Constant exposure is the only way to make real headway in a foreign language - two to three hours' contact time per week doesn't quite hit the spot. Which is why anything that might entice pupils to do a little extra in their own time is worth a try. Designed for key stages 3 and 4, the online magazine CR-ed francais aims not only to achieve this, but to offer teachers attractive resources for use in class. It is slick, colourful and up to date and, although French culture is not neglected, the primary focus is on modern young Britain.
From the FA Cup to Geri Halliwell's taste in clothes, any subject is fair game if it captures teenagers' interest and inspires them to read on. Texts are presented at three colour-coded levels of sophistication, you can click on highlighted words for a translation, and differentiated activities test comprehension and develop writing skills. There is also the occasional audio file and a search function, which lets you choose material by topic or grammar focus.
AuthentikDigital has a very different flavour. Presented in French, German and Spanish, it offers GCSE candidates a bank of interactive exercises covering the examination syllabus. Revision is a serious business and the site's unimaginative design offers no light relief, a surprising shortcoming given the track record of Authentik newspapers.
Grey is the only word to describe it. Grey background. Grey text. Even grey pictures. Moreover, in Netscape 4 - still widely used in schools - you have to scroll from left to right and back again to match answers to questions. Most students would log out within minutes. Or would they? To help me find out, St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School in Bristol set up a review panel from various Year 10 and Year 11 classes.
"Grey," said Liz Grashoff. "Dull," said Chris Mining. "Lots of writing. Cramped. Daunting," said James Macfarlane. Others chimed in with similar comments but two Year 11 dual linguists bucked the trend. "It's geared to the exam, covers all the topic categories and makes you think," said Chris Heal. "I found that it helped me learn new vocabulary, although it would be better still with audio, so you could click on a word and hear it."
Classmate Olivia Davies agreed, adding that she found the translation exercises particularly stretching. And while I had been dismayed to discover that the same content and format reappeared in each language, they had turned this to advantage by putting French and German on screen simultaneously, an idea that had not occurred to me.
One feature they did not value was the three-star grading system, intended to denote levels of difficulty but in practice inconsistent. Another was hangman, inexplicably given two-star status and mysteriously bereft of gallows and victim. When you can pick letters at random without penalty the game loses its impact.
Overall, CR-ed francais emerged as the winner. The online glossary was "a stroke of genius" according to one pupil and the funky logos, bright colours and uncluttered presentation were popular all round. The subject matter, too, was well received; Ben Coles of Year 10 paid the publishers the ultimate compliment by spending longer at the computer than he had intended.
All applauded the colour-coded levels of difficulty, although some felt there was a lack of challenging material for top sets and others would have liked more audio files. The only serious complaint was the lack of interactivity. In fairness to Schoolgrid, many of the activities are designed to develop writing skills or to be printed off for use in class, both of which require teacher input.
Nevertheless, even simple comprehension exercises fail to provide feedback, unlike AuthentikDigital, which is stand-alone.
Several students concluded that the ideal site would combine the interactivity of Authentik with the content and presentation of CR-ed.
Let's hope the publishers are listening.
Alison Thomas is a writer and languages consultant