Curriculum: Languages - Grasping new skills

27th February 2009 at 00:00
Teaching a new language alongside primary pupils' first and second languages can create a multilingual environment that breeds self- confidence

In her language portrait, Gemma coloured her head red for English, as this is the language in which she thinks and speaks. Her heart is green for Ireland, where her parents are from. And her feet are blue for French, which she's learning with Mrs Szeless. "It's a nice example of everyone in the class having something to celebrate, regardless of whether they speak another language at home or not," says Helen Groothues, a primary teacher and primary language advisor for CILT, the National Centre for Languages.

The lesson was devised by the European Picture Book Collection to allow children to show which languages and cultures they have come into contact with. A few years ago, a child like Gemma might not have thought too much about her cultural make-up. Speaking English and living in an English- speaking society, it might not have occurred to her.

According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families' (DCSF) figures from January 2008, English is now a second language for one in seven primary school pupils in England. Focusing on another entirely new language together can be a unifying factor.

"If the school has an ethos where different languages and cultures are celebrated, there's already that impetus to learn," says Ms Groothues, who has worked at a primary school in London where 45 different languages were spoken.

"Rather than separating it into home languages, modern foreign languages and English, it's all under the umbrella of `language'," she says.

Brenainn Lambkin is one of two Spanish specialists at Southwold Primary School in Hackney, London. "I've noticed that through learning a new language such as Spanish, the children have more empathy for those who have come into the class not speaking English," he says. "They realise what it feels like."

About half of the school's 350 pupils are given Spanish lessons by the two specialists and a teaching assistant from Columbia. "It's nice to have something that they can all learn together," says Mr Lambkin.

"There is a girl in my class whose first language is Portuguese and she really likes learning Spanish because it's quite similar to her first language, but also because she's learning at the same pace as the other children."

English as an additional language (EAL) children often shy away from writing and while they may have fluency in their spoken English, formal written assessment is much more challenging. For them, learning a completely new language is beneficial because it puts everyone in the same boat.

Nicola Davies, chair of the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum, agrees: "Language learning can be helpful as English speaking pupils encounter the kinds of problems that new arrivals face as well as promoting intercultural understanding."

Karen Turner is a lecturer in education in the Department of Learning, Curriculum and Communication at the Institute of Education. "For once, I find myself in agreement with government policy," she says. "What you're really trying to create in the early stages is a language-rich environment, which encourages children to be curious about language and languages - first, second and foreign language."

The flexibility in the key stage 2 (ages seven to 11) Framework for Languages means that a new language can be integrated into the curriculum in activities, such as art and singing, even if children in the class speak a variety of languages and are at varying levels of English or the new language.

"If you started French or Spanish with a class who had Bengali as their first language, you would make reference to that, by drawing on children's knowledge of Bengali as well as their knowledge of English as they learnt the new language," says Dr Turner.

Primary schools' growing diverstiy could be the incentive that language teaching has needed. Because it isn't a core subject, language is sometimes perceived as less important and its dependence on teachers' skills mean that schools often rely on a language specialist coming in or having a designated language week. Ms Davies says that there are recognised additional difficulties when teaching pupils with varying levels of language. "Sometimes it's great: you could get an African heritage pupil who's fluent in French helping out," she says. "But sometimes it's trickier for teachers to cater for the different levels if some pupils are already familiar with the language they are teaching."

Building links with complementary schools has increasingly become an excellent way of educating pupils in their mother language and nurturing links with their heritage. But it also promotes more enthusiasm and provides resources for learning new languages.

At Downderry Primary School in Bromley, Kent, the majority of the school's 450 pupils speak the Indian language Tamil as their mother language but there is also a large proportion of pupils whose mother tongue is Turkish, French, Albanian and Polish. Added to the fact that the majority of the pupils are at the early stages in speaking English, new arrivals often start school throughout the year at different times.

The school has embraced its pupils' heritage by teaming up with a complementary school - the Tamil Academy of Language and Arts in Lewisham - and their project won a European Award in 2007 for incorporating pupils' community languages into their language learning activities.

Siva Pillai is the co-ordinator and director of the Tamil Academy and says the academy's teachers and volunteers play a crucial role in bridging the gap between the parents and the teachers.

"If the teachers have a problem with a child, for example if a child is late or if they need to discuss their progress, they'll give me a call," he says. The academy also translates letters home and any important documents.

The initiative started in 2002, when Connecting Parents, part of Community Education Lewisham (CEL), became aware of a growing number of Tamil parents who couldn't speak English and were isolated from what was going on with their children at school. Mr Pillai translated an invitation to a coffee morning that was sent to all Tamil parents in local schools and parents then completed questionnaires about what skills they wanted to develop.

As a result, Downderry School made space in the school timetable for an ICT breakfast club for parents, a six-week introduction to English, run by CEL and classes to help with citizenship and driving theory tests. Some parents have gone on to take Tamil classes after school and workshops for parents have continued to expand - some of the most recent including a "knit and natter group" and "icing cakes".

Part of the issue in learning languages with EAL pupils is the perceived hierarchy between different languages. Our education system has conventionally taught modern European languages, mainly French, Spanish and German. Because exams are not yet commonplace in languages from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe where many bilingual pupils are from, nurturing pupils' mother languages took longer to be seen as advantageous.

"There is a language status issue," says Ms Davies. "Quite a lot of the policy is still favouring a fairly restrictive number of languages - often European languages because of the perceived status of those languages - but this is changing. We would say that there are advantages to teaching less traditional languages in primary schools."

Siva Pillai is in no doubt of his project's benefits for the language abilities of his pupils: "It has provided a positive context for children to develop their bilingualism and thus to develop into excellent linguists," he says. "Even children who don't have Tamil as a first language are keen to learn and myself and the teaching assistants build the scaffolding for them."

As a result of the increased profile of Tamil language and culture, learning French by immersing it into school life is perfectly natural. Penny Turpin is EAL co-ordinator at Downderry Primary School: "I have a list of Tamil vocab that I incorporate when I'm with pupils who are new arrivals, so when they are learning French in class, it's natural for them to use it throughout the curriculum," she says.

"From asking questions in French in different subject lessons to singing or taking the register. They don't think `this is a French lesson' - it's fully integrated."

The school recently made a Bollywood movie that involved all pupils and teachers learning Hindi and Bollywood dancing. "They absolutely love it," says Mrs Turpin. "They were much quicker at picking up languages than the teachers. It's not tokenism - it's our inclusive ethos."

Primary teachers may not consider themselves experienced enough to teach a language, and might even feel horrified about revisiting a subject that they were glad to give up at school. But as Ms Groothues says: "It's something that all schools are going to have to deal with, and there is a wealth of training, and resources out there."

Tapping into the skills of the bilingual pupils and parents is a mutually beneficial relationship and one that will instill a united love of languages in pupils from any background.



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