French lessons give English a boost

25th April 2008 at 01:00
A language project which delivers broad academic benefits should be adopted more widely across Scotland, says a report

A language project which delivers broad academic benefits should be adopted more widely across Scotland, says a report

Children in Aberdeen who have been taught everything from art to PE in French from P1-7 gained in confidence, acquired a more international outlook and made huge advances in French proficiency.

Eleven-year-old pupils at Walker Road School could understand a level of spoken French that most Higher French pupils would struggle with, according to an evaluation report published last week into the early primary partial immersion (EPPI) project, the first of its kind in the UK.

The report, by the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research at Stirling University, goes so far as to recommend a more widespread adoption in Scotland. But it raises concerns that the pupils may not be able to sustain the gains they have made once they reach secondary - and might even lose ground.

The main barriers to the EPPI pupils being given the chance to sustain and build on their French proficiency once they move to Torry Academy were:

- Uncertainty as to what level of funding, if any, would be available to support continuation into secondary, or indeed to sustain the programme at primary.

- Difficulty in finding staff in the secondary school who would be able to teach a curricular area (in whole or part) through French.

- Difficulty in finding appropriate curricular material in French.

- Difficulty in timetabling.

Professor Richard Johnstone and Robert McKinstry of SCILT, reported that, although the first cohort of EPPI pupils from Walker Road School came together for French lessons three times a week once they entered S1 at Torry Academy, they had no other exposure to French in any other area of the curriculum.

The report points out that responsibility for future sustainability of the project lies mainly with Aberdeen City Council because of new funding arrangements under the concordat agreement between the Scottish Government and local authorities.

The evaluation team from SCILT makes a strong case for the continuation of the project at Walker Road, its continuation into secondary education at Torry Academy, and for its more widespread adoption in Scotland.

"EPPI has been shown to deliver a far higher level of proficiency in French, with no clearly demonstrated loss to first language or other- subject knowledge," the report concludes.

However, it warns that, despite the impressive progress made by the pupils, it would be "misleading to consider their proficiency in French to be fully `stable' and to have reached `pay-off' levels'.

The team point to the distinction between "basic interpersonal communication skills" and "cognitive academic language proficiency" in bilingual education.

Past experience in Canada, where French immersion programmes are widespread, shows that pupils on second-language immersion programmes tend not to develop high levels of basic interpersonal communication skills, mainly because they do not have regular access to peers who are native speakers of the immersion language. Their main input comes from one person - the immersion teacher.

For that reason, the evaluation team recommends that Aberdeen should follow the current Canadian practice of developing more regular interactions with French-speaking pupils of their own age, possibly through ICT.

This, they say, would not only extend their basic communication skills but also "jack up" their command of important forms of cognitive academic discourse, such as writing full essays, preparing lengthy reports and giving extended talks on substantive topics.

"These cannot be delivered, internalised and stabilised by the end of primary school education, so a well-planned, adequately resourced and challenging continuation at secondary school is essential," they advise.


The first pupils to start early primary partial immersion when they entered P1 at Walker Road (in 2000) are now in S1, most of them at Torry Academy.

Initially, there were two classes at P1, one of which became the immersion class (which permitted a subsequent P7 EPPI versus non-EPPI comparison). Later, however, with falling rolls, P1 consisted of one class, which received EPPI.

Pupils moving into Walker Road from other primaries, receive special support to help them benefit from the partial French immersion.

From P1 onwards, children receive some classes through the medium of French, and others through English. Three supernumerary teachers, who are native speakers of French, collaborate with class teachers to enable the children to listen and respond to activities in the language.

Younger pupils are able to act out scenarios, sing, chant, and do simple calculations - all in French. Older pupils can read and write in French in a variety of subjects, including home economics, science and environmental studies (taught jointly in French and English) in ways which demand increasing sophistication.

The evaluation by SCILT, which focused on pupil performance in English, environmental studies, mathematics and French, showed the pupils had not been disadvantaged in the first three subjects by receiving some of their education in French.

Indeed, in English, EPPI pupils demonstrated a greater fluency and confidence than their non-EPPI counterparts from the same year-group. In French, in all four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, EPPI pupils reached a level of proficiency far beyond what can "reasonably be expected of other pupils in Scottish primary schools".

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