Learned the hard way;Modern languages

8th October 1999 at 01:00
Tony Elston marks 15 years of teaching with a tip for every year.

1 Keep them busy

Ensure learners have something to occupy them from the moment they enter the room. For example, they copy new key vocabulary from the board. Another strategy which provides extended quiet time is for learners to translate into English short pieces, songs or poems as they occur.

Translation of simple texts is extremely important if pupils are to understand how language fits together.

2 Demand pupil target language

James Burch of University College of St Martin, Lancaster, has pointed out that over 60 per cent of language needed at GCSE arises naturally in the classroom. We constantly remark how hard pupils find it to transfer known language to new contexts; insisting on classroom language provides practice.

3 Assume nothing

I once thought I was helping a class of pupils remember "je pense que" by suggesting they thought of the English adjective "pensive". I received 25 blank looks. Even a common word like "detest" is unknown to many pupils.

4 Keep it simple

Establish what pupils need to know. Switching tenses is essential for a GCSE grade C. Pupils who find this difficult need constant practice in the first person before moving on. Everything is teachable. The challenge is to break it up into manageable steps. Little and often is far better than too much too soon.

5 Include something extra

Texts which contain a useful new phrase or interesting piece of information are far more motivating than those which simply repeat known language.

6 Make connections

The French for "I like" is "j'aime" not "j'ai". "J'aime" contains the sound "mmm" we say when we like something.

7 Ask the right questions

Ben enters late and apologises but does not know how to say in German that he was with Mrs Smith, since you have never taught this. The wrong question: "Also die Klasse, wie sagt man auf Deutsch I was with Mrs Smith"? The right question: "I was with Mrs Smith auf Deutsch. Ist das (1) ich bin ein elefant, oder (2) ich war mit frau smith?" The beauty of the "right question" in this case is that even pupils who cannot repeat the idiom immediately can still show they understand by answering zwei to show they know the correct response.

8 Say it 322 times

If a point is worth making, make it lots of times.

9 Make it sexy

We must seize all opportunities to make languages learning fun. There are plenty of good, up-to-date, languages videos to spice up lessons, and it is always worth checking out the BBC's and Channel 4's latest offerings. The Internet means that, whatever your pupils are interested in, someone, somewhere who speaks the language you teach, has set up a website about it.

10 Help pupils help themselves

Compile a list of common key words and phrases with which your pupils have problems. Stick a copy at the front of every pupil's exercise book. Expressions which have previously been confusing Year 11s quickly become well known to most Year 7s. As soon as possible, teach learners how to use dictionaries.

11 Feed back constantly

Tell pupils what they are doing well and what they must do next to do better. Keep showing examples of good work so all pupils know what constitutes success. Award whatever works for your pupils: merit marks, house points, certificates, chocolate, a week's holiday in Ibiza.

12 Spend five minutes consolidating objectives at the end of each lesson

Make sure pupils know or can do what you mean them to. The five minutes can be spent asking questions orally or in writing.

13 Meet weekly as a department

Agree on learning objectives. Effective teaching demands continuity and progress. Impose a time limit on meetings, such as 30 minutes.

14 Select textbooks with care

The true cost of any published resource is the price divided by the number of times it is used. Be flexible in your use of coursebooks. The fact that part one of a course works for Year 7 is no guarantee that part two will be suitable when they reach Year 8.

15 Take the best but don't write off the rest

The oft-touted conviction that you must subscribe either to traditional or progressive education is a media myth. The best methodology is simply the one which draws extensively on the best methodologies.

Tony Elston is head of French atStretford High School, Manchester, which recently won a European award for languages. His key reference sheets are published by Aide-Memoire, telfax: 0161 374 9541.

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