Use a pet detective to arrest attention

16th June 2000 at 01:00
Simon Sharron explains how the use of DVD format films as language resources can make pupils really sit up and take notice

The Year 9 French class at Dorothy Stringer school in Brighton was "totally gob-smacked"! Not so much by the cutting-edge Hitachi DVD player and wide screen television in front of them, but more because this was school and schools only ever use yesterday's technology.

Teenage jaws dropped even lower when it became apparent they were not going to be subjected to yet another didactic episode of a BBC or ITV "French for schools" series. To their delight, the teacher had planned a dose of Jim Carey in his role as the zany sleuth in the Hollywood film Ace Ventura (Pet Detective). In fact, I was going to use the French subtitles and the soundtrack to re-enforce my teaching of the passe compose. We were still at the construction and recognition stage of this grammatical nightmare for young learners.

Here is how to organise a great lesson by using a block-buster DVD film such as Ace Ventura Pet Detective to teach the passe compose.

Go to chapter 16 (chapters are DVD parlance for scenes) where Jim Carey, in the character of Ace Ventura, reconstructs a murder to ridicule a sassy but hostile female police detective who too readily accepts a fatal fall from a high-rise balcony as a case of suicide. The attractive policewoman is in fact a male - a lunatic ex-baseball player who has turned transvestite in order to wreak revenge on his former team. The reconstruction scene provides the context for a range of passe compose structures to flash up on the screen in French subtitles.

Announce to the class your objective of practising the passe compose with the aid of the Pet Detective. Revise the structure of the passe compose, refocusing the audience's minds on the make-up of the tense, that is, the present tense of avoir or etre followed by a past participle.

Play the four-minute scene through once, after first explaining its context. Alternatively, if it is last period on Friday afternoon, play the film from the start, which will take exactly 36 minutes 53 seconds, as a treat or reward lesson and suspend the interaction with the film until the next time you see the class. There are no problems with comprehension because the audio is in English; no problems in motivation because the film is hilariously funny.

As a warm-up, ask the class to shout out "Arretez, passe compose!" in order to pause the DVD player whenever the structure flashes up in the subtitles. Encourage the film buffs to read out the phrases.

Examine the correct pauses to re-emphasise the tripartite structure of the passe compose (subject + present tense of avoir or etre + past participle). Explaining the wrong answers will raise general tense awareness. Making a game of class versus teacher in this activity works well. The teacher scores each time a passe compose is missed or a wrong shout is made. Be prepared to lose.

As part of the above activity, or as a separate one, instruct the class to write down the meaning of the passe compose phrases. Classes find this easiest after they have just heard the English soundtrack. Differentiate by telling the class to write down the passe compose structures as they are identified and set the comprehension task at the end of the DVD chapter.

List the passe compose phrases on a worksheet and, using a GCSE test-type, ask the class to become detectives themselves and tick all the phrases which are true in terms of the film.

Then, while the class quietly completes the true-or-false questionnaire, reset the DVD machine to replay the same scene but this time use the French soundtrack without sub-titles. Challenge the class again to shout "Arretez, passe compose!" to test their aural recognition of the tense.

For homework, the class can either put the worksheet phrases into the correct order, rewrite in French the false phrases so that they are true or retell the story using the passe compose. For added incentive, tell the class they can watch more of the film in a future lesson if the homework is done well.

The exploitation of Ace Ventura Pet Detective to practise the passe compose represents just one possible use of the film to teach an aspect of a modern language.

Generally, if you are interested in using DVD home cinema films in the classroom, the teaching applications are limited only by your inventiveness. Decide on the DVD film you go are going to show. Your choice will probably be determined by:

* your judgment of what your class will enjoy watching;

* the range of languages available in the disc's special features, which include multi-language soundtracks and subtitles.

Remember the film's viewing certificate must be appropriate to the age range of children in the class.

Exploiting the uses of DVD video disc technology in the classroom has become a joint project between Dorothy Stringer school modern languages department and Hitachi, which has a strong track record of supporting educational initiatives. But why should a modern languages department purchase a DVD player and a wide-screen TV?

The multi-language soundtracks and subtitles, which are often available on DVD discs produced for the European market provide a rich educational resource that has uses in all kinds of foreign language learning environments from a low-ability secondary classroom to an undergraduate self-study centre. The target language subtitling, because it is a translated transcription of spoken dialogue, carries a great deal of everyday vocabulary and linguistic structures that are accessible to the elementaryintermediate learner with one or two years' experience of the language. Foreign language films with English subtitles can also provide invaluable opportunities for compelling, in-depth cultural learning.

The larger wide-screen television complements the improved sound and picture quality of DVD technology. It is important that the subtitles are visible from the back of the class. The larger image, perfect in freeze-frame, can also act as a powerful stimulus to encourage target language activities such as description, vocabulary memory games and quizzes as to what happens next.

The digital format of DVD allows high quality image and sound to be integrated into CD-Rom programs, which allow the learner to interact through a computer with the audio-visual material. Pioneering the educational language DVD-Rom is Euro Talk Interactive. It has produced DVD-Roms that use authentic French, German, Spanish and Italian television dramas, subtitled in the target language, which act as the stimulus for a range of language activities. Designed for the advanced student with access to a powerful PC equipped with DVD-Rom drive, the material is great fun. Apart from a good story, students can replace characters' voices with their own, play a virtual reality game show testing their knowledge of the film and take part in a range of challenging language games that test listening and reading comprehension to a high level. The audio-visual vocabulary tests would be appropriate for able GCSE students.

Modern languages is not the only curriculum area where DVD technology can make an exciting impact. Most English language films in DVD format have English subtitling. This has obvious benefits for hearing-impaired learners and those who have literacy difficulties. DVD film versions of literary works such as Shakespeare's plays or DVD documentaries that can be used in history and geography lessons have the advantage that the teacher can move instantaneously from one scene to another and can freeze the image for as long as they want.

The digital nature of DVD and the marvellous audio-visual quality it produces signals the end of the more prevalent video-tape. Already, a portable PC can project a DVD film on to a huge interactive whiteboard that the teacher controls from the front through touch technology. Tomorrow, teachers will be able to download interactive DVD products through broadband internet connections. In the interim, education must recognise the enormous value of DVD products and grasp the nettle.

Simon Sharron is head of modern languages at Dorothy Stringer School, Brighton. E-mail:

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