One of the biggest lessons I learned while at the Netherlands Inter-community School (NIS) was that we as Modern Foreign Language (MFL) teachers cannot assume that language learning in primary school mainstream classes takes place in the same manner for all languages. Our school had two streams – Dutch and English, and each stream had the opportunity to learn the other’s language during foreign language blocks, so Dutch students learned English and vice versa. Both streams also attended Bahasa Indonesia lessons as mandated by the government. When the program was first started, prior to my becoming Language Coordinator, differences between language learning were not taken in to account, so the teaching methods and expectations in our MFL lessons for both streams was the same. After my role within the school changed, part of my responsibilities required me to look into both the Dutch and English mainstream curriculums and observe classes, which was truly enlightening and I recommend all MFL teachers to do the same. Some of the main take-aways I learned and then used to inform the way the MFL team moved forward included:
1) Writing: The manner in which writing was taught differed between the two streams. The Dutch focused more on conventions, while the English focused more on the expression of ideas. As an English teacher for the Dutch-stream students, knowing this explained so much: I had always wondered why they were reluctant to expand on ideas, and teaching them brought home the fact that the Dutch-stream students simply weren’t taught to focus on ideas as much as English-stream students were. And so these differences informed the way we planned future writing activities for our students along with our expectations.
2) Cursive Writing: Although both streams used the English alphabet as the base for reading/writing, the way in which cursive letters are formed are different. Upon realizing this, we hung a poster of both the English and Dutch letters in the MFL classroom wall for students to refer to, and made a conscious effort to encourage students to write cursively the way they had been taught in their mainstream classes.
3) Reading: Even though both streams focused on teaching phonics during the early stages of reading, the English stream also factored in reading comprehension early on, whereas the Dutch stream focused on those skills at a later stage in their progression. Knowing this impacted the reading activities we planned in our MFL classes, especially for our youngest intermediate and advanced level students.
As MFL teachers, it is so important that we understand our students and their language backgrounds in their native tongue. Our classes should not be seen as stand-alones, but rather as part of a student’s whole language learning journey. If we can make connections between our MFL classes and the way children are learning in mainstream classes, the impact we can have on student learning will be far greater.