Foreign concept

7th December 2007 at 00:00
Primary teachers suddenly called upon to teach a language can feel daunted. Help is at hand, says Gary Hayden.By 2010, every key stage 2 pupil in England will study a modern foreign language. It's the cornerstone of the Government's National Languages Strategy.

But many teachers worry that their own lack of proficiency may prevent them from teaching well. A smattering of holiday French or German seems woefully inadequate to teach Year 6.

Ofsted's 2005 report, Implementing Languages Entitlement in the Primary School, voiced the same concern, concluding that primary teachers were "adequate" but needed further training.

Jenny Carpenter, a KS2 modern languages consultant and co-author of the Teachers Talking French language booster course, says: "Primary teachers are fantastic. They'll have a go at anything. But they really want to do a good job. They want to make sure that they're using the right language, pronouncing it well, and providing a good example. Many feel their knowledge is rusty and that they need some support."

Findings from the National Foundation for Educational Research show that 70 per cent of primaries offer foreign languages in 2007. French is the favourite, opted for by 91 per cent, while a quarter opt for Spanish and 12 per cent German. As more primary schools join in, an increasing number of teachers are choosing to seek extra training. Dee O' Flaherty teaches Year 6 at Hertford Junior School in Brighton. She went on a 10-week language booster course, organised by Brighton and Hove Council. "I did French at secondary school, but never really got a handle on it," she says. "I've taken holidays in France, so I knew how to ask for a beer or a coffee, but not much else."

The course was after school on a Monday and a big commitment, but she found it worthwhile.

Sessions included vocabulary-building, conversation and pronunciation. Her stilted French progressed into something more graceful. "Pronunciation was my biggest worry. I didn't want to teach the kids something that was wrong, but the instructor was fantastic. She spent time helping me get my mouth around the words. I wouldn't have been able to do it without the training. A boy in the class spoke fluent French, and I'd have felt foolish in front of him."

Jane Stell is a Year 4 teacher and assistant head at Leys Primary School in Dagenham, Essex. She studied GCSE French 15 years ago, but says she has used it rarely since.

"The borough's policy for foreign languages is to teach the whole lesson through the target language. But my French wasn't good enough for things like: 'Get your whiteboards out', or 'Pick your pencils up'.

"It's also challenging in terms of the children's behaviour. You're used to being able to pick up on things straight away. How do you ask the children to be quiet in French? It's about managing the lesson in another language."

Jane attended a training course organised and run by a local authority consultant. They were given six Teachers Talking French CDs that helped her become familiar with the vocabulary.

Wilma Gordon is a technology teacher at Mid Calder Primary School in West Lothian, Scotland. She taught German, but when the school switched to French, she decided to brush up.

Last year, Wilma attended a 24-week beginners' course, organised by the West Lothian local authority and taught by a secondary French teacher.

"Some of the teachers on the course had a little French and some had none at all. We learned the vocabulary we'd be using in our classes: colours, body parts, dates and so on."

This year, Wilma is attending a follow-up for confidence boosting and introduction to French grammar. "It takes you to the point where you're more than just a step ahead of the children," she said.

Liz Kerr, a Year 1 teacher at Lawthorn Primary in Irvine, North Ayrshire, retrained in Spanish when her school decided to offer the language. She went on a 27-session course with her local authority. "It was weird for me at first because I kept wanting to speak French, which I knew, instead of Spanish. All I could say was, 'Hola' so it was a steep learning curve.

"It was intense, but I'd definitely recommend it. I teach Year 1, so I don't have to be fluent. The wee ones are learning at the same time I'm learning and they can even teach me things now. I think if you get them started young, they pick things up quickly and they're very enthusiastic."

At Friezland Primary in Oldham, Lancashire, three teachers have chosen to take a Spanish GCSE funded by the local secondary. "I didn't speak a word of Spanish when we started two years ago. It's amazing how far we've come," says Val Peacock, languages co-ordinator

Useful websites

CILT, the National Centre for Languages. The website contains a wealth of information for anyone teaching or learning a language.

It also runs for key stage 2 teachers.

NACELL, the National Advisory Centre on Early Language Learning. Lots of resources, information and courses for languages teachers in the primary sector.

Teachers Talking French. A CD-based language-boosting pack for primary teachers, with an emphasis on classroom language.

Contact your local education authority for details of courses in your area.

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