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Inspired by a recent conference, Mererid Hopwood considers the lessons we can learn from our forefathers when teaching language…

By now, delegates have returned home from the Athrofa’s first ‘Research in Education’ conference, having given the great cauldron of Languages, Literacy and Communication a good stir.

It was almost inevitable that one of the key ingredients would turn out to be the aim of reaching a million Welsh speakers, and the one thing that is becoming increasingly apparent is the consensus that if this goal is to be reached, then teachers and future teachers, in particular, will have to receive clear instruction on effective methods of teaching language.

In the light of this, taking a further look at the 1927 report – ‘Welsh in Education and Life‘ – it’s interesting to see what the specialists of 90 years ago had to say.

Opening on a wide canvass that reaches back to the very origins of Welsh, the report strikes positive and determined colours. By the second page it reminds any readers dismayed by the ‘Welsh Note’ (or ‘Welsh Not’) episode, of a similar practice which was in evidence in England in the 16th Century.

In those days a Custodes or Asini was appointed in each class to cane any pupil who was caught speaking English rather than Latin, and the report goes on to say that the sure way to gain the nickname Custos (i.e. the class ‘dunce’) in Eton, for example, was to insist on speaking English despite all encouragement to speak Latin.

The suggestion, of course, is that it’s possible to turn the fashion of language use, and though the authors admit that the problems facing the 20th Century reformers of Wales are very different, nevertheless they make the point that change is possible.

There are 68 recommendations in Successful Futures (with its focus on the curriculum in general), 10 of which specifically refer to Welsh. There are 72 recommendations in the hefty 1927 report (with its focus on Welsh in general), 60 of which refer to education.

Six are targeted at the ‘Board of Education’; 13 at ‘Universities and University Colleges’; seven at ‘Training Colleges and Training Departments’; 17 at  ‘Local Education Authorities’; six at ‘Central Welsh Board’; and 11 at ‘Teachers’.

As Wales prepares to reform the way it educates teachers, of the seven specifically aimed at ‘Training Colleges’, four are particularly worth noting. These recommend:

  • ‘that in every Training College or Training Department in Wales, provision be made for well-graded courses in Welsh language and literature;
  • that every student in a Training College or Training Department in Wales follow a course in Welsh language and literature;
  • that Training Colleges give training in the best methods of language teaching as applied to Welsh;
  • that courses in individual work and methods be given to teachers to enable them to apply such methods in the teaching of Welsh.’

The report notes that much of the evidence collected revealed that the teaching of Welsh is ‘not so successful as it should be, because so few teachers are fully equipped to teach the subject’.

As part of this process of equipping teachers, it goes on to explain that attention must be paid to the ‘environment’ of the College as well as the ‘subject’, and that Welsh must ‘occupy an honourable position in every department in College life’ if the colleges are to turn out enthusiastic and effective teachers.

It foresees that full advantage of the potential of provision such as Summer Schools, Night Schools and Saturday Morning Schools will have to be made in order to support the students to become Welsh speakers.

And while it sees ‘enthusiasm, zeal’ and ‘a substantial background of linguistic and literary knowledge’ as ‘the first essentials to success’, these alone are not enough.

Here the Welsh and English versions part company. As the report describes how students will need to have an ability to transfer these qualities to every child, the English version describes this ability as a ‘technical skill’ while the Welsh version calls it an ‘art’.

In the many recent discussions about the science of teaching language, we hear much about method and approach, technique and pedagogy, I wonder what we could gain by thinking of it as a form of art?

  • Mererid Hopwood is a member of Yr Athrofa staff at University of Wales, Trinity Saint David