Germinating German

20th June 1997 at 01:00
Most pupils don't start learning a foreign language until secondary school. Elaine Carlton reports on Manchester's attempts to introduce languages widely to pre-school and primary children, and visits two schools that have spurned the fashion for French

Twice a week for 15 minutes the year 4 children at Burgess Primary School in Harpurhey, north Manchester, gather on a large mat in the corner of their classroom for their German lesson. None of the teachers here is German, but each has tried to pick up the language in a bid to pass it on to the children.

Under the instruction of their class teacher, Vicki Reid, the children have discovered how to talk about the weather and animals, and even done some simple sums in German.

To get them going at the start of the lesson, Ms Reid asks her pupils to recite the days of the week and numbers up to 20. Then she asks pupils their names, dates of birth and the name of the season we are in.

They are comfortable describing the weather and pets, even though Mrs Reid believes staff absences have held the children back.

One wall of the classroom is filled with drawings annotated in German. Bright sunshine, violent thunderstorms and driving rain, have been joined by pictures of animals as the children have moved from weather to pets. As part of the pets topic, the children made glove puppets of various animals, which provided useful links with design technology and life processes in biology.

Today, Ms Reid tries to teach the class numbers between 20 and 30. It is a bit of a struggle, but they are soon counting fluently.

Pupils at Burgess concentrate on learning to speak rather than write German. They have no exercise books, because teachers believe this could confuse children whose English is not up to speed. "I taught them numbers by holding up my fingers," says Ms Reid. "I started about pets by asking them: 'Do you have any pets?' They didn't understand at first so I ran through the list of pets until they recognised one and then went back and asked the question again. "

At Burgess, where 90 per cent of pupils are on free school meals, a group trip to Germany looks out of the question. But teachers still believe learning the language is worthwhile.

"The subject was new to everyone at the same time, so it has helped bring some of the children out of themselves, and given the lower-ability children a chance to shine," says Ms Reid. "Some of the staff haven't really got the hang of it but most have tried hard."

Angela Clarke heads up the German programme at Burgess. She studied the language at A-level, and says: "Some teachers lack confidence teaching German, and ask me how to pronounce words. We have looked into whether I should be released just to teach German but logistically it would be difficult."

Pupils going on to the local secondary school, Moston Brook High, will be able to continue with their German. Last year, as part of a special cluster arrangement with the high school, pupils got to know their German teacher a year early. Once a week he was released to teach the oldest children at Burgess.

"They start German again from scratch when they go on to secondary school, " says Ms Clarke. "But they already feel confident with the language."

Even in the nursery school at Burgess, children are taught to say yes, no, hello and goodbye in the foreign language. Ms Clarke says: "By the time they get to five they can already ask 'How are you?' and 'What is your name?'. It's fun and laid back and they really enjoy it."

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