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Learning Spanish is child’s play

October 4, 2012

The government’s commitment to introducing languages for all primary pupils by 2010, including reading and writing on top of speaking and listening, is a tall order. Trained linguists in primary schools are just as scarce now as during the last big push on primary languages in the late 60s, and competition for teaching time is much tougher.

The one advantage we have now, though, is ICT, which canconcentrate highly effective teaching into manageable packages, and then disseminate it. Kent LEA’s Pilote was the first series to succeed in this, and Sonica Spanish (site licence £299,, takes things further. It covers the whole Spanish national curriculum for primaries, plus inbuilt support and training, in two DVDs. The materials are so attractive, easy to use and well organised that they are sure to interest any child or teacher who sees them, and could be the most important boost ever for learning Spanish in our schools. From a standing start, the £950,000 invested in Sonica has given the government’s primary languages strategy a strong chance of success.

Sonica offers 20 progressive activities for each of the 12 national curriculum units over a two-year course. It is brightly presented, with cartoon characters and interactive games, backed by lots of accurately pronounced Spanish. This format allows teachers new to Spanish to teach it, with the confidence that the CD will provide accurate pronunciation and grammar, enabling them learn alongside pupils.

Activities can be run with an interactive whiteboard, a projector or individual computers. There is automatic assessment for each pupil, and teachers have easy access to each activity for a preview. The only minor drawback is that Spanish characters have to be entered using the alt key plus a number. Training materials include a series of videos shot in Liverpool primary schools. These show mixed ability classes happily learning Spanish from year 3 onwards, and chart the experiences of non-specialist teachers learning alongside their classes. Pupils’ enjoyment is clear: “Spanish is my favourite lesson. It doesn’t seem like a lesson, it seems like just a big fun game,” says one.

Alan Thompson, the ICT coordinator at St Nicolas junior school, Dereham, had been learning Spanish at night school before he started to teach it. He described his six-week trial of Sonica as fantastic. “This is software I’ve not seen the likes of in school before. There’s so much that is good, with a variety of games and activities to suit all learning styles.”

He is particularly enthusiastic about dance mats used, among other things, to speed up recognition of colours. “Children would kill for them. They watch others having their turn and practise stamping in the right position so that they can do it faster. I’ve had other software packages, but I’ve put them all away. Except for Pilote, which is also fantastic. But Sonica is on a much larger scale – it’s like digging into Tut’s tomb, you keep finding more.”

The choice of Spanish as the first language for this treatment reflects its growing popularity, and also the success of primary Spanish in Liverpool. Now the basic framework is in place, it should be possible to produce similar packs for French and German more cheaply.

Sonica would also be a good buy for secondary schools where students were learning Spanish from scratch or for teachers who want to learn.

· The pioneering Pilote ( completes its French series with a third CD, En Ville, and has new CDs in Spanish and English as an additional language. Much of the appeal of Pilote is in its location shots. En Ville begins with a balloon ride into the town of Huillon, and we are invited into French homes as well as the town and the school.

The range of themes in this CD will appeal as much to secondary beginners as to primary school learners, and there are many subtle editorial touches, such as very clear diction in masculine and feminine articles, and pieces of winning colloquialism such as A la prochaine as a change from au revoir. Humorous touches include parents who have named one child Remy and another Martin.

The Spanish and EAL CD-roms use the same format as the rest of the series. The price, though, has risen to £20 per CD, or £80 for a set of six, which makes it less easy to let children take the discs home.

· Taskmagic has new games and materials for its authoring package (£79), which allows you to create game-based exercises with sound and text. leads to a sample football game based on daily activities in French that have to be recognised against the clock. Take too long and you give the ball away.

· Cambridge University’s website ( has added a lot of new material for French since its launch two years ago, and it has put the first reading resources into its new Spanish site – a site useful to higher-attaining GCSE students as well as sixth-formers.

· Finally, the National Centre for Languages (CILT) has launched two new websites. The first, (, in cooperation with the Association for Language Learning aims to provide for teachers at all stages of using ICT. It’s well organised and worth visiting by heads of department. The second ( sets out to promote understanding of language’s role in a range of careers rather than as a career in itself.


by John Bald (published in The Guardian)


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