In the first of three reports from a primary school in Canterbury, Crispin Andrews explains how a cross-curricular approach to learning is putting French on the menu
Learning languages can benefit primary-aged children in many ways, but fitting additional subjects such as this into an already overcrowded timetable is not always easy. Kingsmead Primary School in Canterbury has found a solution to this dilemma: a cross-curricular approach to learning allows French to be taught, and at the same time provides the stimulus for learning in other areas.
It is Friday morning and Year 4's classroom is very French. While some pupils are improving their vocabulary and pronunciation at a mock cafe in the role-play area, others are learning how to write instructions. But this is practical literacy - they are actually making croques monsieurs - or, to the less cultured among us, cheese-and-ham toasties. For the rest of the children, it's speaking and listening, drama and French all rolled into one.
In the "kitchen", the whir of a digital camera recording their efforts is enough for the croque monsieur group to realise their activity has a relevance that goes beyond making a tasty snack. Later on, they will be able to look at themselves in action and see if their written instructions are being followed. Get the order wrong or, even worse, forget to butter the outside of the bread before putting it in the toaster, and there could be an awful mess.
Alongside them, the role-players engage in typical cafe dialogue between waiter and customer. Responding to each other in the traditional manner, one comment leads almost inevitably to the next, as eager diners settle on their chosen combination from the culinary delights on show.
As decisions are made, waiters and waitresses search for the items and prices on the menu. They then add up the cost, which, of course, must be relayed to the guests in French. Finally, they deliver the "food" - well, paper substitutes at least.
Only occasionally do individuals peer across to where the real food is being prepared. On the whole, and despite the sizzle of the toasted sandwiches and their unmistakable aroma, the dramatists remain undisturbed.
Every 15 minutes the groups alternate; they know it will be their turn to cook soon enough.
"Short, sharp segments of learning based around a familiar subject, but delivered in diverse ways, keep the children really focused," says class teacher Louise King.
"We don't have to waste time introducing new content, because everybody knows what sort of dialogue a waiter and customer are likely to have, and they can all see that a croque monsieur is a toasted cheese-and-ham sandwich."
At the beginning of the lesson, Louise leads the children through a series of French songs related to simple sequences, such as the days of the week and months of the year. "It gets them thinking French and sequences," she says. "All the activities that follow then have both a purpose and relevance in the children's minds."
Making learning relevant to children's experiences is a key element of Kingsmead's cross-curricular philosophy. Earlier in the term, Year 4 investigated whether French should be taught in primary schools. The views of other pupils were canvassed, teachers were interviewed and questionnaires produced for a parent helper. Finally, their findings were conveyed in the form of a newspaper report. One of the key issues that arose was that if it was going to be taught, French must be fun. Without their own experience, the whole issue of teaching languages at this level - although extremely topical in the educational world - would have meant little to the children.
Similarly, travelling around France, with benches, mats and wall apparatus all marked out as famous cities - or even taking part in a mini Olympic games, with events, teams, processions and the spirit of fair play conforming to the original Olympic ideal - might have been more enjoyable and relevant as orienteering and athletics exercises, rather than simply asking children to find their way around or run up and down the school hall. Both, however, would have much less motivational power had the children not already been able to gain an interest in the subjects. As well as engaging them in physical activity, PE in both cases is relevant to learning in the classroom.
"Some curriculum areas lend themselves better than others to this sort of approach," says Kingsmead's headteacher, Kate Hester. "We always look for what we believe will be the most effective way of enhancing children's learning experiences and developing their potential."
l Next week: Year 2 is out of this world