Cereal provides a starter

6th March 1998 at 00:00
Richard had to order a kilo of bananas for his GCSE exam role play. "Je m'appelle ... bananes!" he nervously declared. He then asked the price. "Je m'appelle ... how much are they?" His parting words to me in my role as shopkeeper were "Je m'appelle thank you."

Assuming that Richard had learned to say his name somewhere between Years 7 and l0, in his final year of French, I had managed to teach him exactly .. . nothing. I suppose it was my first year in that particular school, and my policy of keeping back pupils until they could demonstrate what they had learned didn't work with Richard's class.

Although his case is extreme, many language learners experience similar difficulties. At the end of five years, they know plenty of nouns and short phrases, but cannot construct simple sentences. This is particularly noticeable when British pupils go on exchanges abroad. While their hosts are invariably able to use English to say what they want, more often than not our pupils are lost for words as soon as they need to stray from their pre-rehearsed bank of standard role-play phrases.

A key problem is that much of the foreign language reaches these pupils in an indigestible form. Many published materials, for example, feel duty bound to include an enormous amount of language. So a class can have "done" the topic of television and know that j'aime means "I like", while forgetting that j' means "I". Thus, to say "Rebecca likes EastEnders", many pupils typically come out with "Rebecca j'aime le EastEnders". (Isn't it funny how they always manage to fit in a le somewhere?) At a higher level of achievement, how many pupils really get to grips with level 5 of the national curriculum, which requires them to be able to understand and express themselves in the past, present and future tenses?

To help pupils manipulate language correctly, our department has begun highlighting key words for pupils. This follows Shirley Conran's box of cornflakes analogy from her book, Superwoman. She explained that we would all know how to operate a washing machine (I suppose today's equivalent is the timer on the video recorder) if the instructions were printed on the back of the box of cornflakes which we re-read each morning over breakfast.In other words, constant exposure aids progress.

Our department's "box of cornflakes" is a key words sheet. At the end of a term's work, we list the 20 most important words and expression s they have met, and which they need in order to progress. So, whereas I previously relied on osmosis to alert pupils to the difference between je, j', j'ai and j'aime, I now teach the difference once pupils have enough familiar examples to hand. Of course, offering pupils learning strategies is important: mine now recall the difference between j'ai and j'aime by remembering that j'aime means "I like" as it contains the letter m, as in the "mmmm" we say when we like something .

Since my department teaches just French, we call the key word sheets mots-cl#233;s. We list the French alongside the corresponding English so that pupils can test themselves easily by covering up one side. The sheets are colour coded so we can find them quickly (or in my case, within a fortnight of the lesson in which I had planned to distribute them). Before testing the pupils on the mots-cls, we produce reinforcement worksheets such as word searches. Special needs pupils who are not able to produce many mots-cl#233;s from memory, match the French to the English.

When a blank page from our school's pupil journal was up for grabs, we claimed it for as many mots-cl#233;s as would comfortably fit. Since failure to bring a journal to lessons is almost a capital offence, all pupils now have a year's mots-cl#233;s to refer to at any time, even if they have forgotten their French book.

"Boxes of cornflakes on the wall", in the shape of A3 posters help enormously, listing, for example, I can, I want and I must - essential ingredients for a well-balanced GCSE language diet. As for tenses, the verb paradigms in many coursebooks are too much too soon for many learners.However, pupils who have been encouraged from the start of Year 7 to say "Ich habe mein Buch vergessen" are off to a headstart when it comes to using the past, since, when it is formally taught, they already have a reference point from which to make sense of it.

In our own classrooms, we have posters of the first person of five of the most common verbs in the perfect, present and "futur proche" side by side. Whenever confusion occurs we can, for example, point to the target language for I played, I play, I am going to play, so reinforcing the difference between each. We deliberately set these out as a timeline, with the past to the left and the future to the right of the present. This reflects a key point from the national curriculum Order that learners are far more likely to grasp grammatical structures through demonstrations which make a strong visual impression.

Nevertheless, there is a downside. Our relentless drive on mots-cls and on drawing pupils' attention to the component parts of each phrase and word, means that we may never have our own version of a former colleague's tale. A Year 8 pupil whose class had greeted their German teacher at the start of every lesson for more than a year, arrived at the staffroom one day and asked for Gutenmorgenherrjones please.

Tony Elston is head of French at Stretford High School, Manchester. He is co-author with Patricia McLagan of the key stage 3 French course, 'Gnial', (Oxford University Press)

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