Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bilingual education in Wales...

This is awesome, particularly in relation to my other earlier posts. Embedding the language in the curriculum sounds optimal. We have a lot to learn from Wales. -Angela

Wales watching
There is a part of the UK where languages aren't in freefall and bilingualism is the norm, says Diane Hofkins
Diane Hofkins

Tuesday May 1, 2007

The child-made banners in the hall leave no doubt about what country Radnor primary is in. The largest is studded with photos of Tom Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, Shirley Bassey and more celebs past and present.
In the classroom, year 5 and 6 children answer the register with "prynhawn da" (good afternoon), and the teacher praises achievement with "da iawn!" (well done). Like Jones, or Owen Glendower, the Welsh tongue is part of the children's national heritage, and they identify with it. "People want to learn their language," says 11-year-old Laura. Notices around the Cardiff school are in English and Welsh, and crib sheets remind teachers to use Welsh phrases such as "bo bol bach!" (literally, it means "little people") instead of English ones such as "goodness gracious!".

Across the Severn, Lord Dearing's report, published in March, has strengthened the government's commitment to the teaching of foreign languages in English primary schools. The education secretary, Alan Johnson, accepted the recommendation that modern languages should become part of the statutory curriculum from age seven by 2010. The report comments on children's enjoyment of language learning and notes that the groundwork has already been laid - some 70% of primaries already teach a foreign language in some form or have plans to do so.

Competitive edge

In most European countries, children start learning foreign languages at seven, and as Dearing's interim report in December noted, children's enjoyment is not the only issue. "The British Council warned earlier this year: 'monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future, as qualified youngsters from other countries are proving to have a competitive edge over their British counterparts in global companies and organisations'."

But when it comes to looking for a country where a second language is universally taught to English speakers in primary schools, there's an example right here in the UK. While teaching French or Spanish in England can't be directly compared with teaching Welsh in Wales, there are surely lessons to be learned.

Welsh as a first or second language became compulsory from age five with the introduction of the national curriculum in 1989, so Wales has more than 15 years' experience of systematic language teaching to national standards. And the desire to develop a truly bilingual country is still at the heart of education policy.

The experiment started somewhat chaotically as, despite intensive and expensive training programmes, and a rolling programme that started with children in years 1 and 7, there was an inevitable shortage of teachers of Welsh. There was also resentment in some English-speaking areas, with several secondary schools near the border holding out against the Welsh invasion for nearly a decade. Good teaching materials were thin on the ground.

A decade later, standards of Welsh in English-medium primaries remained dodgy, but now the subject is holding its own. In its 2006 annual report, the Welsh schools inspectorate, Estyn, found that around two-thirds of primaries developed children's bilingual skills well.

Experts agree it is important to "embed" language into daily activities, through games, songs and incidental use, such as answering the register and giving praise and simple instructions. Nigel Pearson, primary languages adviser for Cilt, the national centre for languages, says children can do simple addition in French or Spanish, and familiar stories such as Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood can be told or acted out in other languages. The internet and interactive whiteboards make it possible to talk about foreign food in class and see it before your eyes directly from the country in question.

Partly in the light of the notoriously overcrowded primary timetable, Dearing advocates cross-curricular teaching, and Pearson agrees that dedicated lesson time is not necessary in primary schools. Through "creative embedding", it can enhance rather than detract from subjects such as humanities or RE. A few minutes spare at the end of the day can be used to sing a song or do a few mental maths exercises in a foreign language.

John Bald, primary languages consultant to the Hackney Learning Trust in east London, believes it is feasible to give every child a baseline in a language by 2010, even without a prescribed curriculum. This will, he says, make their acquisition of language in secondary school smoother, as the earliest stages of a language are the hardest to learn. "It means children won't have a cliff to climb in year 7."

Bald wants to see children reach a level where they can write a few sentences about their friends and families. And, he adds, it is sensible that there should be guidance rather than prescription at this stage, because "we don't know what works best". The Dearing report calls for primary languages to become statutory in the next national curriculum review, and expects research on methodology to accumulate by then.

In Wales, the set-up is more formal. At Radnor primary, infants have a dedicated hour a week of Welsh, and juniors just over an hour; but the level of attainment by year 6 seems in line with Bald's wish.

Back in class, Welsh coordinator Sarah Pritchard has got a multicultural group playing with the pel Cumreig (Welsh ball). Whoever catches it has to say a sentence about the person next to them, based on sample sentences Pritchard has put on the whiteboard. "Mae Said," says Said's neighbour. "Mae en hoffi ... how do you say cricket? Mae en hoffi criced." (This is Said. He likes cricket.)

Laura, Lawrence, Ffion and Anika all found learning Welsh fun. "You get to see what other people speak," says Ffion, 10. "It makes you feel talented," adds Anika, also 10. Eleven-year-old Lawrence points out that when he goes to north Wales, where everyone speaks Welsh, he can speak a bit, too. They all enjoy learning through games, and agree that the younger you start, the better.

Their teacher agrees. "I think if children learn a second language from early on, it does make it easier to learn a subsequent language," says Pritchard. "It gives them success, and the confidence to realise they can learn further languages."

Teaching is topic-based, with vocabulary and sentence structure increasing in complexity. The emphasis is on oracy, but a Welsh text is studied every half-term. For children who have English as a second language, it can be difficult at first, but because of their ear for languages, they pick up Welsh quickly. "You can see the delight on their faces," says Pritchard.

Pioneering work

Bald argues that the factor that will make similar success in England possible is ICT. The pioneering work of Glynis Rumley, whose Pilote software was the first to bring the voices of children from a French primary into the Anglophone classroom, has made it much easier for non-specialist primary teachers to teach a language. "The role of explanation in language learning is crucial," he says. "I explain that French people like their language to flow, and that putting words such as je and ai together makes it sound jerky." Children practice forming "j'ai", using software, and then move on to writing sentences on the whiteboard.

Support from secondary schools is also easing the introduction of primary languages in England, with increasing numbers of modern foreign language teachers doing outreach work. This is important, because if the government hopes that enthusiasm built in the primary years will boost the take-up of languages at GCSE, they will have to get the transition right - as Dearing acknowledges.

Welsh local authorities such as Cardiff are now developing ways to improve links between primaries and secondaries in Welsh language teaching, because pupils' enthusiasm for the subject wanes when they are teenagers, hitting its lowest ebb at GCSE level - at key stage 4, only 19 out of 45 lessons visited by Estyn in 2006 gained the top two ratings.

Much of this has to do with a shortage of qualified Welsh-language teachers in non-Welsh-speaking areas. And although the Radnor primary children say they are looking forward to studying a third language in high school, take-up of foreign languages at GCSE in Wales is much lower than in England: 30%, compared with 51%.

At present, there are no plans to mandate another language in Welsh primary schools. But things are not standing still - Welsh is now moving into the early years in English-medium schools in Wales, with the ultimate goal that all foundation classes will be completely bilingual. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007


  1. Having worked in Wales for a number of years the one thing that struck me was how proud the welsh are to speak two languages , not just be able to speak but you will find both used in workplaces and cafeterias as the norm , I am glad to say even the kids are proud of heritage and language

  2. Ah good to see some support for Bilingual education from America !

    You should come over sometime and see how its done.

  3. Why is it taking the US so long to jump on this wagon?

    Joy Delgado
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