It is the last Thursday of the summer term and the last Italian lesson of the year. Not the ideal time perhaps to watch a Year 10 mixed-ability class in action. Yet the students from Sir Bernard Lovell school in south Gloucestershire settle down remarkably quickly as their teacher greets them in Italian and starts quizzing them on their star signs.
This is not a device to liven up the tedious chore of learning dates and birthdays. Far from it. The content of the lesson springs directly from the students' current art project - to illustrate the signs of the zodiac for a feature in a continental magazine.
This group is learning Italian as part of a GCSE short course in art, one of several "integrated courses" the school introduced last September. Others include Spanish with GCSE short course geography or GNVQ Part 1 ICT; German with GCSE short course history or art; and Italian with GNVQ Part 1 business studies. Some lessons are delivered by a linguist, others by a subject specialist and the teachers meet regularly to plan, monitor progress and discuss teaching and learning styles.
The aim is to give students of all abilities the entitlement to two foreign languages at key stage 4 and demonstrate the value of foreign language skills beyond the classroom.
Rosanna Raimato, curriculum manager for languages, admits that she was a little apprehensive: "I thought we might get people saying 'I signed up for art, why do I have to do Italian as well?'" she says. "But it hasn't happened. The context provided by the linked subject gives the language real meaning and everything we do has a purpose. It also ties in with the ethos of the school. Since becoming a language college in 1996 we have tried to create a coherent curriculum with a clear international dimension."
A typical language lesson begins with 10-15 minutes of oral work to introduce or consolidate key structures and vocabulary. Students, in pairs or groups, then set to work on a task inspired by the other subject. This could be anything from compiling a survey on employment trends in Italy to producing a Powerpoint presentation for business travellers to Spain. Students have access to a bank of support materials and the teacher acts as facilitator. "We are continuously assessing how they are getting on," explains Rosanna Raimato. "If it becomes obvous that they need a certain structure, we step in. For example, when the art group was doing a project that included table settings, our language work ended up focusing on the use of prepositions. That is quite complicated in Italian, but they wanted to master it because they needed it."
Every task is designed to encourage the transfer of subject-specific skills into language work. When members of the Italianbusiness studies group were preparing publicity materials in Italian to market Longleat, they used exactly the same criteria as for any other business studies project. "They identified their target audience, analysed their strategy and drew up an action plan," says Rosanna Raimato. "The whole process developed their research skills and promoted independent learning. You only have to look at the reference material in their exercise books to see how individual each one is."
Another feature of the task-based approach is the scope it offers for differentiation. While able students are given every opportunity to extend the range of their language, others focus on more easily achievable goals.
Rosanna Raimato herself has enjoyed exploring another area of the curriculum. "One of the art topics covered Renaissance portraits. We analysed the use of colour, looked at facial expressions, tried to guess the story behind them, all leading up to a written description in Italian. It is very rewarding to help students appreciate something as challenging as Renaissance art. It also gives them another perspective on the teacher. You become more than just a linguist and that earns you respect."
The project has proved so successful, the same principles are now being extended into the KS3 curriculum. Since September links have been established between first and second language courses and work in science, maths, technology, humanities, English, expressive arts and ICT. It is an innovative approach that has earned the school a European Award for Languages and aroused much interest from other schools.
One of the key messages of the Nuffield Inquiry Report was the urgent need to spread the message that languages matter. One of its recommendations was that we provide a more flexible menu to cater for different needs. In a corner of south Gloucestershire, both these issues are being addressed.
Rosanna Raimato will talk about the cross-curricular approach at the ALL West of England branch conference next month. Tel: 01788 546443