Poor Welsh Second Language Teaching

Because the Times Educational Supplement is probably not too widely read outside teaching circles (and I only stumbled upon the story while doing a general search) I thought it would be a good idea to cross-post this to a wider audience:

Bilingual provision at English-medium schools deteriorating
By Darren Evans

The standard of Welsh-language teaching in English-medium schools is getting worse, according to Estyn.

Just less than two-thirds of schools inspected last year had shortcomings, compared with half in the previous two years. Only one in five of the English-medium schools inspected had good bilingual provision and Welsh as a second language remains one of the worst-performing subjects at both primary and secondary level, the report found.

Bill Maxwell, chief inspector of education and training in Wales, said that although progress is good when pupils start school and begin learning Welsh as a second language, standards soon slip. He said he hoped the Assembly government's Welsh-medium education strategy, launched last year, could help improve the situation.

Bilingualism is strong in traditionally Welsh-speaking areas, but weaker in more anglicised areas, particularly the south-east. Schools in those areas continue to face difficulties recruiting suitable teachers.

But Welsh as a first language is still one of the top-performing subjects. Rebecca Williams, policy officer for the Welsh-medium union UCAC, said the difference in the two pointed to a gap in the workforce that must be addressed with more training and professional development opportunities.

"There must be a serious review of how Welsh as a second language is taught, and a major overhaul of the subject is needed before it gets where it needs to be," she said. "The Welsh-medium education strategy is a start. It makes a lot of sensible suggestions and points us in the right direction. It was desperately needed and the sooner it's implemented, the better."

The strategy calls for every trainee primary teacher to learn Welsh to help raise standards.

TES Cymru - 29 January 2010

As always, it's best go directly to the source of any story. In this case it was Estyn's recently published Annual Report for 2008-09, which is in three separate sections:

     Annual report web page
     •  Key challenges in improving education and training in Wales
     •  Progress in improving quality in each of the sectors we inspect
     •  Summaries of Estyn remit surveys

That should provide a wealth of reading material, which I haven't had time to go through. But the story in the TES is disturbing enough to raise some serious concerns, so I'm inviting people to make comments and start a discussion which I'll join when I've managed to do the background reading.

There were brief one line references to this on both the BBC website and Golwg 360 earlier this week, but only as a byline to a story that concentrated on general underachievement. As that story was quite big enough in itself, the language aspect didn't particularly register with me at the time.

     System addysg 'yn caniatau i blant dangyflawni'
     Angen gwneud mwy i blant gyflawni eu potensial

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Anonymous said...

I'd like to say that teaching the language in EM schools was a waste of time and that it may as well be canned, but the minimal exposure is better than nothing at all. I suppose I'd rather push for quality and standards than not have it taught at all.
One cannot however escape the fact that the sole effective means of language aquisition is WM schools. Not the pathetic "bilingual" excuses of Carmarthenshire, Gwynedd etc, but rather such paragons of excellence as YG Gwynllyw in Trevethin and YGG Glantaf in Llandaff.
The system of WM education is the only way forward, which is why RCT's ridiculous plans for 6th form education need killing off and the likes of Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent, Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Powys and Flint LEAs need dis-banding and merging with more progressive less pre-historic and anti Welsh authorities ASAP.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

I agree with anonymous above. Sir Wyn Roberts' plan that all schools in Wales should teach Welsh to pupils was a commendable idea, but the experiment hasn't worked, and needs re-thinking.

A system where a larger proportion of pupils are taught Welsh well would be better than the current situation where the majority of pupils are taught Welsh poorly.

The universality of Welsh lessons should be abandoned and the resources should be diverted to providing more WM schools and streams.

Rhywun Arall said...

I have to say, the first two responses here show an alarming disrespect for the perfectly legitimate reasons as to why so many Anglophone parents do not send their children to Welsh medium schools (largely, because if they do not have the language themselves, and have either no wish to, or have a lack of confidence in the their ability to attain it - they will consider their inability to assist their children with homework to place their children at an unacceptable level of disadvantage).

As an Anglo-Welshman who studied Welsh at secondary school between 1990-95, I'm as convinced as anyone that the only answer is that the curriculum, resources and materials must be improved. I can't confess to knowing much about methodologies and resources currently being utilised but know those employed when I was at secondary school were truly abysmal. The most they imparted were a large draft of set phrases, regurgitated at a series of prompts in written or oral examinations - the course never EVER attempted to impart any understanding of grammar, let alone a full grammatical tour of the language.

I've since picked up learning Welsh, and have taken to exploring many of the courses available with the question as to what would have improved my acquisition of the language as a child in mind. I've seen text books written in the 1900s which are more rigorous and thorough as to have imparted a far sounder aquisition of the language than the useless drafts of parrot phrases I was subjected to at school.

I believe the WJEC &/or the Welsh Language Board should cooperate to produce a digital national course in Welsh which can be accessed both at home via the internet by school pupils and adult learners alike, as well as on school computers for school pupils, where numbered accounts can keep track of each child's individual progress. The course should aim to cover a full grammatical tour of the language, and should never presume prior knowledge of any hitherto unexplained grammatical principle or item of vocabulary.

Neither the free market, nor the educational curriculum has ever pieced together such a course, but with the cultural unity of the Welsh nation at stake - I believe 'nationalising' the process in such a way is an essential step in creating a bilingual Wales.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to this problem, as I'm a teacher in an English-medium primary school. I am the only fluent Welsh-speaker in the school, yet every teacher is required to teach Welsh to their class. The training available, though of good quality, only really puts the teachers one step ahead of the children, and thus the quality of the teaching is variable at best. I'm constantly battling against the poor pronunciation and bad language patterns that children have learned from their previous teachers.

The bottom line is that nobody can teach a language effectively if they don't speak it themselves, and most anglophone primary school teachers in my area are unable to hold a basic conversation in Welsh. How then are they supposed to reach the standard the National Curriculum demands of them? Without serious investment in Welsh-language training, to the point where primary teachers know Welsh well enough to have at least a basic conversation and have a basic grasp of grammar, syntax and correct pronunciation, the teaching of Welsh in English-medium primary schools will never be as effective as it should.

Anonymous said...

I don't work in the educational field but all I can say is that I've met some ex-pupils from a Carmarthenshire bilingual school and a North Pems school of the same nature who can barely put a conversation together in Welsh. Oh yes there are many who come from English speaking homes who can speak the lingo afterwards but the fact that there are those who cannot suggests that something is wrong somewhere.

Anonymous said...

my point entirely as above. The fact that carms is now down to barely 50% Welsh speaking as a county is largely due to disastrous education policy. Had Dyfed, then Carms followed the Gwynedd model then at least they would have retained more of the 'native' speakers. a 'bilingual' school by its very nature is basically English with some Welsh provison. I remember the so-called bi-lingual class - (R) I think it was, in my own 'bi-lingual' secondary. Some could speak Welsh but wouldn't and the others were useless. Many I add, were from Welsh speaking parentage. The only classes retaining and sometimes producing competent speakers were the ones taught solely in welsh.
Carmarthenshire is a basket case of an authority in so many ways and needs getting rid of. The Gwendraeth and Aman valleys are the front line linguistically and Carmarthenshire Council are taking all the live ammunition away and replacing it with pea shooters

MH said...

I finally got round to reading the report over the weekend. I'll start with some of my own impressions, then home in on what others have said.

"In the secondary schools we inspected last year, Welsh first language was the best performing subject in the curriculum. All the schools we inspected this year that teach Welsh first language achieved good or better standards and 40% achieved outstanding standards. Standards in Welsh second language are improving year on year. The proportion of lessons we judged as good or better in Welsh second language has increased from 51% to 59% over the last three years. However, it still remains one of the worst subjects overall."

I suppose the first thing is fairly obvious. That if you split any subject into two ability ranges, the results for each will tend to polarize. So it is no real surprise to me that WFL is one of the better performing subjects and WSL one of the worse. However I think we can take a some degree of encouragement from the fact that WSL has improved by 8% over three years.

But in the next paragraph it said:

"In terms of the development of pupils’ bilingual skills and the promotion of the Welsh dimension within the curriculum, just under two-thirds of the schools we inspected had shortcomings this year compared to about half in the previous two years. The provision for the development of pupils’ bilingualism was good in only one in five English-medium secondary schools."

I'm not sure how to reconcile one improvement of 8% with the fact that shortcomings increased from 50% to about 65%. Perhaps it has something to do with bilingualism being one to the four key areas Estyn chose to focus on this year, so that they were particularly looking for shortcomings that they may not have noticed before. But that's not to make excuses. 65% with shortcomings and only 20% with good provision is, quite simply, terrible.

MH said...

Anon #1 and Alwyn

I have to say I agree with Anon that it is better to have the universality, even though we don't teach WSL well enough. But I disagree that WM schools are the only effective way of teaching Welsh. I certainly think WM schools are the best way, but if I thought they were the only way then the only logical situation would be to have all schools as WM schools (this has recently become the situation in Catalunya).

The fact is that roughly 40% of children in our schools can speak Welsh, but only 20% or so are in WM schools. That means that 20% do become competent Welsh speakers in an EM environment ... perhaps slightly more, since learning the language is a process. But this means that the way we teach WSL is failing 75% of children in EM schools, which is much too high.

To Alwyn, I would offer maths as a parallel. If so many of our children were failing to learn basic maths, our attitude would surely not be to put resources into improving that situation only for a few. We would do it across the board with the aim of every child reaching an acceptable standard. I think that's what we must do for Welsh too. We need to maintain the current two pronged approach: first to expand WM provision in line with parental demand, and second to improve the standard of WSL teaching in EM schools. We mustn't abandon the second in order to concentrate on the first, because it will increase division ... which is the last thing we want or need.

MH said...

RA and Anons

You've each expressed just how bad some teaching is, and I fully agree. Part of it is materials, as RA said. Perhaps my two pennyworth would be that we need to make a distinction between learning to speak Welsh and grammar/written work.

In one way this is common to the way we used to teach all languages. I can still remember the inordinate amount of time one teacher spent trying to get us to learn the "ca, co, cu" rule for French ... and remember it without having a clue how to put it into practice in spoken French. There is now more of an emphasis on speaking and putting together sentences and conversations than there was. It's almost as if we need two different types of Welsh lessons: one to have fun putting it together, and the second to go over spelling, grammar and the like. In essence the second is what "English language" lessons do for those who can already speak English.

I agree that we can make much better use of technology, particularly with sound files. I looked at the free saysomethinginwelsh course and found it very interesting in that it cut a lot of corners and didn't explain what was going on ... but that it didn't need to do it. In contrast most courses try to explain things, which slows everything up.


However, I'm sure there are many people with a much better grasp of how to teach Welsh than me. And the bottom line is that no matter what methods and materials are available, it is the ability of the teacher that matters most. A good teacher can inspire and instill confidence with less than perfect resources, a bad teacher can't, no matter how good the resources.

As one Anon said, it is definitely true that too many teachers with just a basic knowledge of Welsh are being asked to teach Welsh. This is a failure of attitude that is rife in much of the teaching profession. Not so long ago I linked to a report in which one head teacher said that none of her 12 members of staff were capable of teaching in Welsh, but that all of them were capable of teaching Welsh as a second language. That is completely backwards.

There is an acute shortage of teachers that are competent in Welsh. And it must be because of that pressure that teachers who should know better end up being forced to do "the best they can" even when they must know that their best isn't good enough. The TES article ended by saying that all who train as teachers should be required to learn Welsh to a standard where they can teach in Welsh. That sounds drastic but, having thought it through over the weekend, I think there is no alternative to that strategy. It is a bullet that we must bite.

MH said...

Finally, to the last Anon.

I too am very concerned with what "bilingual" means, and especially the way it is being used in places like Sir Gar to water down WM provision to a "lowest common denominator". Parents want WM education as much for the "ethos" of the school as anything else. Parents in the eastern parts of Wales are equally concerned that anything short of "full immersion" is not going to achieve the same results.

Sir Gar will of course blame the Welsh Government, and say they are merely implementing their guidelines, and I have already expressed concerns about what Labour might have up their sleeves on this.

Anonymous said...

this 'bilingual' thing is not only cropping up in Carms though, unless I am mistaken there are at least two primary schools that are categorised as this in RCT (one quite recently opened?)Whilst Treorchy Comp's encouraging attempts to increase WM provision is admirable, it is clear that RCT also see this as the way forward. It in theory is the easier option. No closures and ensuing parental opposition, no extra expense in buildings or starter classes such as the one in Gabalfa in Cardiff or those planned in the Vale and as long as parents can be convinced that their kids will learn Welsh properly then Bob's your uncle. Most EM schools have someone Welsh speaking and we do produce a surplus here in Wales, so it is really cheap and hassle free to implement for an authority. What it doesn't do is produce confident Welsh speakers. Funny how RCT have opened no new WM schools since Labour took back the authority, particularly in the Cynon Valley where demand is at its highest! Can't take our eye off the ball here. If other authorities think that this way is a runner, we could be in trouble. Swansea? Neath Port Talbot perhaps?

MH said...

There's quite a difference between "bilingual" (in the sense that a proportion of classes are in English and a proportion in Welsh) and "dual stream" (where all classes in one stream are in Welsh, but there are two streams in the school).

Dual stream is OK ... and perhaps the best compromise in more sparsely populated areas. RCT has two dual stream primaries: Penderyn and Dolau.

There are also no exculsively WM secondaries in Powys, but most of them are dual stream. I think there are a good few dual stream secondaries in Ceredigion, but I'm not sure.

Anonymous said...

Its always better to learn more languages. The more you learn, the more you improve. Its good to know bilingual languages as counterpart to native language. English is a universal language & can be learnt easily through online english lessons to improve your language skills.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. What no-one has commented on is the fact that Welsh teaching in EM schools does not have a level playing field. Welsh is frequently treated as the poor relation in curriculum terms, and given less time than other, "proper" subjects. The short course is the default option in many schools at GCSE so it is hardly surprising that neither pupils nor their parents take it seriously. Pupils are not then motivated to behave or learn, resulting in major discipline problems in lessons and poor results. The only answer to this is for the dull GCSE course to be compulsory for all.

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