Explorers of lands and languages

9th September 2005 at 01:00
A visit to their link school on Reunion island enabled teachers to integrate French and geography lessons with impressive results for both subjects, reports Carolyn O'Grady

The volcano on the small island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean is the most active in the world, and the island is also susceptible to devastating cyclones. This didn't deter geography teachers Sarah Hallett and Judith Woodfield from Tile Hill Wood School in Coventry from visiting this hard-to-reach island last year. The visit was made possible by the Franco-British Council Awards given to schools for partnership projects.

Tile Hill Wood planned to expand its penfriend link with the Coll ge de la Marine at Vincendo St Joseph (pictured above) into a curriculum link which would enrich its teaching of geography through the medium of French. They won pound;2,000 to put the project into action.

While on the island teachers also exchanged resources; bought textbooks and other materials from shops; and made their own materials, including tapes of children talking about their recent experience of cyclone Dina. One of several schools taking part in the Content and Language Integration Project (CLIP), which explores teaching through a foreign language, Tile Hill Wood has been teaching geography to Year 7 groups in French for three years. The school is so impressed with the results that it is now committed to giving all its students a bilingual experience in geography, RE, PHSE or science.

"The results were stunning," says geography teacher Judith Woodfield. Over a year, mixed-ability students in Year 7 had improved across the board, but groups who did "immersion French" with the same teacher improved much faster. The improvement was across all language skills areas, with all students reaching level 5 in reading and speaking. Not surprising you might say - after all, they were getting more French. More surprising was the effect on geography. Not only did geography results not suffer, but those of lower ability did better than expected. "This dispels the idea that languages are for the very brightest students," says languages teacher Ana Neofitou.

Armed with such results, Tile Hill Wood is preparing to offer immersion classes throughout the school. It has also been trialling enrichment materials about Reunion with groups in Years 8 and 9, much of which is authentic material collected during the teachers' visit. "The aim is to reduce students' fear of accessing information in other languages," says Judith Woodfield. "We don't want them to be afraid of technical language, and we do want them to become not only independent learners, but independent, international learners."

So as part of a module on developing tourism for the island of Reunion, groups of nine students have to identify the economic, social and environmental problems of the French department using a densely informative statistical gazetteer of the island. A Year 8 worksheet asks children to study information on Reunion's climate and then to answer questions on les myst res du climat de la Reunion. Why, for example is the temperature higher nearer the sea and why are the house roofs painted white?

Another worksheet on a recent cyclone which devastated the island contains vivid photographs brought back by the teachers. Students also write to their pen pals in Reunion. Most correspondence is through packets of letters but in some cases students email each other. They are encouraged to ask their penfriends questions related to the curriculum. For example, in a module of work called "Volcano: friend or foe?" students will ask them whether they consider the volcanic landscape to be an advantage or disadvantage to their way of life.

Teachers are also in email contact with their Reunion counterparts, and recently the relationship with the college has grown deeper with the island school's decision to teach humanities through English, which means they need resources from the UK school. At Tile Hill Wood the choice of subjects to be taught in French (the language taught to all its students) next year is being decided on the basis of which teachers can speak the language. "In theory no subject is better than any other for teaching in this way," says Ana Neofitou.

Lessons begin with a mixture of French and English, but by half term are almost entirely in French. Judith Woodfield says this progression has helped her own French (A-level standard) as well. Pupils can ask for help, but only in French. Resources, including the workbook that accompanies the course, and the children's own work, are entirely in that language, but the workbook contains helpful vocabulary and phrases and is more heavily illustrated than most workbooks. The word most often used by a group of Year 7s, all learning geography in French, was "fun".

"I wouldn't like to go back to doing ordinary geography, it would seem boring," says one. Yes, it has been hard and confusing sometimes: "It took me quite a long time to feel comfortable in the lesson", is another comment, but none of the pupils appears fazed by the thought of doing another subject in French. They feel more confident in that language and say their pronunciation has improved. Notably different in attitude is a group who hadn't experienced immersion French. There the words "hard" and "confusing" came up far more often. At the very least, immersion teaching seems to have taken the fear out of languages.

For more information on the CILT Content and Language Integration Project (CLIP) a three-year study of bilingual learning run by CILT and Nottingham University go to: www.cilt.org.ukclip A national conference on the project was held in London in July

* The Franco-British Council awards an annual prize to three state or private primary or secondary schools in Britain to carry out a school partnership project. In 2006 the awards will go to those schools with the most interesting ideas for a sport project with a partner school in France.

Details of how to enter for the awards will be available from October on www.francobritishcouncil.org.uk

* www.tes.co.ukmake_the_link

Tips

* Use a lot of visual resources and a wide variety of activities to appeal to different sorts of learners.

* Have prompts available - phrases which help them speak spontaneously, eg Comment ecrit onI? (How do you spellI?) These can be on the wall or in their workbooks.

* Use a point system to encourage speaking. Anytime they use any French language they get a point or two and log it in their book. These mount up and lead to a reward.

* Subject and language teachers must liaise closely so that the work of each can support the other and they can learn from each other.

* Don't water down the subject content.

* At the end of each module introduce a big piece of work for students to do, eg a PowerPoint presentation which always has both an aural and written justification.

* Use writing frames which scaffold writing and present students with some important vocabulary.

* Teach students explicitly the skills required to access authentic material, for example how to pick out cognates and other words they understand.

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