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Book review: Ça marche! by Maria Harney

When I presented recently at the MFL Alive conference for Irish MFL teachers in Maynooth, it was clear that the main thing on their mind was the introduction of the new Junior Cycle syllabus for MFL, which, crudely speaking, is about introducing a more communicative and inclusive approach to language teaching for secondary students. Along with the new syllabus come a crop of new text books, one of which is the one Maria Harney kindly gave me for this review.

This is where you can find the French syllabus for the Irish Junior Cycle, by the way. You'll see the stress on communication and the needs/interests of children.

The course is called Ça marche! I'm looking at the first year book and its accompanying "portfolio" book and CD. The second book is for years 2 and 3 of the course nad is co-written with Anne Grills. There is also a free e-book to accompany these materials. Hats off to them both for putting all this material together - it’s a mammouth task!

To make sense of Book 1 for you I've decided to focus on one unit to get a flavour of its approach, including its qualities and any possible shortcomings as I see them.

The unit Mon temps libre would be tackled, I would guess, at least a third of the way through the first year of French. The first page (see photo) lays out the "can do" statements. I wonder how good a use of page space this is. I know how constrained writer-teachers are by publishers in terms of how much practice material you can fit into a unit, so to me to take up a whole page with a large photos and a list of unit aims seems to be a waste.

The unit then moves on as follows;

1.  A cultural information video to watch with some questions in English. the sports referred to are the Tour de France and the game of pétanque. I'm afraid I don't know if the video clip is in French or English. In any case I like this initial focus on background culture as a "soft landing" into the topic. I immediately see how this might suit all abilities.

2. A listen and repeat exercise on a few sports in French followed by a "strategies2 style box pointing out how cognates can be used to infer meaning. A short, very simple exercises reinforces the message. I would think this could be supported by some flashcard repetition work or more vocabulary faster pupils.

3. Some semi-authentic infographics on sport with facts and figures for reading comprehension, followed by questions in English. (A pity these could not have been squeezed on to the same page.)

4. A verb paradigm featuring the verb jouer (all persons). Spaces are left for the teacher to work on translations into English for each part of the verb. This is followed bya grammar box on jouer au/à /aux. This is supported by a short gap-fill exercise. To do it pupils need to know the gender of the sports which they can find by looking back two pages.

5. Listening gap-fill requiring the use of single words. This is followed by some questions in English and translation of chunks into French on the same material. I like the inclusion of simple transcription and the reinforcement of the meaning thereafter through the questions.

6. A strategy box on how to be careful to avoid word-to-word translations.

7. A short pair work QA  task, the grid for which could be quickly copied on to paper or mini whiteboard. I'm sure this would need modelling carefully beforehand.

8. Paradigm of the verb faire with verbs and pronouns to complete. using faire + du/de la/des. As with the previous verb jouer this would need supporting with a good deal of other practice, e.g. chanting or singing. The question remains how wise is it to teach whole paradigms in this way. This is followed by a sentence completion exercise where pupils choose du/de la/des. Curiously the partitives are labelled prepositions in the instructions.

9. A listening and copying of vocabulary exercise follows. Words have to be classified as masculine, feminine or plural.

10. An exercise where pupils decide whether to use au/à la/aux or du/de la/des.

11. A very brief reading exercise based on an infographic about participation in sport.

12. A vocab list of places where you can do sports. Pupils then match the sport to the place.

13. A listen and repeat task form the CD.

14. A true/false reading comprehension exercise.

15. A listening task with a grid to complete in English. which sport? When? Where?

16. Paired QA which brings together previously practised material (likes, sports, when and where).

17. A self-evaluation exercise to be done in pairs.

18. A box explaining how depuis is used followed by a short listening exercise on the same.

19. Listening gap-fill of a longer extract (single words, no options given) - so the focus is on accurate transcription here, not meaning. But this is followed by questions in English to focus on meaning.

20. A "portfolio" task - this is the pupil's workbook where they can note vocabulary, prepare and write short written pieces.

Portfolio page

21. Two reading comprehensions, one on a short passage, the other on four tweets (questions in English). pupils then write their own tweet using the models.

22. Listening and repeating some more vocabulary. Then a short listening task with answers in English to insert into a grid.

23. reading with questions in English.

24. Video clip with questions in English.

25. Introduction to regular -ir verbs with a  complete paradigm followed by a strategies box on regular versus irregular verbs. pairs are then invited to explain the rules for -ir verbs. More verbs are then given, with meanings to match up. (A dictionary would be needed for this.) then a verb gap-fill to do.

26. A "group talk" task on likes and dislikes. This is described as a three steep process moving from personal answers, to pairs, then groups.

27. The verb aller is introduced in all parts in a paradigm, followed by work on au/à la. There is a link to a verb rap on YouTube.

28. Work on seasons and weather, combined with sports.

29. A penfriend letter with questions in English.

30.A summary page with vocab listed and can-do recapitulation pages.

Phew! I probably gave you too much detail there!

To make total sense of this book, I would need to know what it is replacing and I'm afraid I haven't seen any older Irish French text books. Overall, what I have read through looks like a unit with all abilities in mind. I like the variety of tasks, clarity of layout, the audio material and the accessibility for less able pupils. I like less the amount of English questioning, focus on single words and verb paradigms with lack of textual context for the verbs. I would be looking for more exploitable reading material. It doesn't feel particularly rigorous to me; perhaps somewhat bitty. I would think some teachers would want to heavily supplement the material with more able groups. For myself, I don't detect very clearly what the "method" is behind the unit and the book, beyond the broadly communicative bias. Like many books it is what you might call weakly communicative with grammar and strategies bolted on. In that sense it's absolutely in the mainstream and similar to course books in the UK.

The portfolio book looks very usable, with "stars and wishes" for pupils to add formative assessment credentials. 

The whole book has eight units: introducing yourself, school, family, home, free time, food and drink, a school day and holidays. There is plenty of material for a year, maybe even too much. There are some verb tables at the back of the book. The book is no doubt well-matched to the Irish Junior Cycle but could also be used in the UK and ought to be on your list of possible purchases.

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