Gaelic gathering

15th June 2001 at 01:00
Eleanor Caldwell describes immersion methods in Stirling

New initiatives in immersion language-teaching have taken many of their techniques from existing Gaelic-medium classes throughout Scotland. At Riverside primary school in Stirling, the Gaelic-medium class is now in its third year. Funded directly by the Scottish Executive following a successful bid by Stirling Council, the composite class of 14 pupils in primary 1, 2 and 3 and one pupil in primary 4 was formed after consultation with parents.

Teacher Johanna MacKenzie and classroom assistant Christine MacLeod both come from Lewis originally and had Gaelic as their first language. "I went to school to learn English," says Johanna MacKenzie. Her BEd course included an additional Gaelic option.

Pupils are taught the whole curriculum in Gaelic, and are always spoken to in the language. Their confident and natural responses in class show that they are entirely at home with it. The school's Jolly Phonics and Letter Land reading schemes have been adapted to include the 18 letters of Gaelic. Similarly, familiar maths books have Gaelic instructions pasted over the English. Pupils all work at their respective levels within national five to 14 guidelines. Headteacher Pamela Marshall says the present primary 3 pupils have shown excellent progress and in primary 2 had already achieved level A in Gaelic. Level A is normally achieved by the end of primary 3.

As well as responding to their teacher, pupils chat to one another in Gaelic. Johanna MacKenzie points out that a hybrid language is often created when they add the Gaelic suffix - ach to an English word. One boy proves the point by asking for his work to be mark-ach.

Showing off their writing (sgriobhadh) jotters, primary 3 pupils are proud of their work. Neatly written two-page stories in Gaelic with few minor errors belie their age. One or two children have a relative who speaks some Gaelic, but all come from basically non-Gaelc-speaking families. Johanna MacKenzie says that parents are encouraged to come into class to help and to absorb some of the language. Christine MacLeod is the mother of the class's one primary 4 boy. As the pupils in primary 3 move into primary 4 next year, they will be taught in English for 30 per cent of the time, and in Gaelic for 70 per cent. Headteacher Pamela Marshall says this next stage will present new challenges as pupils begin formal English teaching and progress through the school. French teaching begins in primary 5 at Riverside and Pamela Marshall anticipates that the Gaelic pupils will learn their second modern language through English.

The potential for comparative language learning is already obvious in the young Gaelic class when similarities between Gaelic and French words, such as eaglais and eglise and between German and Gaelic pronunciation seall! and schau! (look!), are there for the taking. The number of everyday English words such as jotter, crayon and chair embedded in the Gaelic language will also enhance later English teaching.

Pamela Marshall stresses that the Gaelic learners are regularly included in activities with their peers in other classes. She sees pupils' inclusion in the everyday pattern of school life as important. Similarly, teaching colleagues are encouraged to spend time in the Gaelic class and Johanna MacKenzie sometimes teaches combined primary 1 PE lessons in English. As the Gaelic learners line up for break, they proudly describe today's snack: Hula Hoops and Quavers are embedded into fluent Gaelic. Offering them enthusiastic praise "glemhath" (very good), Johanna MacKenzie comments: "The children have just soaked in the language."

As a non-Gaelic-speaker, Pamela Marshall feels that the class has added "a new dimension" to Riverside. She looks forward to seeing the pupils' progress through the school and is keen to see the development of future provision in local secondary schools.

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