Language project steals Harry's magic wand to ease transition

13th February 2009 at 00:00
Boy wizard's adventures could help to maintain pupil interest at secondary school

Harry Potter has been enlisted in a bid to keep children interested in learning languages once they reach secondary school.

The boy wizard, often credited for turning a generation onto reading, is one of the new themes being used by teachers at the Harwich School and Language College, Essex, to make learning French and German vocabulary more interesting.

The move is part of a two-year research project, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and currently used by 15 authorities.

Run by the national centre for languages, Cilt, it seeks to improve transition arrangements between primary and secondary schools.

Lara Townsend, primary languages co-ordinator, said: "We wanted to have a better context for learning rather than just the idea that you are going to travel to this country.

"With something such as Harry Potter we use the book and film and look at the structure of language.

"So shopping is about going to Diagon Alley with Hagrid to buy a wand. The structures are similar to the old way of teaching, but the context is more interesting."

As well as the new curriculum, which also uses Walt Disney's The Incredibles and The Diary of Anne Frank, Mrs Townsend teaches in eight feeder primary schools and trains primary teachers in language teaching.

A "bridging unit" has also been introduced at the end of Year 6 in which pupils create a PowerPoint presentation about a French or German-speaking country. This is then used to start the first term's work in Year 7.

From next year, the first six weeks of Year 7 will be spent on language learning skills, allowing teachers to assess their new pupils' abilities based on how quickly they pick up language learning skills rather than provision in their primary.

Mrs Townsend said: "Transition is an issue in every subject. It's a bit greater in languages, but it happens in history and geography as well. For us, there were two crucial things: making sure children with a certain level of progress didn't stagnate and making it enjoyable and interesting.

"It is hard work, but for teachers it's also a breath of fresh air, getting away from the old 'I have a cat, dog, stick insect' lessons, which were getting tedious and repetitive."

Sonia Tye, Year 5 teacher and a modern foreign language subject leader at Harwich Community Primary School, said: "The current Year 6 have been learning French since Year 3. The revamped curriculum at Harwich School means the pupils are not repeating anything - they are not just going up and learning how to say their name."

Concerns about transition have been raised by academics and Ofsted.

Teresa Tinsley, communications director for Cilt, said: "A lack of transition arrangement is what made the 1960s primary French project fail; we don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past."

The National Foundation for Educational Research's evaluation of primary languages found that in 2007 more than half of the schools it surveyed failed to say what they were doing about transition, or stated specifically that nothing was happening.

Teaching languages into Year 7 Research findings

- By 2010, Year 7 language pupils should be more confident and demonstrate more sophisticated language skills. Language teachers in secondaries must be able to recognise their pupils' achievement and skills and to build on them in order to maintain enthusiasm.

Source: Cilt 7-14 project

- Although secondaries had begun to establish links with partner primaries, very few had adjusted their key stage 3 work and organisation of the languages curriculum accordingly. Some Year 7 pupils in the survey had studied languages for several years, yet this was completely ignored.

Source: The changing landscape of languages: an evaluation of language learning 20042007. Ofsted, July 2008

- Trainees are very committed to the success of language teaching in primaries, showing an 'evangelical determination' to win over those who remain unconvinced of the benefits of early language learning.

Source: Primary languages in initial teacher training. Ofsted, January 2008

- Although trainees are beginning to understand the challenges for pupils when they transfer from primary to secondary, few have first-hand experience of how secondary schools build on earlier learning in languages.

Source: Primary languages in initial teacher training. Ofsted, January 2008.

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