By Jackie Rayment

30 March 2016 - 10:01

'Language assistants can share experiences and stories of life in the country where the target language is spoken'. Photo ©

Mat Wright

Jackie Rayment, a modern foreign language adviser at Herts for learning, looks at some of the ways modern language assistants can benefit UK schools and their pupils.

If you have ever learned a second language, you will no doubt remember the feeling of satisfaction that came when first using it naturally with a native speaker: perhaps it was the time you made a joke or helped a tourist in the street.

Many of the changes in the curricula of the UK in recent years have been aimed at producing a generation who are able to use the target language in communication.

One way schools can really help pupils to make progress in listening and speaking is to employ a modern language assistant who comes from a country where the target language is spoken. I have seen them draw tentative language learners into using the target language, almost without the learners realising it.

Here are a few ways modern language assistants can be of use to pupils in UK schools.

1. A cultural resource

Language assistants can share experiences and stories of life in the country where the target language is spoken. By inviting students to compare their experience of life in the UK with that of the target-language country, modern language assistants can play a significant role in giving students an understanding of other cultures. They can also help connect UK schools with partnering schools and organisations in their respective countries. Pen-pal projects and student exchanges often arise out of this.

2. A source of spontaneity

The ability to speak with confidence is emphasised in the English curriculum and Scotland’s curriculum. However, opportunities for spontaneous talk in the classroom are not always available. Other than helping pupils produce, prepare and practise dialogues, modern language assistants can help students participate in more authentic exchanges. Examples include meeting and greeting students, and conducting classroom business using simple expressions in the target language. These exchanges mean that students get to use the target language for real communicative ends and build their speaking confidence in the process. At secondary level, you can also use modern language assistants for mock interviews.

3. A way to help disadvantaged pupils

Modern language assistants can lead small groups or one-to-one sessions, on behalf of the teacher, with disadvantaged pupils who lack confidence with languages. (Find out how the pupil premium can help fund schools in England to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils).

For students who do not have the opportunity to go on holiday in a foreign country, a language assistant might be the first chance for them to talk to a native speaker and close an opportunity gap with more well-off peers.

4. A source of creativity

A lot of educators are talking about the WAGOLL technique (What A Good One Looks Like) of using example texts for speaking and writing that helps pupils identify good features of a text and compare it to their own. Language assistants are a fantastic source of WAGOLL material. They can write and record tailored, up-to-date listening materials and find authentic target language material (for example on YouTube) of the type that interests young people.

5. A source of continuing professional development

Contact with modern language assistants is not just valuable for students, but also for teachers and heads of department. As staff have limited opportunities for conversation in another language, language assistants can help maintain teachers' fluency and refresh their vocabulary. They can also help staff develop their knowledge and understanding of the country where the target language is spoken. An example of the sort might be background information on new laws or initiatives such as the ‘le paquet neutre’ movement in France, which forces cigarette manufacturers to use brand-free packaging.

Find out how to apply to be an English language assistant.

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