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Journey to Planet Naranja

Victoria Neumark looks at a project that links language with literacy

How can foreign language learning contribute to literacy development? Language modules should be introduced into the National Literacy Strategy to improve listening, reading and writing skills, both the Nuffield Inquiry and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have concluded. And Catherine Cheater and Anne Farren, in their new book The Literacy Link, stress the value of foreign language learning in improving literacy development. Exploring the similarities and differences between English and another language helps children learn how language can be manipulated and applied in different ways. Their listening, reading, writing and memory skills improve, say Cheater and Farren, of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.

However, non-language teachers may see foreign languages as adding to the burden of the literacy and numeracy strategies, national curriculum tests and league tables. In any case, few feel qualified. Language for Life, an innovative partnership between the computer company ICL's Merseygrid educational project, the Government's north-west regional office and Liverpool's education authority, has developed a year-long programme to turn all that around.

The project began in October 1999 when five primary schools set up lunchtime and after-school Italian clubs using video-conferencing, mostly with Year 6 pupils. The Italian teacher was based at Merseygrid's office and pupils from different schools often had the opportunity to communicate via a video link. Francis, from All Saints junior school, says: "I like video-conferencing, the way you could ring up and be learning very quickly over a PC."

In the summer term 2000, the project was widened and 1,150 Year 6 pupils from 20 primary schools received tuition in French, Spanish or Italian, alternating between live lessons from language specialists and video-conferencing. Pupils enjoyed the technology and teachers say it helped raise self-esteem. Craig from All Saints says: "I was interested in learning a language to show off to my family." Knotty Ash primary school used a whiteboard as well as video-conferencing to reinforce vocabulary and relevant grammar points. Flash-cards, games and music spiced up the lessons.

The next stage will be a partnership between Merseygrid, Liverpool education authority and CILT, to coincide with the European Year of Languages 2001. All 8,000 key stage 2 pupils in the authority will join in a year-long combined Spanish or French (depending on the language to be offered at secondary school) and creative English course. The children will experiencea dual-language classroom and environment, including school messages and signs, to reinforce their vocabulary.

The course follows a series of four-week cycles. In the first week, a roadshow will visit each school. The focus is on creative writing and actors will show pupils through drama how storylines and characters develop. Pupils will be given a framework of vocabulary and storylines they can use in their creative writing. A whiteboard will be used to draw out formal teaching points. At the same time, a basic Spanish or French course will be woven in. For example, a science fiction adventure, "Voyage into the Unknown", comes with the first module of Spanish. The lesson goes like this:

* Introduction from the narrator: "AHola! Me llamo ... @Como te llamas?" * Beginning of story, rocket takes off into outer space. Countdown in Spanish: diez, nueve, ocho, siete, seis, cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno!

* Rocket lands on Planet Naranja where an alien produces a bag full of strange objects in different colours: negro, blanco, azul, rojo, amarillo, verde.

During the second and fourth weeks, the class teachers will use a Spanish or French Big Book in the same way that they would use a Big Book in the literacy hour, but will have instructions and foreign language material on tape. The pupils will use their own workbooks, with activities such as quizzes, word-searches and art, with space for their own writing.

In the third week, groups of gifted and talented pupils will have extra tuition in Spanish or French with video-conferencing, which they can then use to support their peers in class.

By the end of the academic year, all pupils should have accumulated a portfolio of work on story-telling, letter-writing, poetry and straight reportage, as well as a completed Spanish or French workbook.

Teachers act as facilitators and do not necessarily have to be language experts. But over the year they can hope to acquire skills that may give them the confidence to take over some of the language teaching in subsequent years and even feel inspired to pursue professional development.

Working with closely Merseygrid, Liverpool LEA language advisers and CILT hope this activity will act as pilot to investigate some of the ways teaching modern foreign languages in primary schools.

A website is being set up with language materials, activities and information on many European countries. An international music festival and and a careers convention will also take place during 2001, the European Year of Languages.

For more details, contact Josephine Mullen at Merseygrid, 70 Hope Street, Liverpool L1 9EB. Tel: 0151 330 3280

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