Creativity for control freaks

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Peter Greaves shows how teachers can let go without losing it. This week: It's just a passing phrase

As the synthetic phonics vs whole word approach battle rages on in the media and in the mind of every teacher, the non-specialisttourist foreign language speaker in me is worrying that if I try introducing new MFL words, I may simply be laying dodgy foundations that will crumble as soon as anyone who really knows what they're doing tries to build on them.

It reminds me of when my Mum and I joined a class to try to learn some Greek before going on a summer holiday. We began to put the letters together in a phonic style and learnt some of the key 100 Greek words in a Ladybird book fashion. Then, in week four, someone else said, "This is all very well, but we will never get to the really useful things that I need to know in time for my holiday next week."

The teacher seemed pleased at this opportunity for learner-centred learning. "What is it that you want to know?" she said. "The important words and phrases," he said, "You know, like 'Please refill my glass with ouzo,' 'Where can I get a full English breakfast?' and 'Please stop throwing me in the pool, I'm drunk'."

Now, although the teacher was far from impressed, she obviously got some sense of audience from this and adapted her purpose accordingly. As a result, my only residual knowledge of Greek is of phrases such as Ephemeretha Angliki which, I'm sure, is mis-spelt but it means English newspaper.

Taking my cue from this memory, I decided that it might be worth trying to find out from my pupils what words and phrases they would like to know in French, our chosen language.

We sat down and I asked what French words we knew, and, as I explained last week, most of this knowledge came from labels or older siblings who had taught them numbers and the inevitable "wee" for "yes". I explained that I would like to work with them to get to know some of our most useful and common phrases in French and so we sat down to think of the things they most often need to say to me and to each other. You can guess what they said, because every class is pretty much identical - pupils need to go to the toilet, find pencils, fill their water bottles and try to persuade you that sitting next to their friends will help them to get their work done.

We picked a few to learn and we're going to add one a week to our list of French phrases. It's simple and we may not get far, but I figure it's certainly not damaging. Incidentally, I asked them to think of some phrases they think I use a lot and should learn to say in French. I can't tell you exact phrases yet, but I do now know that perdre is the French verb meaning "to lose"!

Peter Greaves teaches at Dovelands Primary School in Leicester Email:

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