Wednesday 19 September 2018

Preparing students for a changing world with foreign language skills

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Newpark Comprehensive School Blackrock student Ruby O'Leary Murray takes part in language learning activities in the interactive language learning room at the school
Newpark Comprehensive School Blackrock student Ruby O'Leary Murray takes part in language learning activities in the interactive language learning room at the school
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Preparing young children and teenagers for an uncertain world requires covering a spectrum from developing their emotional resilience to giving them the knowledge and skills for an ever-changing workplace.

Parents, and wider society rely heavily on the education system to build the capacity and competencies of young students to deal with any challenges and go on to have a fulfilled personal and professional life.

German language teacher Deirdre Mackey with students in the class
German language teacher Deirdre Mackey with students in the class

Since the end of the recession, new initiatives have been started and progressed to address various existing and emerging needs, and the Action Plan for Education sets out the timeline for delivery of these.

At second-level, these initiatives include the student wellbeing programme, introduced last September as part of the wider junior cycle reforms, which also include new approaches to teaching, learning and assessment to help build skills such as critical thinking and teamwork

A broader range of options at junior cycle include short courses as varied as coding, artistic performance and Mandarin. New subjects being phased in for Leaving Certificate students include Computer Science and Physical Education, as well as revised syllabi and practical exams in traditional science subjects.

One of the major focuses of the Action Plan is to encourage more foreign language learning, an area where Ireland lags behind the rest of Europe.

School principal Derek Lowry Photo: Gerry Mooney
School principal Derek Lowry Photo: Gerry Mooney

Where once language learning was valued mainly for its cultural value, in a globalised world, there are additional imperatives.

Ireland has enjoyed the luxury of being an English-speaking country in a world where English has been the international language of communication.

But relationships with non-English speaking countries are now growing and the prospect of Brexit has made the forging of such links an even greater priority. Ireland will be only one of two English-speaking countries in the EU after the UK departs: the other is the small Mediterranean island of Malta.

The vision for a more multilingual Ireland was set out last year in the Foreign Languages Strategy, while the Action Plan for Education plots a roadmap for turning that into a reality over the next decade.

Newpark Comprehensive School student Maryam Butt in the interactive language learning room Photo: Gerry Mooney
Newpark Comprehensive School student Maryam Butt in the interactive language learning room Photo: Gerry Mooney

In the simplest terms, the strategy aims to promote a society where the ability to learn and use at least one foreign language is taken for granted.

The ambition is to significantly increase the number of students studying a foreign language, at all levels of education, to raise proficiency levels and to diversify the number of languages studied. Education Minister Richard Bruton acknowledged that it will take time and resources.

While language teaching and learning in post-primary schools is a big focus, the strategy does not confine itself to that sector, and identifies the need to enhance language learning at primary level and to boost the number of students in higher education studying a foreign language as part of their course.

In post-primary schools, the targets include:

- Increase the number of schools offering two or more foreign languages.

- All junior cycle students to study a foreign language by 2021.

- 10pc increase in the number of Leaving Cert. students taking foreign language subjects.

- Double the number of schools offering more than two foreign languages in Transition Year.

The Action Plan commits to certain steps this year with a view to realising the overall objectives, including starting work on curricula for the study of Mandarin, Polish, Lithuanian and Portuguese at Leaving Certificate.

While some of these can currently be taken by native speakers at Leaving Cert, the plan now is to put them on the formal curriculum.

At junior cycle, a new short course in Lithuanian will be offered from September, and the Action Plan also commits to increasing the number of schools providing the Mandarin short course this year.

Beyond curricular changes and increased uptake in foreign language study, the hope is to raise standards generally through, for instance, greater use of the Erasmus travel programme for both teachers and students.

An obvious challenge to broadening the choice of languages available in schools is having a supply of qualified teachers.

To that end, the Action Plan commits, this year, to explore options to upskill teachers who may have the capacity to take on a new language subject.

There is also a recognition that schools need extra resources and, to that end, the Action Plan commits to increasing the number of language assistants being made available to give pupils an opportunity for dialogue with a native speaker, while also getting a first-hand account of the culture in the country. Language assistants are typically third-level students or young graduates from another country.

One school that makes good use of the language assistant scheme is Newpark Comprehensive in Blackrock, Co Dublin, where students have a choice of studying German or French.

Newpark has links with a French-speaking primary school in the area and, with the support of the Department of Education and the French Embassy, offers a bilingual programme and, by virtue of that, enhanced French teaching to all students.

Principal Derek Lowry says they have a native French speaker as a language assistant every year, for the year.

"It is very, very worthwhile," he says.

This year, Newpark also has the benefit of a native German speaker, a primary teaching graduate, as a language assistant.

She visits each German class once a week where "she speaks beautiful German to them all the time", says teacher Deirdre Mackey.

Newpark pupils also benefit from the state-of-the-art language lab that came with the new school building , where traditional teaching is supported by differentiated learning.

Here, pupils can build skills at their own pace through a variety of online language programmes on individual computers.

Almost all students in Newpark study a foreign language, and the principal says "we would love to see them doing two".

But he points to issues around timetabling and resource in the form of teachers' hours, within the current Department of Education teacher allocations.

Currently, French and German are timetabled for the same period.

"We would love to have them going on at the same time, but there is an issue about who is going to teach them and getting those extra hours," he says.

Lowry acknowledges the stated aim of the Foreign Languages Strategy to incentivise schools to diversify their language offer, including through giving extra teaching hours over and above the normal allocation, and says "we will have to wait and see what happens on concessionary hours".

For more information on Project Ireland 2040 visit the official website 

Irish Independent

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