Alison Thomas

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Clouseau closed up

It's not often that 10-year-old linguists are called in to solve a murder mystery that has stumped the best brains of Interpol. Unless, that is, they live in Oldham.

Over a week, groups of fledgling detectives spent half a day at the City Learning Centre, pursuing their enquiries in French or Spanish via videoconferencing links.

The aim was to raise teachers' awareness of the huge potential of modern technology for language learning, as well as devise an exciting activity for pupils.

But you can't have a murder mystery without suspects, and who better than volunteers from local secondary schools, cunningly disguised with beards, moustaches, hats and wigs?

Important preparation took the form of a list of essential expressions which the children practised in advance and an inset training session, when teachers were in the hot seat for a dummy run. On the day, participants settled down before the screen to the strains of the theme tune from Crimewatch.

The first activity covered familiar ground as they noted down each suspect's name, age, nationality and address.

Then came the task of drawing a photofit by quizzing witnesses. Was the criminal male or female? Were their eyes blue or brown? Did they wear glasses? Beginners used single words or short phrases requiring yes or no answers, while those who had been learning languages for a while framed questions.

Then came the identity parade. As each individual came forward, their appearance was scrutinised and discussed. Could it be him, or her? Why?

Again, prior learning dictated the level of response. While some pupils came up with complex structures, others restricted themselves to naming the relevant features.

When potential culprits had been whittled down to two, the deciding factor was the alibi. Mr Red and Mr Blue were interrogated, their movements charted on a map marked with salient features such as cinema, school, church and station. Only then was the time and place of the murder revealed and the guilty party led away in handcuffs by a stern-looking teenager who had swapped his curly wig for a constable's hat.

The event, organised by Alison McGregor, a languages primary consultant, was much praised by teachers.

"My six Year 10 volunteers are hard to motivate but when they came back they were full of enthusiasm," says Demi Wild, a French teacher at South Chadderton School, an 11-16 comprehensive in Oldham. "This gave them an opportunity to communicate for real with people outside their own classroom. And they were helping younger children to learn."

The teenagers and their teachers gained a lot from the experience. It opened their eyes to the strides being made in primary language learning.

This has improved links between the two sectors and networking among primary schools has expanded as a result. "People are talking to each other," says Ms McGregor. "Heads are in touch to discuss modern languages."

But what of the learners?

"The drama and role-play were very motivating and the fact that they were conferencing with older students made it all the more special," says Jane Wallace, head of Friezland Primary in Oldham. She was equally impressed by the care that had gone into the various activities, which developed important key skills, too. "Teamwork, sequencing, problem-solving were all very much to the fore," she says.

Jane is now a convert to videoconferencing as a language learning tool and is installing equipment to organise conferences with partners in Spain.

"We are just a small school and this completely knocks down the walls and creates fantastic learning opportunities," she says. "Our children are no longer dependent on five teachers and a few support staff. Instead they have the whole world at their fingertips - quite literally. It's very exciting"

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