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Michael Grenfell on a German course that encourages autonomy.
Solo 3 is the third part of a five-stage German course taking pupils through the national curriculum. Its material roughly covers levels 1-6 and completes key stage 3 for the most able pupils, although it could also be used in key stage 4. As with Auto, its French sister publication, Solo 3 emphasises helping pupils to help themselves. Its approach is broadly autonomous.
Solo 3 includes all that is to be expected from language teaching courses today: pupil's book, copy masters, cassettes, flash cards and a teacher's resource book. Integrating all this into lessons will be quite an art for the teacher but plenty of guidance is provided. The teacher's book supplies all the necessary back-up aids: vocabulary and flashcard lists, tape scripts, copymaster duplicates, as well as suggested lesson sequences and notes on IT, differentiation and planning a departmental policy statement. There are even grids to record relevant counter numbers from different cassette recorders.
Solo 3 Schuelerbuch is large format, colourful and attractive. In the course of 14 chapters, each of the national curriculum areas of experience is visited through topics such as the environment, travel, leisure, and school. In a nice touch, these themes are rooted in three partner classes in Austria, Switzerland and Germany. As well as broadening the applicability and relevance of German, the imagined partners allow relationships to develop with the respective cultures. These cultural points are made explicit in colour-coded "Landeskunde" boxes, which are a feature of each chapter.
Further boxes highlight special areas of focus: study skills, communication strategies and help with developing independent learning. It is not intended that pupils simply memorise the material: rather, the authors are looking to develop individual response and reflection as part of learning German. Attention is drawn to orthographic variation and ways of reading for different purposes. Much of this reflection can be re-applied in the copymaster activities. These employ a wide range of formats and cover the four skills. Some extended reading is supplied but much of the topic content remains at the pupil as host or tourist level.
Cassettes are well-recorded and make use of an attractive range of accents. Music and authentic voice are not overdone. Some of the texts are rather fragmented with short pieces of conversation intended for extracting specific points of information rather than developing higher comprehension skills. The problems set are normally at the level of understanding instead of the actual topic content. Greater sophistication in the design of activities would allow the learner to develop linguistically while organising and reinterpreting information.
In keeping with its overall philosophy, Solo 3 provides different approaches to assessment. A Solo-Blatt issued at the beginning of each chapter allows for pupils and their partners to assess and record progress. A more formal Lernkontrolle at the end of each chapter and term then allows for more formal assessment. All formats are clearly recorded on summary grids. Results are used by students to decide on their future course of action and the particular repair or extension activities they need.
Solo 3 seeks to do a lot. It is inevitable that some aspects of the course are more successful than others. The design and presentation of German matches the very best of contemporary materials. However, its innovatory approach to learning sets Solo 3 apart. The authors deserve credit for taking learner autonomy seriously enough to develop it systematically as an integral part of their course. There is the same tension in this as in much of the autonomous movement: the need to learn language and about language in a rigorous, explicit manner; and the necessity to develop language from a personal point of view. Solo does not resolve all the problems, but it offers a slice of things to come. Many teachers will themselves learn a great deal from working with this course.
Michael Grenfell lectures at the Centre for Language in Education at Southampton University