Key to mastery of French

20th June 1997 at 01:00
PASSE-PARTOUT. Stages 1 and 2. By Daphne Philpot, Judy Somerville and Lawrence Briggs. Nelson. Student's Book Pounds 7.99. Teacher's Book Pounds 19.99. Copymasters Pounds 52.50. Flashcards Pounds 52.50.

Cassette Pack Pounds 52.50 + VAT (prices are the same for stage 1 and 2)

Kathy Wicksteed samples a course that opens the door on French language for pupils of low to mid ability Passe-Partout is a four-stage course for 11 to 16-year-olds aimed at the lower to middle ability range with some extension activities for higher attainers. Each stage comes with a huge and expensive stack of more than 100 flash cards, a similar number of copymasters, and a self-study cassette that can be copied for pupils to take home.

We are into the second generation of coursebooks since the introduction of the national curriculum, and Passe-Partout feels different to its predecessors. It takes a more measured approach, with language content more carefully rationed and structured.

But the course does not linger at the lowest levels. It promotes progression by recycling and adding small amounts of language step-by-step, and by dealing explicitly with pronunciation, grammar and learning strategies. Such clarity will greatly help lower and middle attainers. But it would also be possible to use the course with upper sets. By the end of Book 2, there are some opportunities to work at level 5.

The student's books are attractive and uncluttered. Cartoons are well drawn - sometimes even funny - and the clear tapes include raps and rhymes. The copymasters are lively, varied and user-friendly. Topics are well chosen to appeal to children without the risk of dating too rapidly, with enjoyable cultural references to Lascaux and the Battle of Hastings.

Characters are racially mixed, and there is some coverage of the wider francophone world. But there are few images of disability, and the book unfortunately repeats the stereotypical: "Je deteste les maths." The body of the student's books contains no English, and meanings are generally clear, although teachers are likely to need to use English to explain the study skills pages.

Many of the course's impressive features reflect recent thinking. Links between levels are well managed, especially in the termly assessment tests. The development of pupils' use of French for classroom purposes is a particular strength, imaginatively achieved through a fictional "class from hell", and well sustained throughout the course.

Differentiation is a little patchy, and will require extra thought for broad ability groups, although there are some good open-ended end-of-module tasks. Speaking is well supported. Good ideas for pair-work include programming your partner to speak words and phrases like a robot.

The flash cards are colour-coded by gender and have plain backs to allow for guessing games. (A set of playing cards with the same pictures would have been welcome.) The self-access tape consists mainly of pronunciation practice, a useful resource but a missed opportunity to pursue independent listening more adventurously.

One serious weakness is the vagueness of the learning objectives, which focus only on general linguistic functions ("describing my househome", for instance) and are at odds with the more modern emphasis on skills. A lesser weakness is bittiness - grammar and vocabulary reference sheets and material to go with the self-access cassette are on copymasters that some children will probably lose or crumple.

The grammar reference section in the student's book is inadequate, and made worse by incorrect page references in Book 2. But overall this course signals a healthy shift in direction which will please many parents as well as teachers.

Kathy Wicksteed is general inspector, modern foreign languages, for Hampshire County Council

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