Time to review our primary languages

24th September 2010 at 01:00

It is more than 20 years since Scotland embarked on an ambitious programme to reintroduce modern languages into primary schools. This was done through pilot projects, involving the secondary specialists in most cases, which were judged to be a success. A large-scale generalisation programme followed, involving significant funding for the training of primary teachers.

However, this new approach gave the responsibility to the primary teacher to deliver the foreign language. It still followed a linguistic competence model, where the aim was for the pupil to learn the same language from P6 to S4.

The literature shows continuity into secondary to be a problem for many language programmes. Modern languages departments do not have a history of dealing with transition. Most linguists are used to a "blank canvas". And in an English-speaking country like ours, a linguistic competence model faces an added problem: which language?

In one large city authority, teachers were trained in one language. However, declining rolls meant that schools were closed and catchment areas redrawn. The consequence was that children were then going to a secondary school which did not offer the language taught in primary.

Another authority decided to end diversified provision in S1, whereby pupils did one of two languages. Some primaries had volunteered to train in Italian, but were now required to retrain in French.

In a third case, a school had an RAF base in its catchment, so children whose parents came from another base in England had either been taught a different language or no language in primary school.

In a fourth authority, some teachers were reluctant to train in German, as it was only taught in one secondary, and therefore French might be more attractive in the promotion stakes.

Teachers move around and, of course, pupils do the same. So the situation in Scotland, whereby 76 per cent of primaries offer French, 21 per cent German, 2 per cent Spanish and 1 per cent Italian is complicated. Policy-makers need to be aware that the idea of a child starting a language at the age of eight or nine, and continuing with that same language to age 16, or perhaps 14 if there is an element of choice, is difficult to achieve. Those who argued for a linguistic competence model have, therefore, been proved wrong.

I propose a new approach more suited to the linguistic situation in Scotland. Content would be cut and the transferable nature of the learning communicated to pupils, parents and secondary teachers. Most of the time would be given over to an oralaural approach, with reading and writing used only to consolidate learning at primary. The emphasis would be on enjoyment of the language lesson, the development of a positive attitude and building pupil confidence. There would be less concern about assessment and allowance made for error tolerance at this stage.

More limited content would allow teachers to develop the pronunciation of key sounds in a stress-free context. Equally, the link between key sounds and the written word could be taught. The transferable skill of using a foreign language dictionary could also be developed. Teachers could start to show pupils how languages work, including concepts such as gender and making plurals as well as connecting with their own language and other languages spoken by children in the class.

The limited content would be covered in two languages, French with either German, Italian or Spanish. This would go some way to addressing the pupils' preference for Spanish, but also minimise continuity problems where, for example, German was offered in the associated secondary. It is still possible, but less likely, that primaries could offer different languages from the secondary, but that would not be such a problem where the emphasis is on transferable skills.

Previous language models have caused some concern over possible confusion, but these were in secondaries with significant content coverage. There might also be concern about a return to a European awareness course, which was generally offered to the less able and was mostly in English, reading about the country but with a smattering of the language.

My proposal is different from those: it is an attempt to take account of the position we find ourselves in as speakers of English and is more suited to overcome the problems of transition. There would be specified partial linguistic competence in a maximum of two languages.

Training would be required, of course. It would involve some limited additional training of the present primary language teachers, but would best be done through the pre-service route. A specialist route, like the one used in Spain, might be offered, whereby some students follow a languages route, and others science. The language specialists could be trained in the limited linguistic content in a number of languages, with most of the time spent on how to develop language skills.

The results would be a significant increase in the pool of trained teachers, an end to the isolation felt by many primary language teachers and a coherent programme providing secondary linguists with a solid base on which to build the teaching of specific languages. The present linguistic competence model, with the problems of transition and teacher supply, is simply not sustainable.

Daniel Tierney is reader in language education at Strathclyde University.

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