Teenage TV dramas motivate even the most reluctant student, writes Bernard Adams. Teaching reluctant 14-year-olds their compulsory language isn't easy. But there's a crop of exceptionally useful language programmes on the BBC and Channel 4 which make the task much simpler for teachers.
"Language programmes" is hardly the right term. They are programmes in a foreign language which entertain and involve as "soaps" do. They cleverly draw the students in but provide plenty of cues and scope for specific language teaching and drills.
Leslie Adams is head of languages at Washington School in Tyne and Wear. She's familiar with the problem of the "disillusioned, unmotivated" 14-year-olds. She has successfully used Clementine, the charming story of the life and times of a not-quite-ordinary French girl of 16. But it was Cafe des Reves that was the real hit. It's a tense drama, set in Lille, and featuring teenagers trying to set up their own meeting place by converting a run-down cafe.
The issues it dealt with - race, mugging and other social problems - and its cliffhangers grabbed Leslie Adams' pupils to such an extent that some would ask to watch it again. Others would implore her not to forget to record the next episode.
Leslie Adams feels that the secret of its success is that it isn't a language programme, but "a programme in a language. There's no point in producing programmes for this audience that aren't fun and don't involve the children".
But it doesn't always have to be drama: she found the lively magazine Jeunes Francophones useful as well.
Angela Milington, who teaches at Trentham High School, Stoke-on-Trent, likes the output of programmes for key stages 3 and 4. She's looking forward to using some of the exciting new Spanish series Revista with her key stage 3 groups. But she tends to be highly selective, using snippets rather than whole programmes.
She's fairly optimistic about the way language teaching is going in secondary schools. "For a time we lost out, but with the requirement of one language for all secondary schoolchildren there's been a turnaround. Children are beginning to realise at last that they need a language. There aren't so many reluctant ones these days."
In Peterborough at Bretton Woods Community School, Joan Savage finds that the Channel 4 German series Willkommen works well with her Year 10 pupils. "They're not motivated, they have behavioural difficulties and they're just not able to sit still," she says. "But they identified with the teenagers in Willkommen, and they liked the things they did. They laughed with them rather than at them and they liked the short, snappy format."
Joan Savage has found out a lot over the years about how her unmotivated pupils can be reached. "What these kids hate most is being asked to make notes during a video, or answer questions. They like to sit there and watch and not have to do anything at the same time. " Programmes like Willkommen and Clementine can also be used effectively in a rather different educational setting. St Margaret's School in Bushey, Hertfordshire, dates from 1749 and is doing well in the league tables for independent girls' schools. I went to watch Clementine with a class of 13 and 14-year-olds who, according to Susan Hudson, head of modern languages, will all get As or Bs at GCSE.
French teacher Linda Shaw showed Clementine to a class of 18. The girls revelled in the story - and Clementine's dilemma of whether or not to look at the questions on the exam papers which she had got hold of accidentally. Three or four times in the 15 minutes, Linda Shaw stopped the tape, posed a few questions which reinforced the on-screen language and then let the story continue. Afterwards a longer discussion followed. The details of the drama had been clearly understood by most of the students and there was a lively debate on Clementine's relationships with her family.
Also at St Margaret's I saw Ester Serrano use the excellent adult series Sue$os with a GCSE group of Spanish students. The material was less suitable and engaging, but by judicious interventions, she got some lively discussion going on the programme's main topic - food. Ester Serrano can't wait to use the Revista series and her lesson made it clear how far the adult approach of Sue$os is from the painlessly motivating power of Clementine and its ilk.
Bernard Adams has produced many language series for BBC TV, including Telejournal and When in Spain with Andrew Sachs
La Catrina, C4 drama based in Mexico, from September 19, Thursdays 11. 40 (20 mins) Clementine, from September 17, Tuesdays, 11.15 (15 mins) Hallo Aus Berlin, meet the young Berliners, from September 19, Thursdays, 12.15 (15 mins) Revista, magazine fronted by Spanish and Colombian teenagers, from September 20, Fridays, 10.45 (15 mins) Cafe des Reves, starts October 30, Wednesdays, 9.00 (20 mins) Channel Hopping (C4), with Antoine de Caunes and Eddie Izzard, starts January 8, Wednesdays, 10.15 (20 mins) Willkommen, C4 German series, starts January 9, Thursdays, 11.40 (20 mins) Quinze Minutes Plus, reports from France and Guadeloupe, starts January 9, Thursdays, 12.15 (15 mins) Jeunes Francophones, magazine featuring Quebec and Senegal, starts January 8, Wednesdays, 9.00 (20 mins) Isabel, Spanish Clementine filmed near Madrid, starts January 9, 1.25 (20 mins).