Banning the use of English and encouraging competition is having a striking effect on language learning in a Surrey school. Alison Thomas reports
It's a damp, bleak February morning, but Year 10 top set French students at Cheam High School in Surrey are too busy to notice the weather - except for a fleeting moment just before 9am when the chilling drizzle is flecked with white. "It's snowing," exclaims a boy.
"Tu parles en anglais, Tom. Deux points enleves," responds head of modern languages Kate Heery.
The rebuke is mild, but it hits the mark as the chastened offender watches two points disappear from his team's tally on the board.
This brief exchange encapsulates two cornerstones of her approach: exclusive use of the target language, and competition to encourage full participation. Answers do not have to be "right" to be rewarded and she gives extra credit for an intelligent question or creative use of language.
This is apparent from the very beginning when students ask permission to take their seats. The well-rehearsed sentence: "Can girls with brown hair sit down?" scores one point while a request on behalf of everyone who watched Barcelona beat Chelsea last night merits three, because it is fresh and original.
The same two principles apply when Kate goes through the lesson's objectives. These are laid out on an overhead projector beneath a sheet of paper and as she reveals the first letter of each word students predict what it might be. Not surprisingly, the future tense features prominently, while other key structures include "after doing" and "in order to".
Colour-coding highlights infinitives, connectives and negatives and every so often she drives a grammar point home with a pertinent question such as, "Does this word end in - er or - e, and why?"
"This is a regular routine," she explains. "It's an opportunity to incorporate language we have learned recently and to give reasons for the things we do."
This extends to classroom management. Today's presentation concludes with a reminder that English is banned as this helps students improve their French, and they must not interrupt when someone is speaking because it is not polite.
By now team scores are mounting and points pour in thick and fast as the lesson proceeds. The context is school life in Britain and France and the grammar focus is the third-person of the present tense. Vocabulary is practised through paraphrase, synonyms and antonyms, while a simple text followed by a more complex one provides the stimulus for verb work. English may be banned but the message is crystal clear. "Ou est le verbe? C'est singulier ou pluriel? Pourquoi? Ca finit par...?"
Kate repeats these questions over and over again, with frequent reference to "les lettres fantomes" - Cheam-speak for silent endings. Sometimes students break off for a short spell of pair work before returning to the fray, concluding with the rule "le sujet change le verbe", which they recite in chorus, mimicking her gestures as they speak. A single clap stands for le, drawing the letter S in the air represents sujet, while rotating both hands and cupping them in a V-shape symbolise change and verbe respectively.
Mime and movement help to fix language in students' minds and keep them alert. They practise pronunciation by taking it in turns to bob up and down as they utter alternate lines. A variation of this is a game of verbal ping pong involving two people "batting" the words of a sentence, or even the syllables of a single word, back and forth to each other.
Song is another way of honing pronunciation, reinforcing language and engaging attention. Even Year 12 throw themselves into an adaptation of Lord of the Dance, which Kate has composed to practise a specific grammar point.
These strategies are not confined to one class or one teacher, and are adapted to suit all age groups and languages. From memory games to deciphering an upside-down text, varied activities share a common objective - to make students think. Boys respond particularly well to the challenge and there is a strong male presence in the Year 10 top set and in Year 12.
Apparently, this is not unusual.
Another striking feature is the willingness to experiment and use language for real communication. In a Year 9 group, a girl who is wearing her coat is coaxed by head of German, Natasha Bliss, to pronounce the sentence: "Es ist mir zu kalt" (I'm cold). Twenty minutes later a boy returning from the toilet spontaneously recycles the expression, adding the word "drauben"
This way of working demands superb classroom management skills, as well as stamina, as teachers are constantly on the go. They also devise their own materials and although they share these across the department, their carefully structured lessons still take time to prepare.
Their reward lies in the students' response. Brought up on these methods from Year 7, no one mutters: "What's she on about?" or complains that they don't understand. When they do grumble, it is usually because they have failed to win the latest round in the points-scoring contest. "Tu triches"
(you're cheating), quips Kate when a disgruntled sixth-former claims her team was unfairly pipped to the post. "Non! Non! Je suis honnete," retorts the girl in mock outrage. "Non! Non! Tu triches," reiterates Kate.
Spontaneous banter in the target language - who could ask for more?
* Kate Heery and Marian Carty of St Martin's College were speakers at this year's ALL Language World conference. Cheam High School welcomes visitors and runs termly in-service training sessions.
For more information contact Tel: 020 8644 5790
Abandoning textbooks allows staff to explore more exciting ways of developing language skills. For example, Year 9 French classes spend a term studying Au Revoir les Enfants - Louis Malle's evocative film about wartime France.
The scheme of work was developed with St Martin's College European Teacher Programme, Greenwich, and PGCE students helped to design the resources.
The first few lessons are devoted to groundwork, starting with a speculative profile of the main character, based on clues provided by the teacher - eg "He's a little younger than you and his name begins with J."
Vocabulary is practised through Cheam's usual varied range of activities, while il y avait beaucoup de, il n'y avait pas de and ils etaient are introduced and reinforced in context.
"'There were lots of Jews, lots of soldiers, lots of collaborators...
people were persecuted, terrorised, victimised...'. By the time they watch the first extract they have all the language they need," says Kate, adding that cognates such as persecutes and terrorises are a further aid to comprehension.
Afterwards, pupils discuss to what extent the clip confirmed their expectations and sometimes their conclusions take her by surprise.
"For example, I didn't think the opening scenes contained much evidence of persecution, but they pointed out that the priests were hiding the Jewish boy," she says.
Work continues in a similar vein until finally they are asked to predict the ending. "They come up with comments like, 'In my opinion it will be sad, because the Nazis will kill the Jews'.
That has to be more worthwhile than describing their bedrooms," she says.