Is there any point in teaching French to children who are still struggling with their native language? Yes, says one enlightened teacher who uses fun and games to give her pupils their own Tour de France. Kevin Berry reports
Margot Watkins was once as cynical as the rest of us. Special needs children learning a foreign language? Not likely. That was eight years ago. Now she knows it can work, because she has seen class after class benefit from her own ingenious method of teaching French at Victoria Park School, a Leeds senior school catering only for pupils with special educational needs.
When she was first asked to introduce a modern foreign language into the curriculum, Margot did not see the point. "I felt they had enough problems struggling with English. I thought it wouldn't work - but now I'm completely sold on it. I think it's wonderful.
"I have occasionally had parental opposition, but not a lot. I ask them to come and see what we are doing and I point out the listening, the concentration, the social skills and the fun - and they are supportive.
"I don't think you can learn effectively without fun and enjoyment, and fun comes from being involved."
The way Margot's pupils speak French is striking. There is no awkwardness, none of the downcast embarrassment seen at many mainstream schools. Faces shine and the children enjoy saying the words, delighting in the poetry and musicality of even the simplest words and expressions. There is rarely a trace of Yorkshire vowels when they speak.
Margot uses games to put fun into learning. She makes games, adapts them and encourages her older pupils to create their own. Rather than go through a list of words on the blackboard, she will introduce new vocabulary with a game and then move on to carefully differentiated worksheets.
Interest in the games is sustained with little rewards, perhaps a small sweet or sticker, but sometimes the fillip to self-esteem is enough. In Margot's class, everyone is rewarded at some stage.
She visits car-boot sales, scours bargain books shops and pours through educational catalogues, thinking "How can I adapt that for a game?". Nothing is thrown away. She found a book with a French cartoon version of the "Where is that squeak in the car?" story. (It's about a family who set out on a car journey but keep having to stop to find out where a mysterious squeak is coming from.) Margot has adapted it so that pupils have to guess the source of the squeak.
In one game, pupils are given a quantity of francs to begin with and then take a card in turn. Each card has a cartoon situation, such as Tu perds 10f with a picture showing a coin rolling into a grate. When all the cards have been used, the players count up their money. Fairly simple, but fun and absorbing with a good deal of "hidden" social learning taking place.
Another new game being road tested uses a large map of France with a numbered track winding around it, with children using car tokens to get to a destination. Each destination also requires two appropriate weather cards - for example St Moritz: il fait froid, il neige - and when you land on a red square you pick up a weather card and hope it's the one you want.
On a similar theme, Margot's splendid Driving Test is another activity with tremendous educational benefits. It is a surprise that she has not been visited by an education publisher waving a contract.
The Driving Test is proving especially popular with "two boys I could do nothing with. They were really disaffected, nothing interested them - except cards."
Yet they are among scores of pupils who enjoy taking their French "driving tests" on a huge play mat with a detailed town centre on it and some good model cars. Youngsters have to follow oral directions and then complete question sheets. There are two grades to the test, and the "drivers" are usually examined by a French student from Leeds University.
Directions, road signs, and what to do in case of emergency are covered in detail. There are also worksheets on cross-channel routes and garage opening times. Pass the test and you get a Permis de Conduire. The Grade 1 licence has a lovely 2CV on the front, and Grade 2 has a handsome map. Everything is laminated and replaced before it gets grubby, to make the games attractive.
French is not confined to the teaching area. Conversation at the school pool table is punctuated with cries of bravo! and tant pis!, and wherever Margot goes in school she is greeted in French.
Coming out of her teaching area, it is a momentary surprise to hear someone along the corridor speaking English - the ambience is French and it is not forced.
But does it get results? "We have to be realistic," explains Margot. "Our pupils would never be entered for examination. But there is an entitlement to doing something different. A lot of our pupils see brothers or sisters coming home with French or Spanish homework. Our pupils are now the same - they are also doing a language. It might not be at the same depth or level, but they are doing it."
Headteacher Peter Miller talks of pupils coming to Victoria Park with experience of repeated failure. His school allows them, perhaps for the first time, to feel successful and valued, and to build their self-esteem.
He says that learning French is part of that entitlement to success - and the joy it gives is something marvellous to see.
FIVE WAYS TO MAKE fRENCH FUN
* Games: Must have a clear aim and be quite snappy, with a time limit. Take a look at lotto, ludo and bingo; ludo is transformed when you put an Eiffel Tower model in the centre and each player has a place name. Get a French Junior Monopoly set - it is based on a fun fair and when you land on someone else's ride you have to pay.
* Worksheets: Use pictures from basic colouring books if you are not a confident artist (they are very cheap from a market stall).
* Singing: This makes a good warm-up at the beginning of a lesson. Songs help children relax and feel good. Ask children to pick out key words when listening to new songs.
* Special days and events: Look beyond Bastille Day.Try following the Tour de France and having your own Tour De France day. Hold a boules tournament, have a fashion parade, consider the possibilities of the Eurovision Song Contest: flags, scores (nul points) and French names of countries. Every school event could use some element of French culture.
* Doubting parents: Invite them into the classroom