Languages lead the way

27th June 2003 at 01:00
A few schools have pioneered the Nuffield programme for integrating languages across the curriculum through bilingual teaching. Now the field is opening up, says Alison Thomas

Have you ever heard of un abri Stephenson? Can you translate "rain gauge" into French? Perhaps not, but there is a Year 7 class at Wolfreton School Language College near Hull that can. Since September, they have been studying geography in some of their French lessons as part of the Content and Language Integration Project (CLIP). Piloted by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching (CILT) and funded by the Department for Education and Skills, this three-year study involving eight schools aims to find out if teaching another subject in a foreign language improves linguistic competence and attitudes towards language learning. Les Fairbanks, director of the language college, believes that it does.

"It provides a real context for learning, unlike the usual coursebook topics," he says. "We did some work on climate zones, for example, and pupils really took to that. Linguistically, they have acquired a good passive knowledge, gained confidence orally and have a better understanding of how the French language works than their counterparts in other classes."

Presenting complex geographical concepts to beginners of French requires imaginative teaching strategies and close collaboration between the two departments. The geography teacher is now learning French and linguists are updating their geographical knowledge. "It is a two-way learning process," says Les Fairbanks. "It's hard work but great fun and the support from CILT is excellent."

Geography offers ample opportunities for practical work, which has proved particularly popular with boys. Ordnance Survey maps have given way to a Michelin road atlas, study of microclimates included drawing a map of the school shaded in different colours to indicate variations in temperature.

Pupils also scripted a weather forecast for presentation on video, which necessitated teaching the future tense long before it appears in the textbook - just one example of content dictating language input rather than the other way round.

The positive response of Wolfreton boys comes as no surprise to CILT trainer Do Coyle, director of teaching and learning in the School of Education at Nottingham University. "It's not communication for communication's sake. They almost forget there's another language involved because they are learning something that interests them," she explains.

But what of the impact on pupils' understanding of subject content? "Schools that have taught this way consistently over time have seen no adverse effects on GCSE results," she says, adding that some enter languages candidates a year early, freeing up time for more advanced linguistic study or consolidation of another subject.

The benefits of embedding languages in the curriculum are clear, all the more so since their demotion to optional status at key stage 4. The methodologies involved also tie in with the KS3 framework and provide an ideal platform for developing thinking skills and spontaneous talk.

But how realistic are the prospects of spreading the practice? Do Coyle admits that it has implications for timetabling and staff development, but believes that, with the support of senior management and close collaboration between departments, problems can be overcome. She also points to a growing pool of linguistically competent subject specialists, including graduates of the bilingual PGCE course she runs at Nottingham.

"CLIP aims to develop a flexible model that can be adapted to suit any school," she says. "The last thing we want is an elitist label, suggesting that only privileged schools or able students can cope. The wide range of schools involved in the pilot demonstrates this is clearly not the case.

But like any new initiative, it takes time, reflection and experimentation."

Les Fairbanks agrees. "My Year 7 is not a particularly easy class," he says, adding modestly, "I'd say we have achieved a little and learned a lot. We definitely want to continue."

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