A Eurovillage complete with market, cinema and cafe was part of a project aiming to banish pupils' reluctance to speak foreign languages. Alison Thomas explains how the scheme bore fruit
It's a familiar scenario, re-enacted in classrooms throughout the United Kingdom: "Ouvrez vos livres, s'il vous plat. Trouvez la page 12." Hardly stretching stuff, and most of Year 7 readily comply. But by Year 9, resistance sets in. "Eh? What did you say, Miss? Tell us in English."
Pupils' reluctance to use target language is a recurring theme in reports from the Office for Standards in Education. A 1994 survey by the Welsh Inspectorate OHMCI went as far as to note that "pupils' ability to speak the target language was unsatisfactory in just over half of the lessons seen, and good in only a small minority of schools".
In a bid to remedy the situation, the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and the National Comenius Centre of Wales launched a research project, called Speaking Skills, looking at the teaching of oral work in the 1996-97 academic year. The project had the support of the OHMCI and the Welsh Office.
Schools throughout Wales were each invited to bid for one of 12 pound;750 grants, explaining how they would use the money to boost language teaching - not just in modern foreign languages but in Welsh second language too, introducing an element of collaboration between the two departments that had rarely existed before.
One of the 12 schools selected was Gwendraeth Valley School, a semi-rural 11-18 comprehensive near Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, where the modern languages department had already started converting an unused part of the school into a Eurovillage.
"For us, the timing couldn't have been better," says head of modern languages Jane Roe. "The project gave us the opportunity to evaluate our plans. We also benefited enormously from meeting the other participants and bouncing ideas off each other."
The 12-month programme has now run its course, but Gwendraeth's Eurovillage continues to flourish. When pupils arrive, they are faced with an array of shops and businesses - a hotel, a cafe, a bank, a cinema, a clothes shop, market stalls, a train station - every conceivable GCSE topic is catered for, and double-sided signs can be turned to show French or German as appropriate.
"It acts as a trigger," says Ms Roe. "Pupils know as soon as they cross the threshold they have to leave English behind. And they do - 98 per cent rise to the challenge."
She is also delighted by the enthusiasm it generates. "Peer pressure works in our favour. Everyone wants to contribute, and only the odd one or two show any reluctance."
In the early days, teachers played bank clerk, waiter or shop assistant, but as pupils' confidence grew, they took over these roles too. Student teachers and sixth-formers also participate, the latter serving as a catalyst to stretch learners beyond their pre-rehearsed dialogues.
"They introduce an element of the unexpected," Ms Roe explains. "They might stage a robbery, for example, and pupils would have to recount what had happened and describe the thieves."
On the first occasion, staff were disappointed with the general reaction of panic and consternation - to the detriment of target language use. But gradually, as pupils have grown accustomed to the idea that an "event" may occur at any time, their resourcefulness has improved. "It is working," says Ms Roe. "But it's more demanding, so inevitably takes longer."
Few schools have the space to create such an ambitious language learning environment, but as the experiences of the other 11 participants show, there are more ways than one of heightening motivation and promoting speaking skills. Indeed, the project proved such a success, a second phase involving a new cohort of schools, with smaller projects lasting a single term, is planned for September.
Project co-ordinator Ceri James of the National Comenius Centre of Wales explains how it worked: "The pound;750 was not a huge sum, but enough to allow for planning sessions or a little equipment. Three field officers, including myself, visited schools regularly and monitored what they were doing. We also had discussions at the beginning and end of the project."
It may have been centrally co-ordinated, but there was nothing prescriptive about the approach, and each school was free to develop its own ideas. Some concentrated on drama techniques (particularly effective with Year 10 boys), others looked at ways of encouraging pupils to speak more confidently without relying on prompts. Several schools devised merit systems to provide short-term rewards, others livened up lessons with raps, role-plays and games. Capturing the students' efforts on video was a strategy favoured by several schools - not only did it provide an incentive for thorough revision, it allowed students to find out what they did well and what could be improved upon.
Recordings were also helpful for correcting errors. Most teachers are wary of interrupting a speaker in full flow, knowing this may damage self-confidence. Analysing mistakes afterwards can be an effective solution to this dilemma.
Another issue the project addressed was assessment - universally agreed to be crucial, not only to enable the teachers to monitor progress, but to encourage pupils to take speaking skills seriously.
"It doesn't have to be one-to-one with the teacher all the time," explains Ceri James. "Various ideas came from different schools. One developed a tick sheet with the national curriculum levels, which could be filled out during observation of pair work. Others enlisted student teachers and foreign language assistants, or devised schemes involving peer assessment. Whatever the approach, to be effective it has to be frequent and that means developing a light touch."
A positive aspect was the collaboration between modern languages and Welsh second language departments. As the oral component of GCSE Welsh is high, and includes assessment of group work as well as individual effort, teachers are experienced in developing pair work, group work and drama techniques.
These issues and others are examined in depth in a book to be published by CILT in July. "The underlying idea is to present what the pupils achieved and to ask how did they get there and how might others get there?" explains Peter Boaks, CILT deputy director. It also complements the OHMCI report of October 1997, which evaluated speaking skills in 20 Welsh schools, including 10 from the project, and concluded that "the project has had a very beneficial effect in raising awareness and improving provision and practice in the 12 schools involved".
For Mr Boaks, one of the keys to success was the collaborative nature of the project, which involved four separate organisations as well as the various schools. He was also delighted with the impact it had on teachers.
"When we talk about motivation, we usually mean the pupils. We forget teachers need motivating too," he says. "One of the things that came through very clearly was how stimulating it was for staff. Through involvement with the project and through speaking to each other, they did things they probably wouldn't have found the time to do otherwise" For more details, contact Ceri James. Tel: 01222 265 104 'Developing Speaking Skills', published by CILT Publications in July, can be ordered through GBS. Tel: 01476 541 080