Thursday, 28 March 2013

Languages Online - visite guidée

Languages Online has long been my favourite interactive website for modern language practice. It's excellent and free, authored by teachers at Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, England.

Andrew Balaam, its creator, writes:
"Languages Online is inspired by our love of producing interactive resources to use with our own pupils. Their positive response has led the whole project. All resources provided on the site were thus initially designed for use by our own classes.
Our aim is to provide an interactive format through which pupils can practise the language we are teaching them in a variety of exercise styles. Many units come with explanations, but it is assumed that pupils should have been taught the material covered prior to attempting a unit. We use our work as reinforcement and consolidation to our teaching. In addition, units are available for pupils to use in their own time."

The site makes extensive use of Hot Potato software and focuses primarily on building up reading and grammatical skill. It is fair to say that, given the exercises were written for grammar school pupils, the difficulty level of many exercises is such that it may not suit the less able learner. Resources are for beginners right up to advanced level. French, German, Spanish, Italian and Latin all feature, but I shall focus on the French resources.

The home page for French points you to primary resources, exercises which match the first two years of the Tricolore series books (Encore Tricolore matches perfectly, Tricolore Total very well), Tricolore Total 4, grammar, vocabulary, topics, AS level (upper intermediate/advanced), A2 (advanced) and crosswords/quizzes.

Most of the exercises use the Hotpot suite of six exercises types, are colourfully and sometimes amusingly presented. Children enjoy the pop-up animals, visuals are clear and colourful, the Comic Sans font is approachable, material accurate and well chosen. The site has also made growing use of Spellmaster and Quizlet software for games, though, as a teacher, I find these less satisfying in their focus on individual items of vocabulary rather than syntax and reading at the sentence and paragraph level.

The strongest sections are the primary one and those which closely follow the first two years of the Encore Tricolore course. Each exercise builds on the last and tends to increase in difficulty. Great skill was employed in the selecting and grading of material. The Hotpot software gives children limited feedback and a percentage score for each page, which some children find motivating. Teachers using other courses should still find these units very useful, especially when easily definable areas are involved, for example topics like weather,. time, clothes, food and grammar such as verb tenses.

The grammar section is quite extensive, covering the main tenses effectively and with plenty of practice examples (something often lacking on other sites). Adjectives and negatives are also covered, but nothing else. At the start of each sequence of exercises there is a grammatical explanation, so pupils should be advised to keep two tabs open so they can quickly refer to verb conjugations and the like. Once again, I would stress the fact that the grading of tasks is spot-on and range of examples extensive. Of note is the fact that accents are easily inserted using a link at the bottom of each page. The exercises allow for no error, but you can take advantage of clues.

The vocabulary and topic units are a pot pourri of material, the best, in my view, being the Y7 and Y8 revision exercises. The World Cup 2010 is now out of date but is still usable.

Within the advanced level sections, I would pick out the excellent range of challenging faits divers with their comprehension exercises and the grammar section on the subjunctive. Colleague teaching Les petits enfants du siècle by Christiane Rochefort will enjoy the quizzes and exercises based upon it.

Users of Taskmagic will also find a section of interactive games. In addition there is a separate page of games for each language. When you choose a game you have to remember to click on the Spellmaster game type at the top the page: jigsaw, pairs, speedword and wordweb. I often let pupils have a go at these towards the end of a lesson in the computer room if they had finished the "serious stuff".

One aspect of the site I appreciate is that the writers are well aware that the Hot Potato exercises do tend to focus on form rather than meaning and indeed many of the gap fill sentences (typically verb manipulation) can be done without understanding the meaning of the whole sentence, BUT many of the exercises have been designed to force students to work out meanings as well (e.g. not only getting a conjugation right, but choosing the right verb in the first place.)

I cannot stress enough what a good site this is, and all freely shared by staff in a high school who have put countless hours of work into it. How can it be free? It is part of the school's ethos as specialist modern languages school to share with other school, there may be ownership issues, but it is also fair to say that use of Hot Potatoes inhibits commercial use.

iPad users should be aware that not quite all Hot Potatoes exercises run properly (those involving sliding words into place do not work), so check it out first. As there is now no technical support for Hot Potatoes 6 this cannot be fixed. As the large majority do work fine, do not let this put you off.

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