How can you promote language learning and encourage gifted and talented linguists to continue with languages after GCSE? Ruth Wilkes and Geoff Roberts describe a series of popular events they organise annually to promote the learning of French and German

A year ago we asked ourselves some key questions in the Buckinghamshire modern languages team:

  • What can we do to promote language learning and encourage some of our more able linguists to continue after GCSE?
  • How can we attract larger number of teachers to our training events on such issues as differentiation and thinking skills, as well as challenge for the more able?
  • How can we make wider use of our foreign language assistants and encourage more collaborative working among them?

We came up with what has proved to be a very popular and successful series of events that provide some of the answers we were looking for. Each April and May we now organise a series of Able, Gifted and Talented Days for French and German. The principles of the day are challenge, engagement and enjoyment (see below). All students should end the day feeling they have had the opportunity to speak and to learn some new French or German, as well as having taken part in some exciting activities. 

The first of the events for French took place in 2005 and attracted around 70 Year 10 students from 34 secondary schools. French is the most commonly taught modern foreign language (MFL). We sent a separate letter of invitation to our 13 grammar schools and to our non-grammar schools. 

In 2006 we included German and expanded to two French days. In total there were a further 120 students who took part in the second year. For the German Able, Gifted and Talented Day, we sent the same invitation to all 34 schools, thus having a mixture of pupils – but all still categorised by their school as A, G&T. Forty-six pupils from eight schools responded. The numbers in French were slightly less, perhaps because the event was spread over two days.

The A, G&T Days take place during school hours at our main Buckinghamshire training centre, Green Park at Aston Clinton: pupils are released all day, on a Friday, with an accompanying teacher.

We ask each school to fund students via their A, G&T funding. The cost is approximately £25 per student, including venue, lunch, honorarium for foreign language assistants and so on.

Each school is invited to select around five students who would most benefit from the day. The days begin with an introductory session and quiz based on the CILT (Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research) materials Languages Work (£30, available from CILT).

These are followed by practical workshops using topics such as making and playing boardgames, language awareness though game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, use of video in class and so on. These take place in small groups, delivered by native speakers – the foreign language assistants who have been recruited for some additional hours and briefed beforehand in a short training session – plus a motivational plenary with a guest speaker. We have, so far, had speakers from Oxford Brookes University, the Goethe Institute, the University of Cambridge and the EU Parliament’s UK office. 

A key feature of the days is that all interaction during coffee and lunch breaks takes place in the target language, with students trying to be ‘overheard’ making a good contribution so that they can gain staff signatures towards a gold certificate: gold, silver and bronze were given to students depending on the number of interesting contributions each made. The certificate is a motivational tool to get students to speak during the day: this worked very well, and certificates were prized. Even students who begin the day with a certain shyness seem to be motivated by this and all engage in genuine conversation supported by teachers and assistants. 

Meanwhile, what of the accompanying teachers? While their students are off working with the assistants, we have a captive and very willing audience of teachers who enjoy having the opportunity to engage in discussion and training on some ideas for increasing engagement and challenge in the classroom. These sessions focus on the practical, and teachers are encouraged to bring their own ideas to the discussion.

These workshops produce many practical ideas, particularly relating to the use of thinking skills and in languages, such as creating odd-one-out activities, living graphs and mysteries. Other practical ideas include: using jokes, songs and superstitions, translating pub signs, logic puzzles to help with application of grammar and frequently-used words; activities that have a point and enjoyment built in (aside from the language learned or practised to increase pupil challenge and engagement).

We have found the atmosphere at these sessions to be more relaxed and positive than on traditional Inset training courses.

We work on the principle that what is good for able learners is good for all learners.  

And finally…

The days are extremely positive for all involved and there is a plan to expand to Spanish next year and perhaps even to consider a similar event for Key Stage 2. We would be happy to provide further details and copies of the documentation we use to set up and deliver the days.

Principles behind the able, gifted and talented days

The principles of the days are challenge, inclusion, engagement and enjoyment and the aims, as outlined to schools, are to:

  • motivate and encourage students to aim high as they prepare for their GCSE examination
  • raise awareness of the value of language learning post-16
  • examine opportunities for using languages at work.