How to make school subjects really relevant, by Sally Holmwood

British language tutor Sally Holmwood from Indigo Languages is back today with a new guest article for my blog. I always love having Sally contribute to Fluent Language's blog because she's so perceptive and smart about the school system. In today's article, Sally talks about what works and doesn't work in the world of school curriculums.

The Telegraph recently cited German as being the most sought-after language by employers, yet the number of pupils studying languages has dwindled in recent years. How can we reverse this trend and inspire a new generation of language learners?

german christmas.jpg

The Cross-Curricular Conundrum

There has been plenty of discussion of the benefits of studying topics across the curriculum, rather than studying subjects in complete isolation. As one insightful article demonstrates, if you take even a simple theme like ‘”Ice Worlds”, the scope for teaching the topic across science, literacy and arts can be vast.

The cross-curricular theme works wonders for language learners too. As a student in teacher training, I once watched fascinating video footage of a school in which pupils experienced a history lesson conducted entirely in a foreign language. A great debate ensued in our tutorial as to the merits and possible pitfalls of cross-curricular teaching.

St Nikolaus Is Coming To Town

As Sarah Caldwell once said, “Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can; there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.”

Back in my own secondary school days, Nikolaustag was a very important occasion in the school’s calendar. In a special lunchtime assembly, we read poems like these and passages in German that explained the history and traditions of the day.  We sang carols together and enjoyed a tasty selection of German snacks and treats. A competition was held to design the best Adventskranz and Adventskalender, with some incredibly artistic results.

Our secondary school Nikolaustag lunchtime celebrations already had a musical, artistic, historical and culinary element but what if the celebrations had been spread right across the curriculum and a whole day made of them?  Well, for starters, those German snacks might be recreated by students in food technology classes and the canteen staff could offer traditional German fare for lunch.  Members of the Foreign Languages faculty – teachers and teaching assistants – could be dispersed across the school to help conduct a selection of lessons in German.

Bringing Languages to Life

Language learning in schools seems to be about learning specific phrases to answer exam questions – it is almost no wonder that pupils are shying away from learning languages! Giving Nikolaustag celebrations a cross-curricular makeover and allowing pupils to explore not just the event itself but more about Germany’s traditions, culture and history could be just the ticket to reawaken the language learners’ interest.  Rita Mae Brown believed that “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” 

Languages are everywhere.  Just think of all those Italian words you know – like forte, piano, lento, presto – that are used to describe music.  Consider the varieties of flower whose names you see inscribed around public gardens in Latin – for example gypsophila (baby’s breath), viola (pansy) or echinacea (purple coneflower).  And don’t forget the German expression Schadenfreude, or the many French terms you use in every-day life, such as déjà vu, fait accompli or aide-mémoire.  

Religious  Education – The Cross-Curricular Way

Special schools seem to have an excellent grasp of what is needed in the curriculum. For example a themed Spanish session in one special school that I worked in gave the students in a chance to sample Spanish snacks and have a school lunch with a distinctly Spanish feel. Another generic special school had a unique approach to teaching Religiuos Education – weekly lessons were replaced by a whole day of activities each term, allowing the pupils to dedicate their day to learning about a current religious occasion. 

Diwali day in November, for example, saw classes mixed up into groups, accessing a carousel of activities.  Pupils designed mehndi patterns and crafted diyas in art, while music and dance sessions saw them listening to Indian music, describing how it made them feel and learning traditional Indian dances. They cooked traditional burfi sweets and explored the smell, taste and feel of Indian spices – and lunchtime put an Indian-themed meal on their plates.

People Power

I’m sure you can all name with great ease a famous German car, footballer, scientist, composer or athlete who interests or inspires you. For some language learners, this is ideal motivation to learn a language. You get to build up a bigger and better picture of your idols and understand more about them when you study more about their culture, their beliefs and local traditions.  If school pupils were offered more opportunities to do this, how much more motivated would they be to continue learning the language of their idols?

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: SherlockBonesThe Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who.

Stay in touch with Sally on Twitter or Facebook.