Learning English is easier when you have lessons in the science lab rather than in the classroom.
That is according to the results of a partnership between French schools and the British Council, the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities.
The British Council runs two projects: School Lab and Science in Schools.
In the first, pupils have to work in a team on a science project and then give a three-minute presentation in English as part of a competition with fellow pupils and other schools.
In Science in Schools, British scientists travel to an area of France for a week to give interactive science workshops in English, which can be adapted to suit primary and secondary school pupils.
Last year, the Toulouse Education Authority signed up to School Lab and it hopes to continue this year.
Jean Solito, who is in charge of international relations for the Toulouse Academy, said it helped pupils put their language skills into practice.
“It is vital that our pupils learn to speak English, not just to write it,” he said. “With big classes, teachers often find this difficult to achieve.
“But with a challenge to speak in public, the pupils are motivated to get it right. Last year, 450 pupils from 12 high schools took part and there was a competition, with the winners getting a trip to the Cheltenham Science Festival.”
Pupils began working on the challenge last December and were given two training sessions, supported by the British Council, to explain the task.
Speaking in public in English is no mean feat for pupils who are on average 13 years old.
They were helped by their English and science teachers.
“It is unusual for teachers from different subjects to work together in French schools,” said Mr Solito. “This was positive as the project helped bring together school communities.
“All the pupils were invited to watch the first internal competition, to find out which teams would represent their school in the final. The selected teams then went on to the finals in June. The presentations were surprisingly good, varied and often funny.”
Mr Solito had already introduced the idea of mixing science and languages in the Toulouse region with a project called LETS Go, an acronym for Learn English Through Science.
He said: “I think it helps when students use their English in a practical way through experiments. Future scientists have to be able to speak and understand English as all papers are published in that language.”
He has had good feedback from schools that took part and said: “It was a really positive experience, though it was difficult for pupils at first, because they were learning in such a different way and confronting so many new skills.”
There are 318 high schools in the Toulouse Academy but only 12 took part.
Mr Solito said it was the way forward and one day he would like to see all pupils benefiting from the scheme.
The British Council has been finding UK-based researchers, engineers or university teams to present workshops in France for Science in Schools since 2005.
Students at the Villeneuve d’Ascq college in Lille told France TV3 they loved the experiments, which included bursting and setting fire to a balloon filled with hydrogen and smashing a banana frozen with liquid hydrogen.
Katie Shaw, one of the scientists from Bristol University, said they were able to show pupils that they were not all mad professors in a white coat stuck in a laboratory.
Scientists work in the modern world and do almost anything – including creating face creams, food flavours and new materials for clothes.
Even though not a word of French is spoken during the workshops, evaluation feedback of the programme showed that 93% of pupils found that a workshop delivered by researchers in English was not a barrier to understanding the scientific content.
They motivated 40% of pupils to consider pursuing science subjects to a higher level.
Irene Daumur, who is in charge of British Council projects in schools, said the two initiatives were an exciting way of introducing English into the classroom.
“School Lab works really well and stimulates the pupils and the teachers to do things a bit differently outside the curriculum, and Science in Schools gets pupils interested in both English and science,” she said.
“They surprise themselves that they can understand so much in a foreign language. We would love to do more but it is all down to funding, as it is costly to bring scientists over.”
She thinks language teaching in France is evolving and said: “Adults’ memories of learning English are terrible and they often did not enjoy it.
“Now we are looking at a more immersive way of teaching, without having to learn the Queen’s English in the strictest sense from day one.”
The British Council also links schools across the Channel.
There are more than 1,000 partnerships between schools in France and the UK, involving around 45,000 pupils and 3,000 teachers, currently in place.
Schools can sign up to find a partner school in the UK, via its Schools Online France digital platform.