Linking language with literacy is proving to be a winning formula. Alison Thomas reports
It is January 6 and preparations are complete. French traditions have been explained, a special song has been rehearsed and the time has come to share out the galettes des rois. All that remains is for a lucky child to find the feve, don the golden crown and choose a partner, while the others dance and sing their song. This is Wick CEVC primary school in South Gloucestershire.
Wick is one of 10 primary schools participating in a National Advisory Centre for Early Language Learning (NACELL) Good Practice Project in partnership with South Gloucestershire LEA and the local language college, Sir Bernard School.
Jo Cole, Year 1 teacher at Wick, says: "The children get so much out of it. Today we used Un Pique-nique, a big book accompanied by the tape of a song that repeats the text of the story. We listened to the song, joined in, then read the story before playing the song again, with words missed out. The children were learning almost without realising it. We also listen for cognates and do lots of work with music, puppets and games. But the main thrust of the project is to link the skills in teaching and learning a modern language with those needed for literacy acquisition."
Mary Rose, senior adviser for South Gloucestershire and driving force behind the project, studied current research and visited schools across Europe before adopting this approach of linking language and literacy teaching. The crowded primary curriculum had convinced her that little and often was the way forward, which precluded the option of inviting in specialists for blocks of time. This was not her only reason for believing that primary teachers were the people for the job. "They are the experts on children's learning styles and how they acquire their mother tongue," she says. "What we have done is to take the literacy strategy framework, identify key skills and learning objectives and set them in a similar framework for modern languages. The methodology is firmly founded on primary philosophy and best primary practice."
Few primary teachers are linguists and this has been addressed in various ways. Two French assistants, funded by Sir Bernard Lovell School, provide cultural input and authentic models for pronunciation. The teachers themselves receive induction training from the Centre for Information on Language Learning and Research (CILT), while the language college provides twilight training sessions and specially tailored multimedia materials. A teachers' network meets monthly, run by an advisory teacher from a participating school and attended by the LEA literacy consultant and Rosanna Raimato, curriculum director for international and cultural studies at Sir Bernard Lovell.
"My role is supportive and the impetus comes from the primary staff," she explains. "For example, last week one teacher brought along a list of expressions for classroom management and after she had introduced it, we practised them together. It says a lot for their commitment when you see overworked teachers doing pairwork at 4.30pm on a Thursday in the middle of SATs!"
According to Mary Rose, one explanation for their unbounded enthusiasm is the pupils' enjoyment. They pester their teachers for more. Another is the opportunity to be creative. "Nobody is telling them to do it this way, this day, this time. They can explore their own avenues and they love that. I think it is also because they can see the linkages. It is not an add-on. There is complete cohesion."
As the teachers gain confidence, they find more and more ways of slipping French into odd moments of the day. "That is the whole point," says Jo Cole. "I write it into my timetable but I am at liberty to change. If the children look outside and notice the weather, they are just as likely to say 'Il pleut' as 'It's raining'. It is fully integrated." Ppils are given a sense of progression through a series of "I can" statements linked to the European Languages Portfolio developed by CILT - particularly useful for those who move on to schools outside the LEA. "It may not be the complete answer, but it does give an informed department an indication that a child has prior learning that needs to be built on," says Mary Rose. "I think the whole issue of key stage 23 continuity and progression is much higher on everybody's agenda now."
Continuity is also a priority at Sir Bernard Lovell School, where extra-curricular activities in French are laid on for the half-year group that starts out with German. French as a second foreign language begins in January, preceded in the autumn term by a language awareness course, giving pupils ample opportunity to develop their previously acquired skills.
Jo Cole's first prodigies are now in Year 4 and it will be some time before they reach secondary school. In the meantime, Rosanna Raimato has already noticed a difference in the current Year 7, although many arrived with only one year of French behind them. A key benefit is their understanding of structure. "They know what a verb and an adjective are, and what they do," she says. "This is the direct outcome of the LEA's decision to base its approach on the literacy framework. Instead of compartmentalising foreign languages, pupils see language as a whole."
She has also been struck by the dramatic effect on motivation, particularly among boys and pupils with learning difficulties, who vie with each other to speak out in class. There is still work to be done, however, as their confidence takes a knock when they encounter more complex reading, writing and listening tasks. "We are now looking at the crossover between KS2 and 3 to ensure continuity," she says. "At the moment the primary framework relies mostly on speaking and word play, which is fantastic in terms of pronunciation and ear for the language. But there is a limited amount of individual reading and listening or creative writing. It sounds as if I am asking a lot - and I am. But it would be tremendous if primary teachers could do more work of that kind with children who find it difficult. That is what leads to demotivation."
Despite the success of the project, she has reservations about government proposals to facilitate the spread of primary languages by relying on specialist language colleges. "If language colleges are responsible for delivery, I don't see how this can realistically be sustained," she says. "What about those with 100 feeder schools? On the other hand, most primary teachers lack the confidence to take on this role without professional development. That requires major input, not just from language colleges, but from LEAs and other sources."
She believes the strength of the South Gloucestershire project lies in its collaborative nature and the fact that the primary teachers are in the driving seat. "Their commitment to bringing more French into the classroom is wonderful. If we were responsible for planning their courses and putting their resources together, I don't think it would generate so much enthusiasm."
Led by Mary Rose, an international learning and research centre is being established at Sir Bernard Lovell. Areas to be explored include literacy and modern languages in the secondary phase, initial teacher training and the roles of LEAs and language colleges.
Visit www.nacell.org.uk for a downloadable version of the Languages Portfolio and information on a CILT video on successful strategies 'Making it Happen' (Central Books, pound;17.50) Tel: 020 8986 4854).
'Literacy and Early Foreign Language Learning Framework' is available from the Advisory and ProfessionalCurriculum Development Service, South Gloucestershire Education Service, Bowling Hill, Chipping Sodbury, BS37 6JX. Tel: 01454 863333.