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Diverse pre-conditions

Very few people involved question seriously the value or desirability of bringing language teaching into primary schools, but the feasibility of such an initiative needs to be looked at carefully, warned Richard Johnstone, head of the Department of Education at Stirling University, who was a co-director of the independent evaluation of the national pilot programme in Scotland.

He offered the SCAA conference this overview of primary language teaching experiences from across Europe, based on key factors: * Diversity of languages: In some countries, several foreign languages have been introduced, for example, four - French, German, Spanish and Italian - were part of the national pilots in Scotland, whereas in Holland there is almost exclusive concentration on one foreign language, English. There are positive and negative aspects to each possibility. Scotland is excellent for diversity, but there can be problems with maintaining a particular lesser-used foreign language through secondary school. Holland is less diverse in this respect, but its formula allows greater coherence nationally.

* Exposure to the foreign language out of school: In some countries, there is little or no out-of-school exposure. In others there is a lot. Research in Holland, for example, indicates that pupils there spend less time on a foreign language at primary school than do pupils in Scotland, but they pick up roughly half their language out of school through the media - pop music, magazines, adverts etc.

* Starting age: Some countries begin late: in Scotland it is generally at age 10. There is a tendency across Europe to begin earlier, and many countries are starting at eight. Norway is about to take the starting age (for English) to six.

* Intensity of use: In some schoolscountries, a foreign language is a pleasurable activity taken for relatively few minutes each week, so the aim is largely sensitisation. In others it is a means of learning some other aspect of the curriculum, thereby carrying much more intensity of use.

* Underlying approach to language: In some projects, a foreign language has been introduced as something interesting, worthwhile and lively but essentially "its own thing". In others, there have been deliberate attempts to relate it to children's first language. In Croatia, for example (which Richard Johnstone visited last year), pupils were introduced to a range of key grammatical concepts at age seven (second year of primary) in their own language, Croatian. These same concepts were re-visited one year later, this time in relation to the foreign language the children were learning.

* Language competence of the teacher: This varies considerably within and between countries. In some, the teachers have relatively modest levels of command, and indeed in France, because of the impossibility of providing a large body of primary teachers with a fluent command of the particular foreign language, considerable efforts have been made to make video-input available to pupils from age seven. In other projects, teachers have a fluent, accurate and wide-ranging command of the language.

* Provision for continuity from primary to secondary: This is variable, but is widely perceived as a major problem - even in Holland!

He said it was not realistic to expect all the right conditions together, but success was achievable. Most important was to work out what schools should be trying to achieve, plan for it carefully in both the short and the long term, and seek agreement with all parties.

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