The language lab

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Eleanor Caldwell reports on a primary school's experiment in teaching French by partial immersion

An innovative slant on language teaching is being tried at Walker Road Primary school in the Torry area of Aberdeen. Its partial immersion language project means that for the 28 children in one of the school's two P1 classes, French is the everyday language of 15 per cent of the curriculum. Lessons in music, drama, art and physical education are delivered entirely in French.

As teacher Sylvie Grigas, a French national who trained in a Scottish college of education, uses French to instruct half of Maureen Fraser's P1 class to take hands and line up at the classroom door to go to their music lesson, no one shows the slightest hesitation. On the way to the music room, with French instructions from Mme Grigas, they hold doors open for their pals and are reminded not to make too much noise. When they arrive and sit down, the children are reminded to look, listen and, as they enthusiastically add, "ne parlez pas!" There is great excitement when they are told that M Pouce and M Index are here again today. The children line up to have little faces drawn on their thumbs and index fingers in preparation for their songs. While they ask questions and make comments in English, all responses from their teacher are in French. No one seems to have any problem in understanding and, accompanied by enthusiastic mime, Mme Grigas reminds the class of their action song.

Hands shoot up instantly to the call for volunteers ("Je voudrais maintenant des volontaires!") and the children come out and take on the parts of M Index, knocking vainly at the house door, trying to stir M Pouce who obliviously "fait dodo" (is having a snooze) on the floor under the outstretched arms of the children forming the shape of his house.

Mme Grigas speaks all the time, reminding the children of words, encouraging and offering enthusiastic praise. Her language is at native speaker speed and the children clearly understand when she reminds one boy that chatting is inappropriate: "Tu es la maison! Tu ne parles pas!" It is quite extraordinary to watch the natural responses of such young children to the level of French which many pupils at Standard grade would find taxing. Mme Grigas points out that even the children who have specific learning difficulties rarely have any difficulty in joining in.

Ten weeks into the project, spending 40 minutes per day with the class, Mme Grigas is delighted with the children's progress. While she makes most of her own resources (flashcards, games, stories and poems), she is following a syllabus created by a development officer in Aberdeen, which merges strands from expressive arts and modern languages 5-14 pogrammes. An additional 5 per cent of the language taught is based on social and personal language. "I didn't actively teach 'Je m'appelle I', for example," she says. "I made coloured badges for us all - including Maureen - and they just learned from listening to me."

After the children take a little "dodo" on the carpet, they go back to the classroom where their teacher, Mrs Fraser, greets them in English. After a bit of organisation in their mother tongue, the group tunes in to Mme Grigas again for a short drama session followed by a colour game.

She retains a crisp, authoritative tone throughout the lesson and the children's understanding of her vocabulary, from "Je voudrais que vous me montriez une autre couleur" (I'd like you to show me another colour) to "Croisez vos bras" (cross your arms), is instant and apparently effortless.

On completion - "Voila, c'est fini pour aujourd'hui! Regardez Mme Fraser" - the children line up for lunch.

Chatting informally to their French teacher, the youngsters show off new scarves and hats: "Mme Grigas, it's jaune!". When she admires a new poster - "C'est beau!" - one boy counters her comment: "C'est joli!" Another boy, who has lost some money, responds to the question "Tu as perdu combien de pi ces?" (How many coins have you lost?) with "Two, I think."

After lunch, Mme Grigas teaches French to a small group of mothers, teachers and classroom auxiliaries. As they sing about M Pouce and later proceed to the gym for a PE lesson, she explains that they are learning exactly the same as the children.

Nursery teacher Heather Cassie will be teaching next year's partial immersion P1 class and says she needs to improve her skills. Lunchtime auxiliary Patricia Auld says: "I heard the children singing and playing in French and I wanted to know what it all meant." Classroom auxiliary Barbara Massie adds: "If French had been fun like this at my school, I'd never have given it up."

Mme Grigas emphasises the importance of the strict language system which is the lynchpin of the partial immersion project. She speaks only French in the school (apart from in the staffroom). Children may speak to her in English, but will only ever get a French reply. "They don't think I can speak English!" she says.

Headteacher Maureen Robertson is delighted with the early results of the project. She is committed to giving pupils language skills at an early age. "In an ideal world I think all schools should have this system. Better communication develops perseverance, tolerance and understanding in our children, which is just great."

German is also taught at P67 levels and Ms Robertson would love to see partial immersion techniques used for this as well.

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