Start as you mean to go on: ideas for enthusing your new Year 7 language learners from the beginning

After the constant changes of the last two years, I know that many of us are excited about getting back to school and experiencing more ‘normal’ lessons. It is liberating to think that we (hopefully!) will be able to incorporate activities which were previously restricted, such as speaking. At the time of writing, it seems that we will be returning to relative normality in school. Whatever form it takes, I think that this ‘new start’ is particularly exciting for our new Year 7 cohort many of whom may have experienced little to no language teaching because of Covid.

So, how can we enthuse our new language learners in Year 7? I hope that some of the ideas listed below help your students.

  1. Give them a sense of achievement in the first lesson

It is important that students leave the first lesson with a sense of achievement, whatever their ability level or previous experiences of language learning. Many may come to the lesson with a pre-conceived notion that foreign languages are ‘more difficult’ than other subjects; we need to debunk this myth by showing students that languages are accessible to all.  So, how can we give them this sense of achievement?

  • Get them talking as soon as possible!

The wonderful thing about most Year 7 students is that they are more willing to try out new words and sounds than their older, more easily embarrassed counterparts! We like to get them talking as much as possible in their first German lesson so that they can have a mini conversation by the end of it.  We tend to cover greetings such as ‘Guten Tag!’, how to say goodbye (‘Auf Wiedersehen’ contains so many of the new German sound-spelling links) and asking and saying names as it gives us and the class a chance to get to know each other, as well as the opportunity for lots of cultural knowledge about shaking hands and formal/ informal greetings. Indeed, while we do look at writing and speaking skills in every unit, we focus on listening and speaking skills for the first half-term as we find that it encourages confidence in their ability and enthuses students as they can see how far they are progressing in such a short time.

Encourage your students to start speaking German quickly by using these Echt worksheets:

3. Encourage student use of the target language

While it is important that students use the target language in pairwork activities, aim to encourage them to use the target language in other, less structured situations. Phrases such as ‘ich bin fertig!’ are easy to teach at the beginning. How about teaching other phrases which students of that age may want to use? We have had a lot of fun with phrases such as ‘Mogler!’ and ‘das ist nicht richtig!’. Teaching phrases which students want to use in real-life situations can be very motivating and also make them realise that this is a living language spoken by real people rather than just a classroom exercise.

4. Teach sound-spelling links

Of course, to be able to speak a language, it is necessary to teach the sound-spelling links. This will give students more independence and they will also be able to work out the sounds for themselves as they work out new language. Students enjoy working out the rules as they learn new words and the alphabet, and there are many games which can be played to practise these.

Try this phonics video from Echt to help you with the ‘ei’ and ‘ie’ sounds.

5. Make links between the target language and English

I’m sure that we have all had students who have commented that they have ‘learned English grammar through learning German/French/Spanish’. Students may not be confident with grammar terms that we use in the classroom as they often don’t make the link between a noun in English and a noun in the target language. Breaking up sentences into their grammatical parts or making comparisons between English and the target language can be extremely useful for a language learner. Take the present tense, for example. We can show students that German has one version of the present tense while English has two and that, generally in German, ‘-ing is not a thing’!

6. Cultural knowledge

One important aspect of language teaching is cultural knowledge. If students learn about the culture and customs of the countries where a language is spoken, it ‘comes alive’ for them. Of course, we would all like them to possibly experience this for themselves, but it remains to be seen whether this will be possible over the next year. We have a ‘cultural calendar’ which we follow in each year group. In Year 7 for example, we cover the more traditional German festivals but also look at ‘Sankt Martin’, the ‘Maibaum’ and ‘Struwwelpeter’. Some of the lesson will be taught in German but the more complex concepts may be taught in English. We always try to make these lessons a little bit different by having a more imaginative outcome e.g., a story written by students based on the principles of the Struwwelpeter or a lantern made following German instructions.

7. Questions are a good thing!

It’s so important for Year 7 to understand from the beginning that we are not looking for perfection and that it’s ok (indeed, normal) to make mistakes or not know a word. I often look up words during the lesson so that they see that I don’t know every word that exists in German and that this is fine – we can all learn together. Working out a sentence together can be very empowering for the students. In addition, we should encourage the question ‘why is this relevant?’ by asking students to make links between MFL and their other subjects, and by talking about how this will be useful in the world of work. Seeing the relevance will encourage buy-in from the students.

Year 7 is an exciting time, not only for the students but also for MFL teachers, as we are often in a unique position of starting a new subject with the students. I often think that the beginning of Year 7 is our opportunity to enthuse students, to open their minds to other cultures and ways of living, and to show them the joy of language learning.  Whatever form your ‘new beginning’ takes this year, I wish you the best of luck!

Judith Goad is Subject Leader for German at Park View Academy.