Follow my lead

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Try singing the present tense of avoir to the Pink Panther theme and life will never be the same again, says Biddy Passmore

It isn't often that a secondary languages class reminds you of a workout. But that is the impression left by a teaching session with Rachel Hawkes or Leigh McLelland, the two dynamos of the languages department at Comberton Village College in Cambridgeshire.

Leigh, for instance, starts her Year 7 Spanish class with a vigorous performance of a surfing song (!sube, sube, a la ola!), choreography provided by the college's Advanced Skills Teacher in sport. It makes the pupils alert and receptive. They pronounce the words correctly too.

At intervals throughout their language lessons, teacher and pupils throw themselves into singing, dancing and gesticulating, often to the heavy beat of Queen or The Chemical Brothers. Luckily, the languages suite is on its own at the end of a corridor.

As they sing and move, they're conjugating verbs, learning pronouns, going through numbers or days of the week. Try singing the present tense of "avoir" to the Pink Panther theme and your life will never be quite the same again.

It happens that the 1,300-pupil, 11 to 16 specialist school is a sports and language college. That, however, is not the main reason for the physical style of the language teaching.

As Rachel, director of the language college and head of department, says: "It's just a good way to learn."

Combining singing or chanting with movement and gesture helps pupils to internalise the grammar, she says. If you just chant verbs by rote, you forget what the different forms mean; add gestures implying the pronouns: "I, you, he, she" and so on (a mixture of pointing and saluting) and you remember the meaning.

Whatever their pupils' ability, Rachel and her staff of eight try to ensure that they grasp the fundamentals of the language, rather than just learning parrot-fashion.

"(Learning verb forms and pronouns) is challenging, but it has to be done if language learners are going to get any sense of autonomy," says Rachel. "You can get away without it if you spoonfeed them right up to Year 11 - but that's just helping them to jump through the hoops to get a good GCSE grade."

Rachel and Leigh have presented a day-long course on their techniques for teachers, called "Make language learning active at KS3; keep them in at KS4," as far afield as Wales and the Isle of Wight.

They certainly seem to have succeeded at Comberton, where the first foreign language has been Spanish since 2006. (Higher ability groups start a second language - either German or French - a year later.)

Despite a downward blip in participation to just over two-thirds of pupils after the Government declared languages optional post-14, now nearly all Year 9 pupils opt to continue.

GCSE results in languages either equal or exceed the 80 per cent getting five good A to C grades at GCSE. Boys do almost as well as girls and occasionally better. They flourish especially in German, says Rachel.

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