Primary teachers are encouraged by a scheme that offers pupils - and their secondary contemporaries - easy steps to mastering a new tongue. Diana Hinds reports
When Asset Languages first appeared in 2004, Suzanne Webster, a primary French teacher in Birmingham, says she "jumped at it". Asset Languages is a voluntary assessment scheme, devised by OCR, an exam body. Suzanne Webster had been looking for just such a scheme to boost her children's confidence.
"I really wanted to accredit the children as they leave primary school and give them something nationally recognised that their secondary schools would have to take notice of," she says.
The Government's National Languages Strategy, launched in 2002, set out an entitlement for all primary children by 2010 to learn a foreign language.
Last autumn, primaries were told to find an hour a week for the subject in key stage 2. Having won the tender to develop an assessment scheme, OCR piloted Asset Languages in 40 schools from September 2004 and it was officially launched in May last year.
What the scheme does is to flesh out the strategy's "Languages Ladder", to build a structured framework and offering assessments and certificates at each level in each of the four skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing. It is designed to suit all ages up to adults.
The pilot began with French, German and Spanish, but is already moving into Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Urdu and Panjabi, with more languages in the pipeline. So far there are three different levels - breakthrough, preliminary and intermediate - each with three grades. Performance is measured in a series of "can-do" statements. For instance, breakthrough grade 1 speaking is "I can sayrepeat a few words and short simple phrases"; intermediate grade 9 speaking, "I can take part in a discussion giving and justifying my opinions and ideas".
Suzanne Webster, who is also an advisory teacher in her subject for Birmingham, says she was attracted to Asset because it assesses the four skills separately (which is more encouraging to a child who, for instance, speaks well but finds writing difficult), and because of its breakthrough test for children in the early stages of learning a language. Last year she did both assessments with her Year 6 pupils and all of them emerged with something positive.
"The children loved getting the certificates and we had a lot of positive feedback from parents, " she says. Her only criticism is that in places the scheme needs to be made more language-specific, rather than, for instance, including the same set vocabulary for every language.
"There are some details that need ironing out, but the principle is fabulous," she says.
Barrie Hunt, director of the Asset Languages project at OCR, believes the scheme's chief virtue is its "huge flexibility". Unusually for an assessment scheme, it does not specify what type of course should be taught, but leaves it up to the school to determine what will best suit different groups of pupils.
"This is an opportunity for teachers to create new and more relevant courses," he says. "We are very aware that assessment has had a bad press in recent years - but, used in the right way, it can be a very positive force. It can help pupil motivation and help teachers understand pupils'
progress, giving them an idea where they should be aiming."
CILT, the national centre for languages, has warmly welcomed Asset, not least for the certification it provides. "People often start a language very enthusiastically but they soon realise it's going to be a long slog to talk like a native speaker," says Teresa Tinsley, CILT's assistant communications director. "Short-term goals help people recognise their progress."
In secondary schools, language learning is compulsory up to the age of 14, with an "entitlement" from 14 to 16. But Teresa Tinsley says some secondaries "have used the loophole of disapplication" to stop language teaching at key stage 4 for all pupils.
"There has been a polarisation at secondary level," she says. "Some schools are innovatory, but, in other schools, there is a despondency and languages have declined."
Asset hopes it may be able to help here, too. Sonya Grant, a teacher at Moat community college in Leicester, took part in the pilot with Year 10 French. "It was a real boost before GCSE and made them (the pupils) realise they were better at languages than they thought they were," she says. She now plans to use Asset formal assessments with Year 9 pupils, so that even those not opting for GCSE will end up with a nationally recognised certificate.
"I hope it will motivate them to work hard until the end of Year 9 - and then perhaps some of them will decide to carry on."