Our foreign exchange

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Rewards cut both ways as gifted and talented children from Merseyside inspireTibetan pupils to learn English, reports David Newnham

How do you come up with fresh new ways to teach English to Tibetan children? Try asking a group of gifted and talented British children to think about how they learned French. This might not seem like the simplest solution. But when they tried it at primary schools in Knowsley, Merseyside, the results were astounding.

Not only did the British children produce a variety of teaching aids to help their Tibetan contemporaries, but they also learned some valuable lessons themselves, and taught their teachers a thing or two.

This exercise in lateral thinking was the result of the long-standing relationship between the Tibetan refugee community in India and Liverpool Hope university college. As a member of the Hope One World Group charitable foundation, Liz MacGarvey has worked frequently with teachers and pupils in the SOS-funded Tibetan children's villages there. And Ms MacGarvey is also the research officer for Knowley leadership incentive grant.

After spending time at a school for orphaned and impoverished Tibetan refugee children in Gopalpur, Northern India, last summer, she had the idea of combining her two interests. And so the Tibet project was born.

Ms MacGarvey worked with gifted and talented pupils from two Knowsley primary schools - Prescot county primary and Evelyn community primary - as well as their teachers, and staff from Prescot specialist language college, to which the children would be transferring in Year 7.

From the outset, she says, the project was part of a larger piece of action-research designed to encourage independent learning and to help develop teaching techniques aimed at improving the achievements of gifted and talented children. "We wanted to see how pupils worked together on a specific project if they were taken out of their comfort zone," she explains. "So we mixed pupils from the two schools and across the age groups.

"We also wanted to encourage independent learning, so we briefed the children about the backgrounds of the Tibetan pupils and their ability in English, and then gave them the task of creating a range of materials to use in class."

A third objective was to help smooth the way to a successful transfer to secondary school. So, a preparatory session was held at Prescot specialist language college, where the children worked alongside Year 10 students.

The group then spent three days working together with Ms MacGarvey, when teachers were briefed to respond to pupils' questions, but to offer help only when invited to do so.

"We were hoping to gain some insights into the way gifted and talented pupils thought and interacted with each other and with the task set," says Ms MacGarvey. "And we also wanted to know how far a hands-off approach would influence the directions they took."

Three days of focused activity, during which the children displayed high levels of cognitive and practical creativity, resulted in a variety of teaching materials.

"It was an experiment," says Ms MacGarvey. "The children did a lot of talking about how you teach English as a foreign language, and it was interesting to see them asking themselves how they had learned French, and then using that."

They used flashcards, vocabulary games, worksheets and letters. The children also scripted and acted in a five-minute video using greetings and describing in simple language a typical British school day. One comment was: "No they won't understand that because it's too - what's that word, Miss, when its's not formal English?"

Ms MacGarvey says: "It was also interesting to watch how they negotiatied among themselves. I remember one Year 5 girl saying that she wasn't happy with what her group had done, and she persuaded them to perform counting rhymes and songs instead."

These interviews give an insight into the children's own reactions to the project. "We felt it was easier to work in smaller groups, as some of us didn't feel so shy," said one girl, and one boy remarked: "It was good having plenty of time, just to sit quietly and talk through your ideas with others."

As for the Tibetan children, they were so inspired by the English video that they immediately incorporated it into theirrole-play games, and set about producing a "day in the life" movie of their own.

Their enthusiasm was evident to the Knowsley children and their parents, who later attended an awards evening and were able to watch a film of their Tibetan counterparts enjoying their work.

Everyone seems to have benefited from the project - not least the teachers involved.

Stephanie Bartlett, gifted and talented co-ordinator at Prescot primary, says she learned valuable lessons, not least the benefits of giving children ownership of a project and encouraging them to share ideas.

"Gifted and talented kids are used to putting their hands up and getting the right answer, but this project has shown that teamwork and relationship building is good for them," she says.

"And when they watched the video of the Tibetan kids, I don't think any of them moved or breathed the whole time it was on. At nine or 10, to see another child learning from something that you've made is a reward like no other."

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