MFL - Ring in the changes

8th February 2013 at 00:00
Role play and toy telephones can help children to learn languages

How do pupils learn a language at school? One topic at a time, with plenty of time to think. But in real life we draw upon several topics at once, thinking on our feet. Revision followed by comedic role play gives children excellent practice in this. Select two or three language points to revise, then set up a brief role play with simple props. Plastic money and toy telephones work well.

Divide the class into groups of three. Each group has a parent, a shopkeeper and a small child who asks irrelevant questions such as "Beth ydy'ch rhif ffon chi?" (Welsh for "What is your phone number?") The parent and the shopkeeper must finish a task - buying bananas, for example - despite these interruptions.

But they must also answer at least five of the child's random questions. The others can be answered with expressions such as "Wait a minute". On the board, list topics that the child could ask about: anything from big noses to boats.

Telephone role play is also fun, and helps children to listen. Pupils sit on their chairs back to back. When shown a flashcard nominating a new conversation topic, speakers must change the subject. This could be as silly as switching from sweets to elephants.

Afterwards, get pupils to write down any words it would have been useful for them to know. Give them the words and get them to write notes on how they could have used them in their role plays. They could even draw simple pictures, with the new vocabulary in speech bubbles.

All these activities practise the target language without the soporific effect of rote learning - though, of course, some repetition is required. But some neuroscientists now suggest drilling in varied ways rather than simply repeating the information in the same format, which can bore the brain. This replicates what happens when we speak a new language in real life, when we adapt to new situations at high speed - just as pupils must do in their role play.

Even panicking in a safe environment can be very funny, while burning the target language into the memory. It shows pupils that they are capable of finding the words when they need to make themselves understood. Children have a natural fearlessness and we should take care not to educate it out of them.

Catherine Paver has taught French in England, and English in Italy and South Africa. Read more of her articles at

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