The day before the next academic year kicks off, I’m thinking about the biggest challenge that faces me as a Head of Year this term: extending the trial of an alternative co-teaching and language learning model. Before summer, my class teamed up with another Year Four class for a small trial and it showed encouraging and exciting results. So much so that we will now try this new model across the whole Year Four grade (six classes). As Head of Year, there’s a lot to think about. First, let’s explore the ‘why’.
At Victoria Shanghai Academy (VSA), our current approach to bilingual education is a unique model that has proved successful over the years. Each class has a Chinese-speaking teacher and an English-speaking teacher who co-teach so that lessons include both languages. The aim here is not to translate each other, but to bounce off each other so that students need to listen to both languages. With collaborative teachers and careful planning, this is easier than it sounds. Importantly, children at VSA grow up seeing adults from different cultures and backgrounds working together, supporting each other and having fun along the way. We think that this is very powerful. However, for learning languages, we’re wondering if another model might be even more successful.
Research suggests that, in many contexts, languages are best learnt in isolation. Even in a bilingual school, the reality is that most students have a preferred language. For most of our children, that’s English (although the number of students who prefer Chinese is increasing). As humans, we naturally take the easy option and so students pay more attention to the preferred language and, despite our intentions, can probably get by without the other. As well as speaking, we also expect students’ writing to be a balance of the two languages, but this is rarely the case unless the second language is strongly pushed by that teacher. By moving away from this convergent model, we aim to afford students the opportunity to immerse themselves in one language, removing the easy option and making them less comfortable (in a good way).
After much research, discussion and consideration of what’s best for VSA’s unique context, we landed on an immersion model that separates the two languages while maintaining cognitive bridging between them and keeping the same teacher-student ratio. In the new model, each class will keep both a Chinese-speaking and an English-speaking class teacher, but those teachers will work with the teachers from another class, creating a team of four to work with both classes: two English teachers co-teaching and two Chinese teachers co-teaching. One pair will teach maths to both classes while the other pair will teach UOI (unit of inquiry) to both classes. Crucially, we will alternate this weekly so that students build up the topic vocabulary in both English and Chinese and continue to bridge the two languages. The class timetables are static, minimising confusion for students, but the teachers will have a Week 1 and a Week 2 timetable, depending on whether they are teaching maths or UOI that week. Time for all four teachers to plan collaboratively will be available on the timetable.
Sure, it sounds complicated on paper. If I’m honest, I struggled to articulate it in writing! However, we soon found our flow during the small trial and we fell into a routine that worked. For the teachers, there were unexpected benefits. We enjoyed working together as a team and were able to get to know more students. When the same learning engagements were used in both classes, we were able to learn from the first and make the second one even better. I found that lessons flowed easier and more naturally.
Throughout our small trial, our Assistant Head of English (responsible for EAL learning), Brett Healey, designed and conducted action research to gather evidence and critically analyse the effectiveness of the new model. Both Brett’s study and our experiences showed positive results with regard to students’ language learning. This was particularly evident in Chinese (typically the less preferred language). It’s important to state that the four teachers involved in this trial approached it with various levels of optimism. Yet, by the end of the summer term, we were all advocating for this new model because the positive impact was clear in our classrooms. These are the most interesting and significant findings from our initial trial:
- Students generally disliked the change to begin with (which we take as a positive because they were taken out of their comfort zones)
- Students explained that they actually prefer being immersed in one language instead of constantly switching
- Teachers had more time to emphasise important vocabulary
- Students impressed us, especially in Chinese
- Students’ confidence increased (again, most evident in Chinese)
- When given a choice of language during assessments, significantly more students than usual chose to express their learning in Chinese
We do not claim that students’ maths or UOI learning has been elevated, nor have we seen a negative impact. We do, however, see a big difference in their ability and willingness to speak, read and write in both languages, and use those languages to explain the concepts.
Even if this new model continues to show positive results, it isn’t perfect. All models have pros and cons. We do have a few reservations, including some logistical complications and a lack of resources available in Chinese. We will continue to monitor, gather evidence and see how it goes. However, the early signs are highly encouraging and we are excited about extending the trial and researching in greater depth.
As Head of Year, I need to take steps to ensure a smooth transition and to support my team and the wider school community. These will include:
- Always starting with ‘why’
- Ensuring that collaborative planning time is undisrupted
- Ensuring that essential agreements are made between the teams of four
- Checking in regularly with individuals and teams
- Allocating time during our grade meetings to work in these smaller teams
- Working closely with the English, Chinese and Learning Support specialists
- Being open-minded and willing to adjust or even cancel the trial as we see fit
I believe that we have an exciting opportunity to transform bilingual education at our school. We just need to take our time, continue to be critical and address challenges as they emerge. I will keep my blog updated on the progress of this trial. If you have an experience or expertise in this area, please feel free to leave a comment below. We welcome your input.
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