Sound track for learning

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Making a movie is an exciting and motivating activity; making one in a foreign language can really help students to find their voice, says Wendy Adeniji

A news report discussing a new disease that involves eating paper (es ist wirklig ekelig!), a director talking about his latest zombie movie and a post-match football report - all of them in German, written, performed and filmed by Year 9 pupils. These are the outcome of a project using digital video and handheld technologies involving pupils from Heathfield Technology College, West Midlands, in partnership with Shireland city learning centre.

It is well known that using digital media is motivating, particularly for boys, but what, if anything, does it add to language learning, and can the time spent doing it really be justified?

The top set Year 9 German class were initially given the task, in groups of three or four, of coming up with an idea for a three-minute film. They then had to plan and script it over four hours of lesson time. Once this was finished, 14 of them were given the chance to make the film at the city learning centre. Peter Ruhe, their teacher, is convinced of the benefits of the project for co-operation and teamwork: "People in each group who were particularly able took on the responsibilities of proofreading the script and supporting the less able."

In terms of stretching the able students and extending their language skills, pupils moved away from the core language they had been working with and, as Year 9 pupil Chris Hipkiss says: "We get to try out new things with no one to criticise. Writing the speeches has helped my German and I learned lots of new words and phrases because I wanted to."

Previous groups at the centre have created a chatshow in Spanish and a Bollywood-style film in Hindi. In Spanish, the preterite tense was used perfectly: Donde naciste? Nac!..., and in German the zombie film script-writers used subordinate clauses effectively: Ich bin froh, dass du hier bist, aber was ich wissen mochte, ist ob du berlebst.

Many of the pupils memorised their scripts in advance, determined not to be filmed reading from them. They were shown a clip from a previous group who had made films in Spanish and asked to assess it in terms of language content, pronunciation and clarity, and film techniques. This form of peer assessment helped when they came to make their own film. During the next part of the session each group had an iPod with a microphone attached, and made practise recordings of their parts, playing them back and asking the others for advice on accent, pronunciation and intonation.

Lesley Hagger-Vaughan, manager of the centre and a languages specialist, is enthusiastic: "We use the iPod to get pupils to focus on their pronunciation and fluency before they move on to the performance. Because the iPod is so desirable, they want to hold it in their hand and use it."

Pupil Lauren Dolan agrees: "It's good because when you play it back you can listen and see where you go wrong."

An important facet of the rehearsal session - Jand good linguistic training - is to listen and practise repeatedly. Pupils were encouraged to think about their audience and consider the reality of the situation, be it a news clip, chatshow or sports show, and to think about their tone of voice and body language. "Lose yourself and take on this new identity: you are addressing the nation," exhorted teacher Peter Ruhe to the newsreader.

During this phase, the pupils moved from speaking in a monotone to using intonation, inflection and feeling in their voices. This is a skill with which many teachers and examiners of the GCSE speaking test would be delighted.

The whole morning was pupil-led, and pupils decided themselves when they were ready to move on to the filming phase. They had brought along props and costumes, and even fake blood and a machine gun for the zombie film.

Each shot was practised before the filming and pupils were given brief training on using the camera and getting good shots. At first they were shy about being in front of the camera, but they quickly got used to it.

After the filming a follow-up session involved editing their films using iMovie software on Apple computers. This involved a second morning session at the centre and pupils had to get to grips with editing techniques, recording appropriate voiceovers and adding text. The session ended with a showing of each film - complete with popcorn.

Peter Ruhe believes it is important not to let the project end there. He brings back the films they make and plays them to the whole class, and encourages them to assess the work - to find positive aspects as well as pointing out where there is room for improvement. His advice to others considering a similar project is to plan it carefully, leave sufficient time for pupils to write scripts and storyboard, and follow it up.

Any school near a city learning centre (there are more than 100 operating in Excellence in Cities areas across the country) may be able to use its facilities and ICT technicians. Alternatively, a media case can be set up for pound;2,000: Heathfield Technology College's languages department now has one so they can run similar film projects. This comprises a digital video camera, tripod, a still camera, an Apple iBook (laptop) with iMovie software and an iPod, all in a case with a single socket to charge everything. This is a useful addition to the department as it is portable and the iBook can be plugged into an interactive whiteboard so that films can be shown immediately for peer review.

As well as improving their German skills and increasing their motivation to opt for the language at GCSE, these Year 9 pupils have learned teamwork and co-operation - a rare skill at this age. They have also realised that creativity and drama are a vital part of communicating in a foreign language and have been able to take risks in a safe environment.

Wendy Adeniji is a modern foreign languages consultant

Equipment used

* iPod - a handheld device, usually used for listening to music. It can come with photo option, microphone or base with speakers (price varies, but around pound;180).

* iBook - an Apple laptop computer (pound;960).

* iMovie - software for editing films.

* Canon MVX300 - the digital video camera included in an education package from AT Computers. This includes tripod (Canon Gamma 46), firewire cable and spare battery (pound;480).

* Media case - custom made and available from AT Computers:

* City learning centres are listed at

* Shireland City Learning Centre

Tel: 0121 565 8920

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