Uneven languages model leaves teacher training tongue-tied

12th March 2010 at 00:00

Learning a foreign language makes pupils less likely to be insular; enables them to be internationally mobile; makes them feel at ease with other cultures; and can aid development of their mother tongue. So argue modern language specialists.

But a TESS survey has revealed vast differences in the way Scotland's teacher education institutions (TEIs) deliver the subject in primary teacher training, with some programmes barely touching on modern languages at all.

Dundee University bucks that trend. When the Mulgrew report, Citizens of a Multilingual World, was published in 2000, Helen Mackay, then leader of the elective in modern languages, used its recommendations to build a case.

Ms Mackay, now PGDE course director, is not a modern languages specialist - she studied English at university - but believes other languages are an integral part of giving children the best possible start in life.

As a result of her efforts, modern languages became a compulsory 200-hour module in year one of the BEd, with an elective available in the second year.

Now the university is looking to get recognition for its students when they qualify. At present, they still have to do the Modern Languages in the Primary School (MLPS) course to teach languages in primary.

BEd director at Dundee, Peter Wakefield, concedes that the emphasis on modern languages could have been at the expense of something else, but makes it work by using languages as a vehicle to cover other topics - ICT, geography, tolerance and acceptance, and cultural awareness.

At other TEIs, however, modern languages content amounts to little more than taster sessions.

John De Cecco delivers the modern languages elective at Strathclyde University, which roughly 10 per cent of students opt into. It is not enough, he believes. "Even if they are fluent speakers, the amount covered in terms of pedagogy is limited. What we are doing is giving them a taster," he says.

But it is not just a question of how much time is given to modern languages in TEIs, says Dan Tierney, former national development officer for MLPS. Scotland must consider how it wants primary staff to deliver foreign languages. MLPS was the wrong model, says Dr Tierney, now a reader in language education at Strathclyde University.

Rather than spreading a linguistic competency model, where a foreign language is taught in primary for two years solid, he advocates a skills model in which children are given experience of two languages, with the emphasis on developing skills such as listening, conversation, pronunciation and positive attitudes.

Such a change would be in line with Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes, says Sarah Breslin, director of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research. "There is a shift in emphasis from coverage of language content to development of effective language learning skills," she said.

But any such move was dismissed as "mad" by secondary teacher leaders. Alan Taylor, CfE spokesman for the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association and principal teacher of modern languages at Brannock High in Motherwell, said: "You can't listen to French or any other language if you don't know what's being said. You need some vocabulary to get you started, and primary should be about building that content."

Mr Taylor said he was not optimistic about the place of modern languages in secondary under CfE.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, echoed that concern. He said: "In theory, modern languages are still compulsory for a certain number of hours, but the truth is, where circumstances don't allow that, schools already drive a cart and horses through it. Curriculum for Excellence will just make the situation even more fluid."

emma.seith@tes.co.uk

MYRIAD MODULES

Aberdeen

BEd: during the first two years, instruction in teaching modern languages is not "a specific curriculum aspect" or "focus", says Alison Hurrell, who is responsible for modern languages input. During this time, students can opt to learn a modern language but only a few do. In year four, there is an 18-hour elective which students can opt into.

PGDE: an optional professional studies course in modern languages.

Dundee

BEd: students do 200 hours of modern languages in first year. Modern languages are also offered as an elective in year two.

PGDE: an elective of 20 hours in modern languages.

Edinburgh

BEd: one lecture and one workshop in modern languages run every year in years one, two and three. In fourth year, students can opt into a 10-week course.

PGDE: modern languages form part of the languages and literacy strand of the course.

Glasgow

BEd: a new course is being introduced. Modern languages are likely to form part of the work in years three and four of the new degree. Students will cover them as part of their work on "languages across the curriculum", but they are unlikely to form a specific subject.

PGDE: two-hour lecture.

Stirling

The university does not offer traditional BEd or PGDE courses. Students acquire their professional qualification and an academic qualification in either modern languages, environmental science, or early years.

Strathclyde

BEd: an optional module in modern languages teaching is offered

PGDE: a three-hour lecture and the option of a 24-hour module.

University of the West of Scotland

BEd: a module in third year on first and second language acquisition, but this is going to be moved into first year so that modern languages are fresher in students' minds.

PGDE: 23 core hours on languages, four of which are dedicated to modern languages.

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