From Teaching Modern Foreign Languages to Meeting Special Educational Needs: A Professional Odyssey
David Wilson, UK
David Wilson teaches French, German and students with special educational needs at Harton Technology College in South Shields, UK. He has research interests in the impact of special needs on subject teaching, with particular reference to foreign languages.
In a few months’ time I retire from full-time employment in the Tyneside secondary school where I have taught since 1971. Back then the school was a “grammar-technical” for boys aged between 11 and 18, while I was a newly qualified teacher with a good honours degree in modern languages and a graduate certificate in education.
As a schoolboy and university student, I had wrestled with the “what” of language learning. A thorough grounding in prose composition, unseen translation, essay writing and literature had trained me to understand and use French and German accurately. My fluency in these languages had grown during extended periods of residence in the countries where they were spoken. As a young teacher, I looked forward to sharing my linguistic expertise with the General Certificate of Education Ordinary and Advanced level examination candidates in the classes I was timetabled to teach. I began a part time Master of Arts course in German at my local university, hoping in the process not only to regain a learner’s perspective on study but also to maintain my knowledge of the language and its literature.
During the 1970s and 1980s I grappled with the “how” of language learning as grammar-translation methods retreated and a brave new world of communications and technology beckoned. The Graded Objectives in Modern Languages (GOML) movement, borrowing the experience of graded tests in Music, brought the prospect of shorter-term goals, local initiatives in syllabus design and assessments based on “survival” phraseology associated with trips to a target-language country. School exchange visits to twin towns in France and Germany provided an authentic and practical context where communication skills could be developed. After three courses in BASIC programming, computer technology proved to be a useful classroom tool, first as a patient dispenser of games and puzzles drilling formal grammar, then as a simulator of target-language country visits.
At the turn of the nineties, my focus unexpectedly became the “who” of language learning. The National Curriculum (NC) came into force with its expectation of every child attending a foreign language course between the ages of 11 and 16. One of many NC Modern Foreign Languages documents back then was devoted to pupils with “Special Educational Needs”. They were the children who had previously been withdrawn from French to attend “remedial lessons” designed to improve their English and Mathematics. Now they remained in my classroom. The government meant what it said when it prescribed a foreign language for all.
Around this time I took a year’s break from classroom teaching to be the Assistant Coordinator of a national “flexible learning” project dedicated to curriculum research and development in modern languages for 14- to 16-year-olds, with particular emphasis on the use of computer technology. While I relished the opportunity to explore the benefits of “Bildschirmtext”, a German precursor of the Internet, for foreign language learners at my school, the project brief set my sights on managing the contributions of eight secondary schools in four local authorities. The role involved plenty of lesson observations and what claimed my attention was the successful inclusion of slower learners who in previous years would have been withdrawn from modern languages for remedial work in English. Flexible learning, with its emphasis on individualisation and a resource-rich environment, seemed to reduce barriers and to raise self-esteem for every learner, including the weakest.
Observation of other classroom practitioners at the “chalk face” during my year’s “sabbatical” from full-time teaching helped me to become a more reflective practitioner myself. In the process, I also learned to be more sceptical about innovations such as technology. I recalled how my first experience of a language laboratory at a French university in the late 1960s had been a negative one. I had enrolled on an advanced course in French for foreigners and now sat in my booth waiting for the lesson to start. The subject was the imperfect tense of regular verbs, to be practised using pattern drills. Through my headphones I heard an interminable sentence in French with a verb to be changed into the required tense. I searched my desk, in vain, for a piece of paper with the sentence written on it, as I knew how to change the tense but had forgotten the thirty-odd other words in the sentence. I mumbled the little I could remember of the sentence through the microphone. More sentences of similar magnitude followed, leaving me floundering and eliciting the comment from the tutor “Vous êtes britannique, n’est-ce pas?” I felt humiliated as I had always considered myself to be a good language learner. However, I also learned that day how unfamiliar or inappropriate teaching methods and resources can impede or even reverse progress. In other words, anybody can develop “special educational needs”, definable as a mismatch between what the individual brings to the institution and what the institution expects of the individual.
So I left full-time teaching as a subject specialist and resumed a year later as a teacher of secondary-aged children. Not long after returning to my secondary school, I moved from the modern languages to the special needs department. Although I continued to teach some French and German, I worked with small groups of slow learners, all diagnosed as having learning difficulties. What I had learnt as a user of educational technology and the communicative approach still had value, but the priority was now the individual learner with diverse needs. That remains my position to this day.
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