Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Review of Studio for Key Stage 3 French

This is the third of my blogs looking at popular KS3 courses for French in England and Wales. Many departments will be looking at their courses this summer as the new curriculum takes hold, with its slightly greater emphasis on grammar, literary texts, translation and "spontaneous" talk.

Studio, by Anneli McLachlan and Clive Bell, has been around for about five years, but has been updated to take account of these changes. I never used this course but have heard positive comments about the package, which includes the online interactive Active Learn and front-of-class teacher's resources (formerly known as Active Teach). I thought I would take a close look at the online evaluation site which is here.

The first thing which strikes me about the pupil books is their bright and very clear layout. Visuals are a little bolder, more flashy than the rivals' and the whole effect is superficially more impressive. Exercise instructions are explanations are more informal, more "child friendly" than usual; this may be a good thing on balance. But you always need to see behind flashy exteriors, of course, so what's beneath the eye candy in this case?

Firstly, the course is aimed at all abilities. Complete beginners may start with Accès Studio, whilst those with some foundations from primary school could start with Studio 1. In both Y8 and Y9 there are two books, vert and rouge, the second more demanding than the first. The material is similar across both versions of the pupil book, with variations in exercise difficulty. For some teachers this may seem an advantage compared with a competitor book like Allez from O.U.P.

In practice teachers may find it hard to choose between Accès Studio and Studio 1 in Y7, since it is so hard to know with any certainty how well any previously learned skills are embedded. From the evaluation materials available, Module 1 of Studio 1 seems to introduce too much for my taste, getting almost straight into adjective agreement (feminine and plural), use of être, possessive adjectives mon/ma/mes and ton/ta/tes, il and elle and -er verbs. I taught many bright children with some primary French and I would not have chosen to start a course in that way.

On the other hand, the Accès Studio book, in 13 short units seems to go about a third of the way a traditional Y7 course would. That is to say, grammar covered includes simple adjectives, être, mon/ma/mes, plurals and articles. Topics include weather, nationalities, food and drink, animals, hobbies, the classroom - usual fare. This would be too lightweight for able pupils starting from scratch in Y7.

If I were looking at a Y7 course at the current time (and probably for some time to come) I would find this a dilemma. It might even put me off the package completely. I would love any users of the course to comment on this - to tell me if this is an issue in practice. I understand why Pearson adopted this approach, but it seems to make some pretty huge assumptions about what children may learn at primary school. If you skip Accès Studio you may have concerns about the lack of careful selection and grading of language - for me this is one measure of a well conceived course book.

Returning to the standard Y7 book, there are six modules (I like the way the course uses French nomenclature and exercise instructions to a large extent). They are called C'est perso, Mon collège, Mes passe-temps, Ma zone (town), Partez! (holidays) and a module entitles Studio Découverte with some extra activities based on the first three units. These are conventional topics. The writers have not gone very far in the CLIL direction, which some teachers (a minority, I suspect) may regret. There is a glossary, a dictionary skills page and verb tables at the back of the book which comes in at 131 pages. (For comparison Allez has 171 more densely packed pages and Tricolore has 175. Does this mean you get more target language input and practice for your buck with other courses? Is too much space wasted with pictures? Hard to be sure, especially when you bear in mind one of the strengths of this course, its online package which is more convincing than the ones from O.U.P.

Let's have a look at the nitty-gritty of Module 1 from the Y7 book.

The first two pages have some big text in English and six pictures with broad cultural references. I find this a waste of space. If the teacher wants to talk about French life that's fine, but I don't think you need two pages of your expensive text book as a stimulus.

The next page features a matching task for listening (OK), some copying into a grid (not so keen) and a simple pair work task on likes and dislikes (OK). Then there's more listening (OK), simple pair work (OK), simple reading (matching to English statements - brief, OK), then a writing exercise to reinforce the previous listening, speaking and reading. Barack Obama features as a celebrity - not sure about the shelf life there.

The subsequent exercises, about a survival kit, follow a similar pattern of listening, pair work, writing, plus some dictionary work. You get the idea. It's sound enough, logically ordered, rather like a good lesson plan. You would rattle through it quickly and naturally. It's all supported by material in the front-of-class teaching resources and Active Learn packages.  I have the feeling that this material is the work of teachers who know how to keep pupils on their toes with a variety of activities. Lessons with this book would involve bags of pair work (good), but teachers would have to be wary of just going through the exercises in a mechanical way. The unit ends with a summary (good), revision tasks (good), extra reading, writing and speaking (all good), grammar (OK, but maybe short on practice examples), vocabulary lists (good) and a Stratégie box on how to learn vocabulary (good).

The exercises are interspersed with very concise grammar explanations, phonics points and occasional glossing of vocabulary. I'll leave readers to have a look at the material in the Y8 and Y9 tiered books. I have to assume that "literary" texts are covered, as well as translation. Assessment packs are available in the online package. These take the form of printable and editable Word documents.

I must say something about the Active Learn and "front of class" packages, since these are integral. Have a look for yourself. They include an online textbook, worksheets, presentations, vocab lists, audio, video and tools with which you can customise pages. The video from Module 1 is a bit low definition, but with clear audio, if too fast at times for near beginners. To me it did not look particularly usable. I took a look at some IWB drag and drop material which was clear and simple. Teachers can access pages which display answers from pupil book exercises. There is lots more. I would say that teachers who are uncomfortable with tech may need some practice before they get used to the range of possibilities.

As for the Active Learn package, students can access a good range of interactive tasks - listening, reading and grammar. Exercise types include typing in answers, drag and drop, matching, true/false and multi-choice with drop down windows. There are useful pdf "learning aids" if pupils get stuck. Exercises look short, though. I'd like to see more examples, especially with the grammar tasks. This is also the case with other interactive packages such as O.U.P's Kerboodle. I can imagine getting pupils to work through sets of these tasks in a computer room on their tablets with headphones.

Could you do without these online resources? My impression is you could, as long as you had a good stock of your own resources for presentation and practice. It would make more sense to buy into the whole package.

I could go into much more detail, but I would suggest you have a look yourself.

Would I have chosen this course for KS3? Maybe. I did wonder if it would suit the ablest pupils, but a glance at the Book 3 (rouge) sample suggests a high enough level of challenge. I am more concerned by the roughly tuned selection and grading of language, how you would make the choice of books for Y7 and the slightly bitty nature of each unit. There is plenty of good quality target language input, lively enough content, but I would prefer more practice examples in the book and online.

I am in admiration of the tremendous amount of work that goes into a course like this and I am sure many schools are very happy with it.

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