Tough talk hits its target

30th January 2004 at 00:00
One teacher's use of modern media - from soaps to documentaries - gets tongues wagging at key stage 5, says Alison Thomas

The scene is a stretch of the Danube near Vienna; work is about to begin on the construction of a nuclear power station. As the bulldozers prepare to move in, protesters chain themselves to the trees in a last-ditch gesture of defiance. The camera zooms in on a policeman as he urges a woman to abandon her post andI CUT. What happened next? Did she co-operate or did he have to resort to force? What did they say to each other?

That was for the students to decide, working in pairs to continue the conversation. "Some gave it a romantic twist, others went for the serious approach. Then they had to argue the point and justify their opinions, a skill they need to develop for the oral exam," explains Christine Johnson, head of the faculty of international studies at John Cabot City Technology College in Bristol.

"Afterwards, they took on the role of an onlooker describing the day's events to a friend, which brought in past tenses and indirect speech. We ended with a class discussion of the issues. Were they in favour of atomic power? What about organisations like Greenpeace? Should people who damage the environment be punished?"

This series of lessons typifies her approach to sixth-form teaching, with extensive use of modern media to give language work dramatic impact and set it in a meaningful context. That includes British popular culture - she has no qualms about exploiting the latest soap episode or a blockbuster movie.

"If that's what teenagers talk about, why not tap into their interest?" she argues.

To illustrate her point, she cites an episode of EastEnders, which she used with a Year 12 group to introduce the theme of relationships and character.

With the sound turned down, students provided the dialogue and aired their views.

"They all had their own perceptions and were desperate to express themselves," she says. "When they got stuck, I made notes of what was holding them back and that formed the basis of follow-up work. I could have issued a list of useful expressions beforehand, but, this way, they saw for themselves the relevance of the language. They also enjoyed it so much they asked for more lessons on similar lines."

Another resource that proved successful with Year 12 is About a Boy (Der Tag der toten Ente), starring Hugh Grant as a fun-loving bachelor whose superficial lifestyle is transformed by a 12-year-old boy. This time, vocabulary work comes first. with an odd-one-out exercise, culminating in a list of verbs, nouns and adjectives relevant to the theme of family and the modern man. The words students reject reinforce language learned at GCSE, in keeping with her overall strategy of gradually moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

"I like to give them an anchor by starting with what they can do," explains Christine Johnson. "Then I build up topics in stages, revisiting them at intervals to add another layer of content and more complex grammar."

Another guiding principle is to encourage independent learning. Before showing Das Versprechen, which follows the fortunes of five young people in the years between the erection and demolition of the Berlin Wall, she refers students to the internet to research key dates and build up a picture of life in divided Germany.

Extracts from The Marriage of Maria Braun add another dimension before they watch Das Versprechen section by section, taking notes on each one. Time now to establish whether it confirms their impressions of the era. "Of course it does, and because they came up with their own theories they get a great sense of achievement," she says.

As work on this topic nears its end she relinquishes control altogether by asking students to prepare a presentation for the rest of the group. Format and content are entirely up to them and they select what they consider to be the key facts, vocabulary and structures.

The thought that goes into this process, coupled with extensive prior reading and research, pays off handsomely. "By February last year, my A-level class had covered so much ground they realised their coursework was practically written. It was a terrific reward for working hard and taking good notes," she says.

Not surprisingly with this approach, her lessons do not always go according to plan. Another consequence of her approach is preparation time, but she would not have it any other way. "It is a case of working together and responding to individual preferences and interests," she says. "If the result is higher motivation and lots of spontaneous language, it is worth every minute."

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