The teenagers who teach languages at primary
S6 pupils Maddy Dorrian and Clare Stevenson love Wednesday mornings. They ease their way into the day with a coffee at French café La Barantine in Edinburgh to go over their lesson plan and chat to the staff in French.
This gets them “in the zone”, they say, because next they are off to nearby Bruntsfield Primary to deliver a French lesson to P2.
What takes them there? The answer lies in a scheme launched by Edinburgh independent school George Heriot’s this year that sees senior pupils with a passion for languages and at least a Higher in the subject delivering lessons in French, German and Spanish as volunteer language ambassadors (VLAs) in three city primary schools: Bruntsfield, Tollcross and Murrayburn.
The aim is to support schools in delivering the Scottish government’s goal of every child learning two languages by the end of primary, at the same time as giving senior students the chance to hone the kind of skills that will serve them well in the future – the ability to work in a team, to lead and to communicate.
Of course, this isn’t done on the fly: there is a code of conduct for the VLAs and professional standards have been outlined that they are expected to adhere to. Modern languages teacher Sandrine Tonini, who has introduced the programme to Heriot’s, along with one of the school’s depute heads, Margaret Lannon, says: “The professional standards we expect them to adhere to look very similar to the professional standards required of teachers, but this is not solely for pupils who want to go into teaching.
“They gain so many transferable skills from this experience.”
In total, some 24 S6 pupils at Heriot’s have signed up for the scheme and they work in pairs or trios to deliver lessons. But this isn’t just an independent school scheme. Around 60 pupils from 11 Edinburgh City Council secondaries are also taking part, delivering lessons to primary classes in French, German, Spanish and Italian.
If at the end of the year these pupils are deemed to have been successful, they will receive a certificate, rubber-stamped by the regulatory body for teachers, the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
Ann Robertson is the languages lead at Edinburgh City Council. The introduction of the scheme was about formalising the good practice already going on in secondaries where senior pupils were teaching in early secondary or primary, she says.
“We wanted to give them some professional training and introduce a certificate to encourage more schools to get involved,” she explains.
The key to the scheme’s success lies in the preparation, says Ms Lannon. Her school, working in partnership with the council, held a training day for VLAs in September, featuring sessions on pedagogy from council specialists, experienced teachers and the programme director for the University of Edinburgh’s modern languages PGDE.
Today Maddy and Clare are teaching P2 the names of some fruits in French. The children repeat the names of the fruits after the S6 students as they appear on the whiteboard, and describe their colour, drawing on a previous lesson. “Ananas” – the French word for pineapple – is the source of much hilarity. The French word for strawberry – “fraise” – sounds a bit like French, says one P2. It’s similar to the Arabic word for strawberry (“fraiz”), adds another little boy.
Twenty-three different nationalities are represented among the pupils at Bruntsfield Primary, which plans to deliver French from P1 and German from P5.
Svetlana McBain is the P2 class teacher. Although she is herself bilingual – originally from Belarus, she has been living in Scotland for the past 15 years – she was “a bit sceptical” about teaching French.
“I don’t speak French, so it’s difficult when the teacher is not confident to deliver the programme,” she explains.
But Maddy and Clare are a great help, she adds. “They have amazing ideas. Their lessons are very interactive and their pronunciation is perfect. I could not have done it without them.”
Another resource has been the expertise of other staff members, says Ms McBain. Rachael Bottom, a P6 teacher, is the lead teacher for languages at Bruntsfield.
She estimates that half of the school’s 22-strong teaching staff have some language skills; the rest are starting from scratch.
Ms Bottom and P4 teacher Jacqueline Bell run a language teaching drop-in for staff every Thursday after school, answering questions and sharing resources and ideas.
Ms Bottom studied French up until Advanced Higher level and Ms Bell previously lived in France. Both went on an immersion course for a week during the school holidays, journeying to France with two other members of staff from their school.
Other teachers have benefited from six-week language courses run at various levels by the council.
Two Heriot’s students visit Ms Bottom’s class to help deliver French to her P6s. Given Ms Bottom’s own passion for the language, she has less need to draw on their expertise but they are nonetheless an asset, she says.
“The children really value being taught by older pupils who are a bit closer to their own age. It shows them where they could potentially take their own languages,” she says.
Bruntsfield headteacher Carol Kyle says that primary schools are increasingly looking for teachers who have language skills.
Teachers ‘need languages’
She would like a languages qualification to be part of the minimum entry requirements for teacher education courses set by the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
The new emphasis on language learning in primary is a great opportunity to “keep learning alive for teachers”, Ms Kyle believes.
From Maddy and Clare’s perspective, the decision to focus on starting languages early is the right one. They are in awe of the amount of knowledge their P2s are able to retain, and wish that their own introduction to languages had come sooner.
The teachers involved in the scheme, regardless of their own language ability, are finding that the older students’ lessons are going down well with their pupils, and that the lessons contain innovative ideas that they might not have thought of using themselves.
It is clear that there are lessons that everyone involved can absorb, way beyond the small group of primary pupils.
What do P6 pupils make of their French lessons?
A group of three P6 pupils at Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield Primary – Leo, Rose and Chloe – discuss the importance of learning languages.
Chloe: “It’s quite good to learn languages, because when you are older you might want
to travel to different countries and it will help.”
Rose: “It will probably make things easier when you grow up, just in case you have a random business that pops up in another country.”
Chloe: “If you are a teacher and have a person who speaks a different language, it would be helpful if you could speak another language.
If the person was confused, you could talk
them through it.”
Leo: “I think it’s important, because you’re likely to go on holiday to a different country, so probably you have to learn some different languages.
When I went to Tenerife, I met two boys from Belgium and I thought they spoke French but they didn’t. So I said ‘Bonjour’ but they were a bit puzzled. I got really embarrassed.”
Chloe: “I’ve used my French skills by going and asking for a croissant for my family. When I went to the shop I was like, ‘Bonjour, s’il vous plaît, trois croissants.’ And then they got it for me and I said, ‘Merci. Au revoir.’”
Leo: “It’s kind of hard.”
Chloe: “It would maybe take about a month of practice to be able to have a real conversation.”
Leo: “Not as long for me because I moved to this school last year and when I was in P2 we started doing French at my old school, so I’m sort of a bit better at French than some people. But I’m still not really good.
“I reckon it would take me about two weeks of just every single day: practice, practice, practice. Then I would probably be able to go to France and talk French.”
Rose: “Probably not fluently though.”
Leo: “Yeah, not fluently, but I could understand what they were saying and I would get a few words wrong but I could talk French. I do quite a lot of travelling with my grandma and granddad, so I need to learn some more languages.”
Chloe: “My granny is English but she is very good at French and sometimes when I want a treat
– a little biscuit or something – my mum talks
to my granny in French. And I’m like, ‘What are you saying? Tell me?’
“I want to learn languages because eventually I want to know what they are saying.”