Maracas about Spanish

22nd February 2008 at 00:00

Learning a language is easier when you are young. Wendy Adeniji and Biddy Passmore tell you how

From a distance it sounds as if the Year 3 pupils at Halfpenny Lane Primary School are singing Frere Jacques. They're certainly singing the tune. But get a little closer and you realise they are singing in Spanish:

"Hace frio, hace frio

Sombrero sombrero

Guantes y abrigo

Muy frio muy frio."

("It's cold - get me a hat, coat and gloves" is the rough message)

Singing is central to the approach to Spanish at the school in Pontefract, as it is in many of the four-fifths of primaries that are already teaching a language in curriculum time. Singing, chanting and mimicry are natural ways for children to learn a language - after all, it's how we learn our own.

Teacher Gill Allen has been using the La Jolie Ronde scheme since she started teaching it to pupils in Year 3 three years ago. The key stage 2 schemes in French and Spanish were written by Rachel Redfearn, the languages adviser at Wakefield, the local authority.

But it's not just loyalty to the authority that dictates her choice. Gill likes the mixture of singing and resources in the scheme, with a CD for teachers nervous about how to pronounce the language and DVDs showing real Spanish pupils going about their everyday activities - and speaking real Spanish.

Gill does not have a Spanish degree but she has been taking Spanish at night school for the past 10 years and is "pretty fluent". So she was the obvious person to lead the school's participation in Wakefield's primary languages pilot scheme in 2004, and to do it in Spanish.

From this September, she hopes to get all teachers in the school involved in teaching the language by doing "cascade" teaching, with colleagues working alongside her. Non-linguist teachers will also get two days' training per key stage on local authority courses so that complete beginners can face their pupils with confidence.

CILT, the National Languages Centre, reports that primaries are making good headway with languages, with French still the most popular choice but Spanish in second place. Choice of language depends on staff.

In the most impressive cases, primaries are working language into the very fabric of the day, such as PE lessons. Many are following the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's schemes of work - which show, for instance, how to work languages into learning about the planets.

More than 80 per cent of primaries are now teaching a foreign language and "a significant number" are also doing them at foundation and key stage 1.

Learning by natural immersion, rather than active teaching, works best before the age of eight, when children are at their most receptive. That is the thinking behind the Hocus and Locus learning scheme, which enables children to acquire a new language through acted-out stories, with native speaker soundtracks to videos and songs.

Hocus and Locus are dinocrocs - half dinosaur and half crocodile - who live in an imaginary park and have adventures with their parkland friends. During the "acting out" session children may wear a special T-shirt or a coloured sash that indicates to them that they have travelled to the magic park where only the foreign language is spoken.

The class then watches the same story on a DVD, spoken and sung by foreign actors; this clarifies its meaning and enables them to imitate native speakers' voices. What pupils are not taught is to translate word for word.

The materials have been designed to be used several times a week. The teacher does not need a high level of skill in the new language but does need to learn one story per half-term to act with the class To see the latest resources in person, go along to the CILT Primary Languages Show, taking place in Manchester from February 29 to March 1 Languages training zone on CILT's website:

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