Nothing else will do

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Maintaining use of target language is a challenge that pays off, says Tony Elston.

We worry that we do not do it enough, we do it more during inspections, and pupils accuse us of doing it all the time: demand pupil target language.

The revised national curriculum Order for modern languages is very clear:

"Pupils are expected to use and respond to the target language, and to use English only when necessary." Repeated inspection findings, however, show that pupil target language decreases over time. HMI Alan Dobson has reported that it is particularly underdeveloped at key stage 4.

Teachers are very aware of the challenges involved. Nevertheless, a clear and consistent approach to pupil target language pays off. Pupils who have to use the target language all the time develop their language skills as required by the revised national curriculum programmes of study. These pupils can more easily:

* use correct pronunciation and intonation;

* ask and answer questions;

* initiate and develop conversations;

* vary the target language to suit context, audience and purpose;

* adapt language they already know for different contexts;

* deal with the unpredictable.

It is no coincidence that these skills read like a GCSE wish list: they represent high grades. There is, however, another key area of language learning which is far more easily taught when pupil target language underpins lessons: grammar. Around 75 per cent of pupils do not get beyond level 4 at the end of key stage 3, so do not have the necessary grammatical foundations to make good progress at KS4. This is why the revised Order places even more emphasis than before on the importance of grammar.

By presenting grammar in familiar contexts, pupil target language is a gift to the teaching of grammar. Most Year 7s with special needs can soon learn to produce from memory Je peux parler en anglais? if the phrase is on the wall for quick reference and they are used to hearing it. By teaching pupils the meaning of the individual words, we give them a head start in the use of modal verbs. We also prevent them from joining the depressingly numerous ranks of GCSE role-play candidates who cannot produce je peux ... ? after five years. The same message in a different language can be used to teach and reinforce different grammatical points, for example, Kann ich auf Englisch sprechen? provides an easily memorable example of German word order.

Given that the average pupil needs to hear, see and use an expression many times to retain and use it confidently, it is essential to compile a list of key classroom expressions pupils need most. This is far more easily done as a department. Once you have identified what learners need to say most, agree on the best way to phrase each expression; provide learners with their own list for easy reference; and, if possible, display enlarged versions of the expressions in each classroom. The questions below are helpful when compiling a list of pupil expressions.

What messages do our pupils need to communicate most often? How can they express these most simply? Which easily transferable grammatical and lexical items can we incorporate into these expressions? How can pupils develop these expressions over time?

Departments also need to agree on strategies to:

* reinforce grammar visually, for example, by always writing the words ne ... pas in a different colour on the board and on posters;

* remind pupils of key rules of grammar in simple target language, for example, Le passe compose commence avec "j'ai" ou "Je suis" et termine souvent en "-e", * encourage and reward pupil effort in target language use.

On the last point, my department agreed to reward pupils who had made a good effort to use or create a target language expression. We were happy for them to then ask for a school merit in the target language. The most appropriate French s probably: Qa vaut un boo point? We opted for the easier Ca merite un boo point? before realising that the most useful phrasing of all was Je peux avoir un ban point? Our final choice o wording benefits from being easily transferabl to new contexts, such as Je peux avair un Iivre and Je peux sortir?

In addition, we created a pupil of the week cer- tificate for best effort at using target language Originally we encouraged pupils to ask in tar- get language "Who is pupil of the week?", but we have now developed that by getting them to ask 'Who is going to be pupil of the week?"

As for reluctant learners, one way forward is to recreate in modern languages some of the challenges which, typically, many boys enjoy in solving maths problems. Rather than simply giv- ing them the target language for a new expres- sion as the need arises, see who can come up with the best way of communicating the message within a set time. You can support learners by referring them to familiar expressions which contain some of the language needed in the new expression; and by giving them additional unknown vocabulary if necessary.

Ultimately, though, pupils' success in devel- oping their target language depends on teacher expectations. The clearer we make it that nothing else will do, and the more we support pupil target language through careful planning and constant encouragement and reinforcement, the quicker learners develop confidence and independence.


The revisions to level 5 of the national cur- riculum for modern foreign languages are designed to help far more learners to progress. Learners must currently make a giant leap from working in one tense to working in three in order to go beyond level 4. Under the revisions, learners who can communicate in the present and past or future can reach level 5; those who can communicate in all three tenses can reach level 6. Many average and lower attainers can reach level 6 by the end of key stage 3 if tenses are taught in a carefully struc- tured way. Below are 10 steps to tense heaven.

Step one: start early. Classroom target lan- guage is the perfect introduction to changing tenses. Learners who can produce "I have for- gotten my exercise book" or "Who is going to be pupil of the week?" as lexical items have a head start over others when tenses are formally intro- duced, since they already have valuable points of reference.

Step two: transliterate infinitives. Teaching J'aime aller as meaning "I like to go" rather than "I like going" raises pupils' awareness of the significance of infinitive endings. They should then find it far easier to produce phrases such as je vais aller in the future proche.

Step three: get physical. Highlight verb endings using coloured boardmarkers, coloured card or coloured photocopiable overhead transparencies.

Step four: sell, sell, sell. Contrary to popular pupil belief, tenses are not introduced to confuse learners, but to help them to make real progress.

Keep reminding pupils that mastering tenses means moving up attainment levels.

Display the attainment level descriptors and GCSE marking criteria to prove that tense competence brings high attainment.

Step five: keep it simple. Introduce the first person only of a few key verbs.

Consider intro- ducing exceptions first (je suis alleich bin gegangen). Once pupils are confident with the first person singular forms, introduce the first person plural, then third person singular.

The more carefully you focus on what learn- ers need next, the better their chances of grasp- ing it quickly. Setting out first person verbs as a timeline (I played I playI am going to play) enables learners to grasp far more easily how verbs change according to tense.

Rather than introducing the imperfect tense as a paradigm early on, start with the most useful imperfect phrases such as "I w

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