor behaviour in secondary schools (TES February 9) comes as no surprise to modern languages teachers. Since our subject must be taught in a foreign language, pupils need to listen harder than in any other subject. One question increasingly taxes us: how can we get pupils to listen? This considerable challenge demands a unique approach. Having previously worked in schools with some extremely challenging pupils, I have pulled out much of my own hair getting learners to listen more, and talk less English. Below are my more successful "bunches of fives".

General tips * Ensure your seating arrangement makes it easy for pupils to see you: desks in rows or a horseshoe, for example.

* Expect pupils to listen for no more minutes than their age in years, for example, 12 minutes for a 12-year-old.

* Show what to do rather than attempt to explain (for example, display a sample pairwork dialogue so that pupils have a model to fall back on).

* Include longer tasks involving writing: for example, unit 6.2 of the QCA's key stage 3 French schemes of work states that "pupils ... might translate (texts) into English from time to time. This will help reinforce the meaning of key words such as deja, si, cependant," etc.

* Wherever possible, plan tasks requiring the greatest concentration in lessons followed by a break, so that, at the start of the year, you can if necessary keep back pupils who prevent others from listening.

Routines for orderly languages lessons * On entry, pupils copy from an overhead transparency new vocabulary from today's lesson, then try to learn the English meanings; praise those who start first.

* Have a signal - possibly the one which your school's drama teacher uses - for learners to stop what they are doing and listen to you.

* Translation into English: pupils translate a model letter or song with help from a list of words or phrases not in their textbook glossary.

* End each lesson with "quiet consolidation": learners write down the FrenchGerman for key language that you call out in English (ensure that the language needed is still on the board for those who need it).

* On departure, the quietest row leaves first.

Helping learners help themselves * Remember it is easier to present a little language and add to it than present too much and backtrack.

* Build bridges between coursebook tasks: the average languages textbook moves far too quickly for the average learner.

* Provide learners with all they need at their fingertips: for example, for pupils working towards national curriculum level 6, a reference sheet containing the first person of simple phrases in the past, present and future (j'ai joueje joueje vais jouer ... au basket).

* To prevent loss, stick key reference sheets at the front and back of pupils' exercise books.

* Direct learners' attention fast to the correct place by numbering wall posters with sticky labels, and texts with line numbers (5, 10, 15 etc): regarde le poster numero troisla ligne huit.

As for reluctant learners, we need to be pragmatic. Asking "What's in it for me?" from a pupil's point of view is important. The promise of a higher national curriculum level or GCSE grade is far too long-term a reward to motivate many students.

Rewards * Those which work within a school's own successful rewards system (in my present school, pupils try to achieve as many school credits as possible: a departmental "tariff" converts bons pointsgute Punkte to school credits for effort in using or creating clever target language classroom expressions).

* Positive entries for homework diaries, for example a pupil of the week for each class. You can approach pupils who have yet to receive the award and say: "You could be pupil of the week soon if you just..."

* Proof that the pupils have made progress: tell them what they will be able to understand, say or write by the lesson's end, then show them they have done it.

* Dismissing on the bell all who have worked and behaved well.

* Materials which relate to learners' own interests or which are intrinsically interesting: I have yet to meet a class that has not enjoyed the BBC's Vingt Minutes, in which an exchange student records his video diary, which is interspersed with comments from footballer David Ginola, and falls head over heels for his exchange partner.

(As for my most difficult class ever, just before an inspection, I asked what would persuade them to work well. They suggested a can of cola each from the school machine. I duly brought in a bagful of change to show I was serious. At the end of our best-ever lesson, a student leaned forward and said, within the inspector's earshot: "Can we have that drink now?" Embarrassed, I told the inspector about our "deal". He smiled and asked if he could have a can too.) Seating plans HMI David Moore stresses that the classroom is the teacher's domain, so that seating is not negotiable. Seating plans reduce opportunities for interruptions. If your school has no seating policy, prevent pupils from trying to dictate where they will sit by making sure they know that your decisions are backed up by your head of department or line manager, or a classform tutor or head of year.

* Enlist the support of a senior colleague to pre-empt pupils challenging your seating plan.

* Photocopy blank plans for each room you use.

* Allocate pupils to seats in advance, checking with colleagues who know them best.

* Keep a desk free close to yours for emergency use.

* Stick rigidly to your seating plan so that no one feels aggrieved.

With especially difficult classes During my original training I was told that if you stare resolutely enough at any class they will eventually stop talking. Fifteen years on, I can confirm that this is one of the great myths of education.

* Have all tasks up on the board, with clear examples, at the start of each lesson.

* Be highly selective about when you can best expect to get the whole class's attention.

* Do not allow pupils to sit in the back row, and space out students as far as possible.

* Keep an alphabetical list of pupils' first names to hand: ticking a name for an interruption saves you writing down the name, provides a record of interruptions, and lets you identify all those pupils who do not interrupt, allowing you to praise these pupils - and let them leave first.

* Know exactly who you will turn to for support at any given moment, and where that colleague is.

When all else fails * Stay calm.

* Continue to apply any sanctions policy consis-tently, but exploit any humorous potential, such as subdividing part of the board into categories of misdemeanour in simple target language: interruptingforgetting equipmenteatingprotesting and so on. Having an IlsElles mangent category, for example, encourages pupils to rebuke each other in French by informing on a classmate with IlElle mange.

* Avoid arguments: citing the good reason for your unpopular decision to a pupil who demands an explanation only reinforces the message that arguing with you gets a response.

* When detaining pupils, get them to recall the lesson's key language, so driving home the message that concentrating on the work in the first place avoids the need to stay behind.

* Enlist the support of parents in disciplining children, having first checked with colleagues that you have a good chance of securing this.

Tony Elston is head of modern languages at Urmston grammar school, Manchester, and co-author with Patricia McLagan of the key stage 3 French course for average and lower attainers, Genial (Oxford University Press) His key learner reference sheets can be purchased from Aide-Memoire, telfax: 0161 374 9541

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