Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Written Word: how soon is too soon?

I've been in this teaching game for nearly 16 years now.  Along the way there have been some milestones which have shaped me as a teacher.  The ones that come straight to mind are the publication in 1998 of "The Invisible Child" by David Buckland and Jeff Lee, joining the virtual community of language teachers in 2005 and becoming a parent in 2003.

I did my PGCE in the mid 1990s when the Communicative Method was king.  "The Invisible Child" and the working group that evolved from it in Sunderland LA made it OK to teach grammar explicitly, analyse texts and explore the sound-spelling link.  Communicating with other MFL teachers from around the UK and beyond broadened my teaching repertoire and kept me right up to date with all the latest developments.  I learned more from these virtual colleagues than I ever did from my real ones.  Having my own children changed the way I interacted with other peoples', my students. 

I don't think I could ever have been a primary teacher without having been a parent of small children first.  My daughters have taught me how to interact with little ones, how to speak to them, what they like, how much they can understand.  This knowledge has come in very handy for my teaching, especially with EYFS and KS1.  I've had some hits, but there have been a lot of misses too.

Today was definitely a hit.  My Year 1 class really surprised me.

It's Science Week, and I had a chat with the Y1 teacher about what I could do with the class.  They had been finding out about plants and had labelled a plant on a worksheet.  So I made a giant cardboard plant, which you can see in the picture above.  We gradually pieced it together on the board, with the children telling me what they knew about each part.  Then the children helped me to label each part with the right English word.  The last step was to show them the Spanish labels and ask for volunteers to replace the English labels with Spanish ones.

First surprises:
the five-year-old girl who explained "I know that one (flor) is flower because the letters are nearly the same."
another girl in the class who said "I think that one (raíz) must be root because they both start with r."

Once the plant was labelled in Spanish, we did some choral repetition to practise the Spanish words.  Quickly, hands went up.

Next surprises:
"In that word (tallo) we're saying a y but there isn't a y in the word."
"In that word (hoja) there's a j but it doesn't make a j, it makes a (Spanish j sound!)."
"In hoja we don't say the h."
"The z sounds like th, like in diez."

I was astounded.  My usual pattern of work is to practise the words (most of our work is at word level in Y1) orally and then to introduce the written word at the final stage.  But Y1 showed me today how much value can be gained from introducing the written word right at the beginning.  Phonics is obviously such an integral part of their daily life at school that their ears and eyes are finely tuned to the letters in a word and the sounds that they will make.

When Primary Languages first started (this time round) nearly ten years ago, it was said that in lower KS2, children should concentrate on speaking and listening and that reading and writing should only be introduced later.  The Ofsted report "Achievement and Challenge: 2007-2010" said that speaking and listening are being done well in KS2, but that more work needs to be done on developing reading and writing.  Indeed, the KS2 Framework for Languages has Literacy objectives for Year 3 and upwards.  In my experience, KS2ers enjoy reading and especially writing, which gives them a big sense of satisfaction.  Some make their own notes during lessons which they take home to practise in their own time. 

To reply to my own question, I think EYFS is too early to introduce the written word, as, generally speaking, the children do not have sufficient experience or knowledge to be able to make the links between English and the target language or the motor skills to be able to write the words comfortably and confidently.  But by the time they get to Y1, the time is evidently right.  They are making links between their language and the foreign language, learning about one by comparison with the other.  The more enlightened headteachers know that this happens and how beneficial it can be, but there are some who still need to be convinced.  Are secondary colleagues aware of this?  Are they aware that the Y7s that they receive can make these connections from an early age and that they do indeed have these language learning skills?  Do they provide opportunities for these connections to be made?  Do they give students the necessary vocabulary to explain these connections?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts, even if I have asked more questions than I have answered!

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