Waxing lyrical about languages in vocational education

August 16th, 2012 by

Can beauty therapists, trail guides and business students hoping to set up small companies locally benefit from adding a language to their studies? Education providers in Andalusia think so. In fact, they’re so convinced of the edge that another language will give students that they’re teaching these subjects bilingually. The idea of ‘English for hair removal’ sounds like a joke, but that’s exactly what students in Granada are learning – with an eye of future employment in spas and salons on the Costa del Sol. This is all a long way from what happens in the UK where a foreign language is seen almost exclusively as an ‘academic’ subject and is practically absent from work-related learning.

I was lucky enough to go on a study visit to Granada last month, along with a dozen or so fellow educationalists from Germany, Poland, Italy, Denmark, Hungary and Turkey. What we took away is meant to feed into policy and practice in our respective countries, so here, for the UK are the lessons I think we can learn:

1. A ‘CLIL’ approach – where the learning of content and the learning of the language go hand in hand – can be successful even when the subject teacher doesn’t have perfect language skills.

All the courses we saw were being taught by the vocational subject teacher – not specialists in English – and their own level in the language varied widely. (Although Andalusia requires all its bilingual teachers to have at least level B2 on the Common European Framework.) A common-sense response would be: how on earth can they teach complex content without a native-like competence in the language? But the methods and resources they used made sure that it wasn’t only the teacher who was providing the model. They used a task-based approach where it was the students doing the learning, using a mass of web-based resources collected for them on a wiki. Video clips posted there could be viewed as often as students liked – at home as well as in the classroom, and students had to use the language and content provided in tasks such as preparing podcasts and presentations of their own. As one teacher put it, ‘they have to struggle to understand, but once they do, the retention work is already done’. Students could also draw on a Foreign Language Assistant for support, and usually also had separate language lessons for which the language teacher worked closely with the vocational teacher to cover areas of grammar or vocabulary in need of special attention.

2. Foreign language assistants (FLAs) can be a huge support in vocational learning, especially if they have skills in the curriculum area being taught.

All the projects we saw were supported by FLAs who helped both teachers and students with pronunciation and specialist vocabulary. Where this worked best, the FLA had some experience in the subject area being taught. For example, one American FLA supporting trail guides with their English had a college degree in sports science. She was able to accompany them on practical activities – all students learned how to ride a horse – and help them improve their English at the same time.

3. Having a degree of flexibility in FE courses allows for innovation and a more direct response to local labour market conditions.

In England, Alison Wolf has criticised our rigid regulatory and funding system in which the need to comply with complex national frameworks can leave the requirements of local employers out in the cold. In Spain, central government specifies only 60%-65% of the curriculum, leaving much more scope for colleges to adapt courses to local needs. And there is an amazing lack of bureaucracy over assessment and qualifications, leaving teachers and colleges much freer to concentrate on teaching and learning.

4. But the most profound insight was that vocational students can succeed in language learning – and reach respectable levels too. Learning through their subject gives them an immediate practical application that is cognitively challenging, going far beyond basic conversation. For example, in the case of the beauty students, they were learning about the biology of the skin through English – with lots of diagrams and explanation of technical vocabulary to support them. Similarly, the business students were learning to set out management accounts in English and making multilingual websites for their virtual businesses.

All the students we saw were well-motivated, mature, and diligent in their studies. Those with the most English in their courses – virtually an immersion situation- had been stretched to the limit but had made spectacular progress. They were proud of their achievements and their teachers were very proud of them.

In a context where languages are so often cast as ‘academic’ and therefore out of the reach of those who don’t aspire to higher education, seeing vocational students learning and succeeding in foreign languages is a lesson we should all take to heart.

Teresa Tinsley, posted at April 2012

waxing lyrical

Beauty students learning through English at IES Aynadamar, Granada

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