I was sweating and terrified. It felt like this was a momentous occasion. The meeting of two races for the first time. They looked the same as the species I was used to, perhaps a little smaller, but fundamentally the same. Yet I knew that they would tear me apart if they could; I was sure they would. I turned to the all-black computer – ready to input directions to take me back towards the safe lands.
“Sir,” a lone voice rang out. “Alison has just hit my leg by accident.”
The whole class spun round to look, gasping at the event. Alison had committed a heinous crime! An accidental leg-hit. I realised that my secondary-teacher patience and attitude just wasn’t going to be enough.
That was me at the beginning of my time teaching languages once a week in a local primary school. But what started out as stressful – and a steep learning curve – ended up being the most fun I’d have all week.
I started teaching primary languages for an hour a week towards the end of my NQT year. We’d wander off to another school and have great fun introducing students to words and sounds from around the world. It was win-win: the primary teachers learned from the secondary specialist, the secondary teacher learned new pedagogies and future Year 7s got a languages lift.
I now work at Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol, an all-through school where I teach the brilliantly fun Year 4s, and it’s the highlight of my week.
At our campus, we see the effects of primary MFL as our students who continue within the school make huge jumps in the conceptual areas of language and structure. These students work with the language in a way that is giving it a go but is also extremely creative.
This can also be achieved in non-all-through schools. Here’s how:
1 Make first contact
This might come as a shocker to some secondary teachers, but primary teachers are people, too. Once you’ve got your brain around that, find your head of transition and look to where you’ll have the greatest effect.
A school that feeds 60 per cent of its students or more into your school is your starting point. Use your school’s system to get in contact with the relevant teachers and set up a meeting.
2 What do they want? What can you offer?
With the introduction of primary languages, as an MFL specialist you represent a great deal of expertise and knowledge that many primary teachers don’t have, but desperately want. At my first meeting at the primary school, I sat with my head of department and the primary class teacher (to complete the image, you need to imagine me with my knees by my ears) and they were so welcoming of the idea – they were happy to have us. They said that they had been following a scheme they had bought in but that we were welcome to take the lead and do what we wanted. Once you have an agreement, get it timetabled at both ends.
3 Decide what you want
As the specialist here, you’ll most likely get carte blanche on this one, plus you’ll be inheriting these students within years – or even months. What is it that you want them to know? There are various models you can use, the vocab-heavy, the grammar-focused, the cultural awakening, etc.
My recommendation is to focus on language learning skills. The ability to understand patterns, sentence structure and use of written accents will give students a greater understanding of how language works than asking the location of la gare. Perhaps most importantly, get them talking: they won’t have developed their early teen awkwardness and you’ll be amazed at their ability to pick up spoken language.
4 Link up the curriculums
Content-wise, you could go down the traditional MFL-examined topics and get in an extra year in advance. Taking that route, however, you’ll most likely end up boring them to death as you explain how to give an opinion about what is found in their pencil case. Instead, coordinate with the class teacher. What are they learning about in their topic lessons? At our campus last term, we taught about the rainforest (pronunciation, word order and gender). This term, we’re reading Michael Morpurgo’s Gentle Giant in Spanish. We’re focusing on pronunciation and reading aloud. This takes longer to prepare, but they’ve loved it. They’re already knowledgeable on the subject and therefore access it much quicker.
5 Teach them and learn
Teaching primary doesn’t include a totally different approach, but it does walk you down a much more creative and fun route. You might find yourself inventing games and actions, and see your teacher persona move from hard-ass sentry to a softer, more nurturing individual.
My biggest learning curve was, without a doubt, in behaviour management (students grassing on each other, and randomly standing up and helping themselves to a drink). I had to think long and hard about how I dealt with this as my secondary “nuclear option” voice would not have been appropriate.
The transition has taught me a lot about how to be positive and fun.
6 Connect with parents
I think it was Aristotle who said, “For every parents’ evening there shall be a parent who proclaims: ‘I was rubbish at languages at school’.”
Teaching MFL earlier starts to show parents that this is a valuable subject. Produce projects that students can take home, videos you can watch online and language that the children can speak with their parents. With students raving about the language they are picking up and the school you come from, you’re not only striking the match of learning – you’re also doing some great PR for your school.
7 Reap the benefits
By the time the children arrive in Year 7, two things will hopefully have happened.
Firstly, you will have already developed relationships with students. This will be an advantage if some of them begin to exhibit challenging behaviour.
Secondly, they will be showing prior learning of the skills that you have taught them. They will already have a grounding in the subject, something that you can then use to support the rest of the learners in your classes.
Benjamin Davey is head of world studies (MFL and humanities) at the Bridge Learning Campus, Bristol