Letters to tomorrow

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Teachers of English and French joined forces to make the most of common KS3 writing objectives, as Alison Thomas reports

Vincent's letter to his new penfriend, dated 1960, reflects a bygone age of black-and-white televisions, record-players and limited car ownership.

"Discovered" by the French assistant in her grandfather's attic, it is pure fabrication, but Year 7 students at Hardenhuish School in Wiltshire are completely taken in. When the time comes to use it as a model for letters in French describing their own lifestyle, excitement mounts. Modern foreign languages teacher Irene Bates has promised to deliver a sealed envelope marked "Not to be opened before 2024" on a visit to their partner school in France.

"Some of the weaker students produced the best piece of writing they had done all year and it wasn't even in their own language," says deputy head of English, Isabel Palmer. "They presented it neatly and took great care with letter layout, punctuation and paragraphing."

She has every reason to be pleased. She was responsible for teaching them the conventions of letter writing as part of a collaborative unit of work between the two departments, involving three classes and five teachers. In English lessons, students explored the techniques of persuasive language, taking mobile phones as their theme, and in French they included their favourite gadgets of today in their "letters to tomorrow".

Technology was not the only common thread. They identified similarities between the two languages and worked on shared grammatical elements and stylistic features. Methodology too transcended the usual boundaries. After observing each other in action, English teachers picked up on the lively games and pair work at which modern linguists excel, and the language department in turn adopted the highly structured sequence of the English key stage 3 framework for writing.

To spend several weeks on one long quite sophisticated text culminating in a single written outcome was a new departure in MFL for Irene Bates.

"Conventional practice is to start with simple language and gradually build in more complexity. The danger with doing it that way is that, unless you're careful, you're still working at a basic level at the end of Year 7," she says.

She was particularly impressed with the impact of guided writing, where the teacher supports a small group of students with similar needs while the others work independently. But she sometimes wondered whether the project was taking too long. Her classes had no such reservations, as their learning diaries and interviews with two teacher-researchers from the International Learning and Research Centre (ILRC) reveal. One, Rosanna Raimato, says: "They actually appreciated working through Vincent's letter slowly, picking out different bits of language and going over lots of examples. The end product gave them a sense of purpose. As one boy put it, 'It was hands-on learning instead of just copying stuff down'."

Rosanna Raimato is curriculum director for international and cultural studies at Sir Bernard Lovell School in South Gloucestershire, where co-researcher Barbara Woods is curriculum leader for English. For them, the Hardenhuish experiment was the final stage of a three-year project co-ordinated and funded by the ILRC, which promotes school-based research nationwide and abroad.

When they were planning the project, the KS3 English framework had just been introduced and the French version was about to be piloted. The impact of the National Literacy Strategy was filtering through to the secondary classroom, as was the impact of their school's outreach work in early foreign language learning and other cross-curricular literacy initiatives.

To build on these developments and address perceived weaknesses in students' written work, they developed a joint approach to teaching English and modern languages with a particular emphasis on writing.

They started by identifying learning objectives common to both frameworks, an exercise Barbara Woods recommends to anyone contemplating a similar venture. "If you put the objectives on cards without indicating which framework they come from, then sort them into three rows - English, overlap and modern languages - you soon realise that you should be working together because the middle row is the longest," she says. "The next step is to decide which ones to start with, see where your schemes of work already meet them and find ways of developing these and slotting them together to provide mutual support. That in essence is what we did."

They went on to develop a unit of work for Years 7, 8 and 9, which they piloted at Sir Bernard Lovell School with one class from each year group.

One of their aims was to offer students a cohesive language-learning experience. A second was to encourage them to apply their knowledge of one language to another. "If you make links explicit, they gain a much better understanding of language, its purposes and its range, and become more effective users," she says. "That is certainly what has emerged from this project. The students who took part are making connections that I don't think they would otherwise have made."

This is borne out by student feedback, which was overwhelmingly positive.

The quality of each unit's written outcome was equally encouraging, with many students achieving a writing level higher than might have been predicted from data gathered beforehand.

Of course, the pilot had the advantage of support from a dedicated research team with funding from CfBT (formerly known as the Centre for British Teachers). Could it be replicated elsewhere? The experience of Hardenhuish School confirmed that it could. "Like all good ideas, it is actually very simple," says Rosanna Raimato. "It does require time, however, if staff are to observe each other teaching and meet regularly to plan and evaluate."

Isabel Palmer believes the time is well spent, not only in academic terms.

She found collaborating with modern linguists particularly rewarding, all the more so in a large sprawling school such as Hardenhuish, where teachers from different disciplines tend to lead separate lives. This had a beneficial spin-off for pupils, who must find the environment strangely fragmented after the cohesion of primary school. "Just a casual remark about their achievements in another lesson is a natural way of rewarding effort and has a positive effect on attitude, self-esteem and motivation," she says.

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