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Tricks of the trade

Sue Finnie and Daniele Bourdais offer tips for teachers who are planning to invest in new key stage 3 resources

How do you choose a new course for key stage 3? The variety of attractive coursebooks available can make the selection process tricky for even the most experienced teacher. You have probably already done an audit of the specific needs of pupils and staff in your school but whatever you expect of a course, you will find most KS3 courses claim they can deliver. How do you put their claims to the test?

Above all, you need motivating materials that will be fun for pupils and staff. A new course is a commitment and a considerable financial investment which, if suited to your needs, will pay dividends. Michelle Quick of Mill Vale school in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, says of a recently adopted course:

"It has significantly raised educational achievement by making French enjoyable. Pupils now look forward to French lessons and they have enthusiasm, which makes all the difference."

Here is a checklist:

* Reviews can be a useful starting point, but remember they are one person's view and your situation may be different.

* Ask colleagues in nearby schools what they think of the courses they use.

* Study the publishers' catalogues and select your two favourite courses. Ask for inspection copies andor trialling sets so that you can compare them.

* Get in touch with publishers to find out what support they offer. Sales representatives may be able to visit your school to present the course and answer your queries or put you in touch with schools already using the course so that you can get a warts-and-all view of strengths and weaknesses. Some publishers offer information technology support, user conferences, training and discounts.

* Canvas pupils' opinions of inspection copies - they are the target audience.

The next step is to assess each course systematically: Visual impact: is the coursebook is attractive? Are illustrations and texts varied in style? Are they culturally accessible? Are they fun and motivating at the same time as being relevant to pupils' age and ability levels?

Structure: are the number and length of units suited to your needs? Are there appropriate reference sections, such as a glossary and a grammar summary?

Language: is the vocabulary suitable? Are there enough activities to practise and recycle language? How are pronunciation and intonation practised? Is grammar introduced and drilled in isolation or deduced from observation an practised in context? Take an area of vocabulary such as clothes or transport, for example. How many words and expressions are included? See how the language for this area is developed. Are listening, speaking, reading and writing activities suggested? (Consult the teacher's guide as well as the pupils' book to get a fuller picture.) Social and cultural content: is it suited to the age, interests and needs of your learners and does it reflect a multi-ethnic society without stereotyping? Look at the illustrations on a few pages, ignoring the text. Can you tell in which country the course is set? Is there relevant cultural information in the illustrations? Do you get a feel for the place?

Methodology: is it communicative, interactive and learner centred? Are learning and study skills and strategies actively practised? Are objectives clearly stated and achievable? Is there evidence of progression?

Take an area you have had difficulty teaching and work through the section which claims to cover it. Do the activities build on one another? Do they lead to the claimed objective? Do they cover all four skills in a sensible order? Is the objective achievable given the vocabularygrammar at the pupil's disposal? Is the item consolidated later in the course?

Nature of the tasks: consider the balance between language acquisition and communication and between teacher-led and individual work, pair and group work. Are all skills practised? Are there opportunities for learner interaction and for students to work independently? Is there effective differentiation? Are the tasks achievable, relevant to real life and fun to do? Do they have a clear purpose? Look at various listening tasks. Do they simply test comprehension or are they more imaginative?

Assessment: how often are pupils assessed? Are all four skills assessed? Is there a suggested mark scheme? How user-friendly is the book for reference, revision and remedial help? Is there cross-referencing to grammar sections, vocabulary boxes and learning strategy sections to help pupils revise?

Other components: is there high quality and plentiful listening material? Is the teacher's guide helpful? Does it provide a scheme of work? Is there attractive visual material for presenting and practising language? What infomation technology provision is there?

Sue Finnie and Daniele Bourdais are authors of the KS3KS4 French course Equipe (Oxford University Press) and the course for special needs and low-ability pupils, OK! (Stanley Thornes)

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