How do you say that in French?

13th February 2009 at 00:00
Kieron's curiosity shows the quality of modern language teaching at Machanhill Primary

"I go to bed and I think: 'What would that word be in French?' Then I go and ask my teacher in the morning." So says Keiron Whip, who finds he cannot look around his bedroom without wondering how to translate "posters", "shoes", "games", "bag" and all the other minutiae of daily life.

Keiron's curiosity sums up what is notable about the teaching of French in Larkhall's Machanhill Primary: pupils are immersed in French and they take the initiative in learning it.

The language has been a part of daily life at the school, from nursery to P7, for four years, visible in the francophone signs dotted throughout. As well as designated times for learning it, pupils will also speak it during registration and put in their school dinner order en francais.

"We put it into context, rather than a pen-and-paper exercise which doesn't actually mean anything," says headteacher Sandy Todd.

Pupils in turn have shown signs of bringing French into other real-life situations, unprompted by teachers. "I try to speak some in the playground - mostly 'bonjour' and stuff like that," says Keiron, 9.

French classes are lively affairs, which involve far more than parroting new vocabulary. In one game, the class reads out descriptions and two children compete to touch the appropriate flash card on the wall first. In another, each pupil takes the guise of one half of a famous double-act and, by introducing themselves in French, must find their partner; unlikely duos such as Lilo and Becks, or Posh and Stitch, separate and reunite with their rightful other half.

The catalyst for Machanhill's French revolution was P5-6 teacher Alison McInnes, a graduate of French at Glasgow University, whose enthusiasm has rubbed off on colleagues and pupils. Her determination was such that she secured British Council funding for a French assistante in 2005-06, almost unheard of in primary schools, and she has helped organise a P7 trip to France next year.

Mr Todd says support from South Lanarkshire Council was also crucial: seven of 15 staff have been able to complete training in French, and another four are doing so, meaning the language could be taught in the same way, even if Mrs McInnes were to leave.

The school's efforts have been singled out as outstanding practice by Anne McGachey, HMIE's specialist in modern languages in primaries. When she visited, she witnessed "among the best learning in modern languages that I have seen". She was taken aback when her inquisitorial role was overturned and pupils started quizzing her in French.

"What is it that makes the learning so good? It's unprompted," she says. "The fact that these children could adjust the language they knew, could take the chunks they had and reconfigure these to make the language fit for them, and were listening to so much French."

The older pupils are aware of the benefits of learning another language. "The best thing about it is if you went to France, you could speak to other people. I'd like to go there to practise my French," says P5's Dayna Swan, 9. She says everybody likes French and speaks a little every day. "It's not too difficult - it's quite easy," she says. "I was surprised that we were learning so much French."

Mrs McInnes has to have an English-French dictionary to hand at all times, as she never knows what she will be asked by her curious pupils. "The children come into the classroom and ask how you say things like 'sea slug' in French," she laughs.

As well as a desire to boost their own vocabulary, it transpires that Mrs McInnes has also unleashed a desire in pupils to impart their new-found knowledge: Keiron has been getting his folks up to speed. "The only word my mum knew was 'bonjour'," he explains. "I'm teaching her some more, but she can't always get the pronunciation right and says 'au voroir' instead of 'au revoir'."

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