The chattering classes

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Free speech is the key to confidence in the target language says Janeen Leith

Je pense que ... un bon professeur ... doit avoir la capacite d'utiliser un stylo rouge." These tongue-in-cheek thoughts, enjoyed by classmates and teacher alike, were voiced by Carly Bustin, a Year 10 pupil at William Farr CE school in Lincolnshire. She had taken the topic of her French lesson on desirable qualities for certain professions, and used her growing ability to manipulate grammatical concepts, confidently saying precisely what she wanted to say. The 80 modern foreign languages teachers currently participating in the TALK project, a professional development initiative running regionally across the UK, are meeting one of the greatest challenges in language teaching in this country: getting learners to converse spontaneously in the foreign language, during lessons. These teachers are providing a growing body of evidence that their pupils "use and respond to the target language and use English only when necessary" and that they can "understand the grammar of the target language and know how to apply it" (National Curriculum).

Given encouragement and the linguistic tools to chat, teenagers banter and talk about their work, the world and what is going on around them. This "real talk" can add legitimacy and relevance to curriculum topics which, at best, seem based in fantasy ("Verifiez la batterie, s'il vous pla t?") and at worst patronising ("A quelle heure tu te brosses les dents?").

"You don't get called bof by your mates when you talk in French, like you do when you answer a question in other lessons, because everyone's doing it," explains a Year 10 boy at Poole High School, Dorset.

With subtle changes to how they interact with pupils, additional planning strategies and raised analytical awareness, most teachers can get conversation and creative sentence-building going very quickly. No extra time is needed. Try these strategies, which will get spontaneous talk going in most classrooms.

Frame the learning

* Spend at least a lesson brainstorming, in English, what learning a foreign language is about.

* Plan what goes into this "springboard talk". For example: Air any preconceived views about language learning.

Which English people do students know who speak a foreign language?

Ask students to visualise "chatting away to their mates" in the foreign language. How will it feel? What will they be talking about?

How did they learn a language when they were young? Did they wait until they could say full sentences perfectly or did they just "have a go"?

How will they understand you when you talk in the foreign language? They will listen with their eyes as well as their ears.

Emphasise instant gratification (it feels cool to talk in a foreign language; it is not really like work) rather than deferred gratification (you might go on holidaybump into David Ginolaget a job abroad).

* Plan how you are going to talk. For example: Use positive assumptions: "And when you are just chatting away in French..."

Use softening rather than direct questions: "Who's going to have a guess at why..."; "I was wondering what you think about..."

Make what you say memorable: "If you don't use it ((French), you'll lose it.") Personalise it: "The head is learning Spanish at night school and he..."

Make it funnyunpredictable: "This is the subject where we want you to chat to your mates" "In this classroom, we're going to celebrate mistakes; if you're making mistakes, you're trying to build your own sentences."

Communicate with meaning, feeling and consistency

* Become aware. What do you chat to your pupils about? How do you come across? Is there any difference between your "language teacher" persona and your "tutor" persona?

* Communicate with meaning: always make yourself understood when you speak in the foreign language. Tell your pupils that this is your responsibility but you can only carry it out if they let you know when they do not understand.

* Add to your repertoire of ways of making yourself understood. Draw more. Rephrase more. Show more. Write what you mean on the board.

* Communicate with feeling: Talk in a way that invites pupils to talk back to you. If you constantly "perform", you automatically put your learners into the role of "audience". Audiences do not talk back to the performer.

* Talk less. Give pupils time to think about what they want to say. Give them credit for thinking. Never answer your own questions.

* Insist on being talked back to. Every learner can use "oui", "non", "merci" (or the equivalent in other languages) from day one.

* Communicate with consistency: Choose your words carefully, using the same constructions and words repeatedly. Do not oscillate between "Est-ce que tu as..?", "Tu as...?" And "As-tu?" unless your learners are proficient. If you stay on linguistic message, your pupils will leave your room with certain constructions "ringing in their ears".

Use English consciously and purposefully

* Banish guilt about using English in your lessons. The quantity of foreign language is less important than how you use it.

* You are the richest source of listening comprehension. Give your learners constant practice at trying to understand you and increase their confidence and attainment in listening.

* Become aware of when you use English: For discipline? Praise? Anecdotal stories? If you often translate what you have just said into English, stop, because it only trains young people to switch off and also undermines their confidence in their own ability to understand.

* Demarcate your use of English. Signal that you are going to take time out from the lesson to say something in English. Signal the end of the English "episode". Choose a signal that can be seen as well as heard. Switching indiscriminately between languages is confusing.

Teach "key power tool" phrases and insist on pupils using them

* Do not confuse these with some of the classroom language phrases found on some classroom walls.

* A "key power tool" phrase can be used often by most of a class in most lessons; it empowers learners and helps them learn; it should have a positive, feel-good factor, not negative connotations (for example "J'ai oublie le motla reponse" comes first, with "J'ai oublie mon cahier", coming later.) * These phrases should not be linguistic cul-de-sacs. They should show a pattern which can be built on rather than be a grammatical exception.

Some of the most frequently taught key power tool phrases in French are: Greetings: oui, non etc

C'est vraifaux.

C'est excellentbizarre!

J'ai une ideeun probleme.

J'ai appris cinq motscinq questions. Je peux parler en anglais? Je suis present. Ilelle est absent.

* Teach your chosen key power tool phrases with a cue (gesture andor symbol). Display, sing, practise, give them as learning homework.

* Consistently and insistently use cues to remind learners that they know and can use the phrases.

Encourage learners to experiment with "hubs"

* Give a clear message, from the first lesson, that language learning is about "playing with language" and building sentences. For example, in French: "je suis..." taught in the first lesson has far more potential for experimentation and self expression than "Je m'appelle...","j'habite..." or "j'ai onze ans", which are exceptions rather than rules.

* Introduce "hub" phrases. These are phrases which can have many different endings ("spokes") attached to them and can be used in thousands of contexts.

* Teach "je suis" and let the pupils play. This enables even beginners to really say something they want you to know, as well as persuading them to use a very useful hub: "Je suis Darren. Je suis de Keswick. Je suis fanatique de Carlisle Utd. Je suis fanatique de Brittany Spears et McDonald's. Je suis cool! Je suis tres intelligent."

* Develop your chosen hub. Display it, adding different spokes from different contextstopics. For example: je suis... leading to il estelle est. Require your learners to ask for additional spokes. Show them how to access spokes from a dictionary. Get them to collectrecord the hub in their books and accumulate spokes.

* Give credit for experimenting as well as for retention and accuracy.

* Once you have added a number of spokes, add other hubs which follow the same pattern: Est-ce que je peux parler en anglaisavec vousavec Madame Smith?

...travailler avec Darren? la bas?

...utiliser du Tippex un dictionnaire?

...distribuer les dictionnaires les livres

Est-ce qu'on peut ...

Est-ce qu'on doit ...

Trip, cajole and manoeuvre learners into talking and then reward them * Talk to learners about risk-taking and reward spontaneous talk and sentence-building in a special way.

* Create situations where pupils feel they have to say something; make deliberate mistakes; ask "why?"; say something controversial; ask them to do something that they have no equipment for.

* Over-react to any pupil who uses English when you know they can "have a go" in the foreign language.

Given a voice, teenagers can give feedback to their teachers, in English or in the language they are learning, about their learning process.

Talking "for real" also requires learners to think deeply about how language fits together, with obvious benefits for all four language skills. Talkers generally have a richer pool of language and grammatical understanding from which to draw on. Most noticeably, boys become more motivated, when they can speak and bring their own humour and personalities to their language learning. As oneYear 10 Boy from Poole High School, Dorset commented: "I feel I have been given a toy and I can't wait to get to France to play with it."

All the quotes on these pages are verbatim, because errors made by learners taking risks provide a potent basis for classroom discussion.

For further information about these strategies and the TALK project contactJaneen Leith, tel: 01623 871684. Fax: 01623 871724.E-mail:


Year 7, December,chatting to each other while marking a class test on times Eliza: Tu n'as pas ecrit le 's'(on heures). Non! Apr s heures! (reacting to friend putting 's' in wrong place).

Tom: Erin n'a pas dit neuf heures cinquante, elle a dit dix heures moins dix, ca va?

Tayon: Une autre possibilite c'est neuf heures quarante.

Emily: Pour numero 12, j'ai ecrit dans le cahier bleu 'demi' avec 'e' en brackets.

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