Every week, my colleague Elspeth Corrie and I go into six primary schools and teach languages to more than 300 children in curriculum time.
Working at an established language college in Essex, we have experienced the recent dramatic growth in early language learning. Two years ago, we ran after-school French and German clubs at the Anglo-European School in Ingatestone, and a lunchtime group in one feeder primary. For primary headteachers thinking about how to introduce a modern foreign language into their school, and for teachers unsure about classroom practice, here are some practical suggestions.
Language lessons do not require a lot of curriculum time. In two schools, I teach whole classes for 30 minutes each week with their teacher in the room, so new language can be practised regularly afterwards. Answering the register with "bonjour" or "je m'appelle I" helps children to learn and gives them some French every day. One class at Writtle Junior School, Chelmsford, keeps a cassette of French songs in the classroom and often sings along to "Moi j'ai soif".
At Mountnessing Junior School, Brentwood, I take small groups of pupils out for 15 minutes at a time, while at Margaretting Primary a one-hour French module is part of the weekly curriculum-enrichment afternoon, alongside dance, cookery and first aid. A class teacher, Kristy Bradshaw teaches French each week to Margaretting infants while I work with older pupils.
Margaretting's headteacher Fiona Mullagan says: "The children really enjoy the sessions and are often heard greeting one another in French during the week. One parent reported back that her daughter spoke in French to a waiter in a restaurant when she realised he was French. She was very confident and excited to be able to communicate. How old? Five. It just goes to show the sooner they learn the less inhibited they are."
For children, learning a language is very different from their other work in school and clear routines help them feel secure. I always start with familiar greetings - "Bonjour. Ca va?" - then move on to a quick question-and-answer session to build up confidence, with every child answering at least one question: "Comment t'appelles-tu?"; "Quel age as-tu?"; "Ou habites-tu?" Then they are ready to move on to new work. A song such as "Fr re Jacques" is a nice end to a lesson before we all say "Au revoir". With small groups, I often dismiss individuals in turn, for example by spelling out their names in French. Mountnessing pupils now insist on this, and they all know the French alphabet perfectly.
I use a variety of activities. Children learn fast through games and are so eager to participate that they forget to feel shy about speaking French.
Lessons should be fun and non-threatening for all abilities, so the emphasis is on spoken rather than written language, with constant praise: every answer is super, genial or mega-cool. Teaching style is all-important, as are resources. I use the video-based course Salut! Ca Va?, which is lively and authentic and brings even the simplest language alive. With the right materials, non-specialist teachers like Kristy can deliver effective lessons and many welcome the chance to develop their own language skills.
The most interesting aspect of primary languages for me is developing links with other areas of the curriculum and with Europe. At Writtle, I taught a geography lesson in French, with pupils moving around the room to place towns in the right area of France and then delivering their own weather forecasts in French. At Margaretting and Mountnessing, groups practise colours by playing boules and play team games following instructions in French.
ICT makes writing fun, and children at Writtle and Ingatestone have descriptions of themselves in French in their ICT folders. Bilingual books are ideal for story time with small groups. Many language activities slot easily into the curriculum and pupils soon accept that anything they can do in English can also be done in French.
A performance by the European Theatre Company enthralled children and was for many their first experience of live theatre. Within minutes they were so involved in the play that they forgot the actors were speaking French.
Sixth formers from the Anglo-European School played games with children at Margaretting and helped them record a French cassette. Writtle organised a picnic and all the children brought French food to share; one delighted reaction to Brie and saucisson was "I wish I lived in France". Through "Windows on the world", Writtle has linked with a school in France and exchanged letters and class photographs. We hope to develop this and give children an understanding of everyday life in another country.
A day trip to France is exciting. Language preparation involves role-play and plastic euros - the Writtle children who went to Calais last summer all wanted to order the teachers' coffee.
Ingatestone Junior School has gone further and arranged a residential trip to Normandy in June for all Year 6 children. Headteacher Phil Manterfield says: "The children were so receptive and enthused by their French lessons that a residential trip to France seemed the logical next step. It will be a wonderful opportunity for the children to put all they have learnt into practice."
The benefits should not be measured simply in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation; these young Europeans take language learning in their stride but, more importantly, they are open-minded and interested in different cultures.
Follow-up and resources
All aspects of primary languages and European Primary Languages Portfolio:
QCA Key Stage 2 Scheme of Work:
Salut Ca Va. Also German and Spanish videos: www.earlystart.co.uk
Posters and stickers: www.senlac.com
European Bookshop: www.eurobooks.co.uk and www.YoungLinguists.com
European Theatre Company: www.europeantheatre.co.uk
Windows on the world: www.wotw.org.uk
Online Language activities for KS2: www.bbc.co.ukschoolsprimaryfrench www.channel4.co.uk
Gill Maynard is languages development officer at the Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, and is an advanced skills teacher for primary MFL