Children often lose their bilingual skills in secondary school, but a method for improving literacy is helping to reverse the trend, Douglas Blane reports
Half of all primary pupils in Gaelic-medium education go into English-speaking classes when they move to secondary school. This means most of the bilingual and cultural benefits are lost from that time on, says Jean Nisbet, who currently manages a national project aimed at countering the trend.
"By the time they go to secondary school, of course, they are fluent Gaelic speakers. But they are 11-year-old fluent speakers. So when they drop out, their language stops growing. Eventually they often lose it."
Anxiety about being able to cope with different and perhaps greater language demands in secondary school is a barrier to continuing with Gaelic-medium education, says the East Ayrshire quality improvement officer.
"So what we are doing is creating a bridge between primary and secondary schools. We are giving the children techniques in reading, writing, speaking and listening - that they will use in just the same way in the secondary as in the primary."
The aims of these techniques are improved understanding and motivation through structured activities that support and guide the pupils in their interaction with any piece of writing. Collectively they are known as directed activities related to texts (Darts).
"We've been working on this project with Anne Neil, a Strathclyde University lecturer," says Ms Nisbet. "She started doing research in this area when she was still a teacher, and wondered why some of her kids were struggling with literacy.
"She introduced the methods in the classroom, understands how they work and is constantly refining them. In this project she has trained six teachers to use the methods in Gaelic-medium schools around Scotland - in Aberdeen, Argyll and Bute, East Ayrshire, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and the Western Isles."
Darts take a variety of forms, explains Ms Nisbet. Techniques for helping pupils tackle unfamiliar words are among the most essential: "Whether the kids are learning in Gaelic, English or any other language, coming to a new word can stop them dead. They get stuck, but they don't need to."
Strategies for making progress include looking for familiar roots in a mystery word, reading before and after it to see if context offers clues, consulting a dictionary or asking the teacher. Giving up is not an option.
"A lot of Darts are about breaking text into manageable chunks," says Ms Nisbet. "An 80-page book puts a poor reader right off. But if kids are set specific questions - 'Why has the author introduced this character?' 'What are the big incidents in the plot?' - it gives them a structure and a way into a story that they wouldn't otherwise have."
Coming to a book or a piece of text with specific questions and objectives provides pupils with a clear idea of what is expected of them. It also improves their understanding and recall of the contents long after they have finished reading. The process of interrogating a text begins even before a book is opened, says Ms Nisbet.
"You don't teach reading in isolation. First the teacher gets them talking about it, as well as listening, sharing ideas and helping each other.
"So she'll ask the kids to look at the front cover of a new book, read its title and the author's name, and study the picture if there is one. If there's a person in the picture, how does he look - sad, happy, excited?
"Readers are then taught to turn to the back cover and read the blurb. The teacher will ask if it sounds interesting and, if it does, to pick out a word that makes them want to open the book and read the story."
Even then it is still not time to dive into chapter 1. More information for the reading detectives can be gleaned inside the front cover. When and where was the book published? Was it written originally in Gaelic?
"That's a big thing for our kids. A lot of books we've used in the past have been translated from English. So the cultural background hasn't always been there. But now, through Storlann, the Gaelic national resource centre, all our books are commissioned from Gaelic speakers and come with good Gaelic idioms and vocabulary. That makes a huge difference."
Resources produced by the two-year Flat (Future Learning and Teaching) project include a set of classroom activities in Gaelic and English, and a DVD of lessons illustrating them in action. But the real core of the enterprise, says Ms Nisbet, is the group of six Gaelic-medium teachers, trained in the Darts methods, who have been using and developing them in their schools this past year.
The plan for this session is to roll the methods out to all Gaelic-medium primary classes in Scotland. So Anne Neil and the six pilot teachers will train new trainers in each of the authorities that currently offers Gaelic-medium education.
The final piece of the Flat jigsaw will see the trainers released from time to time to model Darts to secondary colleagues, and support them in introducing the methods in their own lessons, says Ms Nisbet.
"They will also mentor new recruits, as they become trainers in their own schools and local authorities, using a whole range of methods - telephone, email, text messaging, visits and video-conferencing."
TYPICAL DIRECTED ACTIVITIES RELATED TO TEXT (DARTS)
* Use a provided word list to tell a partner the story of a chapter of a book.
* Devise a word list for the next chapter.
* Compile a conflict map of a story.
* For a particular scene imagine a character's thoughts and record these along with the spoken dialogue; then act out the scene.
* Complete character profiles for the story's main protagonists.
* Draw up a prediction board and compare its contents with what actually happens.
* Make a list of particularly effective words used by an author, and explain their appeal.
* Analyse a plot's structure in terms of opening, build-up, resolution, problem and ending.