We must bring languages to life

31st October 2003 at 00:00
The languages curriculum in schools is at a turning point. Fuelled by a crisis stemming from poor results, disaffected pupils, lack of qualified teachers, inspectors' criticism of lessons and an irrelevant curriculum the first response of many schools is to simply breathe a sigh of relief at the fact that they don't have to do them any more at key stage 4.

Nationally only around 75 per cent of 16-year-olds take a modern language GCSE even now when a language is compulsory at this age. Of that 75 per cent only 58 per cent gain a grade C or above.

Over the past few years language teachers have been somewhat cushioned by the fact that the subject they teach is compulsory. We have been able to swallow the fact that most of our students probably won't buy a baguette or write a letter to a French campsite in the near, if any, future.

That safety cushion has now been taken away - students can, and will vote with their feet. They will now be able to do "relevant" things such as learn how to make phone calls to businesses in other countries.

But actually, to your average 14-year-old, it is no more relevant to pretend to book a French train ticket than it is to pretend to call to a company in Calais. Students are not stupid: they know what is real and what isn't and we patronise them by thinking that by simply calling a subject "vocational" we can convince them that we are anywhere else but in a classroom in middle England.

Languages teachers already offer a skill that is directly relevant to the world of work - we do not need artificial "vocational" content. We need to take as our starting point where kids are now - not where we think they might be in 10 or 15 years time.

So at this school we build lessons around what students want to talk about.

We use drama, games, songs and jokes to embed language. We invent stories from a series of random objects and create characters for soap operas.

Students are enthusiastic and keen to learn. They seize every opportunity to practise language in real situations with kids their own age in France and Germany.

When will the powers that be listen, not only to language teachers, but to the students themselves?

Karen Lamming Head of modern languages William Farr Church of England comprehensive school Lincoln Road Welton Lincolnshire

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