Flying the flag for teaching and learning Irish in schools
Máire Ní Bhaoill and Aisling Ní Dhiorbháin, Lecturers at the Department of Language, Literacy & Early Childhood Education, St Patrick’s Campus, DCU chat to Spotlight on Research about their work and research interests.
You are both interested in encouraging teachers and students to build their skills with the Irish language in schools. What drives that interest? Aisling: “A lot of what we hear about teaching and learning Irish in schools in Ireland tends to be negative, with reports from inspectors saying that standards are falling and teachers are teaching Irish through English when the research says it is best to teach it through Irish. Teachers are busy, so we want to make resources available to them that will make it easier for them to teach Irish, and to motivate schools to encourage high standards of learning in Irish. We want to bring in a positive aspect and find ways to support teachers.” Máire: “One of the positive things that we can do through our research is to increase the confidence of teachers and of student teachers by building on their existing skills and enhancing what they do.” For the last five years or so you have been working on the Gaelbhratach programme, tell us about that. Máire: “In the Gaelbhratach programme schools work through a series of steps and reach a series of targets focusing on the promotion of the Irish language. When they do this, they earn a purple flag to fly in their school. Myself and Aisling work with the programme, which is run by Gael Linn and Foras na Gaeilge. We travel to primary schools throughout Ireland and run interactive workshops with teachers to upskill them in teaching, and using Irish. We are also involved in researching the effect of our in-service work with schools and are currently gathering data through questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups to discover what schools need for support throughout the Gaelbhratach process. A lot of teachers can lack confidence in the Irish language, but as teachers ourselves we are well used to explaining things, so we find that after the first 10 minutes or so, everyone is relaxed in the workshop and more comfortable with the Irish.” Aisling: “One of the ways we help teachers in these workshops is to introduce them to resources they can use to teach Irish, like games and Irish-language books, apps and CDs. We encourage a whole-school approach and we find that schools tend to like our focus on research. There is a high demand for the programme, and we have travelled all around the country to give workshops.” Máire, how did you become interested in researching teaching approaches for Irish? Máire: “I was a primary school teacher for 18 years and I loved working with young children. I especially enjoyed teaching reading, and I used to cycle to the local library and take out 20 books for my class. I did a Master’s degree on Literacy and focused on ‘The introduction of reading in Irish-medium schools’ for my thesis. The motivation to become involved in research originated through my involvement with Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann (ITE) on a collaborative project which produced two books about the teaching of Irish (1996). Then when I bumped into one of my lecturers later on, she encouraged me to go for a position at St Pat’s and I came here in 2002.” What has your research and experience found about the most effective ways to teach children to read in Irish? Máire: “Stories, stories, stories. I encourage teachers and parents to read stories to children, and to make up stories, and to retell stories, sing songs about stories, and then use words and sentence structures from the stories throughout the day. I often work with stiúrthóirí naíonra and with teachers of the junior classes and enjoy helping them with the introduction of literacy skills in Irish. It is important to build up student teachers confidence too, so that they are competent in teaching Irish when they graduate. Aisling, how did you get involved in research? Aisling: “I was a primary teacher too, and I did a Master’s degree in Galway on teaching languages. I could see from existing research that children learn best when they figure things out themselves, so that is what I started my research on. I developed an inductive approach for children to figure out Irish grammar. Students see examples of the grammatical rule with the relevant words or letters in a different font, and they work out the patterns and articulate the rule themselves. Because they worked it out, it sticks better and they are able to apply the rule themselves. Bain Súp As! (2014) is widely used in schools for teaching Irish now and you can find it at www.cogg.ie.” You both have busy lecturing schedules, what drives you to keep going with the research? Máire: “We are passionate about the teaching of Irish and just love working with children, and seeing how schools get engaged and motivated to teach and use Irish.” Aisling: “We enjoy working together and it’s rewarding to be doing something positive for the Irish language. And when the schools really embrace the Gaelbhratach programme and some of the students even go on to study teaching at St Pat’s that is really gratifying.”