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Cours Illustré de Français

I thought I would blog about one or two of the French course books I have known over the years. Mark Gilbert's Cours Illustré de Français would look very dated now, but when it came out in 1966 (the last in the series, book 5 was published, I believe in 1973) it was rather revolutionary. This was also the time of the early audio-visual courses for slide projector and reel-to-reel tape recorder, but Gilbert's book was rooted firmly in the London University tradition of oral work through question and answer - LOTS of it. Oral and written. It was a method pioneered by Sweet, Prendergast and Gouin, a sort of controlled direct method.

Cours Illustré was the ultimate death by QA book. It was illustrated with pictures by Celia Weber, some of which were for decoration, some which could be used for questioning. It was all in glorious black and white and took a number of characters as the basis for its descriptions and stories. They did stories then!

Comedian Eddie Izzard made the book notorious with his stand-up routine about school French and Nikki the monkey (search youtube - you'll laugh). The other main characters were members of the Lavisse family. Having a family in the couse book was de rigueur in those days because it served some very useful teaching purposes. (I even wrote an essay on this topic years ago during my PGCE course at the West London Institute - part of London University.)

I reckon we would do well to return to using families in course books - never mind about politico-social sensitivities.

Anyway, each chapter of the book would feature a description or a short story and was followed with lists of questions to be exploited orally and on paper. The book was the apotheosis of this method of teaching a language: scrupulous selection and grading of language, an oral approach with little use of English, lots of whole class oral question and answer, grammar taught through repeated drilling and practice rather than by explanation in English but in a meaningful way.

As a method it had its limitations, but it worked well for pupils who could concentrate at length and induce grammar rules for themselves. I used the course from 1968 through to O level in 1973 and my memory is that the early books were the best. I recall the book still being used in my first teaching practice school, Beverley Boys, in 1980.

Amazingly I see that you can still get copies of it quite easily from used book shops on the internet. I may even be tempted to buy one!


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"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

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