Let's hear it for Scots

13th February 2009 at 00:00
A language project is ringing out loud and clear at one primary

As a young teacher, Mary Connolly was told that if she wanted to get on in education, she should "keep the accent but lose the dialect".

Nearly 40 years later, as head of Nethermains Primary, in Denny, she has seen her pupils' attainment in writing improve by at least one level within a year of working on a Scots language project. In some cases, the gain surpassed teachers' expectations. Many even chose to do their national assessment in writing in Scots.

The children - in P6 when they started the programme, and now in P7 - have become more confident. The gains, she believes, are directly attributable to the motivation derived from being able to work in the language they speak in the home.

After pupils performed songs, prose and poetry in Scots before the Scottish Government's first Scots Language Conference, Ms Connolly said: "Two years ago, this class couldn't have presented before an audience. They would have had their shoulders down. We have seen a difference in their confidence."

The programme was part of a drive by Falkirk Council to promote the Scots language - but not to replace English, Ms Connolly stressed. It allowed teachers to extend the children's vocabulary by looking at Scots words and transferring that to their descriptive writing and English writing more generally. While, like many schools, they had concentrated Scots language work around specific events, such as Burns' day, Nethermains has extended Scots across the curriculum, where it is relevant, throughout the year. The Scots language writer Matthew Fitt also spent 10 sessions with the P6 class, through the Scottish Book Trust's Live Literature programme.

Ms Connolly said the other major gain had been an increase in community involvement. The school held discussions with parents and grandparents, and invited the latter to take part in homework tasks.

Caroline Winning, who took Nethermains P6 class last year and is involved in Falkirk Council's Scots network, helping to train other Scots co-ordinators in primary and secondary schools, described how being able to work in Scots transformed some pupils' motivation. "I had considerable difficulty engaging pupils to raise a hand in class discussions before, but discovering that Scots was a real and relevant language had a real impact," she said.

"I had boys asking if they could read a book when they'd finished their work. I also overheard one boy explaining to his friends where to find the Scots language section in the local book store."

How adopting a word a day helps keep the Scots language in play

Linda Fabiani (above centre left), the former Scottish Culture Minister, visited St Ninian's Primary in Stirling, on the day before she was sacked. Pupils have been compiling a dictionary of Scots words spoken by children across the country.

The "Words for the Weans" project involved pupils writing to every primary school in Scotland asking children to look after the Scots language by persuading their family and friends to adopt a word and use it in their daily speech. They were asked to send the word and its meaning to St Ninian's.

Eileen Finlayson, Scots Language Dictionaries editor, has added more than 15,000 of these responses to her custom-built database, which includes the locations of the schools and so provides useful information about the geographical distribution of words. Some children also provided sentences to illustrate how their words were used.

The project now involves some former pupils who have moved up to secondary school. It is linking up with the Homecoming celebrations - asking visitors to bring home Scots words that have been taken overseas and are still in use.

Photograph: Chris Watt.

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