A student fashion show is just one aspect of a three-year county-wide project exploring ways of improving pupils' language skills. Alison Thomas reports
When you have an oral homework, practise it with another person and say it out loud." "When tapes are being played, listen for key words and write them down instead of writing whole sentences and missing something important."
To a teacher of foreign languages, advice of this kind is plain common sense. But this wasn't written by a teacher. It is an extract from a leaflet prepared by a Year 9 low ability set at Warden Park School in West Sussex for new entrants in Year 7.
"We brainstormed various strategies that help with all four skills," says head of department Jean Gittins. "The idea of preparing something to be used with younger pupils gave them a buzz. It also made me smile to see individuals who had sat back in the past coming out with advice on how to learn."
The ultimate test of how closely the pupils follow their own advice will emerge at the end of Year 11. In the meantime Mrs Gittins believes the process has helped to focus them, especially the weaker pupils. "On their reports, they used to set themselves vague targets like 'I must learn more vocabulary'. Now they write 'I must get Mum to test me' or 'I must work on vocabulary with a partner'," she says.
Warden Park's advice leaflet was one of several outcomes of the school's participation in the Raising Achievement in Modern Foreign Languages in Secondary Schools project, launched in January 1997 by West Sussex Advisory and Inspection Service with support from the West Sussex Comenius Centre. The immediate trigger was the discrepancy between the achievements of boys and girls, but the aim has been to heighten motivation and improve performance across the board.
The four schools involved in the project started with an analysis of achievement by gender and ability, followed by research into learners' attitudes. More than 3,000 questionnaires were completed, and, once the responses were evaluated, the Advisory and Inspection Service explored key issues by interviewing a cross-section of pupils from each school.
"The departments that ran with it were the ones that welcomed the opportunity to discover what their pupils thought and to build these findings into their development plans," says Anne Feltham, West Sussex general adviser for modern languages. "It provided a focus based on evidence."
A major focus at Warden Park has been the drafting and redrafting of written work. Classes brainstorm common mistakes and draw up a list, which they use when checking their own or each other's work. "It's so frustrating when they hand in coursework full of glaring errors," explains Mrs Gittins. "We are trying to intervene early on and teach them to proofread."
At Oathall Community College, pupil responses included requests for increased access to ICT. This was already in the department's development plan but the project added impetus. With funding from Comenius, a teacher set up links with French and German schools. Now every pupil in Year 9 has an e-mail partner abroad.
"We used to say, 'Imagine you have a penfriend. Write a letter describing your hobbies or whatever'," says head of languages Duncan Powell. "Now they write to real people, adding a paragraph in English, which allows scope for more interesting comments. Their partners do the same and our pupils devour this avidly."
While the popularity of ICT was predictable, no one anticipated the demand for more feedback. Pupil expectations in a high-achieving school coupled with recent upheavals in the school's system for recording progress offer only a partial explanation. "It made us realise that, although we had all the strategies in place, we had to apply them more consistently," says Mr Powell. "Our use of merits, for example, was sporadic in Years 7 and 8, tailing off in Year 9, just when motivation can flag."
This has now been addressed with the introduction of record grids on which pupils record every "prima" or "excellent" they receive, both verbal and written. Pupils bank them to claim merits. "When the ball is in their court to claim rewards, they seem to respond better. They don't abuse the system, and if they do, the others soon latch on. Peer pressure works in the right direction," says Mr Powell.
A similar reward system has had an equally motivating effect in a school with a very different catchment area. The intake at Bognor Regis Community College covers the full ability and socio-economic range, including a significant number of pupils from socially disadvantaged groups. "When I introduced it to key stage 3, staff were not immediately enthusiastic, fearing it smacked of paperwork," says head of department Christine Behagg. "Within two weeks they were asking to extend it to key stage 4. It's been particularly useful for oral work. Pupils who are usually reluctant to speak out will do it for the carrot of a merit."
Her classes are also encouraged to evaluate their own performance in formal assessments. Raw scores are converted into points out of four, and pupils shade segments of a circle, giving them an at-a-glance picture of achievement in each of the four skills. This process is given a high profile. "I put the conversion table on the board, starting at the bottom. As I work my way up, a little hiss of success can be heard as people realise they must have three or four points. It's clearly audible - Yesssss!" Group work has been another area of development targeted by schools. Duncan Powell has explored the potential of long-term projects, such as producing a brochure, to stretch the most able. Christine Behagg has exploited group dynamics to improve pupils' approach to memorising structures and vocabulary. She splits the class into groups, whose members are collectively responsible for ensuring the whole team masters the work. Only one group representative is tested, and the most successful wins a reward for the others. "Sometimes they handle quite indigestible material they would never cope with for homework. It's particularly effective with laid-back individuals. Their team-mates apply pressure."
At Oakmeeds Community School, teacher Stephanie White has made group work her key focus and researched its impact for her MA. Among the tasks she set up was a fashion show. Pupils brought in clothes, wrote a script describing each outfit or garment and modelled it to music. Each group focused on a particular theme - some on the seasons, some on sport, and others on clothes from around the world.
Other tasks included making weather forecasts for French-speaking countries (useful for future tense work), with finished projects presented visually or orally, or recorded on tape.
Ms White believes the benefits of collaboration are considerable, but can only be achieved with thorough preparation. "The task has to be carefully thought-out so the various elements can be divided up and shared out," she says. "You also have to make sure the class understands exactly what's involved, and take care with the composition of each group. I found the best arrangement was a group of four, including a range of abilities and both sexes."
Final evaluation of the project starts this term, when advisers visit schools to interview pupils and staff. GCSE and key stage 3 results will be scrutinised for signs of improvement, and a conference in the autumn will give participants the opportunity to share experiences. A report published later this year will contain an overview of the main findings and some case studies of good practice.
"I aim to identify key areas where departments have made a difference," says Anne Feltham. "It's not a question of overturning schemes of work, but taking fairly small steps - ones that have been shown to be effective."
For further information contact Anne Feltham on 01293 435651