Skip to main content

Early wake-up call

Does your primary school teach a foreign language? If not, why not says Peter Satchwell, who draws on the experience of successful projects to offer practical start-up advice.

Since the Nuffield French experiments of the Sixties, attitudes and ideas about early language learning in primary schools have changed dramatically and in recent years the interest of parents has mushroomed. Government funding of the Scottish Primary Project has also raised hopes and renewed interest in other parts of the UK and several local education authorities, notably in the south of England, have recently launched, or are about to launch, support for the teaching of foreign languages in their primary schools.

Patchy as the present provision may be, what can we learn from the local initiatives that are up and running, and what can we do on an individual school basis if the LEA is unable to provide practical and moral support in the form of in-service training?

Experience of successful projects so far suggests that any school wishing to launch foreign language learning will have to face some weighty decisions: How will they go about finding a competent teacher who has the confidence to teach most of the lesson in the target language? Which language will they teach? Will they be able to plan at least a year ahead to allow the teacher time to research and create appropriate resources and teaching strategies? How will they find money to resource the project adequately?

They will also need to be aware that the introduction of a foreign language will have a knock-on effect on the rest of the staff and on curriculum time. Indeed, all of the staff will need to be involved in decisions about the timing and frequency of language lessons and in exploring the possibilities for team teaching and cross-curricular work. And the teacher will need to make language lessons as lively, enjoyable and creative as possible, so that easy links can be made with other areas of the primary curriculum. This implies careful planning and resourcing to provide the children with achievable and rewarding short-term goals.

There is no single blueprint for setting up an early language learning project, but the teacher will need to set out specific aims and learning objectives to ensure a sense of progression and achievement for the learners. These might include: o enabling children to see the purpose of learning a foreign language o developing social and cultural awareness by fostering positive attitudes towards foreigners and their way of life o developing communication and linguistic skills - for example the ability to listen attentively, to look up and find out things for themselves, and to speak confidently to an audience o developing co-operative learning skills - in pair work, group work, drama.

Realistic objectives for young learners will depend on the age and ability of the class, but in general they will need to embrace: o active learning - lots of games, songs, mime, role-play o development of confidence and ability to listen attentively to tapes and videos of native speakers o enjoyment and real achievement in speaking the language o ability to match sounds to the printed word o creation of a classroom environment where the foreign language is used naturally as the normal means of everyday communication.

Having decided the priorities for a particular class the teacher will want to identify a short list of appropriate topics to be covered through the year. This is a process familiar to all primary teachers and the potential for foreign language lessons is almost as extensive as for other curriculum areas, provided that the resources are available. If the topics chosen overlap with themes to be covered elsewhere in the curriculum, so much the better.

Whether language lessons in the primary (or secondary) school should be restricted solely to linguistic achievement is debatable. All the evidence from Scotland, Canada and Australia suggests very strongly that the more practical and activity-based the lessons are, the greater the likelihood of significant and lasting language acquisition.

Lessons where children are personally involved in making and doing, where they learn useful life skills and knowledge through the medium of the new language, tend to be more successful and motivating than traditional lists of vocabulary and verb drills.

This then leaves the door open for a variety of exciting possibilities and many teachers have already had success with themes which gradually develop outwards from the immediate, familiar world of the children's own lives: home, family, pets, our town - to the unfamiliar and challenging world outside: people's jobs, animals, insects, plants, wildlife, foreign food and customs and going abroad for the first time.

All of this has to be fitted into a realistic time scale - and this is where the frequency and length of language lessons may have to be negotiated with the rest of the staff. A little and often (ideally every day) is infinitely preferable to "German or Spanish once a week". And is the "language teacher" to do all this on herhis own? Who else on the staff will volunteer to reinforce foreign language skills through the week by taking the register in French, for example, doing some sums in German, PE or aerobics in Italian, or some music or cooking in Spanish? Most Scottish primaries are doing this already and many in England are trying it - with notable success.

As far as methodology is concerned, most primary teachers have their own substantial repertoire of games and activities to draw on, so it is not an enormous step to adapt such games as noughts and crosses, Kim's game, bingo, dominoes and pelmanism, for instance, to the foreign language lesson, and team games and adapted party games are always great motivators.

Language lessons also benefit from a wide variety of action songs, rhymes, raps and puzzles, and many schools have found it very rewarding to introduce puppets and storytelling with a foreign language text based on an already familiar children's story or adapted and simplified with mime and visuals added.

The scope for making things, following simple foreign language instructions, is enormous: children have made puppets, designed posters and collages, written cartoon stories, greeting cards, made models of shops, houses, villages, and so on.

Compared with 20 years ago there is now a wealth of teaching resources available to the primary teacher who wants to introduce German, French, Spanish or Italian. Sadly, no sign yet of any Government funding or national in-service training, but the publishers are providing an ever increasing range of generally well written, attractively designed materials. Some are aimed at the home market, but most are suitable for school use and there are resources for all ages from four upwards. It is significant that most of the best primary materials have recently come from publishers in Germany, France, Italy and Canada.

So who can resist the temptation to introduce a new language into their school? After all, most parents will be very supportive and much of what children learn in foreign language lessons consolidates the skills they are acquiring in other curriculum areas. Learning a new language extends language awareness in general and boosts self-confidence. If your school cannot yet boast a "European dimension", what better way to introduce it than through learning the language and customs of another European country?

One final thought. Surely, as a nation, we should ask ourselves: do we want British teenagers and potential young employees of the 21st century to remain the tongue-tied monoglots that the majority of them are today, still scared to open their mouths and "have a go" in a foreign language, or do we want them to be able to compete on equal terms with the linguistic and social self confidence of their Dutch, German, Swiss and French peers? If that's what we want, we need to make a serious start now - and we need to catch them early, in the primary school.

o Catching Them Young by Peter Satchwell and June de Silva is published this month as Young Pathfinder No1 in a new CILT series for primary teachers.

Peter Satchwell taught for 20 years and was until recently languages inspector for Surrey. He is now PGCE modern languages tutor at Sussex University and also chairs the national Primary Languages Network based at CILT.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you