Alison Thomas looks at two online resourcesthat use topical material to engage pupils
Ca, c'est une course de garcons de cafe ... Bruxelles." In an ICT room at Henbury School in Bristol Year 7 pupils sit with furrowed brows as waiters with drink-laden trays scurry across their screens.
They are working on the "cuisine" module of Espresso French, a bank of curriculum-focused materials delivered monthly on broadband connection to the school server. Before watching the video clip, they have learned the names of various food items by holding the mouse over relevant pictures.
Afterwards a game of hangman keeps them busy for a full 15 minutes before they move on to a worksheet on likes and dislikes, which they take home to complete.
The class covers the whole spectrum, not only of ability but of concentration span. A plenary at the end reveals that even the fidgets have learned new vocabulary and can pronounce it correctly. "It's fun. You do work without realising it. I like practising by playing the games. The videos are quite hard but I can catch bits," is one girl's verdict.
Their teacher Stephanie Avallon agrees. "It's lively, imaginative and very varied," she says. "Because it is based on the QCA scheme of work, it is easy to plan lessons. It is also ideal for using in class with an interactive whiteboard or a laptop linked to a projector."
Each module contains a mixture of multi-media activities and printable worksheets, while extensive online help includes a dictionary with sound files, grammar pages and tips to support structured writing. There is also a homework section with links to selected web pages, some from original French sources, others from pedagogical sites such as www.bonjour.org.uk and www.zut.org.uk Above all, however, it is the video clips that make this resource stand out. Short, lively and full of colour, they download instantly and are accompanied by a transcript and questions in French. It has been designed for key stage 3, but Stephanie Avallon also uses it with Year 10. "It depends how you exploit it," she says. "It's a great way of revisiting topics they are tired of but don't actually know very well."
As she speaks the class arrives, but today they are abandoning Espresso to try out i-cafe, a new online magazine from Oxford University Press which encourages independent reading. Texts cover a range of teen-friendly topics such as sport, cinema and relationships, while interactive exercises come in a variety of formats, some focusing on comprehension, others on grammar.
Pupils can also fill in writing templates and submit them for publication on the bulletin board. The publishers' aim is to cater for a wide range of levels. I settle down with two girls of below average ability to gauge their reaction.
The writing template "Mon copain ideal" goes down well and they coyly submit their responses under false names. It's a different story when they tackle an article on French ski champions, described in the teachers' notes as "ideal for less able students".
One glance at the text-filled screen is enough to put them off and when they call up the glossary for help, it plugs only some of the gaps. With a little support from me, however, they are surprised to discover how much they know and get a great sense of achievement when they finally work it out.
Some subscribers have had similar experiences and the second issue, which came out last month, contains more short texts for weaker students. "That's the beauty of the internet," says electronic project manager, Elaine Aitken. "We can take account of feedback and act on it straight away."
The other great benefit is that writers can tap into current hot topics.
Both resources feature people in the news, cultural trends and recent events - not just in France but in francophone countries too. Modern Britain also has its place - i-cafe's first issue has a piece on yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur while the Branche section of Espresso includes video clips on the latest London fashions and what's new in the Beckham household.
For Stephanie Avallon topicality is important. "When textbooks try to reflect teen culture, they soon look out of date, yet it is very motivating," she says.