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Early dip pays for French

A DAILY dose of French from the start of primary 1 has produced pupils with excellent accents and intonation at Walker Road primary in Aberdeen - a far cry from the norm even in secondary.

Some are surprised and disappointed that local shopkeepers seem unable to share the same language skills as they now have by the time they are six and seven. Parents say they appear far more confident about speaking French than their brothers and sisters in upper primary or early secondary who are taught in more conventional ways.

An analysis of the partial immersion project by Professor Dick Johnstone of Stirling University, the country's leading foreign language researcher, shows strong support among pupils, parents and teachers for a unique experiment which is now into its third year.

Some 80 pupils between P1 and P3 are learning at least part of the curriculum - often the expressive arts to begin with - through French with lessons delivered by two native speakers. Fifteen per cent of time in P1 is in French, rising to 25 per cent by P3.

Maureen Robertson, the school's headteacher, says: "It's excellent when you watch the children answer. The French teachers make no allowances and their language is not diluted. The children understand and are beginning to answer back. Their own language has been enhanced and they have a better understanding of sounds."

Professor Johnstone's verdict, so far, is that pupils are quick to model their language on the two immersion teachers (ITs). "Their comprehension is usually quick and accurate and they do not seem phased by the speed at which the ITs talk. They generally seem relaxed yet concentrated and are happy to volunteer their own words and phrases in French," he says.

Beyond the classroom, pupils talk or sing in French at home and try to persuade their parents to holiday in France. Back in class, the older ones are beginning to do maths in their second language.

Parents in an area of some disadvantage have seen the project as adding "a special kudos" which can raise their children's aspirations, Professor Johnstone notes.

"They convey no sense that their children may be losing out in their learning of important primary school subject-matter, even when this is delivered (in part at least) through the medium of French; on the contrary, they tend to feel that added value is being gained."

However, there are concerns. Parents would like to see their children in the same class when they move to secondary so that they can maintain their immersion education. Mrs Robertson also acknowledges there may be difficulties with the transition and the links with German teaching.

Professor Johnstone observes: "She...anticipates that problems might conceivably arise as the scheme develops and the children proceed more deeply into the language and seek to use it for increasingly complex purposes."

His report stresses that pupils who go through the normal route of language learning in P6 have around 100 hours in primary in contrast to around 1,500 hours by a partial immersion route which begins in P1. Learning from a native speaker also improves the depth of language.

He comments: "In comparison with models of early partial immersion in certain other countries, the Aberdeen model may seem somewhat 'canny', but in comparison with what happens elsewhere in Scotland it is strikingly bold and imaginative."

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