Grammar is a winners' game
Grammar exciting, are you kidding!" That was the response of the lower sixth AS-level students when we embarked on their first year of AS-level French. I am not sure they even knew what grammar was. The word instilled fear in their hearts and caused pain in their brains.
Grammar is a word that fills many a language teacher with dread too. Students freshly returned from the summer and flushed with the success of their GCSE results soon become disillusioned with A-level language. "It's so hard," they chant. "I just don't get it," they wail.
So this year I decided to make my yearly grammar blitz with my new lower-sixth students more engaging. From the outset I took a much more DIY approach to the necessary grammatical content of the new AS syllabus. In September, rather than panic and jump straight into a topic, we spent two weeks learning about how to be a sixth-former, in French. We came up with our own definitions and looked at skills that make a good A-level student and how, as an advanced student, it is important to develop independent learning skills. These we then applied to our learning of grammar, kicking off with a close look at the terminology we would be using over the next two years.
The exercise was surprisingly beneficial, as the class became aware that grammar is merely a collection of technical terms to describe patterns and functions in the working of a language. We discussed this at length on several occasions, comparing our own specialist vocabulary to that of a chef devising a recipe or a mechanic explaining the workings of a car. Students then chose an aspect of grammar, such as verb, tense, gender, adjective, and designed a terminology poster for students lower down the school. They were asked to consider the language they used in their explanations and reflect on how they could make the grammatical term engage younger pupils. The results were excellent. Every student thought of an effective way of interpreting their term to make it eye-catching, appealing and, most important, easy to understand. One girl invented a new Mister Man: "Monsieur Grammaire."
The next step was to begin to understand and apply the terminology we were now familiar with. This we did using our textbook Zenith (Heinemann). This book begins with a transition phase that touches briefly on all the topics to be explored in depth later in the AS and A2 proper. Through the texts and exercises the emphasis is placed on the essential grammar that students need if they are to do real justice to these issues later on. Each time a piece of grammar was covered students produced their own "magic box", a pupil's own abbreviated definition of how that function works and steps they must follow to apply it correctly. This self-explanation was limited in space, so that students had to think through very caefully the most crucial aspects of the function. Students learn these magic boxes off by heart and for tests or examinations I encourage them to spend a moment scribbling in magic box form the definitions that they need to refer to so they can eliminate their grammatical weaknesses from written work.
After the introduction of a new aspect of grammar students were given exercises that were easy enough for them to feel successful and repetitive enough to practise the pattern. This was then taken one stage further by using Action Grammaire (Hodder and Stoughton).
At the end of the first half-term, as part of revision for a grammar test, students were given the task of designing a grammar board game for students in key stage 4. On contacting Hodder and Stoughton and discussing the idea with them, we developed the board game idea into a challenge. Students had two weeks to market research and produce a game.
In October the department dedicated an afternoon to "The Grammar Challenge Presentations". A panel of judges (the head Roger Lounds, me, the chair of governors Geoff Hawley, Hodder and Stoughton's marketing and editing director John Mitchell, and French teacher Vicky Palmer) listened to all the teams present their findings and demonstrate what they had come up with, how and why.
The results were impressive and reflected the talents and enthusiasm of these students. One group of girls came up with La Course a la Tour Eiffel, which focused on irregular verb conjugation. Players are required to follow a course around Paris and collect counters from four main locations. The course itself is strewn with hazards such as "Vous prenez une boisson dans un cafe" (miss a turn).
Other groups came up with card games and the winning game, the title of which echoes ITV's Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was called "Qui veut apprendre du grammaire?". The board game is a race to the finish line, with players again collecting counters in return for answering grammar questions on gender and plurals. The winner is the player who crosses the finish line first shouting "Oui moi" in answer to the title of the game. The boy-girl team who devised the board thought of everything, from clear and concise instructions to how to occupy the players who have finished before others. The background of the board is a collage of newspaper articles of varying difficulty.
Hodder and Stoughton provided consolation prizes for all who took part. The winners received a teach-yourself-Italian course and John Mitchell presented their game to his marketing and editing team for consideration as a future product.
All in all this approach to learning grammar with an emphasis on students being asked to explore problems for themselves has been very successful. And we bring out the games on a regular basis just to brush up on things.
Lindsay Slack is head of French at Lymm high school, Cheshire