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More languages on the menu in schools

Native speakers now have greater scope to become teachers

Steve McCormack
Thursday 20 May 2010 00:00 BST

The image many of us may have of a language teacher is someone drilling a classroom full of teenagers in the finer points of French or German grammar in a way not self-evidently relevant to the outside world.

But the past decade has seen big changes to the way language teaching is organised and delivered in English schools. The age range of pupils where language teaching is compulsory has shifted downwards. Now, all children start learning a foreign language, albeit gradually, when they're just seven and continue until they're 14. Previously the compulsory age range was between 11 and 16.

At the same time, the methods of language teaching have become much more targeted towards enabling young people to communicate in the spoken word rather than to get every single dot and comma correct in the written form. And the range of languages taught in schools has expanded enormously. Spanish, French and German remain the most popular choices, but Italian, Russian, Mandarin, Urdu, Bengali and a host of others are also taught in an increasing number of classrooms. So, for the graduate or native speaker of almost any world language, a career as a school teacher is a realistic and attractive prospect. And it's one being followed by large numbers every year. Last September, around 1,700 graduates started one-year Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) training courses to become foreign language teachers in secondary schools, each offering competence in at least two foreign languages, French and Spanish being the most common.

And there are now increasing numbers training to become primary teachers with a language specialism, a training route introduced three years ago. Here, trainees prepare to handle all subjects across the timetable, as well as to develop an additional expertise in introducing foreign language learning to pupils. Around 3,000 students have embarked on this route so far, most of whom are now working in primary schools.

"The primary training route is a really attractive one," explains Teresa Tinsley, director of communications for Cilt, the government-funded National Centre for Languages, " because you get to do one of your teaching practices abroad, which gives you an insight into another education system, and experiences that can be really valuable when you return."

The embedding of language teaching in primary schools – a process which is still far from complete – has also created more localised links between teachers across the primary-secondary divide, as primary schools make use of the greater expertise in nearby secondary staffrooms.

This has, in turn, introduced enrichment and variety to many experienced secondary teachers. One such example is Greg Horton, an advanced skills language teacher at Wildern School, a co-educational comprehensive, in Hampshire, who now frequently visits local primary schools to support teachers in language lessons.

"As a secondary-trained teacher, my experience in primary schools has been invaluable, and has developed within me a real appreciation of the essence of language," he explains.

"I will never forget the moment when I returned from teaching seven-year olds, with puppets draped across my shoulders, and hearing my 16-year-old Year 11 students clamouring for the same kind of fun."

But one of the most basic aims of school is to enable children to develop the ability to express themselves in their own language, skills firmly emphasised in the recently revamped national curriculum.

While much of this work, of course, goes on in English lessons, the foreign language teacher can also significantly augment pupils' all-round competence in this regard.

"All language areas of the brain are linked," explains Tinsley, "and learning a language helps to develop other important learning areas, such as the memory function, abstract thinking and the ability to understand the communication needs of other people."

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