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Learn to love languages

How one school turned a struggling bunch of youngsters into a group that's happy and confident learning foreign languages

School is probably a great starting point for future fashion icons. Sixteen-year-old Megan Walker pulls it off. Her tie loosely knotted and way down low, the French would have a word for it. And thanks to her teacher Mrs Bleasdale, Megan and her classmates have a significantly better chance of knowing the word today than they did a year ago.

We're in one of the modern languages classrooms at Kemnay Academy in Aberdeenshire, with a group of fifth year pupils who managed to turn their French around in time for Standard grade, with a little help from Claire Bleasdale and her colleagues.

Pupil Stephen Andrew says French for him, in third year, was "not very good". Classmate Lewis Morrison is equally frank: "I liked it but I was just slow." And Megan sums up: "I actually hated it. I didn't like it because I couldn't do it. I just gave up."

Mrs Bleasdale is principal teacher of modern languages at Kemnay Academy and teaches French, Italian and German. She explains why they opted for a new approach to learning French. "In the third year, they had been a badly behaved class. The thing they found most difficult was reading with a dictionary," she says.

The Standard grade exam involves general reading of a French passage and answering questions about it in English, with use of a dictionary. The third year's poor performance prompted Mrs Bleasdale to request learning support.

This coincided with offers of support for Aberdeen- shire modern language teachers from independent educational consultant Hilary McColl, project consultant for Working Together for Inclusion.

"This is an in-school project where Hilary McColl works with the teacher or a few teachers on a class or a small group of pupils. The intention is to include more pupils in modern languages," explains Mrs Bleasdale.

This ready-made phased project, supported by the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, allowed plans made with the learning support staff at Kemnay Academy to be formalised to help pupils overcome their difficulties.

Learning Support began observing pupils' behaviour during different subjects and saw behaviour deteriorate when they failed to understand new or difficult topics, just as in the French class.

Strategies were developed to identify and overcome individual difficulties and reading cards were used to boost confidence with this aspect of Standard grade General level.

Next, staff focused on dictionary work, demystifying the exam and providing ways to tackle the challenging reading section. By the time the pupils sat their prelim in November last year, 82 per cent of the class passed General level, compared with a rate of 62-65 per cent during test runs.

Throughout the year, discussions were held with Hilary McColl to review and plan ahead. Finally pupils identified three simple personal strategies they believed would improve their grades and customised them on laminated cards.

All 19 pupils in this lower-band French Standard grade class achieved an overall Grade 4 or above, 10 at Grade 3, six at Grade 2 and one Grade 1. In the reading examination, only two pupils gained Foundation grades and there were 12 General grades and five Credits. One student has gone on to study Higher French.

Today, it's difficult to imagine these laughing, confident youngsters were among a struggling group. Now they're planning careers and can imagine situations in which knowing how to speak French might be handy.

Claire Bleasdale is delighted by their achievement: "Ability to learn a language is 90 per cent confidence and this is finding ways to build their confidence."


Look up three words, then guess

A guess is better than a gap

If the word is not in the dictionary, don't panic - divide up the time and use it

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