Formulas for finding a voice

24th March 1995 at 00:00
Setting specific goals and adopting a project-based approach can help to bring language to life. Tony Elston points the way. According to the national curriculum Order, units of work should "have an explicit purpose which is clear and motivating to pupils.

This can be expressed in terms of a goal for the class as a whole to work towards". So how do schools adopt a project-based approach?

Pupils in a St Bonaventure's Year 10 group called Les Traitres are an example of how learners can bring language to life. They were nicknamed "Traitors" by their present French teacher, after writing a tongue-in-cheek song in French lamenting their suffering at his hands. As Year 7 pupils, they had offered to sing a couple of French songs at our Open Evening. Each subsequent year they have sung compositions of their own.

Their songs came about almost by accident. We had introduced a project-based approach to languages in Year 7, and, after teaching a song from a coursebook, we suggested that pupils might like to try and write their own. Les Traitres have regularly risen to the challenge ever since.

A different group of pupils produced a more moving and contemporary piece of work by making a video clip in German inspired by the television programme Through the Keyhole. We had asked learners to produce a piece of creative work which used some of the language on the topic of occupations.

The group drew up profiles of fictitious people using simple French, along the lines of: Her name is X. She is a doctor. She lives in a flat. At the weekend she goes swimming. The final profile ran: His name is X. He is unemployed. He lives on the streets. At the weekend he walks the streets.

Both Les Traitres and the "TV crew" shared a common enthusiasm for their work, because they were able to personalise language. Indeed, the national curriculum Order stresses the need to equip learners with language relating to their own interests and experiences. However, the project-based approach recommended in the national curriculum is still the exception in languages departments. Yet through working towards a goal, learners satisfy many important requirements of the programmes of study.

Project work of this kind offers learners opportunities to: o combine two or more of the four language skills o take part in imaginative and creative activities using the target language o ask and answer questions o ask for, and give, information and explanations o produce a variety of types of writing o redraft their own writing to improve its accuracy and presentation o conduct surveys, recording and expressing information in different form o use knowledge about language to develop their own use of language o use a range of reference materials.

The Order for modern languages also requires that "Pupils should have regular opportunities to use what they hear or read as a stimulus for speaking and writing".

Providing examples which learners can use as models for their own work is the simplest way in to this. Offering learners a choice of concrete examples of goals offers them a safe structure that they can imitate, while allowing them the freedom to adapt the examples.

At the start of each module of work, we offer learners three examples of contexts in which they might reproduce the module's key language. To begin with, these examples may need to be drawn on a worksheet or overhead transparency; but as soon as other classes have produced their own examples these can be shown to future classes.

Three examples we offer Year 7 pupils on the topic of leisure activities, for instance, are to conduct a class survey on hobbies and write up the findings; to compose a letter to a penfriend including information about hobbies; and to continue a poem entitled "Bonjour, au revoir," starting "Bonjour week-end, au revoir college, Bonjour amis, au revoir professeurs . . ."

At appropriate times during the module, learners work on their goals. The module goals encourage learners to use what they have heard or read in order to consolidate language learned, by producing creative pieces of oral or written work.

The goals can take many forms, including stories, posters, poems, word-processed pieces of writing such as penfriend letters, reports on class surveys, dialogues on cassette, songs on cassette and videos. All goals aim to encourage learners to consolidate language learned in creative ways at a level appropriate to their ability.

We store each learner's finished work in a folder, which also protects their coursebook. The content of the folder facilitates the assessment of learners' achievement in attainment target 2 (speaking) and attainment target 4 (writing).

We encourage learners, when completing module goals, to use as much French as possible; to include a maximum of a couple of new vocabulary items or expressions; and draft their work first, then have it checked before producing a final version.

When producing a module goal on audio or video cassette, learners should try to use an external microphone, or speak very close to the built-in microphone. They can illustrate a video commentary using their own A4 illustrations, which will need to be coloured in using bold felt pen. Learners who do not wish to be seen on video can produce videos using commentary and illustrations.

Whenever possible, goals should build in the idea of an audience, emphasising the importance of real purpose and high quality.

Tony Elston is head of modern languages at St Bonaventure's School, Newham and co-author of Genial (Oxford University Press) and K7 -The French Listening Resource Bank (Cassell).

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