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Setting primary schools up for success in languages


Despite the willingness of the young mind to soak up a new language, access to language learning in Tasmanian primary schools is declining. Attempting to reverse this trend, Dr Mairin Hennebry-Leung has secured a grant from the Spencer Foundation to explore motivations for language teaching in primary schools.

The Department of Education recognises languages as a core learning area, however there is no languages policy in Tasmania that outlines how much time per week, how frequently or for how many years languages should be taught in primary schools. Dr Hennebry-Leung, a lecturer in Languages and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) with the School of Education, is concerned about the lack of support for language teachers.

“Primary schools in Tasmania aren’t mandated to teach languages. Given the benefits of learning another language, we are hoping for a policy shift that will ensure access to language learning policies for all Tasmanian children,” Dr Hennebry-Leung said.

Dr Hennebry-Leung is looking to collect data from teachers to understand what motivates them to teach languages and what keeps them motivated in the face of challenges. The project aims to survey teachers across Tasmanian primary schools and to interview a smaller group four times during the year, gathering data on their experiences and motivations over time.

Dr Hennebry-Leung says it is important that teachers are able to access programs that support effective delivery of language teaching in units that are aligned to the Australian Curriculum framework. Combining this with adequate time allocations for languages teaching, mentorship for ongoing skills development and strengthening of communities of practice will contribute to effective, vibrant languages teaching and learning.

“Supporting teachers to provide cohesive and continuous incremental development of language skills is essential for the sustainability of languages teaching and learning,” she said.

Ans van Heijster, a French primary school teacher in Southern Tasmania, has taught various languages for many years at differing education stages. Ms van Heijster suggests certain factors contribute to a good learning environment for language teaching.

“A successful language program is supported by all staff in a school as well as the parents. The program must be properly timetabled and well-resourced and taught by a teacher who is confident in their language skills,” she said.

“It is of the utmost importance that the children actively engage with songs, rhymes, poems, chants, dialogues, discussions, and writing. Learning the language must be made as enjoyable as possible.”

Ms van Heijster believes that support structures make a difference to learning languages in the primary setting. “We need supportive language programs,” she said.

Dr Hennebry-Leung concurs: “Increasing and enhancing support structures and mentorship programs is a crucial step in building sustainable pathways of language teaching from primary to high school.

TASC Principal Education Officer and external advisor to the project, Mary Garland, agrees that “learning a language early in life strengthens intellectual, analytical, and reflective capabilities”.

“It supports literacy development in the first language as well as developing understanding and respect for diversity and difference,” Ms Garland said. “Learning a second language improves our first language skills and opens a whole new world of experiences and opportunities for students.”

Funded by the Spencer Foundation, the project aims to identify effective ways to support teachers to build sustainable, vibrant language learning in primary schools.