Benefits of bilingualism

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Concerned at the relatively few entry points into Welsh-medium education, Jane Davidson, Welsh minister for education and lifelong learning, quite literally went to great lengths to study different models of immersion teaching - she journeyed to the Canadian provinces of Labrador, Newfoundland and New Brunswick where pupils have been taught through the twin media of English and French for generations.

Speaking afterwards, in September 2001, Ms Davidson declared there was a great deal of similarity between Wales and Canada. ("For one thing, a positive attitude towards having two languages.") There, however, the similarities seemed to end.

"Normally in Wales, parents choose either Welsh-medium or English-medium education when a child is five years old," she said. "I want to see more opportunities for children to move from the English-medium into the Welsh-medium sector if they wish to do so."

Having seen the way her Canadian counterparts tackled the challenge of bilingualism, Ms Davidson became convinced that the intensive French programme offered a blueprint for Welsh education authorities to follow.

The seeds of an idea had been sown: three years after that fact-finding tour of Canada, more than 100 Welsh pupils last year took part in Year 6 pilots based around three secondary schools and using three different models.

For five to six weeks late in the summer term the youngsters received an intensive course in which 90 per cent of their lessons were taught in Welsh.

"Using the Canadian Intensive Core French provision as a prompt, we propose to establish pilot projects providing opportunities for more pupils to move into the Welsh-medium sector or study more subjects through the medium of Welsh than would otherwise have been the case," said a Welsh Language Board spokesman.

"Last year 14 pupils followed this course and this group are now much further advanced with their language than would normally be expected. This year we are expecting a higher number," said Huw Alun Roberts, headteacher at Ysgol Maes Garmon in Mold.

"Although we have had only 12 months' experience of the project, we are very positive about the progress made by the pupils."

His views are borne out by a Welsh Language report which acknowledges that while early results were "mainly impressionistic", pupils' development in speaking, reading and writing demonstrated notable progression in all Year 6 models during the 2004 pilot.

"Year 6 pupils and teachers commented favourably and positively on their participation," the report continued. "The majority of schools have also opted to participate in the 2005 pilot."

Pilots have also been established at the start of Year 3 for pupils moving to key stage 2 and, latterly, for pupils at the end of Year 5.

Another north Wales school, Ysgol Glan Conwy, has since September been running one of the Year 3 projects.

"It's important children are able to converse in both languages," said headteacher Sheelagh Thomas Hughes. "The earlier they are introduced to anything the better."

Jane Davidson may have had to draw inspiration from Canadian teaching methods, yet she feels that Wales has something to teach other nations. "My intention is to make Wales a country where people across the world look to us as a place where they can learn about how to teach a second language."

WALES EDUCATION 2005 ADDYSG CYMRU

Delyth Roberts will speak about the Welsh Language Board's immersion project on Thursday, May 26 at 12.30pm in Welsh and at 1pm in English.

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