If students are unable to speak English, how can they learn Spanish or French?
It was my first day at my first school: a tough comprehensive in North London. I was confident that I had prepared a good Spanish lesson for my group of 13-year-olds.
It started well. The 30 students seemed to understand the first task and tackled it enthusiastically. Apart, that is, from the two boys and two girls who were either fiddling with their pens or staring into space.
I asked one of the boys whether he needed help. He looked at me blankly. Further questions drew a similar response. Was he being difficult? Then another student shouted, "He doesn't speak English, Sir." Neither did the other three. I knew the school had many students who spoke English as an additional language, but nobody had told me that I would have students who did not know a word of English.
Over the next few days, I discovered that all my classes had between three and five students who spoke no English. They were the children of recently arrived immigrants from countries including India, Somalia and Romania. How would I teach them French and Spanish?
I decided to start with pictures. I collected images from the internet, books and magazines that showed everyday activities, clothes and parts of the body. To teach the present tense in French, I held up a picture and a descriptive phrase for things that students might do at the weekend - for example, a picture of a boy on a bike with the sentence "Je fais du vlo" (I go for a bike ride). I would say the phrase and the students repeated it.
Gradually, I showed them more pictures and phrases, and then a picture with a choice of phrases, asking them to select the right one. We progressed step by step until the children were able to choose, pronounce and write the correct sentence without support. It worked well.
I also used symbols. In Spanish, for example, I put a smiley face next to the phrase "me gusta" (I like) and two smiley faces next to "me encanta" (I love). A sad face appeared alongside "no me gusta" and two sad faces by "odio" (I hate). I used similar techniques to teach the students how to say where they lived and to describe their home.
When it came to conjugating verbs, I used pointing games to teach students their je from their nous. In French, I would call out "tu" (you) and the students would have to point at me. Calling "nous" (we) meant they had to put their arm around a friend.
To teach the past and future tenses, I projected a giant timeline on to the board so that students could say whether they were going to jouer au foot tomorrow or had done so yesterday. This was accompanied by my own frantic mimes, pointing behind me to indicate the past and ahead for the future.
The techniques seemed to pay off. The four students who looked lost in that first lesson turned out to be some of the best Spanish speakers. One of them, a Romanian, even shouted to me across the playground that he liked going to the cinema - in Spanish.
Alex Harrison is a foreign languages teacher in North London, England
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