Guten Tag, everybody

15th June 2001 at 01:00
At The Elms School in Knowsley, pupils with a range of special needs are taking on German with enthusiasm, says Reva Klein

Dean counts in German at the drop of a hat, just like thousands of 14-year-olds who get a kick out of learning a new language. Except that Dean is not like the others. He has Down's syndrome and is often unwilling to speak because he finds it difficult and feels self-conscious. In German, though, he feels confident enough to volunteer to speak whenever the mood takes him. Last year he went with 10 others on a week-long exchange to the Hilde Heinemann Schule in Stadt Moers.

Dean is a pupil at The Elms school for children with severe learning difficulties in Knowsley, Merseyside. It is one of the few SLD schools in the country to teach modern foreign languages to pupils, some of whose speech is barely intelligible in their mother tongue, and to take them to the Continent on student exchanges with a German SLD school.

Pupils at The Elms do not follow the mainstream key stage 3 and 4 syllabus: it is adapted, taking into account their speech and literacy problems. But a typical language class for 14-year-olds would find them doing similar activities to those in any other secondary school, such as fitting the German words to different parts of the body and role-playing doctor's surgery and cafe scenes.

German teacher Morven Plews says: "Some of our students have profound and multiple difficulties or autism or are so severely epileptic that each seizure causes further brain damage. Some have to be tube-fed or can't do anything for themselves. So there are always a number of students who won't move up a class each year, which means we have key stage 3 and 4 students in one class. But all our students take modern foreign language in some form. We work to attainment targets and we've made the work topic based, with the focus on practical use."

The obvious if blunt question to ask is: "Why bother?" Morven Plews, a former mainstream modern language specialist, is convinced that there are many good reasons. She has seen the positive influence of foreign language teaching on children with severe learning difficulties. "We decided as a school that we should give our children access to the whole national curriculum," she says. "I believe that everybody can learn something through languages. Even if it's only a few words, they're learning social and conversational skills and even numeracy skills. I've seen maths skills improve through learning numbers in German." There are children at the school who spend 10 years learning how to count to 15 in English and become frustrated and demoralised. "But with German everyone's starting at the same stage, making the same mistakes, even the nursery nurses and learning assistants who attend to some of the children. It gives everyone more courage to try things out."

A key to teaching children with such a wide range of conditions, cognitive abilities and memory capacity is to use a multisensory approach. Chalk and tal is out: crafts, cookery and role plays are the methods for making language learning fun and lively. For a lesson on parts of the body, pupils will make a puppet out of paper, tugging at the string to pull up its arms and legs. For numbers and colours they make cardboard versions of the wooden flowers that Germans are so fond of.

To learn greetings, each pupil takes it in turn to go out of the door, then come in and shake hands with everyone in the room saying, "Guten Tag, wie heist du?" And to learn parts of the body, one child takes the role of doctor, the other of patient coming in to say that their legeareyehead hurts. "We use the same methods as mainstream," says their teacher, "except that we go more slowly, working within the context of discernible topics where they can see a beginning and an end, and we concentrate on speaking and listening. Throughout each unit I say what we're going to learn and how it can be used. So for example, with the parts of the body, I'd spell out to them that they'll need to know these words so that if they're not feeling well during the exchange, they can tell the doctor what's wrong." They also cover words such as please and thank you.

Morven Plews is amazed at how confident the children become on their exchanges. Each year, 11 post-16 students get together with the German SLD school that the The Elms has built up a relationship with over the past few years. Every other year The Elms students go to Germany. This year, they are hosting the Germans, who will be accommodated with students' families, with staff or at the school's Life Skills Centre for post-16s. Only those who are likely to need urgent medical attention are not allowed on the exchange(1 to 2 per cent of the KS3 group.) The trips are not taken lightly. Those wishing to go have to attend weekly German club lunchtime sessions. "Preparation is everything," says Morven Plews. "We make sure they know what to expect before they go on exchanges." She leaves nothing to chance: they rehearse everything, from knowing what they are likely to get at breakfast (sausage and cheese and how to say it in German) to asking to go to the toilet.

Throughout the year the friendships made during the exchange are sustained through letters written at German club. These exchanges have been among the most successful examples in the borough. "In mainstream schools, it's often only the top-ability groups that go on exchanges," says Morven Plews. "But these young people are getting opportunities that their brothers and sisters who go to ordinary schools may not be getting."

The Elms has a lot to battle with: the profound medical and cognitive problems of the pupils, and low expectations among some parents and society at large. But the school takes pride in its radically inclusive approach to modern languages and in the pleasure and confidence it brings. There are few SLD schools where children speak German to the visiting OFSTED inspector, egging him on with big smiles and "wunderschoen".

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