Like travel - but without the hassle

Even pupils who normally opt out of everything are drawn into videoconferencing

If you thought 11 was a little young to embark on videoconferencing in the target language, pay a visit to Montgomery Combined School in Exeter.

Every day since October, pairs of pupils from Year 7 have been quizzing children from the Ecole Sanquer in Brest. Conferences take place during the lunch hour, and yet there is no shortage of volunteers.

Modern languages co-ordinator Trina Ferguson says: "We thought their linguistic level might create problems, but that has not happened. In the early days more French was spoken than English because our pupils start in Year 4, albeit in a limited way. The Sanquer children are two years younger and total beginners but they have more hours per week and are rapidly catching up."

To achieve maximum pupil involvement with minimum teacher preparation, the chosen theme has been personal identification, a topic covered in both schools at the start of the year.

Two people take part each time with a teacher on hand to translate additional questions that may arise. "They are curious about all sorts of different things," says Trina Ferguson. "What they have just had for lunch, why they are not wearing uniform. Debate often continues long after the link is over."

As pupils progress to their fourth, fifth or even sixth conference, their confidence grows and she is now coaxing more reticent individuals to desert the football pitch and have a go.

She has been astounded by the response, citing as an example two particularly diffident boys. "They really did not want to get involved, but after their first conference they were desperate to do another," she says. "I couldn't believe it. These are boys who avoid eye contact in class and never join in anything. Now they are buzzing."

Besides the daily conversations, the schools have organised several whole-class activities. On one occasion they got together to sing songs in both languages, which proved a highly enjoyable way of extending the children's vocabulary and perfecting their pronunciation.

On another they prepared videotapes of their respective establishments, which were shown through the video link followed by a question and answer session. They have also taken part in each other's lessons, with the observing class serving as a role model for pronunciation and sentence structure. The children discovered that learning a foreign language presents the same challenges whatever your nationality and it was illuminating for their teachers too.

"It was very interesting to see the audio, visual and kinaesthetic methods being used in the English classroom. We are not used to so much moving about," said headteacher Philippe le Bian in his report.

Last week, participants met each other in the flesh for the first time when pupils from Brittany spent a day at Montgomery as part of a study trip to Devon. Trina Ferguson was delighted by how well the two groups collaborated on the various activities and team games she had prepared. This means that future conferences will require a new focus, as questions about name, age and pets have lost their relevance. She and Philippe le Bian have already decided on daily weather reports and other plans are in the offing.

In the meantime she is revelling in the children's new-found enthusiasm for French. "The effect has been greater than I would ever have predicted. The most unlikely characters are sparkling," she says.

She is equally pleased by the opportunities it affords to those who, for a variety of reasons, miss out on French trips. "Conferencing gives them that authentic experience. It also works wonders for people who lack the courage to talk when you take them abroad. They feel less inhibited in the familiar surroundings of their own classroom."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you