A combination of software and teacher support is enabling a school to offer more than 80 language courses. Eleanor Caldwell reports.
Enrichment activities for Year 12 students can take many forms. At Lymm High School, a specialist language college in Cheshire, the focus is on a "language experience". As part of a rounded curriculum in Year 12, all 236 students at Lymm have to spend 20 hours a year of their own time studying a language, even if they are already studying one at AS or A-level. The school offers a range of 15 languages, which is about to be increased to an astonishing 88. The original list of choices is already impressive and includes Arabic, Polish, Urdu and Swedish, as well as the usual French, German, Spanish and Italian. With an even broader choice, future classes will have the chance to learn Maltese, Croatian or even Scots Gaelic.
Five members of staff from the languages department are involved in the project, although none is actively involved in class teaching. This is because the Lymm students are using software to access their chosen language. EuroTalk's Talk Now! and World Talk CD-Roms provide them with a full introduction to the rudiments of a new language and students work independently under the supervision of the teaching team.
The school's language centre manager Bill Rielly registers pupils' language choices. For some it's a chance to study a "mainstream" language. Forty two students are currently learning Spanish, for example. For others, it's an opportunity to take on languages that are less frequently taught in schools. As a result 13 pupils are studying Russian, five are learning Arabic and six are taking Greek. There is even a Year 8 pupil who is studying Arabic because it's his father's native language. He's also learning modern Greek "just because I'm interested in it".
Talk Now! is a beginner's course and the format is vocabulary-based and very straightforward. When students start a language they are directed to use the programme's English facility to choose topics and follow instructions. Thereafter, they are encouraged to read and listen to instructions in their target language.
Words and phrases on screen are also recorded and students can practise pronunciation using headphones and a microphone. In the First Words section, one boy learns "good morning" and "thanks very much" in Greek, which he says are surprisingly easy to pronounce and remember. The Phrases section offers a range of essentials from "Please speak more slowly" to "Cheers".
In addition to presentation and pronunciation there are games at two levels, which are largely multiple-choice. The Lymm students work through these with impressive speed and one girl says it's easy to remember words from week to week. Remembering the language over a longer period of time is more difficult. However, students agree that they rely on repetition to retain what they have already learned.
In addition to their independent work on CD-Rom, the pupils also complete a workbook that's written by Bill Rielly and colleague Rebecca Ravetto entirely in English. This is used for all languages and is basically a picture and vocabulary book. Students can write a shopping list and even label the body parts of a skeleton in the language they are learning. The workbook covers all the CD-Rom topics and also includes a speaking test.
Tutors are responsible for monitoring this, which can clearly cause problems with the more unusual languages. Bill Rielly hopes that in the future more native speakers might be enlisted to conduct the tests.
The students are aware that the course is closely monitored. Each member of the teaching team is in charge of a small support group and students must tell their tutor where they are planning to work each week. The CD-Roms are self-marking, with marks for individual games and activities. Students keep a note of their progress on cards and this is overseen by their tutors. The overall assessment level, as awarded by the school, is explained in its booklet Talk Now! Independent Language Learning for Beginners (see the box for details). On completing the course students are awarded a certificate, which is in the process of gaining official recognition from the Awarding Body Consortium.
Year 12 pupils are enthusiastic about being able to work in such a manner:
"It's a much more relaxed way to learn a language and we're learning the one that we've chosen ourselves, which makes it even more interesting," says one girl.
For less computer-oriented students additional languages are offered in two-hour after-school classes. Japanese, Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Italian are taught by teachers who are native-speakers to classes of about six students. Chinese teacher LiLi Yang says she enjoys seeing students making progress in her language. "They enjoy it more, because there is no pressure," she says.
The scheme has been greatly welcomed by parents, who appreciate the diversity of the learning opportunity. Headteacher Roger Lounds is enthusiastic. He says he is conscious of the national drop in the uptake of languages at post-16 and, even within the context of the specialist language college, would like to encourage more students to continue studying languages at AS and A-level. He says it's also important that all students continue to have a language-learning experience no matter what their subject choices may be at this level. "This is an entirely different way to learn different languages and we are greatly encouraged by the students' enthusiasm. They are keen to succeed in a something that they are working on entirely independently."
Students make their own choice about how to fit work in the language centre into their weekly timetable and can call on Bill Rielly for technical support. He says one of the main benefits of the course is the software's ease of use. Talk Now! and World Talk can be networked and need only rudimentary technical knowledge. This means that Year 12 students at Lymm can happily get on with learning the vagaries of their chosen modern language.
Ask students what languages they are interested in and why. Some may be curious about languages that can be linked to those already known, eg Spanish and Portuguese or German and Dutch. Encourage pupils to consider learning more unusual languages, such as those spoken by Britain's minority cultures. Consider putting together an all-language workbook. This is generally well-received and acts as a tangible measure of progress.
Encourage pupils to do some background research on the country where their language is spoken to develop a fuller picture of the culture.
Talk Now! pound;24.99
World Talk pound;29.99
Eurotalk CD-Roms are available in more than 90 languages Tel: 020 7371 7711
Talk Now! Independent Language Learning for Beginners
Lymm High School, about pound;2.50