Once upon a time...

11th October 1996 at 01:00
One Scottish secondary is using primary story-telling techniques to reinforce grammar and vocabulary. John Clark reports. You could say that a school in the Scottish borders has given a new meaning to the title of the pop group Oasis' album What's the Story, Morning Glory. For several mornings each week secondary pupils gather around their teacher for glorious sessions of story-telling - in French.

This innovative way of teaching a foreign language in secondary school seems to delight the children and boost their French vocabulary at the same time.

Assistant headteacher Patricia Dobson, 40, introduced the Jackanory-style delivery after a four-year stint at the Scottish Office as national development officer for modern languages in primary schools. She had been seconded from her job as head of languages at Castle Douglas High School in Kirkcudbrightshire, to be one of the key writers for the Scottish Office primary teacher training materials for German.

Story-telling was a teaching method which seemed to work with very young children coping with a foreign language for the first time. Patricia says: "When I came back to the secondary situation I was determined to see if it would work with older children. I also thought that having the children gathered around me would also give good control over the class. After a hesitant start I went ahead and now my classes totally accept it."

The walls of her first floor classroom are brightly decorated with pupils' work. Around 24 members of class 2K troop in and Patricia announces: "Approches les chaises, it's Jackanory time again."

Amid the noise of table and chair legs scraping over the floor desks are pushed back and the class bring forward their seats in a semi-circle around their teacher.

Patricia opens a children's book in which the words in English have been covered by masking tape leaving only the pictures visible.

She starts to relate the story of Mr Sympatout who can't understand why the clock in his attic is at a different time from the one in the hall. He buys another clock for the kitchen and discovers, when he checks the time of each clock in turn, that they show a slightly different time. The dilemma is resolved by the clock maker who compares the time of each clock with his wristwatch.

The lesson is conducted entirely in French with the help of a cardboard clock and seems to make learning to tell the time in French enjoyable. One of the pupils agrees: "It makes the lesson more fun doing it this way."

The lesson is reinforced by asking pupils to re-tell the story simply in French, to act it out or write a play based on the story.

Patricia has collected a small library of story books which at first glance would appear to be more at home in a nursery class. Blocking out the English text enables her to elaborate on the pictures introducing key words and phrases. Other stories she has made up herself.

Patricia says: "The stories have to be fun without being too childish. The last thing I want to do is patronise the pupils. There has to be lots of repetition but it also has to be at a level they can easily understand. The stories also help to reinforce grammar and introduce vocabulary." She spends hours scouring bookshops for suitable material to adapt to her needs - often at weekends when rain forces her to abandon hill-walking expeditions in the Lake District.

She encourages pupils to produce work for display on her classroom walls. Patricia says: "They take great pleasure in it and ask to do this. Even second or third year pupils want to see their work on the wall and look at each others'."

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