Anyone who has ever taught French to beginners has told them that ca va? means "how are you?". Unfortunately this is more of a hindrance than a help, since the French idiom does not contain the words for "how", "are" or "you".
However, teaching a beginner that ca va? - or even better, comment ca va? - translates literally as "how is it going?" helps them understand why the phrase means what it does, and equips them with key language they can draw on in the future.
Once we are thinking effectively about how to make key language stick, it would be nice to relax. However, Homer Simpson's observation that "every time I learn something new it pushes some old stuff out of my brain" rings painfully true for many pupils. On the positive side, everything is teachable. The hard bit is to break everything up into small enough parts to help learners progress from one stage to the next.
The findings of two recent publications from the Centre for Information on Language Teaching confirm that many students have a poor grasp of key language structures.
In 'Modern Foreign Languages Inspected', HMI Alan Dobson analysed the findings of more than 500 secondary inspections. While inspectors recorded plenty of evidence of very good practice, they found that even after several years' learning, many pupils have too weak a grasp of key structures to be able to create even very simple language of their own. And they are not being taught to use the target language as the main language of communication in class.
'The Invisible Child', a report edited by Jeff Lee, David Buckland and Glenis Shaw, studied pupils in Barking and Dagenham in London who were "invisible" in the sense that they worked conscientiously, achieved average results, behaved satisfactorily and therefore did not draw attention to themselves.
The report found that, despite being willing learners, these pupils were very unclear about what constituted progress in modern languages. They were equally unclear about the linguistic aims of most lessons, and most had a poor grasp of key language structures.
Progress is most easily measured by reference to the national curriculum levels of attainment. The proposed revisions for modern languages recognise the importance of raising attainment by breaking up language into manageable parts.
They revise the expectations for the majority of pupils at the end of key stage 3 upwards from levels 45 to levels 56, bringing languages into line with other national curriculum subjects.
The prospect seems daunting, but a closer inspection reveals that overall achievement at level 6 effectively equates to overall achievement at the existing level 5. And whereas learners must currently make a huge leap from levels 4 to 5 by moving from working in one tense to at least three, progress would be more gradual under the new proposals. Learners would have to understand and refer to recent experience or future plans at level 5 - in other words, work in two tenses including the present. The proposed level 6 includes past, present and future actions and events.
Coursebooks will help us raise achievement in line with national curriculum expectations, but we must be wary of over-reliance on books. In order to fit a whole year's work into 100 pages or so, most books inevitably concentrate on presenting phrases or nouns at the expense of reinforcing the key structures which give phrases their meaning. Yet effective teaching demands that we regularly create opportunities for learners to practise and retain new language.
Teenagers are willing to put in the many hours of practice it takes to reach high levels on computer games or inline-skating with great skill. But most will not invest time in language learning, so we must select the important language on their behalf, and reinforce it continuously. More than ever, the key to success lies in our ability to recycle core language in different contexts, while constantly checking progress.
Anne Looney of Reading University, who is also an OFSTED inspector, has exposed the huge numbers of what she calls "filing cabinet assessments" in modern languages: assessments we set, mark, then file away before moving straight on to the next unit of work. What we should do is review pupils' progress to determine how their answers should inform our teaching.
In my department, we encourage Year 7 to use parce que when expressing opinions about school subjects: J'aime le francais parce que c'est super. But this year, hardly any pupils included parce que in their speaking assessments, so we introduced a special "mini-topic" of likes and dislikes in TV programmes. J'aime East-Enders parce que c'est super - the extra practice in using the same core language in a new context developed their confidence and helped them retain it. Careful selection of additional resources which repeat the same core language in different contexts - videos, songs, poems and games, for instance - also helps that language to stick.
The problem of huge gaps in basic language is widespread, as I was reminded recently. A prominent languages adviser told me that his 13-year-old son (who attends a school with few discipline problems) looked up from his homework and asked: "How do you say 'I' in French?" I took a quiet pride at this, as our department has worked hard at reinforcing key structures. I recounted the story to my third set Year 8 class, to emphasise how they were ahead of their peers in other schools. And their translation of "I"? A pupil with a statement of special educational needs piped up je without batting an eyelid. But I didn't feel quite so smug when the most articulate pupil offered moi.
We can never take for granted our pupils' mastery of even the most basic language: only constant checks and reinforcement will see them through.
Tony Elston is head of French atStretford High School. Manchester. He has just published a collection of learner reference sheets to help focus on key structures, 'Aide-memoire'. For information, telfax: 0161 374 9541