Eleanor Caldwell visits a school where children learn a language by being immersed in it
It's gym time in Primary 2 at Walker Road School in Torry on the south side of Aberdeen. The children have changed into their kit and are all ready to head to the gym.
On instruction from their teacher, they go quietly off in pairs and arrive at the gym eager to hear about today's lesson.
"Alors bras croises! coutez M Couineaux - aujourd'hui on va jouer, pousser, tirer, rouler! On va s'asseoir sur les tapis. Deux enfants sur un tapis! On va rouler."
This is gym at Walker Road primary - taught entirely in French by Philippe Couineaux, one of two partial immersion teachers (PIs) in the school.
Finishing their first rolling exercise, the children respond immediately to the arms and legs crossed command and listen attentively to M Couineaux's explanation of the next game. As his French instructions run at rapid native-speaker speed, the children prepare to turn into petits chats on hands and knees, trying to grab the coloured queues of the other petits chats.
Since leaving their classroom, the six-year-olds have heard only French. No one has asked a question or even looked remotely perplexed. A trained primary teacher, Philippe Couineaux sets a snappy pace and no one is in any doubt of the rules. One little girl is crestfallen as she understands why she has to sit out for a moment: "Si on n'ecoute pas, on va ... cote."
Partial immersion teaching at Walker Road was introduced with funding from the Scottish Executive Innovative Fund and Aberdeen City Council in 2000 in one of two Primary 1 classes.
Secondary-trained teacher Sylvie Grigas began by teaching the class the full programme of expressive arts in French. PE, music, art and drama took on a new feel.
Mme Grigas doesn't speak English - or so the children think - she'll only ever talk to you in French. This is now just part of everyday life at the school. Even the tiniest pupils address Sylvie and Philippe in the corridor with a cheery "bonjour".
Sylvie is working on language with Primary 3 today. This is the original class which started in Primary 1. Pupils have previously been reading and listening to extracts from the St Exupery novel Le Petit Prince. She explains that the children are familiar with the language in context. They understand and recognise letter blends and sounds. Today is all about chopping and mixing up familiar sentences and putting them back together, "Jouons avec les mots" in official terms.
"Brilliant fun and dead easy" according to the children. They absorb Sylvie's instructions which, in natural French, include subjunctives, imperatives and relative clauses.
Tension mounts as the groups await instructions: "K vos marques, prets, partez!" and they're off. Phrases are reconstructed at high speed and every child in each group is taking part. "No, no! It's ... droite, not droite ...." This little girl's difficulty in English reading is certainly not apparent in French. Extraordinarily, each group manages not only to recreate the original five phrases from the jumbled-up words but, on Sylvie's instruction, also make up new ones of their own. They read them out with impeccable native-speaker pronunciation without a hint of Aberdonian tones.
Sylvie's pacy lesson reaches a perfect conclusion just at the right time:
"La cloche a sonne. C'est l'heure de recreation." And without further ado la groupe rouge, followed by others in turn, go off to play with happy "saluts!" to Mme Grigas.
Some pause for a chat and listen happily to her French. Sylvie and Philippe speak only their mother tongue in school, but will listen to English.
Nobody is phased.
Eighty children in Primaries 1-3 now learn an increasing number of subjects in French for between 40 and 50 minutes a day. New to this year's studies are home economics and ICT.
Sylvie Grigas says: "Working on cooking in French is the ideal way to make children understand the French attitude towards food." Sylvie and Philippe work closely with class teachers Edwina Gray, Jenny Coull and Maureen Fraser, as well as visiting specialists. They emphasise strongly the importance of liaison, flexibility and co-operative work between colleagues.
"After all," says Sylvie, "the other teachers are losing part of their subject so it's essential we all work in our own ways towards the same target."
Likewise, they emphasise the extent to which they work together in all aspects of planning. As former secondary and primary teachers they use different approaches and methodologies to attain the same ends.
In Sylvie's Primary 1 gym class the children are up for a Scottish country dance session after a series of unconventional warm-up exercises. "Allez toucher la ligne noire avec le nez!" Only a couple of children nuzzle up to the wrong marker colour. The dance session, counting steps in French, is a great success. Only as they tramp back to class chattering are the class disappointed to be likened to gros elephants rather than petites souris.
The school's success in winning the bid to conduct the initiative, according to headteacher Maureen Robertson was largely due to the enthusiasm of the staff.
"Everyone was just up for it," she says. French and German were already taught in the upper primary. For Sylvie and Philippe its success has also been due to the "amazing enthusiasm" of both children and parents. Both teachers run classes for parents who have shown an interest in keeping up with their children's learning.
In Philippe's unusually diminished lunchtime class, three mums are put through their paces with songs, number games and listening exercises. They all have a basic level of French but are so impressed with their children's ability that they want to achieve or retrieve some fluency of their own.
With good accents they read back French style telephone numbers and are happy to be corrected by Philippe on the finer points of ou and eu vowel pronunciation. Philippe and Sylvie attend parents' nights and encourage mums and dads to listen to their children, encourage them, but not correct them. "That's our job," says Philippe.
In this quiet, unassuming corner of Aberdeen a new generation of children has a French vocabulary of more than 70 words by Primary 3. In gym they learn to rouler sur un tapis. In home economics they mettre le gateau dans le four. In ICT la souris is in charge. Their ability and enthusiasm are remarkable.
For more information about language teaching in Scotland go to www.scilt.stir.ac.uk
L'ESPERANCE ET L'EXPERIENCE
The partial immersion teachers are trained primary and secondary native-speakers of French. PIs speak only French in school but will respond to English conversation. Pupils can opt out but only a couple have. Parents are generally keen for children to be involved. Expressive arts subjects were the first curricular area to try the method and it has now been extended to environmental studies, with a possible further extension to maths. PIs work in collaboration with class teachers and visiting specialists. They develop their own resources assisted by class teachers and specialists to include appropriate subject content. Pupils with special needs have been included at all times and have attained significant success.