Getting up to speed

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Simon Sharron recounts the process of setting up a fast-track French scheme.

Dorothy Stringer school in Brighton is putting two bright Year 8 classes into a fast-track GCSE French programme which will see them sit the examination in May and June 2002, only weeks after they do their SATs. One class is being taught by me and the other by deputy head of languages Charlie Davies. In key stage 4 we hope a large number of these 56 pupils will opt for an AS-level in French and be sufficiently fired up by their fast-track success to take on German GCSE as well.

We know that younger children are more receptive to foreign language learning because they are less inhibited about practising in front of their peers. We planned to harness that readiness to learn and supply a concept-crunching diet of grammar to build short-cuts to understanding and using French. School management and all the languages staff supported the idea, encouraged by a pass rate in excess of 85 per cent A*-C grades in French GCSE for two years in a row.

The spirit of this initiative is also seen in the religious studies department, which is about to guide its first group of Year 11 candidates through the Edexcel AS-level in religious studies this June.

The parents of the pupils who would be involved were informed about the fast-track French programme when the pupils were identified at the end of Year 7. These 12 and 13-year-olds have reported to the headmaster and curriculum deputy, who are monitoring the programme, that they are really enjoying it. Only one pupil has dropped out.

We have devoted five hours a fortnight of curriculum time to the fast-track classes, which puts them on par with GCSE French in Years 10 and 11. This was possible because top language groups have seven periods of modern languages a fortnight. These are divided up 4:3 in favour of German, the second language, because in Year 7 all pupils have five periods a fortnight of French. This means that the fast-track pupils only have one period a week of German. However, once they have finished their French GCSE in early June 2002, they will have an intensive course of German consisting of seven hours a fortnight over six weeks. This will make up ground in German so that those who are continuing in Year 10 will have a strong foundation.

Fromthe well-structured simplicity of Heinemann's Metro 1 in Year 7, the French fast-track pupils were meted out the congested and sophisticated pages of Encore Tricolore 4 (Nelson Thornes) in the first days of Year 8, with a copy of the tape for the first chapter. They are soon to have the Encore Tricolore grammar work book which comes with answers for independent learning and self-correction. Both fast-track classes have frequent access to ICT suites.

We have been amazed how easily the groups have made sense of the texts. They respond well to contextual and first-language clues and eagerly fill in gaps in comprehension by reference to textbook glossaries and dictionaries. With the textbook tapes they can do listening homeworks. Most of the children can use the internet at home and are encouraged to e-mail their written work to their teachers.

Thanks to the pen pal website we have established good links with French schools, which correspond in a mixture of English and French on subjects that reinforce the GCSE syllabus. My class has been fascinated by the Mahgrebin and African smiles beaming out of a digitised photo of their pen pals from Versailles and were amazed at how French young people celebrated Christmas in the tropics when they received courriels from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.

To accelerate pupils' overall progress we had to train them hard to cope with French verbs. Practice has been both formal and fun. Charlie Davies is a great exponent of "Qui veut etre millionaire?" where the multi-choice is always a nail-biting test of grammar.

Both classes have nearly completed their first piece of written coursework. The standard is already at grade C and above. Structured practice, carefully directed reading and painstaking general comments after their first drafts provide a rich learning context. Pupils will also soon give a verbal presentation of about three minutes, as required by the GCSE French speaking exam.

The first major assessment will be based on Chapter 2 of Encore Tricolore 4. In February 2002 we will be able to assess the success of the scheme. This will be the time for GCSE entry and Year 10 options. The pupils' enthusiasm supports our optimism.

Simon Sharron is assistant headteacher at Dorothy Stringer school, Brighton

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