Bridging the canals of Venice and the banks of the River Clyde

17th December 2010 at 00:00
An immersion project is plunging primary pupils into their Italian heritage

Older people at the St Aloysius' College Christmas concert were in tears. They had watched P2s and P3s trill a festive song in flawless Italian, with not a hint of a Glaswegian twang. For those who arrived in Scotland decades ago, whose families insisted they spoke English to avoid antipathy toward "Tallies", it stirred profound feelings. The Italian language was being revitalised by children of six and seven.

The first Italian immersion project in Scotland is in its second year at St Aloysius' College Junior School, which sits just off Sauchiehall Street beside Glasgow School of Art. In 2008, the Jesuit Catholic independent school was approached by the Italian consulate with an offer of funding and a teacher for a partial-immersion class.

Many parents enthused about the idea, although there was substantial opposition from some who perceived it as divisive. Some teachers had concerns about workload. After a successful pilot in 2008, involving 19 P1s receiving an hour a day of classes in Italian, most of the resistance subsided, although five parents withdrew their children amid concerns about the intensity of the programme which can leave pupils tired. One parent said her child "hated" it and had suffered in other parts of the curriculum.

Today, 58 pupils across P2-4 spend two hours a day learning entirely in Italian, with one of two Italian teachers. Not all parents of Italian heritage want their children involved, but many without Italian roots apply on the basis of cognitive benefits.

The school commissioned Glasgow University researchers Hazel Crichton and Brian Templeton to scrutinise the programme, which has had few parallels in Scotland. (French immersion at Walker Road Primary, in a deprived part of Aberdeen, ended in 2008 after eight years, when neither the city council nor the Scottish Government could provide funding.)

The researchers found P2s had no problems understanding an Italian teacher speaking at normal speed. The children could respond fluently in Italian to targeted questions, but often answered in English to less familiar requests.

"Given that the children in this class had had barely six months of partial immersion in Italian, the level of understanding and the contributions they were able to make in Italian were very impressive," they write in a draft report.

The tests, devised by Durham University to examine both attainment and how children learn, found no disadvantage to progress.

The pupils are "overwhelmingly positive" about Italian, says the report. They want to learn more languages, and soon use their Italian outside the classroom. Head of the junior school, Aileen Brady, tells of one pupil holidaying in Italy; a shopkeeper who heard him speak started talking to the boy in Italian, convinced he must be native.

Pupils also show an appreciation of Italian culture, mentioning Leonardo da Vinci, Monte Bianco and carnevale. And they are less formal during Italian lessons, reflecting an Italian style of teaching that places more importance on relationships and skills in early primary than more academic methods in Scotland, according to consulate staff.

Subjects such as PE, music and art are taught in Italian, but class teachers still have to fit a week's work into two-thirds of the normal time. Both class teachers, who reported that pupils always asked to go to the toilet in Italian, told the researchers the project should continue.

The teachers did feel under pressure, however, and suggested there should be only one hour a day of Italian, to give them more time to work with the children. The P2 teacher said the pupils had less time for co-operative learning and that teaching styles had had to be quite limited.

Dr Brady is aware that the teachers feel "insecure" and that it is crucial to give them the support they need if the project is to work. There is also a "huge" amount of work involved in ensuring Italian does not take precedence over other school activities.

Despite such demands, Dr Brady has ambitious plans. She hopes that, as the pioneering P1s of 2008 progress, pupils will be sitting Intermediate Italian in P7, then Highers and Advanced Highers in the early years of secondary, with material tailored for younger sensibilities.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk

Bilingual immersion: research evidence

International research, analysed by Hazel Crichton and Brian Templeton, consistently indicates that pupils involved in immersion and partial- immersion programmes perform as well as, and sometimes better than, their peers.

There are claims that the brain's ability to deal with two languages means bilingual pupils are better at multitasking. Piet Van de Craen, a Belgian academic, asserts that scans of bilingual children's brains show they expend less effort in tasks of reasoning. Children taught bilingually do mix languages, but this is widely considered a sign of mastery rather than confusion.

In Canada, where immersion in French is common, "expressive skills" such as speaking and writing have not been as highly developed as the "passive skills" of understanding and reading, particularly where children could not interact with native speakers outside the classroom. In Scotland, research has found Gaelic immersion pupils' levels of written work were not as high as their speech and reading might have indicated.

Very few studies have identified disadvantages to bilingual immersion. Those that do tend to focus on practicalities such as finding suitable accommodation or qualified teachers.

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