How to teach a trilingual primary curriculum

4th March 2016 at 00:00
Blending English, Thai and Mandarin Chinese into a seamless experience

The province of Samut Prakan is at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River on the Gulf of Thailand; it is sometimes called Pak Nam, which means river mouth in Thai. It is here that PPMAS-Singapore International School, where I am principal, is doing something a bit unusual. We teach in three languages: English, Mandarin Chinese and Thai.

How it works

As a school in its relative infancy, we have an average class size of 10. We follow the Singaporean curriculum and this is delivered in English (60 per cent), Mandarin Chinese (30 per cent) and Thai (10 per cent). Each class has three teachers, each a native speaker of either English, Thai or Mandarin. To sustain the development of the mother tongue for Thai students who may later return to a local school, Thai maths, science and music are taught. And in addition to Chinese language, we also teach Chinese maths.

Meanwhile, our director of music ensures that the students are exposed to a wide-ranging repertoire from all three cultures and, indeed, others.

Many of the students come from mixed-race families with a smattering of different languages spoken in their homes – for example, Danish, Thai and English, or Chinese, Malay and English.

Key challenges

A slow start

If an individual child does not understand the learning concept, then the teacher who speaks their mother tongue intervenes and assists. As a result, the learning of subject knowledge in kindergarten is slower as children get to grips with three languages simultaneously. But we find that by the 1st grade, primary students are well-equipped linguistically to cover the Singaporean primary curriculum in all three different languages.

Staff training

In order for all teachers to have a consistent approach to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing, training is essential. Subject knowledge updates and weekly training sessions are a fixture for the management team and staff. Younger teachers learn on a daily basis from the more experienced tutors, but this is supported with weekly training from senior leaders. Consistency of teaching approaches across countries and languages is vital in, for example, the teaching of handwriting. We are currently working on the development of a school handwriting policy.

Recruitment and retention

One of our immediate priorities is to recruit more native speakers of English and Mandarin Chinese. Staff retention is an issue as teachers work on two-year contracts, after which they may wish to move on – this is an ongoing challenge of managing an international school.

Student buy-in

The language that students struggle with the most is Mandarin. Hence, we have invested a lot of extra resources into ensuring children put equal effort into learning this language. This has meant recruiting Mandarin teachers who are highly experienced in teaching non-native speakers. They also have a broad repertoire of approaches to call on so that we can pinpoint what is most effective with each pupil.

Finally, we get families involved: the school offers additional support for parents, holding teaching sessions on a weekly basis to ensure that they can help their children to learn Mandarin and that they are equally enthusiastic about it.

Parental buy-in

Parents know what we offer, and they pick a trilingual approach to ensure that their children are well-equipped to meet the economic demands of the 21st century. Research shows that as companies have expanded internationally, multilingualism has become an increasing advantage in the workplace. The employment opportunities expand for those who are multilingual, and our socially aspirational parents want to provide this for their children. As such, parental buy-in is not a major challenge.

That said, we have to ensure that they remain supportive once their child is enrolled and, potentially, finding the approach tough. So we provide daily written and verbal reports for our parents and hold curriculum briefings each term to inform them of the developmental and progressive nature of the learning at each level.

Key Benefits

Staff

We hold linguistic CPD sessions for staff weekly – the language classes are run by native speakers for other staff members. Dissemination of best practice from across the different cultures is a daily feature of circle time and in all lessons where teachers work as a team.

Team-teaching throughout the day, every day, undoubtedly makes teachers more flexible as classroom practitioners and develops their confidence. Working closely with colleagues in this way makes the teacher more appealing to employers, as their professional adaptability is evident at interview and immediately in their practice.

Students

Learning languages is proven to be easier at a younger age. Studies have shown that the multilingual brain is quicker, more adept at inference and ambiguity and more able to resolve conflicts.

The students themselves are not really aware that the way they are learning is different to the way that others learn – they simply embrace the lyrical experience of daily exposure to a wealth of variety and cultural diversity.

As an English specialist at secondary level, I believe that effective communication is the key to the resolution of any conflict, development of an organisation, development of self-awareness and personal growth.

At our school, relationships between students and staff are enhanced and friendships have been made and sustained across cultures through the ability to communicate effectively in a trilingual educational setting.

Louise Loxton is principal at PPMAS-Singapore International School in Samut Prakan, Thailand

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