How I teach - Making the foreign familiar

29th August 2014 at 01:00
Combat fear of new languages by using phonics techniques

When I began teaching languages, I found that speaking was the biggest obstacle for most pupils. They needed to work on pronunciation, but at that time I had never heard of phonics being used in MFL. However, after speaking to primary teachers about how they used phonics and looking at phonics websites used by French schools, I built up a bank of resources suitable for children from beginners upwards.

In a typical set of lessons, I begin with mystery cards. Each group gets four pictures and they are asked to work out what the images have in common. The answer is that the words in the target language all contain the same phoneme, but you hear some strange stories before the pupils start to say the words out loud and make the connection: "Well, Miss, there was a mushroom that went up a mountain and met a spider" (for the gn sound in French or in Spanish).

To introduce an element of competition, I show a word with a missing grapheme, then say the word out loud and get the teams to compete to write it correctly. Poems, songs and tongue-twisters are fantastic for this. I give pupils a poem with some missing graphemes; one child reads the poem while the rest of the group figure out how to fill in the gaps. Rhyming poems work well, too: blank out the final words of alternate lines and ask pupils to think about which rhyming words could go there. I also ask students to create their own tongue-twisters focusing on a particular sound.

If you have access to a playground or hall, some fabulously energetic phonics activities are available. For example, stick different graphemes around the hall and task pupils with pointing to the correct sign when you say a word in the target language. Outdoors, you can draw a "dance mat" in chalk with a different grapheme in each square; when you shout a word or sound, students must put a foot on the correct grapheme (spice this up by shouting words that contain two of the graphemes). You can use a hopscotch grid in a similar way: write a grapheme in each section and ask children to shout the correct sound before they hop to the next square.

To keep these skills fresh in my students' minds, I give them a sound dictionary with a page for each grapheme and space to add new words; they can refer to this for help with pronunciation. Another useful tool is a set of posters, each of which shows a grapheme, how it sounds and examples of words including this sound. Pronunciation challenges help to keep students on their toes: display a long and unfamiliar word that they must break down to figure out the pronunciation.

The benefits of this phonics work have been clear from the outset: pupils read aloud more confidently and speak spontaneously, leading to a positive effect on GCSE uptake. Even total beginners can use phonics to help solve the problem of pronunciation. And, with the demands of the 2014 curriculum, I anticipate that the use of phonics in MFL will become even more widespread.

Starr Green is key stage 3 coordinator for MFL at Tupton Hall School in Derbyshire.

10 ways to liven up languages

1. Acute accents

Use this document as a place mat, poster or flashcard to illustrate letters representing the same phoneme in French.

2. Picture this

Share this illustrated PowerPoint presentation covering Spanish sounds and phonic hooks, then test your students' understanding with a Mr Men-themed syllable game.

3. Patter patterns

Graphemes bingo, sound islands and a Family Fortunes-style starter are among activities that help students to recognise sound patterns in French.

4. French pin-ups

This extensive set of posters based on common French phonemes makes for a great display on the walls of your classroom.

5. Sounding out

These ideas help students to develop pronunciation skills in French - and they can be easily adapted for other languages.

6. Key combinations

Build confidence with this presentation containing Spanish example words and pictures, as well as video demonstrations.

7. German introduction

A complete set of presentations, worksheets and flashcards to introduce and reinforce key German sounds.

8. Sound rules

Ideal for beginners or as a refresher, this presentation covers German letter-to-sound rules and offers practice phrases.

9. French shuffle

A range of flashcards on French sounds, for use when practising phonics with the whole class or in smaller groups.

10. Alphabet antics

This presentation for introducing the Spanish alphabet includes exercises on pronouncing Spanish names.


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