Learning subjects in French is having a remarkable effect on results in one secondary school. Hannah Frankel reports
T here is something different about geography lessons at Tile Hill Wood school in Coventry. For starters, they are conducted entirely in French.
You would be forgiven for assuming that these teenagers must be outstandingly bright, but you would be wrong. These are low-ability Year 8 pupils, yet they are on-task and learning.
And it is these pupils who benefit most from this groundbreaking immersion project, which sees several subjects all taught in French. In just one year, even the weaker pupils have reached at least level 5 in reading and speaking French, with listening and writing also showing impressive results.
"We've seen stunning levels of attainment," says Judith Woodfield, a geography teacher, who was not a confident French speaker at the start of the project.
"I can be lazy when I teach geography in English," she admits. "I often revert to lots of oral teaching, but now I have to be more imaginative and use lots of visual and kinaesthetic learning techniques. It really helps all the pupils, but low-ability ones in particular."
The Content and Language Integration Project was introduced at Tile Hill Wood in 2000, with mixed-ability Year 7s learning geography in French.
Since then it has taken off, with teachers queuing up to receive the prerequisite inhouse language and training. All Year 7s are entitled to bilingual lessons in either geography, RE, PSHE or science, while optional classes are offered in Year 8.
This year, 93 per cent of Year 7 pupils chose to continue their bilingual geography lessons into the following year alongside 70 per cent of PSHE students.
Most pupils describe integration learning as a privilege and an opportunity to stand out from everyone else.
Arrandeep Kaur, a Year 11 pupil, was nervous when she joined a bilingual geography class in Year 7 because she had not studied French before.
She subsequently took her GCSE French a year early, and exceeded her C-grade prediction by getting an A.
"The bilingual element forces you to concentrate," Arrandeep says. "I felt special and pleased to be given the opportunity."
The teachers - who all volunteer for the scheme - are just as enthusiastic, with one describing the experience as "the highlight of my teaching career".
Many were initially concerned that their language skills were not up to scratch, but all felt energised by the benefits for everyone involved in the scheme. Pat Richards, a science teacher, has just completed an Open University French course. "I don't always get it right," he says, "but I provide the pupils with all the technical language they need and use lots of visual resources for when I get stuck. It makes me a good role model because students see you don't have to be fluent to still get by."
It is not just the language skills that benefit. On the surface of it, geography results have remained static, but an evaluation by Nottingham university found a cluster of pupils who would have continued geography into Year 9 if it had been offered in French. Older students also found that they could remember their Year 7 bilingual geography lessons, but not the ones they studied in English.
"There's no doubt that some pupils simply did not find geography in English either challenging enough, or interesting enough to continue," says Philip Hood, from Nottingham university, who led the evaluation.
"Most pupils were positive about the immersion project and missed it in Year 9 and Year 10."
Schools are increasingly waking up to the fact that the project can be a trigger for excellence. Fifty delegates from more than 30 schools recently visited Tile Hill Wood with a view to incorporating the scheme, while other schools are already trailblazing the project.
Over the past 10 years, Hockerill Anglo-European college in Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire, has been transformed into one of England's most successful schools, almost entirely because of Clip. It is now eight times oversubscribed.
Mike Ullman, director of languages, says: "It has been a catalyst for improvement. A third of the entire curriculum in Year 9 is now taught through French or German, and the success of it has permeated every area of the college."
The next stage is to take the project into primaries says Mr Hood, but many are reluctant due to lack of confidence and expertise. It is yet to be seen whether Lord Dearing's initial review of modern languages, due next month, will address this issue and instil in youngsters a lifetime's love of languages
Work closely with colleagues, planning one term in advance
Make use of your foreign learning assistant
Put classroom phrases, speaking prompts and instructions up on the wall
Make use of visual prompts and simplify language
Use a point scoring system across both subjects that encourages French speaking
Set aside plenty of time for curriculum development and training days
Ensure as many teachers are involved as possible
Remember that the "host" subject is key, while French is just the tool for delivery