Primary classroom teacher or specialist?

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Who should be teaching languages at key stage 2? Patricia Driscoll studied the pros and cons of two approaches

Languages have been on the menu at many primary schools in recent years, but the publication of non-statutory guidelines for key stage 2 suggests that many more will want to develop their practice in this area.

I have recently researched languages teaching in primary schools with a focus on two models, both local education authority-led.

In one, peripatetic teachers from secondary schools visited and taught timetabled lessons based on a "language competence" approach; in the other, the classroom teacher provided a more integrated programme based on "sensitisation".

The research looked at practice in more than 20 schools in the two LEA areas. Practice within these two models differed markedly, but perhaps the most significant differences were in the nature of teachers' subject knowledge and expertise, and that the specialists were visitors, whereas the classroom teachers were already integrated into the school.

The level of the specialist teacher's own ability to speak the language is a significant resource and a clear advantage, as it enables them to:

* bring to the classroom more complex grammar and language forms;

* provide opportunities for pupils to hear the language used as a medium for communication in the classroom;

* predict areas of difficulty and attribute significance to the children's errors;

* use diagnostic, oral assessment techniques and formal tests to judge when teaching changes are needed;

* develop language awareness by exploring links between the target language and English.

The specialists tend to have personal experience of the target country and therefore have a rich knowledge of its culture and language. They use this knowledge in the classroom to cultivate positive attitudes to the country; their inter-cultural understanding is a major resource.

The specialists were working to a clear set of beliefs about the purposes of the subject and showed a clear commitment to the development of language competence. They were able to plan effective progression for the majority of pupils and to ensure continuity of learning when pupils moved up to the secondary school. It was much easier for them to liaise with the secondary teachers; they shared the technical language of the subject and the secondary teachers respected the validity of their assessment.

It would be unreasonable to expect primary classroom teachers to have the same level of language expertise; clearly their professional commitment is to the entire curriculum. They spoke of their insecure knowledge of verb endings and those who had not studied French to A-level lacked confidence in writing it. However, the teachers in my study were supported by a training programme which focused on strategies for teaching a limited range of language content and gave them basi skills and confidence in handling the resources.

More importantly, perhaps, the generalist approach had other advantages in that the teachers involved have a quite different form of professional knowledge and have an established position within the school. Their superior knowledge of the pupils as individuals, their circumstances, and profiles of achievement across the curriculum, enabled them to manage the programme for maximum motivation. They were able to:

* reinforce elements of language through daily use, such as the date;

* closely monitor the steps in pupils' learning and judge the level of difficulty by observing pupils' responses; l select activities according to the mood of the children or other events.

In the early stages of language learning, memorising words such as months or numbers can be tedious, so the generalists' pedagogic flexibility and their control over the environment was a major advantage. They could:

* use active, collaborative and "fun" strategies, drawing on a repertoire of games and songs to rehearse small amounts of language content;

* adapt teaching strategies used in other subjects;

* generate a non-threatening, more inclusive environment suited to mixed-ability classes.

It is significant that the generalists, in spite of their lower level of subject knowledge, were able to provide opportunities for pupils to communicate for real purposes. Games provided authentic contexts for language use and the spontaneity involved led to the creative use of language.

The integrated approach may be seen as desirable by classroom teachers, but the pressure on curriculum time means integration is often limited to classroom commands and procedures such as taking the register.

The generalist teachers tended not to include cultural and language awareness aspects. Materials on which non-specialist teachers depend could be designed to achieve a balance between these aspects and the language learning itself. But over and above these aims must be the fostering of enthusiasm and positive attitudes towards language learning.

My research suggests that generalist classroom teachers can provide an effective programme, provided it is not purely constructed on the specialist tradition, but instead builds on the strengths of the primary classroom teacher. Second, it is clear that specialist teachers are an invaluable resource but not economical simply as drop-in teachers: rather their expertise should be used to provide suppoprt and co-ordination.

We can afford to be optimistic about future provision, but success will depend on: a realistic policy framework which allows experiment; the sort of leadership by headteachers which would result in the creation of intercultural schools; and imaginative use of the latest technology.

Patricia Driscoll has recently completed her doctoral studies at Canterbury Christ Church University College

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