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French chance for les enfants

The biggest push to bring languages into primaries since the 1960s is under way. Helen Ward reports

Alexander Witt went to Paris at half term and used the French he had learned since September to ask for a drink. Alexander is four.

He is one of hundreds of pupils taking part in the biggest push to introduce primary languages since the 1960s.

Rachel Phillips, Alexander's headteacher at Kew Riverside primary, in Richmond, south-west London, said: "I wanted to give children experience of learning modern foreign languages as early as possible. None of us in school had the skills to do it. So I contacted the local secondary school, which is a language college, and asked for support."

Richmond is one of 19 areas taking part in "pathfinder" projects that are trying out ways to promote languages for under-11s. It helped fund the advanced skills teacher from the local secondary to work with younger children than usual - and a French language assistant is due to start work at the school for three hours a week after Christmas. Twenty-nine of Richmond's 32 schools with junior-aged pupils already offer languages.

The pound;4.6 million languages pathfinder pilot will involve more than 300 primary schools across the country. A key tactic will be to to use whiteboards and video-conferencing to allow pupils more contact with native speakers. Authorities will also put funds into training programmes for generalist primary teachers.

The extra money in Richmond will give the borough the chance to expand classes and offer languages to younger children. Four language assistants have been appointed and three advisory teachers start work next Easter.

Norfolk, another pathfinder area, has a very different scheme. It has no existing formal primary language classes to build on and is a large authority with many small, rural schools. It plans to use technology to spread know-ledge about languages.

Julie Westrop, pathfinder project manager, said: "We will be working with 27 schools, including four special schools. Our big push is ICT, so primary schools can have access to native speakers through video-conferencing. We already have a strong relationship with Kent and are looking at its teaching materials."

Another pilot project is testing a new way to assess students' progress in languages. The "language learning ladder" is being trialled in 21 schools.

It is due to go national in 2005, but its use will be optional.

The ladder has six stages from "breakthrough" level expected of infant and younger junior pupils through "preliminary", "intermediate" and "advanced", which is equivalent to A-level. The final two stages, "proficiency" and "mastery", will be developed for use by universities.

There will be ladder assessments available in speaking, listening, reading and writing and students can be assessed in just one of these skills.

By autumn 2005 the assessment will be available nationally in eight languages, probably French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Punjabi and Urdu in the breakthrough, preliminary and intermediate stages.

The scheme is due to expand in 2006 to cover an additional 13 languages in the breakthrough, preliminary and intermediate stages and the first three at advanced stage. By autumn 2008, development of the proficiency and mastery stages is due to be completed.

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