The gift of tongues

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Talented overseas pupils, many of them able to speak four languages, often lack confidence in their English. Now they being given the support they need to fulfil their potential. Kevin Berry reports

Gloria Townsend, head of modern languages at Abbeydale Grange school, has a startling story to tell. "I was taking an after-school German group," she explains. "Three of the girls could each speak four languages, and they were explaining grammar points to each other in Dutch, making links between Dutch and the German language. The girls were from Somalia but they had lived in Holland."

Ms Townsend's school has many newly arrived students who are given help with English but who then reach a plateau. They might sound splendidly fluent in English but, as Ms Townsend discovered, they do not have the necessary command of "exam" or academic English.

That incident in the German class set her thinking. The girls were obviously gifted, they had an awareness of language because of their life histories, but their English was letting them down. She started to research into the problem, choosing five students, most of whom had A*s in languages such as Russian, after taking GCSE in Year 7. The policy at Abbeydale is to enter multilingual students for GCSE in their first language as soon as is felt appropriate. However, the girls all kept insisting to their teacher:

"But Miss, we're not good at English!"

She took the students for a day at the local teachers' centre with trainee teachers from Sheffield Hallam University. Her students worked on an RE exam paper. Afterwards, their answers were analysed in small groups.

"They were missing the building blocks, the basic language work of key stage 1 and 2," Ms Townsend explains. "One student, who was accomplished in classic Arabic, told me that his knowledge of English was like a Christmas tree: very bright at the top but not so well decorated on the lower branches."

The day was fruitful, helping confidence and self-esteem because the Abbeydale girls discovered they were held in great respect by students and teachers alike. They were thrilled with their new status.

"But, Miss, I didn't realise that I was gifted," said one. "I didn't know that I was that good. I just thought it was normal to speak four languages."

Gloria Townsend's response was: "I wish I could speak Dutch as well as you speak English."

She and a colleague went to Lyon in France to present their findings to a conference. Now they are conducting further research projects, including how to raise exam levels in Year 9.

Lynne Bull, Sheffield's gifted and talented co-ordinator, explains that underachievement among newly arrived students who happen to be very gifted is difficult to identify.

"It is incredibly hard for teachers who aren't involved with language learning to spot the more able," she says.

"The students are functioning through English while they are learning English, so you don't always see their ability. Schools need to see beyond their use of that language. It is an issue that we're still exploring. The student who speaks two or three languages might not necessarily be a gifted learner."

At Monteney primary school, Catherine Skinn is responsible for the gifted and talented programme. She talks enthusiastically of a tier being built into core subject areas to challenge pupils.

"They're not being put on a pedestal," she insists, neatly anticipating a question. "Only a couple of them let it go to their heads, but not for long. The class teacher can say - you're gifted and talented, why aren't you producing that work in the classroom?"

The gifted pupils have lots of activities outside normal class times. Their homework clubs are separate from classwork. A science club is being formed and some children will be going to the city's special Science Challenge Days to work with other gifted children. Pupils who travel to maths clubs are encouraged to share their discoveries back at school.

Monteney primary has special enrichment weeks in which all pupils in a year group work on a particular theme alongside visiting professionals, such as writers and dancers. The children - and please understand that that is all of the children - call it their gifted and talented week.

"It's an opportunity for the children to run with something," says Ms Skinn. "It's important that our gifted pupils are challenged to get away from concentrating on one thing at once. They need opportunities to pull in ideas from other curriculum areas."

Other local schools have taken up the idea of an enrichment week. Having talented visitors enriches the work but serves another purpose. "Children can see that painting is an artist's job, not just a hobby," says Ms Skinn. "They see people living by their skills.

"Our children come from families where there isn't a tradition of jobs such as being a musician or a sculptor. Barriers are being pulled down."

Expectations are being raised."

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