Ditch boring old textbooks and bring languages to life

29th January 2016 at 00:00
Children aren’t happy just learning the days of the week – give them the vocabulary for topics that excite them

A wave of terror ran over me. I was sitting with my PGCE mentor and they handed me a well-thumbed copy of a modern foreign languages textbook that I had used 10 years earlier in my secondary education. Surely this was a joke, like when we’d laughed at a crudely graffitied copy of Tricolore.

It wasn’t a joke. I was expected to use it with future classes. Textbooks can never win at fun and relevance. Students will always think the inhabitants of Lille have a penchant for double-denim and turtle-necks (which they might, but it’s 2015, so I doubt it). But the bigger issue is that textbooks aren’t engaging.

A recent key stage 3 textbook has a section called “What do you do when it’s raining?” – I guarantee the answer isn’t to sit inside and practice a rap about days of the week.

Our persistent use of textbooks means that MFL is in danger of becoming an irrelevant subject. Terms taught about daily routine or healthy eating are alienating pupils who will engage in any number of exciting academic subjects, none of which rely on textbooks.

There is another way. Teach the language through a theme. We know that students remember and learn from the situations that are engaging and relevant to them.

Bed sheets and broomsticks

If we want to develop the linguists of the future, we need to lure them in with content that is controversial ridiculous or cutting-edge. It’s not enough to make a rap about the rooms in your house. In our department, we look at what we need to cover and jump towards the most exciting ideas possible. We’ve had six-week modules on gaming, music and fairy tales; we even ran a television-style murder mystery.

The rigour is there – all learning falls from the GCSE, through the theme, into lessons. Year 7 were pretty adept at the imperfect tense once we had completed our term on fairy tales. Students were over-the-moon to describe a monster eating a prince through accurate language they had acquired over the module. My highlight came at the end of our Year 8 human rights module, when students stood up and debated the death penalty dressed in barrister gowns (bed sheets).

The students loved it; it was ridiculous, but they wanted to argue their point, they wanted to shout “objeción!” to counter opponents’ arguments. The most unforeseen aspect was the fact that they wanted to use the “added-learning” (added information) that they had gathered to make their points.

It was fantastic to watch students, some of whom hated Spanish before, rushing to argue in a foreign language. Would I have got similar enthusiasm with a textbook? I think we all know the answer.

How to ditch textbooks

Consider the end point: look at the new GCSE specification. What are students expected to learn? Extract the key skills and structures that are relevant.

Create the theme: how can you make this content engaging for a 13-year-old? Find a theme that will encourage students to communicate in another language. Will they walk away from the lesson thinking, “I can’t wait to go back”? If you don’t think they will, keep searching for that theme.

Is it rigorous? There’s no point in doing this if it’s not going to challenge them. Do the terms taught allow them to develop their own thoughts and opinions in the language? Will they fully grasp what they need to learn? This approach needs a captivating theme, but it also needs the learning goals.

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