Universal languages

31st October 1997 at 00:00
O.K. By Sue Finnie. Mary Glasgow. (Reviewed in the TES March 4, 1994 and March 14. 1997).

GENIAL. By Tony Elston and Patricia McLagan. Oxford University Press. (Reviewed June 16, 1995 and March 7,1997.

PASSE-PARTOUT. By Daphne Philpot. Judy Somerville and Lawrence Briggs. Nelson (Reviewed June 20,1997).

Sue Brown revisits some French language courses with low-ability pupils in mind

How can we make modern foreign languages more accessible to pupils with learning difficulties? While publishers describe their courses as "suitable for low-ability pupils", teachers know these groups are not so easily labelled. Some have specific learning difficulties, often related to literacy. Others have emotional problems. Some are simply demotivated because they have experienced little success, and many of these children will also exhibit behavioural difficulties linked to lack of self-esteem, lack of interest and negative learning experiences.

However bright, relevant and differentiated a course, the onus is always on the teacher to bring it to life. Publications that offer guidance on a wider range of issues than materials alone are likely to be most valuable.

A central feature of courses for pupils with learning difficulties must be objectives and outcomes that allow clear demonstration of achievement. All three of these courses have clearly stated objectives at the start of each unit, and, in O.K!, on each page of the pupil's workbook.

Genial goes one step further, and states its goals in terms of what the students will be able to do with the material learned from the unit. The objectives in Passe-Partout are in terms of context, but the Porte Ouverte feature which is at the outcome of the learning, is always a creative, project-based activity.

Good visual stimuli are another essential component of a successful course for pupils with special needs. The authors of Genial and Passe-Partout have learned from the mistakes of others who have produced flashcards that are too busy and confusing. The Genial flashcards can be used together to form phrases and sentences.

But nobody has yet come close to matching the superb quality of the O. K! flashcards. Every classroom should have at least one set of these large, authentic, photographic images.

All three courses, because of their audience, base their language-learning on the development of auraloral skills, with high-quality taped material as a central component. They are all beautifully clear, with a good variety of voices and activities. But each has particular characteristics The O.K! cassettes link not only with the workbooks, but also with the flashcards and overhead projector materials, and have interesting interactive activities. One of Sue Finnie's strengths is recognising the energy of pupils with learning difficulties and suggesting ways to harness it, so it becomes part of the learning process.

Genial's tapes are user-friendly, with clearly indicated activities and a karaoke feature encouraging active participation. Features such as Ca Rime aid soundword recognition and promote the creative use of language in songs and poems.

But the Passe-Partout tapes are the best of the bunch. They are beautifully produced with clear, attractive voices, built-in repetition, often incorporated into dialogues, and a wide range of activities.

The Classe d'Enfer feature is an inspired way to encourage the use of target language, and the duplicating master cassette for pupil self-study - linked with the workbook - gives interesting opportunities for homework.

All three courses recognise the motivating potential of singing and all have accessible and attractive songs to support their courses. The O.K! song cassette can be bought separately for use with any course.

Many pupils with learning difficulties are unable to organise and present written work attractively. They often get upset and demotivated, and even tear up work when they see it looks a mess. O.K! and Ganial have produced pupil workbooks, which make an attractive record of achievement.

Many teachers express the need for clear presentation of grammar in their courses. O.K!, specifically aimed at pupils with special educational needs, omits any kind of structured introduction to grammar. But Passe-Partout formally presents it, after pupils have had a chance to practise each step. It also includes copymasters designed to provide grammar work for students able to cope with, and benefit from, such activities.

Ganial is rightly proud of its grammar pages, particularly those on questions and verbs - the latter provide a practical sentence-building system in three tenses. Repromasters also help pupils find their way through the verb tables. The grammar repromasters provide verb and phrase manipulation activities with mini-flashcards allowing pupils to manipulate the language physically. Activities to develop dictionary skills are another feature teachers look for, as most of the excellent dictionary skills packs, although well-produced and thought-out, are way beyond the scope of low-achievers. The Passe-Partout dictionary skill activities are a welcome part of the course, and Ganial and Passe-Partout both have excellent glossaries.

These are high-quality materials, but there remains room for improvement. Many courses could benefit from a feature of the GCSE course for slow-learners Au Secours, from Stanley Thornes. It recognises that a central problem with such students is their sporadic attendance at school. Consequently the course has been carefully structured so each ''bite'' at a topic is covered in a single lesson and topics are recycled so the context will crop up every few weeks. Another attractive feature is one found in Nelson's successful Route Nationale Extra packs, which use differentiation to access or replace aspects of the existing coursebook. The advantage of such schemes is that they aid differentiation for mixed-ability classes, and allow easy movement between sets, as all pupils are following the same course.

It would also help if courses incorporated evaluation sheets for students, as self-evaluation has become a significant part of assessment in schools. Good evaluation sheets, linked attractively to the course, would provide a clear record of achievement and perhaps most importantly, provide targets for pupils to set themselves.

Finally, we all recognise the central role of praise and reward, particularly for pupils with learning and behavioural difficulties, too many of whom receive more sanctions than rewards. It would be nice if courses could develop attractive certificates to celebrate effort, achievement in individual skills, displayproject work, homework, and much more. If teaching modern languages does nothing else, it at least gives important opportunities for success and raising self-esteem.

Sue Brown is head of modern languages at Stoke Damerel Community College, Plymouth

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