It's got to be lively and fun," says Richard Gordon, director of studies at the prestigious Dragon School in Oxford; he blames the failure of the Nuffield French Project partly on sheer lack of enjoyment. "By the time they reached secondary school, many children had actually become hostile towards French, " he explains. Boring drills had stifled their interest.
French, of course, is nothing new for prep schools, but the Dragon School's energetic approach is a beacon in the independent sector. Even for eight-year-olds, French lessons are conducted almost entirely in French and teachers rely heavily on games, songs and visual material.
On a grey Monday morning, a Year 4 class, their faces glowing with enthusiasm, are choosing food and drink from a pictorial menu. Their responses are brisk and there is laughter when a daring boy announces, "Je prefere une biere. " Towards the end of the 20-minute lesson, they listen to a catchy song, joining in lustily with the chorus: "Moi, j'ai faim, moi, j'ai soif."
With Year 6 pupils, Richard Gordon uses the memory-training card game of Pelmanism to teach phrases for directions. On an overhead projector, he shows them a simple map of a French village. When all the pictures have been covered up, they have to describe key areas .
To practise French numbers, pupils use a formidable list of Parisian emergency phone numbers; they have to work out which to call if they had toothache, or who to summon to help their sick hamster. Another tricky but useful exercise is asking and paying for rail tickets, coping with singles, returns and complicated numbers of francs after listening to a taped conversation at a ticket office.
Kim's game is a favourite with Year 5 pupils, who have to build up and memorise a long list of things they enjoy doing in their spare time, based on the pictures of karate players and swimmers held up by the teacher.
"The lessons are exciting because of the games. I like the Lotto using French numbers best," says 10-year-old Jonathan Agass. "We want the children to learn to listen, and to develop an openness and willingness to communicate," says Richard Gordon. At best, they will start to absorb new phrases just by hearing the teacher use them in context.
He believes in introducing modern languages early so that pupils can acquire an authentic accent. "If children don't start learning a new language well before they're 11, they get set in their ways with their lip, tongue and teeth movements," he said. "It would be easy to say that 11-year-olds might learn everything faster, but by that stage, their growing self-consciousness is starting to hamper their willingness to experiment with a foreign language. "
Richard Gordon is convinced that primary teachers already have some of the experience they need to teach a foreign language successfully. "Many are involved in music and drama and they can bring songs, rhythms and drama games into language teaching," he said. But he warns that basic skills such as correct pronunciation are vital, otherwise the whole scheme could fall flat on its face.