How well is Wales' national languages strategy working? Alison Thomas looks at some initiatives
If you were given pound;500 a year to develop a project, what would it be? No strings attached, provided the ultimate goal was to boost numbers at key stage 4. This is the opportunity offered to Welsh schools by the Compact, a programme run by the Centre for In-formation on Language Teaching and Research, CILT Cymru. For the problems now facing England have bedevilled Wales for years. Between 1996 and 2004, the proportion of 15-year-olds entering at least one GCSE in a modern foreign language dropped from 46 per cent to 32. So when CILT Cymru was created to implement a new national languages strategy in 2002, it was charged with the difficult task of reversing the trend.
It has adopted a two-pronged app-roach. The first centres on careers education and at option time the team scurries round the country talking to Year 9 classes. The second objective is to raise standards, especially at key stage 3, and this is where the Compact comes in. Teachers receive guidance during the application process and continuing support if their action plan is accepted.
So what do they come up with? "All sorts of things," says language teaching adviser, Kristina Hedges. "It might be developing thinking skills, or an ICT initiative or strategies to motivate boys - whatever they think will help their particular situation."
Even little things can make a difference as Cathays High School in Cardiff has shown. "We put together various challenges to improve skills and generate a more positive attitude towards learning," explains head of French and community languages, Eirian Thomas. In Year 7 the theme is connectives, starting with 'and' and 'but' and gradually building up a bank of more sophisticated expressions like 'however', 'not only' and 'on the other hand'. These are written into the scheme of work and the challenge lies in using them to produce increasingly complex sentences and well-structured paragraphs. "While pupils used to get frustrated by the simplistic nature of what they wrote, this gives them a real sense of satisfaction," she continues. "In the early days I bought prizes but I soon realised I did not need them." In fact, it has been so successful, some children with SEN statements achieve level 3 while across the ability range a heightened awareness of sentence structure has a positive spin-off in English lessons.
In Year 9 a poetry challenge develops students' powers of self-expression still further and one of this year's themes - Si j'etais unune ... je serais ... (If I was a ... I would be ... ) - generated some outstanding contributions. This is the first cohort to have worked this way from Year 7 and at the time of writing it was too soon to tell how many intend to carry on. Whatever the outcome, Eirian is delighted by a "sea change in attitude"
in an inner city comprehensive with high levels of deprivation.
In another part of Cardiff, St Illtyd's Catholic High School uses the foreign language assistant to bring the reality of France into KS 3 classrooms. It all began two years ago in the context of a new link with a coll ge in Valenciennes. The assistant helped Year 8 to make a video about their school and was one of the accompanying staff when they went to France to meet their penpals in the flesh. Now in Year 10, the original participants still correspond and younger students have come on board.
Foreign language assistants have proved equally valuable at Eirias High School, Colwyn Bay, where they help Year 9 prepare for "Talk Time", an initiative designed to promote oral fluency. "Working in small groups, students compose a short presentation on a subject of their choice,"
explains head of department Beverley Stephenson. "Some of these have been stunning but more importantly the preparation work gives learners the confidence to cope with questions at the end. It is not a magic wand and their French or German is not always accurate. But they are not as frightened of making fools of themselves and realise they can actually communicate."
Last year, potential but wavering linguists also produced a magazine called Eurosplash, again with the assistants' help. They had only half a day to put it together and themes included school exchange visits, film reviews and sporting events. A framework with leading questions encouraged the use of different tenses and structures, while background music and the passing round of sweets marked this out as a special occasion. When asked in an anonymous questionnaire if the experience had encouraged them to consider languages at KS 4, 49 per cent ticked yes.
"They particularly enjoyed working in groups, researching from the internet and magazines, the informal atmosphere and the pressure of a deadline. It was only afterwards that we told them these were GCSE topics. That made them think, 'Yes! I can do this. I can cope.' So it was a success on two levels," says Beverley.
While there is no doubt the project contributed to this year's healthy Year 10 figures, other factors played a part, notably a re-jigging of option columns to separate languages and PE. Other schools have been less fortunate, yet a badly-designed option system can thwart teachers' best efforts. Furthermore, as primary modern languages are in their infancy in Wales, pupils have just over two years to get to grips with a new subject before the moment of truth arrives.
"We are living in a society that does not value language learning. We are swimming against the tide," says Kristina Hedges. "Having said that, over 50 per cent of participating schools have improved their take-up, so we are having some impact in the schools we can reach, for we are only a small team. Moreover, raising standards is a long-term objective. If you start with Year 7 it takes time to feed through."
At Blackwood Comprehensive in Gwent staff organise an annual Year 9 European Week. Activities range from the serious, including a showing of CILT Cymru's 'Languages Work' video, to a frivolous snail-eating competition, which takes place one lunchtime to the delight of a sizeable crowd. This year for the first time pupils also collaborated in mixed-sex groups to select the European football team of their dreams. "Some chose the players for each position - a task they took very seriously! - while others designed the kit or wrote short profiles of each team member," says head of modern languages Lynne Cruwys.
Throughout the year, the department has also adapted its teaching and learning strategies to include engaging starters with the emphasis on problem-solving and competition, which both appeal to boys. "Phrase of the week" is another new development covering everything from ma puce on Valentine's Day to colourful idioms and modern slang. These are posted on classroom walls.
Further case studies can be found at www.ciltcymru.org.uk
* Contact 02920 480 137 for the video Languages Work which costs pound;10 (Welsh schools can obtain one copy free of charge).