LOTEs get a face Lift in Queensland

 

Jo Carr

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The Queensland School Curriculum Council, established in 1997, is the agency responsible for the development of materials for all Queensland school authorities; State, Independent and Catholic. Its brief is to ensure the provision of quality curriculum materials and to support the teaching of these materials. The Council has established a solid network of advisory and consultative bodies, drawn from a broad base of professional and community groups, to support and provide advice to curriculum writers and to monitor processes of curriculum design, development, trial and evaluation. This is reassuring at a time when educational debate is being highjacked in quite astonishing ways by various political and community voices. It's good news to see what looks like careful, informed consultative process in action.

The latest curriculum development project is in the area of LOTE (Languages Other then English) for years 4 to 10. And people in the field are watching with great interest. LOTE has been a contentious issue in Queensland. When the Labour government introduced its 1991 language policy, mandating LOTE experience for all Queensland students from years 6 to 8, it was a gratifying moment, not only for language professionals, but also for a wide range of educators, parents and community groups; the same people who had been heartened by the principled and intelligent response to linguistic and cultural diversity embodied in the 1987 National Policy on Languages. Queensland, it was felt, had taken a brave and innovative step, not only in the form of policy rhetoric, but also in the shape of real dollars and practical support, massively funding teacher recruitment programs, the development of resources and materials, and professional development of existing language teachers.

Not every one was universally impressed by the initiative. There were mutterings in certain quarters about the inappropriateness of 'wasting' resources on teaching a second language to students already struggling with first language and literacy proficiency; doom and gloom predictions of pending implosion of the program, due to teacher shortages and consumer resistance; and regular residual traces of traditional Australian disaffection with difference in general, and linguistic and cultural difference in particular. But the Languages and Cultures Unit, established by the Queensland government to support the language initiative, worked determinedly and confidently on; insisting on minimum language proficiency levels for beginning LOTE teachers; funding professional development for existing teachers; refusing to back down on the issue of access to the program for all students. Seven years on, with many twists along the way, most informed commentators on language learning and teaching issues are still impressed with Queensland's LOTE achievement; and the current Labour government shows every sign of continuing support.

The current QSCC Curriculum project is causing quite a stir among the state's language professionals. In some senses it is long overdue, as teachers have been operating in something of a vacuum in terms of syllabus documents and resource materials. Students at senior level continue to be catered for by the Queensland Board of Senior Secondary School Studies; but LOTE teachers at primary and junior secondary level have been working to a draft syllabus designed several years ago, which has been rather a loosely framed and generally directioned document. Many secondary schools have still been following the old Junior syllabus, totally inappropriately given the fact that many first year secondary students have already completed two or three years or primary LOTE, and in the case of many Catholic and Independent schools, may have been learning a language since year 1. The new draft syllabus and guidelines document, together with the resources currently being developed and trialled, represent an innovative and carefully developed approach, which will involve many teachers in a radical re-think about their teaching methodology.

The syllabus document reflects current second language acquisition theory and is well anchored in latest research evidence. The approach selected is the 'embedded approach', which means that the topics and tasks the program is based on come, where possible, from key concepts and topics being covered in other curricular areas for that year level. The approach obviously still prioritises discrete language components, and linguistic and cultural experience which is contextualised in the target culture; but it translates into practice the theory that learning happens most effectively when based on previous experience and existing knowledge. The embedded approach is not the same as immersion, where the focus is on the content per se, delivered via the language. The focus is rather on tasks which draw on both language and content to solve a communicative need.

Implicit in the embedded approach is the commitment to presenting students with adequate amounts of target language experience in the form of 'comprehensible input'; as well as structuring the kinds of activities and learning experiences which will challenge them cognitively as well as linguistically, and get them engaged in carrying out authentically communicative tasks. Put simply, students will be hearing a whole lot more of whichever language they are learning, real language for real purpose; and participating in the kinds of authentic, relevant activities which will push them to real language production. Teachers will be expected to teach this increased input via their own authentic use of the language, and by provision of as wide a range of additional input as possible. LOTE classrooms working with the new materials will be noisier places; more purposeful and productive places, where students will be challenged to a much greater degree than has often been the case up to now.

The syllabus and resources are being developed by a writing team from Education Queensland, in seven languages: French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Modern Standard Chinese. More than seventy schools and a total of more than 120 teachers are involved in the trial, which is being monitored and externally evaluated by a team from Queensland University of Technology. First data suggests that while there are definite developmental problems to be ironed out, and issues to be further negotiated (for example, the generic nature of the resources), on the whole teachers are responding enthusiastically to the new approach and sample materials. To many it feels radically different. The most commonly reported change is in the amount of target language now being used.

Importantly, there are reports of changes in LOTE 'energy levels', as both students and teachers find new relevance and purpose in the activities developed in the new resources. Materials are initially being developed on CD ROM, with the curriculum being interfaced with the World Wide Web. A limited selection of print materials will also be produced, but main access for teachers will be via technology. The whole project is feeling decidedly 'fresh' to most of the trialling teachers; a new look LOTE, with possibilities of coming in from the margins, connecting with other curriculum areas; finally being recognised as having a serious contribution to make to mainstream curricular business, rather than operating in the margins as some kind of optional extra. Most importantly, both trialling teachers and students are talking of new relevance and real purpose. And they're glimpsing possibilities of stepping into the next millennium equipped with linguistic and cultural proficiency that might really be usable.

Jo Carr. School of Language and Literacy Education, Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology.

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