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Spice up the lingo, please

Modern language teaching was under the spotlight at a Royal Society conference. David Henderson reports

"Please, please, let's stop describing bedrooms and booking into camp-sites," the chief modern languages inspector told a special conference hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh last week.

Jane Renton, a former languages teacher, pleaded for far more "interesting and relevant" content to capture the imagination of pupils in an English-dominant world. "Monolingualism is curable," Mrs Renton declared.

But only, she added, if more teachers spice up their lessons. She recently came across a group of S3 boys talking about the box-office triumph of the French film Amelie. They were involved in back-up reading and creative writing.

Another set of S4 pupils was considering child obesity, working in groups, while an S2 class was following through a project on fair trade involving the French, home economics and modern studies departments. Other good examples involved film-making and senior pupils putting on a German play.

"There is not enough emphasis on the quality of learning experiences or levels of performance pupils are expected to achieve," she said. Teachers had to offer "more challenging and motivating" experiences, provide more opportunities to work independently and in groups, and extend languages work, expecting more of their pupils.

But, as the recent inspectorate report on the state of Scottish education confirmed, there were many strengths. Around 98 per cent of P6 and P7 pupils were learning a modern language and by the end of S2 many pupils were attaining well. By S3 and S4, around 90 per cent of pupils were studying a foreign language and learning was generally strong with good results in national exams in S5 and S6.

Mrs Renton said that even those who dropped languages in favour of skills for work courses should have options to learn a language, whether at Intermediate level or Standard grade.

Other issues included a possible earlier start for languages in primary but that meant ensuring a supply of trained teachers. Schools also had to ensure better progress between P6 and S4.

Scottish pupils, she said, were less motivated to learn languages because English was so dominant but "partial competence" had to be recognised and valued. "Often we only recognise native fluency or cannot speak a word. You cannot expect to attain fluency after 500 hours spread over six years," Mrs Renton said.

Ewan McIntosh, development officer with the language teaching and research centre at Stirling University (Scottish CILT), appealed to schools to use the latest technology to excite students. "Teachers look to the past all the time and are surprised when kids don't respond to 40 minutes of Powerpoint," Mr McIntosh said.

The former Musselburgh Grammar teacher said that most pupils ran personal websites. "Modern languages is all about communication but we are not allowing them to communicate in a medium they understand. We need to link modern languages to their real world, using online meeting spaces and virtual communities, getting them to set up their own language learning log on a weblog so that everyone can share ideas. That's something they will understand even if at the moment you do not," he said.

The technology kids had in their pockets was often more powerful than any classroom computer.

Talking points

* Gill Robinson, Scottish Executive, said pound;18.5 million had been spent on language learning since 2001 and pound;4 million will be spent in 2006-07. Cash had backed training of teachers, developments in ICT and partial immersion in French at Walker Road primary in Aberdeen.

* Fewer than 20 secondaries across Scotland offer two additional languages in S1 and S2, Duncan Ferguson, headteacher of Plockton High, said. "Parents are demanding two sciences but rarely two languages."

* German is a threatened language and staff risk deskilling as secondaries reduce options to one language only, one experienced teacher claimed.

* "Forty-five minutes is too short to learn," a native Italian teacher said. "There is a difference when they experience culture and language and there is a big improvement on their motivation." Exchanges and visits provided that.

* "Over 2,000 pupils are in Gaelic-medium education, leaving P7 fluent in Gaelic, but little use is made of it in mainstream language learning,"

Murdo Maciver, North Lanarkshire head of service, said. He is a Gaelic speaker himself.

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