Live links with schools in Europe are boosting speaking skills in foreign languages, reports Alison Thomas.
Written on the board is the number 75 followed by six zeros. Year 9 watch intently as the teacher counts the digits one by one, leading to the conclusion that 75 million is 7.5 x 107. On the face of it, this is a normal lesson on standard form - or is it? While the pupils buckle down to work in St Peter's Church of England High School in Exeter, their instructor is 1,166 kilometres away in Dientzenhofer-Gymnasium, Bamberg. He uses his native tongue to take them through their paces and they do their best to reply in kind. Maths teacher Sam Hancock also rises to the challenge. She has been learning German after school and is keen to try her skills.
This cross-border, cross-curricular exercise is one of a variety which the school has conducted via video link with its German partner. Year 10 science students have debated the pros and cons of nuclear energy with Bamberg sixth-formers, arguing their points in English with a sprinkling of German. The project earned the school a European Award for Languages last year.
Another group presented a summary of Romeo and Juliet, which their German audience was studying with English teacher Nick Pruce. Language classes have also undertaken interesting projects: Year 9 set 3 practised the future tense by composing two scenes from Cinderella, which they performed to a class of 10-year-olds. "Two of the lead roles were played by a boy with low motivation and another with learning difficulties. Both practised feverishly," says assistant head Alison Sykes.
The secret of their unusual commitment lies in the prospect of a real audience. Even mundane GCSE oral questions come to life in the context of a meaningful conversation. The cultural dimension also arouses genuine interest. A comparison between the contents of Year 8 lunch boxes and the snacks German pupils consume at breaktime proved illuminating, while the arrival, in December, of a Christmas parcel from Bamberg stimulated discussion on respective festive traditions.
It all began in 2002 when headteacher Mark Perry decided to focus on modern languages in a bid to raise standards across the board. Alison was appointed to manage an application for Language College status, together with a video-conferencing project facilitated by the government-funded Video-conferencing in the Classroom initiative, with additional support from Devon Curriculum Services.
Links were established with schools in Bosnia, France and Germany, but while the first two are in the early stages of development, the German relationship has gone from strength to strength. It has even paved the way for Year 9 exchange visits and work experience opportunities for Years 10 and 11. Here too the technology has played an important role by bringing students and their parents face to face with host families and employers.
"I wasn't at all nervous because I had already met the people I'd be living and working with," says James Cornall, who was thrilled with his placement in a toy shop and believes the experience was responsible for his subsequent promotion to a higher set. He is not alone. Every Year 10 student who took part last year wants to return, including a significant number of boys.
"The practical aspect appeals to them," says Alison. "It's the same with video-conferencing. They enjoy the technology and like thinking on their feet."
Enthusiasm is not confined to boys or those people who eventually travel abroad. Alice Green of Year 11 speaks of her growing confidence and proficiency. "Last year I couldn't string a sentence together, now I'm happy to speak and I've learned things you don't tend to learn in class," she says.
She has also engaged in thought-provoking conversations with Bamberg sixth-formers for the ICT module of international studies, part of key stage 4 citizenship.
"We discussed Turkey's application to join the EU and discovered that the Germans were really unhappy about the human rights issues," she says.
"We've also talked about the euro. Although they are all in favour, I still like the pound. I've grown up with it and it's part of my culture."
Because of their sophisticated content, these conversations are inevitably held in English. However, those students taking GCSE German have also prepared PowerPoint presentations about their school - "language through the back door," as Alison puts it.
While conferences for international studies allow Exeter pupils to liaise with more mature students, the reverse is often the case in modern languages, especially with lower sets. This is a deliberate strategy designed to loosen tongues. "German teenagers speak such good English, there is a danger that our students conclude that there's no point in bothering," explains Alison. "When they see little children struggling to express themselves they don't like being shown up and make a real effort."
At least some do. One problem that arises with classes of 30 is the impossibility of affording every pupil the chance to speak. The school plans to address this by running lunchtime sessions for small groups. It is also embarking on a Comenius project, which will use email and video-conferencing to bring together students from Bamberg, Exeter, Poland and France. In the meantime, current activities are already bearing fruit.
Disaffected learners are showing more interest in languages, while at the other end of the scale the number of double-linguists has rocketed from six to 60 in three years. Video-conferencing is by no means the only factor, but it has played a key role. "You have to see it in action to appreciate the impact," says Alison. "If you can't go abroad, it is the next best thing."