A fluent way to better French

7th February 2003 at 00:00
PRIMARY teachers' lack of confidence in French and their inability to keep pace with curriculum demands has persuaded most Clackmannanshire schools to opt for specialist staff.

The authority is not convinced class teachers can deliver on their own and is to continue its three-year-old trial of specialists working alongside primary staff trained in French. One teacher told Stirling University researchers in an independent analysis: "Thank goodness the children will be taught correctly at last."

Some 5,000 Scottish teachers - around 40 in Clackmannanshire - have been through the 27-day training programme since the Modern Languages in Primary School (MLPS) programme was introduced almost 10 years ago. But questions remain about the effectiveness of the strategy.

Sandy Wilson, head of education in the authority, last week told councillors that at national level he shared doubts about the capacity of the MLPS programme to establish and maintain skill levels.

"For some teachers, it was a step too far and they did not feel confident enough that what they were modelling to children was successful," Mr Wilson said.

The authority's alternative model, backed by the Scottish Executive, allows specialists to visit regularly. Researchers found that 90 per cent of primary teachers were more comfortable being support teachers rather than leading in French. Planning for French took up much less time.

Schools told researchers that the specialists brought more consistency and expert teaching. Teachers said the specialists refreshed their knowledge of French, boosted confidence, improved accent and pronunciation, and offered new ways of teaching. One said that the specialist had taken "a load off my shoulders".

However, some are concerned at being relegated to a role as classroom assistant or helper. The researchers found some evidence of deskilling.

Most teachers say that children are picking up languages more quickly and remember vocabulary more easily. Others were disappointed at the timing of the visits and the methodologies used. Some complained about the new emphasis on writing and copying at the expense of speaking, which was blamed for some pupil disaffection.

Several teachers said that by P6 pupils were already too self-conscious to speak French and favoured lowering the age they were introduced to the language.

Principal teachers in the council's three secondaries said that pupils coming into S1 had been exposed to lots of games, activities and songs. Two praised the good work done in primary and said there was no need to "unteach".

But the Stirling researchers comment: "Whereas one PT had observed that the more able pupils were coming up with a sounder grasp of the language, the poorer ability children were already arriving disaffected with French to some extent.

"A second PT had observed a similar difference between more and less able pupils, saying that the least able seemed the most switched off from French. The third PT alluded to a comment by the visiting specialist that some pupils do begin to struggle with French before the end of P7.

"This PT added that pupils' experiences or perceptions of failure in primary do have implications for motivation in secondary. One PT colleague confirmed this view, claiming that the ability range in S1 is much more obvious with children arriving feeling either that they are 'no good at French' or 'have done French'."

One principal teacher said that French was no longer seen as an exciting subject in secondary. In a secondary where half the pupils were switched to German in S1, the PT felt that some children welcomed the change after two years of French.

Two principal teachers said the specialist initiative had not led to significant progress and what had been learnt in primary could usually be overtaken by secondary teachers within three weeks of the start of term.

One said pupils know a lot of words but not necessarily how to string them together.

The absence of reading and writing in primary meant they had to go over some of the ground again. Some felt they had "done it before".

The secondary which favours German against French strongly defends its strategy. Standard grade results were as good as and sometimes better for German than French and lower-achieving boys tend to do better.

The researchers conclude that with the move away from compulsory modern languages to an entitlement it was not surprising there were problems, such as finding time for French in the overcrowded upper primary curriculum or using a drop-in teacher plus the specialist in an unfamiliar class.

Drop-in staff stepped in when the class teacher was not trained in the use of French.

Evaluation of the Clackmannanshire MLPS visiting specialist programme is by Lesley Low, Dick Johnstone and Jean Conacher of Stirling University.

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