Wisbech school pupils are doing it by the book

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A textbook example of a fresh approach to language learning is being pioneered by a native French speaker at Wisbech Grammar School.

Swiss-born Mrs Noemie Neighbour, who is head of French at the school, has produced a new textbook for her year nine pupils to use – and other schools are now starting to order the book.

Mrs Neighbour attended a series of Content and Language Integrated Learning twilight sessions at Comberton Village College near Cambridge and the message was that students learn better if there is real content in the language they are trying to access.

The idea was to talk to youngsters about a concept drawn from science or history – or even just chocolate – and by focusing on the message they would find the language beginning to seep in.

During the course, Mrs Neighbour put two and two together when she remembered a school friend – who lived in a French speaking area of Switzerland where they both grew up – attending geography lessons conducted in German, and the idea of a fresh take on learning French was born.

She sounded out teachers of other subjects – including history, art, food and nutrition, biology and geography – and agreed a joint approach involving following the curriculum used in these other areas for one half-term at a time and covering topics, such as the French Revolution, which are widely studied in schools across the country.

Initially, Mrs Neighbour, who read English linguistics and literature at the University of Lausanne, piloted the new approach with a series of worksheets for her pupils, but found that they had no textbook to use when they handed in their homework for marking.

The exercise books began to bulge with all the material building up in them and the photocopying was starting to become expensive – so she decided to self-publish the complete course as a 108-page full colour textbook entitled ‘Contexte’, because language learning was being put into the context of other study.

A competition was staged in school to design a front cover and ‘Eiffel Tower’, drawn by Zara Jutsum, 14, in felt pen, was declared the winning entry. The colourful image gives an impressionistic feel to the book.

Mrs Neighbour, who combines her teaching role with acting as secretary of the Wisbech Arles twinning club committee, said: “Year nine is the year before the pupils choose their GCSEs and it is important to have something really exciting and very interesting which makes them feel that the language is relevant.”

Initially she requested a 50-book print run and a further 65 copies have since rolled off the presses following orders from a leading independent school and a secondary school in London.

The message has also started to spread to other schools via the ‘Times Educational Supplement’ website, which Mrs Neighbour has used to upload some of the resources that she has prepared.

She said: “My aim is not to make money out of this idea, but to spread good resources and good methodology.

“People who have been in touch with me about the project are quite enthusiastic about it.”