Express the positive

9th May 2003 at 01:00
The key stage 3 strategy arrives in languages: Alison Thomas looks at how one pilot school is making it work

Hier ist meine - Was fehlt? Ihr habt fuenf Sekunden. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!" Before teacher Jo Waiters has finished her countdown, 30 Year 7 pupils at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, Bristol, are waving their mini-whiteboards aloft. She wanders about the room calling out their contents, greeting some with approval, others with a quizzical "Mmm?" Time now to decide who gets a point for a plausible, grammatically accurate answer, who deserves a bonus for naming the missing part of speech, and who gets five points for reading her mind and guessing Katze. Four more sentences follow, each with the same format but a different grammatical focus.

The comprehensive is one of the pilot schools for the key stage 3 framework and this fast-moving reinforcement exercise is a typical opening activity.

Equally typical is the discussion it generates. Why did she accept Familie and hesitate over Meerschweinchen? Which word in the sentence indicates that the plural Katzen won't do?

The ultimate aim is to enable pupils to manipulate language, building on techniques developed through the literacy strategy. Today their target is to work out two ways of expressing the negative, and to clarify the concept Jo Waiters starts by uttering several sentences in English. On hearing a negative, pupils make a show of building up to a sneeze before lapsing into silence and scratching their noses. For a positive statement they give an exaggerated "atchoo". Again, feedback is instant and a brief plenary identifies give-away words such as "no" and "not".

The same analytical approach applies when they move on to German. A card-sorting activity conducted in pairs reveals the key words nicht and kein(een) but what is the difference and when is each used? A gap-fill exercise takes this one step further by demanding the appropriate choice of negative with attention to the endings on kein. Finally, one pupil comes to the front to sum up how negatives are formed and the class is instructed to write up their own version of the rule, with examples, for homework.

One striking feature of the lesson is its three-part structure with a distinct beginning, middle and end. Some elements, such as the snappy starter, are established best practice, but the focus is extremely tight.

"Everything has a very specific learning objective. You make that really explicit and keep going back to it," says head of department David Barker, adding that boys have responded particularly well because they know exactly what is expected of them. Jo Waiters agrees: "They like taking risks and are happy to have a go at explaining patterns in their own words."

Neither would claim that the framework solves every problem at a stroke, however. "Jo is brilliant at making it fun. You have to work at that or it could become rather dry," says David Barker.

Catering for slow learners is another area that requires creative solutions and Jo Waiters slips weaker pupils supportive props at strategic moments.

Then there is the question of target language. Although German predominates in her lessons, analytical discussions are conducted in English. Jeff Lee, regional director of the pilot and general inspector for modern foreign languages for Barking and Dagenham, has no problem with this. "If you get the foundations right, use of English will diminish over time," he says.

"At the moment, teachers find that pupils are willing to use target language in Year 7, then the level nose-dives. We aim to reverse that. This is not about dogma. It's about learning how to learn a language."

It is also about building on knowledge pupils have gained from the KS2 literacy strategy: "When I ask Year 10 to identify parts of speech they use expressions like 'doing words'. Year 7 have used the right terminology from the very start," says Jo Waiters.

This includes the term "connective" to describe weil, which she taught early last term. This time her introduction was an improvised listening task, comprising familiar vocabulary punctuated by the occasional weil.

Having spotted the new word, pupils moved on to a series of activities designed to draw attention to its impact on word order. "We spent a whole lesson on it but that was a while ago. When I slipped it into today's starter I had no idea how they would cope," she says. "When everything you do is experimental, you never know what's going to happen."

Nevertheless, she has no desire to return to "lists and lists of vocabulary - all bricks and no mortar", and is now incorporating some of the principles into lessons for older pupils. And despite the hazards of experimentation, her framework lessons always go well. This is partly due to tight classroom management, a gentle sense of humour and imaginative strategies - such as putting the class into "pause" mode when she wants silence and pressing "play" when it is time to speak. It is also down to meticulous preparation. She spent around 45 minutes preparing her materials on negatives, clearly not a viable proposition for every lesson. On the other hand, these are now ready for next year and for colleagues to share.

"I used to think that using other people's lesson plans was unrealistic but the framework really lends itself to joint planning," says David Barker.

One strategy that requires no preparation is to enlist the help of a pupil for timekeeping - in this case a boy who was instructed: "Um Viertel nach zwei sag mir, 'Frau Waiters! Stop!'" In the event, he went one better.

Summing up in two words everything he had learned about negatives, plurals and inflections he announced, "Keine Minuten!" "It's very satisfying when it all comes together," says David Barker, citing another example spotted in a pupil's planner to explain a missing German homework: "Ich war nicht hier, weil ich krank war." Not bad for Year 7.

Alison Thomas is a part-time languages teacher and freelance writer

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