Monday, 16 March 2015

Tricolore - 5th edition review



Textbooks have come under fire from many quarters, whilst traditionalists implore schools to use them more. My view is that the argument is poorly framed. Textbooks are good when they are good and language teachers can save themselves a lot of time using them. Of course, Tricolore was always more than just a text book...

Full disclosure: I taught using the Tricolore course from 1988 up to 2012. I saw it gradually metamorphose from Tricolore, into Encore Tricolore, Encore Tricolore (Nouvelle Edition), then latterly Tricolore Total. Suffice it to say that I know the previous courses intimately which make my review well-informed, if somewhat biased. This latest fifth edition is just called Tricolore (5e édition) and has been published to accompany the latest version of the National Curriculum.

The fact that the Tricolore brand has survived so long and thrives in grammar schools, independents and upper sets of all ability schools, says something about its suitability for the market it explicitly targets: "higher ability" pupils.

So what's the latest Tricolore like? Well, very much like the previous version. Think of it as a facelift, rather than a new model. In fact, my impression of the Y7 book Oxford (which swallowed up Nelson-Thornes) sent me is that this is the most subtle of revisions yet, at least as far as the pupil book is concerned.

The Tricolore approach is to build a course around grammar and topics, with a greater than average emphasis on the grammar bit. Grammar is carefully selected and graded in a way we have seen for years, vocabulary limited to higher frequency words, revision built in across the units. There are bags of opportunities to practise structures.  The Y7 book follows a very typical sequence of topics: introductions, the classroom, where you live, home and family, pets, holidays and festivals, leisure, town, school, food and sport. Weather and time make their customary appearance. The structure of each unit is clear, pages quite densely packed (though more clearly laid out and organised than the oldest versions). Because the course has been around for so long, the publishers have been able to respond to detailed teacher feedback over issues such as unnumbered exercises, cluttered and confusing layouts.

Each unit features a fair amount of reading material, vocabulary lists, clear illustrations, grammar explanation boxes and one new element, boxes highlighting points of French phonology. Target language is used nearly all the time, with a small number of comprehension questions in English (which, to some degree, tick the translation box). There are revision sections to recapitulate work from previous sections. My experience was that these were only needed with some groups, but they do offer more extra practice.

Thankfully, the book has avoided taking on board too seriously the DfE's desire for more translation and use of "literary texts". However, there are, within the Stratégies boxes tips on translating from French with short "find the French tasks", not fully-fledged translation. Perhaps we'll see more translation in future books, including into French, in the books to come. The Stratégies boxes also feature encouragement on how to develop writing skills.

There is little sign of literary texts, unless you include the Tom et Jojo cartoon (carried over from the original book in the 1980s) and Mangetout the cat. These, by the way, are popular with pupils and lend themselves to useful intensive question-answer practice. Page 28 features a "poem" for listening to and reading aloud. Page 77 has a song called La Chanson des saisons. The words lip and service spring to mind.

Cultural information is featured well enough, for example in the sections on holidays and festivals. La Rochelle remains the featured town, giving it greater importance to generations of British pupils than a town of its size may merit (beautiful and interesting though it is!). There are readings devoted to religious festivals, Astérix, healthy eating, French icons, francophonie 

One aspect I like about the pupil books is that they are very usable in lessons. Texts can be easily exploited for rigorous repetition, drilling and question-answer. The vocabulary lists are just right for test learning, if you like that sort of thing. Grammar explanation boxes labelled Dossier Langue are clear and there are plenty of exercises, including those in the Au Choix section at the back of the book to provide extension work if required. Crucially, nearly all exercises are worthwhile and contain a good number of practice examples to embed knowledge.

There is also a nod to the trend for stressing phonics with regular Phonétique boxes focusing on particular sounds and letter combinations.

The back of the book has traditional grammar summaries and a comprehensive alphabetical French-English vocabulary list.

The Tricolore course is accompanied by clear recordings, teacher's book, transcripts, model answers for teachers, grammar workbooks for students (worth investing in - pupils like them and they are great for homework and cover lessons).

In addition to the more traditional resources in the package, there is the "next generation" Kerboodle online resource. The Kerboodle package includes interactive and printable resources, online assessment, support and lesson ideas and online versions of the Student Book. There are mini-readers with podcasts, record and playback, editable worksheets, grammar presentations, a bank of starters and plenaries, interactive phonics activities and more. It all works on tablets, of course. If you want access to unit assessments and repromasters you will need to buy into Kerboodle.

There are two purchase options (both requiring an annual licence), the first with teacher access to the student online book, the second (more costly) allowing students to access the online book. Could you get away with buying the online book and not the printed one? I would not. I would probably avoid the online book to save money for other things provided you can afford to give every students a book to take home. (Hint: make sure they are well backed and they can last five years or more. Could you persuade your supplier to throw in some free plastic covers??)

For an online kerboodle evaluation:

http://www.oxfordsecondary.co.uk/tricolorekerboodle

I confess that when our department reviewed the Kerboodle package back in 2011-12 we were not overwhelmed and chose not to invest - mainly because we had access to printable unit tests and repromasters.  Looking at the latest offer I am still left slightly underwhelmed. The interactive grammar is done better by Languages Online for free, whilst the interactive assessment material in the evaluation package seems a bit, well, dull - maybe the amount of publisher investment available means it has to be this way. Still, if you have to buy into Kerboodle I am sure teachers will find it useful for the ICT room, tablet or homework.

Though not the last word in creativity and excitement, Tricolore is a course free from gimmickry, with a good shelf life and one which pupils can use a lot and depend on. We have yet to see how later books in the series work out. My guess is that Book 2 will be a gradual evolution and Book 3 something rather different - the tricky Y9 book has always been a tough one to get right. Tricolore is challenging, easy to use and prepares students well for the long haul. The publishers have probably done enough to tick the literary texts, transcription of sounds and translation boxes at this stage, whilst the course was already strong on grammar and writing. It is, as they say, tried and tested. It is a complete package which writes your scheme of work for you. Critics will say the content is predictable, too focused on form and of little intrinsic interest to young people. Fans will say it provides lots of meaningful target language exposure along with structured learning. I think it places language development at front and centre. If you teach students of above average ability it should be at the top of your list for evaluation.

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