Education, Educational Research

Perceptions & Purpose: Pupils’ perceptions of learning and using Welsh

In a previous post, Dr Mirain Rhys presented findings from research inspired by results from the WISERDEducation multicohort study, a project involving nearly 1,500 pupils in 29 schools across Wales. The data for that study were collected through self-completion surveys provided to pupils (and in later sweeps, teachers and parents), and covered a range of topics including pupils’ perceptions of place, their “heroes and villains,” what they would do with £1 million and the effectiveness of the Curriculum Cymreig in meeting its policy aims.

One intriguing finding, especially in consideration of Welsh Government’s Cymraeg 2050 strategy, was that among the pupils surveyed (849 Year 8 & 10 pupils), Welsh was the most disliked compulsory subject.

G1

We were interested in understanding the reasons why pupils might dislike Welsh. We also wanted to know more about the experiences of teachers teaching Welsh as a second language. We held six focus groups involving 36 young people from the WISERDEducation study. While the findings from these focus groups only represent the experiences and perceptions of the participants, they support the findings in the WISERDEducation study and reveal serious concerns pupils (and their teachers) had regarding learning Welsh in school. We also held interviews with six “Welsh as a second language teachers” working in the same schools as the pupils (I’m currently putting the “finishing touches” on a summary of their responses and hope to post that in the near future).

To summarise the pupils’ responses, they felt the aims of Welsh as a compulsory subject are misplaced, focusing on exam results rather than on oracy or fluency. Many were frustrated because they felt their lessons were unlikely to lead to them developing proficiency in Welsh, which in turn leads to the confidence needed to use it in everyday life. In short, the pupils felt the instrumental focus on exams, coupled with a lack of Welsh language resources, undermined their teachers’ pedagogical expertise and compromised the quality of their experience and instruction in the classroom.

While these findings may be dismaying, we are not suggesting they represent all pupils and teachers’ experiences with Welsh in schools in Wales. They do, however, present important considerations that must be addressed as we envisage the study of Cymraeg in schools under the new curriculum framework.

Data from the WISERDEducation study also indicate 75% of participants agreed it’s important for Welsh to remain a living language, and 65% felt it was important to learn Welsh. However, only about 60% of the responses indicated it was important for them to speak the language.

G2

Dr Rhys and I asked pupils in our focus groups about what they felt were the benefits of learning Welsh. Some responses alluded to the economic value of Cymraeg, but they qualified this as only being important in Wales, and only in certain jobs. Other responses referred to the benefits of bilingualism, but pupils struggled to articulate these benefits in detail. The most significant response, both from Welsh and “non-Welsh” pupils, was that Cymraeg was a crucial component of Welsh identity and that these pupils believed the future of Welsh culture was directly tied to the status of Welsh as a living language. For these pupils, whether they themselves intended to speak the language or not, Cymraeg and its continued use is a key signifier of Welshness.

So then why the disparity between the importance these pupils give to the status of Welsh and their role in learning and speaking the language? Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient data to confidently explain this conundrum. There are a range of potential variables that contribute to these findings. However, and I hope you’ll forgive me for engaging in some general conjecture here, the responses from pupils in our focus groups may suggest that the means through which young people are given opportunities to engage in Welsh instruction affect their perception of the language and relationship to it. This, in turn, may undermine their sense of efficacy as citizens in/of Wales and their role in maintaining this delicate but powerful aspect of Welsh identity.

If, for these pupils, the primary goal of compulsory Welsh lessons is to maintain Welsh as a living language, but other, competing aims privilege attainment, GCSE scores and school ratings, then there is a pedagogical disconnect between educational aims, experiences and outcomes. One potential danger of pupils working towards an unachievable goal is a disenfranchisement from the very thing they’re studying, which – for many – is a critical component of their cultural identity. Irrespective of these potential issues, as schools deliberate over “how to teach Welsh in school” within the new curriculum framework, they will be faced with the challenge of inspiring a shared vision for studying Welsh and in enlisting pupils, teachers and their communities in achieving these aims.

Reflective Questions

  1. Why should Welsh be included as a compulsory aspect of schooling in Wales?
  2. How might schools co-construct with their staff, pupils and community a vision that sets out the purpose for Welsh language instruction in a way that supports oracy, fluency and cultural understanding?
  3. What are the key resources necessary for schools to provide their pupils with rich and meaningful experiences learning Welsh?