Are you dunn or dick?

You don't need to be an expert to teach languages. Reva Klein visits Liverpool to find out how. Photography by Pauline Neild

It's a brave person who would stand in front of a group of lively Year 6s and ask them in German whether the man standing next to her is dick or duenn. But Susie Grassl, German-born language assistant in a ground-breaking primary language project in Liverpool, is clearly up to it.

Smiling, she waits for the flurry of inevitable hilarity to pass. And Nigel Pearson, who happens to be advisory teacher for modern foreign languages at Liverpool Education Authority, is, luckily, not dick (the German word for fat).

But the pupils at Knotty Ash primary school appear to be less interested in scatology than the business of studying German. Nursery children start with one 15-minute lesson a week. In the juniors, they're up to three half-hour sessions and are competent enough to keep up with the lightning pace adopted by Herr Pearson and Fraulein Grassl.

And they are kept on their toes, whether learning "Kopfe, Schultern, Knie und Zehen" (heads, shoulders, knees and toes) and Simon sagt (Simon says) in Reception class, or older children taking part in quizzes and presenting sketches in German for the rest of the school in assembly.

The German sessions are part of Liverpool City Council's Centres of Excellence project, which operates in schools where staff have some language expertise. Being chosen for the project means they are given the support of one of four advisory teachers and three foreign-language assistants to run classes in French, German or Spanish, with an emphasis on speaking and listening.

"We ensure that what's taught in the language lessons is reinforced in other parts of the curriculum," says Liz Kelly, who manages the project for Liverpool LEA. This means that class teachers have an important role. But because so few are language specialists, they have to be learners as much as teachers, attending in-service training every fortnight and more tuition if they request it. They also learn alongside their class from the language specialists during the lessons. It is a matter of keeping a step ahead of the children and having the confidence to integrate the language as much as possible into ordinary class activities.

As daunting and unlikely as it sounds, it seems to work. Reception teacher Helen Blain, who didn't know any German before, now speaks words and phrases throughout the day.

"First thing, we'll say 'Guten Morgen' and do counting in German, and in PE we'll do things like 'heads, shoulders, knees and toes'. When they've done something well, I'll say 'fantastisch' instead of 'well done'. Sometimes I get it wrong and they'll correct me. They're great."

She has found that it not only gives children linguistic skills but enhances their self-esteem. "At this age, they're totally uninhibited, so they love getting up in front of a group and speaking German words. It's a huge confidence boost. One boy who has speech difficulties who hangs back when we do English joins in with everyone else when we do German activities."

The project aims to ensure that language teaching complements other lessons by finding and drawing on themes in schools' half-termly plans. "At Knotty Ash, we've structured lessons to revisit certain things, like toys, weather, geographical features and other subjects that have been covered in lessons. We also do a lot of numeracy, borrowing techniques and sources from numeracy hour to use in language lessons."

The project started in September with three schools and will grow to nine over two years. Each school will be a centre of excellence in its local area, rather like specialist colleges, and they are expected to share their expertise with other schools in the neighbourhood. It sits alongside another primary language programme, funded by Excellence in Cities. Together, they account for more than pound;800,000 being spent on primary language teaching by 2004.

The plan is for children to build on what they have learnt when they transfer to secondary school either in normal language lessons or in after-school sessions if their secondary doesn't teach the language they studied at primary. With the head start they have had, some children will be able to take GCSE exams in a modern foreign language in Year 9, so good liaison between secondaries and participating primaries is crucial.

Serious language teaching is hard work for primaries and Knotty Ash's headteacher Annie Bennett says: "It's a huge commitment but it has breathed new life into the school and has given the children such pride."

'Be confident' - teaching pointers

While Liverpool's centres of excellence run on a sophisticated, well-resourced model, class teachers who have the equivalent of GCSE in a modern foreign language can also introduce a language to an infant class. Here are some tips from the project: Cast off your self-consciousness and try to appear confident, even if you don't feel it.

Create a can-do climate to make the children enthusiastic.

Interactivity is the key. Have pupils listen and then repeat.

Use songs, rhymes, games and drama.

Keep the pace fast and make the lesson varied.

Show by example that learning another language is not just about words - it's tone of voice and gesture, too.

Refer to festivals and traditions of the country whose language you are teaching when appropriate. Food is a great vehicle for cultural awareness.

Bring your chosen language into other subjects when you can. Counting is the obvious choice but you can use a foreign language in PE, literacy hour, school trips - anywhere.

For resources, guidance and information on primary language teaching, go to the CILT website at www.cilt.org.uk and click on primary in the "sector" box.

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