In competition with each other

13th June 2008 at 01:00
With more subject choices available to pupils in secondary, there is a fear that modern languages will suffer. Elizabeth Buie reports
With more subject choices available to pupils in secondary, there is a fear that modern languages will suffer. Elizabeth Buie reports

Language teachers will have to make the case for their subject as they may be "almost in competition" with other departments, they were warned at the weekend.

Joanna McPake, director of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, said modern languages were facing a "historic change", and she doubted whether the proposal for a Scottish Baccalaureate in languages, announced by the Education Secretary last week, would have the desired effect.

How many schools would be able to offer the two modern languages required under the new bac, she asked? Pupils might be excluded from doing the qualification from the start, unless they were able to study a second language at their local FE college, Ms McPake suggested.

She told a national SCILT conference at Stirling University: "We have to think about how to market languages."

Modern languages teachers would have to persuade pupils and their parents - even their headteachers - of the value of taking a language through to the end of secondary, now that pupils had more subject choices.

Ms McPake expressed concern that A Curriculum for Excellence, particularly in S1-3, might not provide sufficient time for modern languages to be taught properly, and this was one of the reasons pupils were disappointed in their proficiency with modern languages.

A report by the European education network Eurydice shows that Scotland is bottom of the league in terms of hours devoted to language learning - about half of the time spent in countries such as the Netherlands and Spain.

It also suggests that pupils should receive at least 200 hours of language learning by P7 and at least 400 to get them up to Standard grade level. "How many Scottish pupils are getting that?" she asked.

The report, Citizens of a Multi-lingual World, set out an entitlement of 500 hours of language learning up to Standard grade. "It does not look to me as if that is the way things will be played this time round," Ms McPake commented. "Research shows you need time to learn a language."

Brian Templeton, a modern languages education specialist at Glasgow University who has led the development of the modern languages draft outcomes for the new curriculum, said he envisaged that some pupils might reach Level 3 proficiency in a language before the end of S3 and might therefore be tempted to start learning another language. Feedback from the online questionnaire on the draft outcomes suggested teachers were positive about the guidelines up to the end of primary, but more questions were being asked about what assessment would look like in secondary, he said.

Ernie Spencer, also a member of the education faculty of Glasgow University and a former schools inspector, told the conference he had been struck by three factors which might explain Finland's dominance of the PISA comparative tables, relating in particular to Finnish students' proficiency in English:

- they had lots of informal opportunities to learn English - through sub-titled films and pop music; he wondered if the schools intranet, Glow, could offer similar possibilities for Scottish pupils;

- the Finnish school system made pupils work very hard, particularly in developing their vocabulary and grammar;

- it involved them in real-life opportunities to use their English, such as preparing CVs and carrying out mock job interviews.

Mr Spencer suggested modern languages teachers should learn lessons from the synthetic phonics method of teaching literacy. This taught the recognition of letters visually and phonologically, as well as how to build words through reading and writing them at the same time. In the case of some modern language teaching, there had been a misguided tendency not to get pupils to write, because teachers thought it was too hard for them.


Teachers at a Glasgow secondary believe one of their pupils is a perfect example of the kind of student who would benefit from the Scottish Languages Baccalaureate.

Paul Duffy (right), who is in S6 at Holyrood Secondary, gained full marks for Higher Spanish last year - a very rare achievement - and an A for Higher French. This year, staff say, he is on track for As in both Higher German and Higher Italian. The school timetable did not allow him to attend formal classes in either of these subjects this year, so he relied on an hour per week's tuition from an Italian student teacher and learning German at evening classes.

"Apart from being a natural and having a real ear for languages, Paul works hard," says Helen Onorati, head of the modern languages department and his French teacher last year. "He researches words and is deeply into grammar."

"Having a sound grounding in one language has meant Paul has been able to see the similarities. Something like a language Baccalaureate would absolutely suit him, providing an overview of language rather than having them in different compartments."

The idea of such a qualification also appeals to Paul, whose love of languages began when he was five and his mum bought him 'My First 100 Words in French'. Later, his passion for languages was further encouraged by his P5 teacher, who was fluent in French and Italian. "She used to say random things in the class and I was intrigued to know what she was saying," Paul explained.

In September, Paul will begin a degree in interpreting and translating at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. But first he plans to make the most of the summer holiday, heading off to Spain to stay with friends made on school exchanges in S4 and S5, and also to Malawi with the school.

"Maybe he'll pick up another language while he's there," said Mrs Onorati.

Emma Seith

Photograph: Chris Clark.

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