One of the most inspiring things at the recent conference on bilingual education in Badajoz was having a chance to see all of the great work being done by teachers to make bilingual education successful at their schools. The rules on bilingual programmes vary greatly from region to region, as do the backgrounds of students from school to school, so there is no single “correct” way to provide a bilingual education. Fortunately, dedicated teachers are testing different approaches to find out what works for them, in their schools and with their students, while also meeting the legal requirements of the programmes in their parts of Spain.
Nevertheless, there are some common themes:
Coordination and communication is vital
It is really important to work with the bilingual coordinator, colleagues teaching the same subject and teachers of other subjects in the bilingual programme. This gives subject teachers the support they need with teaching in English, and makes sure that everyone is working to a common goal.
Parents find it harder to follow their children’s progress if they are studying in English, so it is really important to keep them informed and involved. Schools have started using online platforms (like Dojo) to continuously communicate with students and parents.
Make it fun
Many teachers are using free online software and other game-like activities to help motivate their students. This includes quiz platforms like Kahoot! and Quizziz, and more elaborate “Who is who?” projects. For some of these activities students work in small groups and use a series of clues to solve a subject-relevant problem. This helps them to develop problem-solving and team-working skills, as well as learning subject content and practising their English.
Some teachers may be concerned that this “gamification” gets in the way of the subject content, but in fact it can be used to motivate students to look for more information and understand it better than they would otherwise do. They want to get to the next level, solve the problem, etc., and the only way to do that is by understanding the material (in English). Of course not everything should become a game – more traditional classroom teaching still plays a vital role.
Integrate language and content
Whether you call it CLIL or AICLE, it’s an explicit or implicit part of all bilingual programmes in Spain. Teachers are expected to help students develop the four key language skills – reading, writing, speaking and listening. As I found, teachers are finding many interesting ways to do this:
- Integrating specific language structures that are appropriate to the English level of their students into their subject lessons. They choose language structures that the students will need to study the subject content, so that it becomes a natural part of the lesson. This is like the “language focuses” in our textbooks. Some teachers referred to this as “incidental learning”.
- Making English a natural part of the learning experience. In science, for example, this may involve using software that is in English (with English instructions), or finding information online that is only available in English. This helps students to realise that English is the lingua franca of science and that it will be essential to them if they want to pursue a career in science.
- Using scaffolding and structured exercises (like fill-in-the-gaps, sentence builders, jumbled sentences, etc.) to help students understand content and enable them to express their knowledge, without their limited language skills getting in the way. This is another thing that we do in our textbooks, particularly for 1 and 2 ESO, and in our Student Zone.
Share and borrow
Many teachers are sharing their lesson plans, activities and other materials online. There are software platforms for doing this, like Pearltrees, as well as platforms provided by various regional governments in Spain.
As well as materials produced by other teachers, you can use a huge variety of native-English resources available on the Internet. There are many websites aimed at schools, and some – like the Simple English Wikipedia, Breaking News English (graded news stories in English) – are specifically aimed at English language learners.
It is important for students at bilingual schools to have a consistent experience. In some cases this means “one face, one language” (the same teacher always speaks the same language to the students), and in others it means that the same teacher follows the same group of students from year to year. This means students aren’t confused about which language they will be hearing and speaking, or about how they will be taught. It also means that the teacher knows the language skills of the students and what is a realistic level for them.
There is often criticism of bilingual programmes in the press, and there are undoubtedly many things that can be improved. However, we shouldn’t forget that many enthusiastic teachers are investing a huge amount of their own time in finding innovative ways to give their students a truly bilingual education. If all of us involved in bilingual education continue to share our ideas and experiences, we can certainly help to improve the education that pupils receive.