2015 Annual Chinese Conference interview with Meryl James

2015 Annual Chinese Conference interview with Meryl James

With the 2015 Annual Chinese Conference exactly one week away, excitement is mounting here at the IOE CI. We have tracked down one of our workshop leaders, Meryl James of Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (SCILT) and Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools (CISS), to ask her a few questions about Mandarin teaching and her role in this year’s Conference.

Places are still available to attend the Conference. For more information and to book a place, please click here.

Meryl James

1. Hi Meryl. Can you tell us a little bit more about your workshop session ‘Innovative approaches to progression (primary)?

Progression in a language is crucial if there is to be genuine understanding of how the language works. How to integrate knowledge about language (grammar) and build up syntax (sentence structures) is a skill which lies at the heart of language learning – to progress from single words, simple greetings to full sentences.

If we do this in a memorable, fun way this will aid recall of the vocabulary and structures. Stories, including stories in the form of eBooks, are engaging for all learners at all stages; the “story” (context) aids recall of the words and sentences. It provides an imaginative departure point from which the pupils or learners can form their own stories, recycling the vocabulary learnt. This can be done interactively (using puppets), as an animation (using ICT skills), using the theme to write a story in English (enhancing literacy skills) and so on.

2. You are currently the working with SCILT and CISS. Can you tell us about how Mandarin teaching is incorporated into your roles?

Mandarin teaching is incorporated into my role as part of the aims of the CISS, which are to support teachers in Scottish schools to deliver excellence in Chinese language learning, to promote the benefits of learning about Chinese language and culture to all stakeholders, as well as to provide information about the learning of Chinese language and culture as part of the Scottish Government’s 1+2 Approach to language learning. Mandarin is one of the languages schools can choose to offer either in the primary or secondary sector. Much of my work involves getting schools started with Mandarin and understanding how to best work with the Hanban teacher who supports them.

3. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing teachers of Mandarin currently?

Some of the biggest challenges are finding permanent posts rather than annual contracts. Finding suitable materials for the various ages and stages is another challenge.

As Mandarin in Scotland is still fairly new (Scottish qualifications in the language were first available in 2008), we don’t have a body of experienced teachers who teach Mandarin. This is of course changing as those who became GTCS registered in 2008 are now in their seventh year of teaching. The number of teachers remains relatively low in comparison to some other languages however, so it is vital we all support each other as much as we can across the languages.

4. What do you enjoy most about your involvement with Mandarin teaching in Scotland?

I enjoy most working with the teachers and seeing how things have developed since 2005 when we first started considering how Mandarin might be delivered. In 2006 the Scottish Government brought out their China Plan with one aim being to increase the number of pupils learning Mandarin to 200 by 2010. We exceeded this aim and continue to build on this.

5. Can you see any major differences between Mandarin education in Scotland and Mandarin education in the rest of the UK?

One big difference is that we have the support of the 1+2 Approach to language learning. The Scottish Government has committed to this extra funding for Local Authorities to develop frameworks, offer CPD training and develop resources. 1+2 applies to both the primary (from P1 at the latest, although it can be from nursery) to the end of third year in secondary (S3.) In no later than P5 a second foreign language can be introduced and this is where Mandarin might be chosen, the class teacher supported by a Hanban Exchange Teacher.

There are also many opportunities from S1-3 (the Broad General Education) where Mandarin might be offered as an elective or in S3 as part of the new Languages for Life and Work Award. This award can also be offered to older pupils who might have dropped languages in S4 or S5.

This allows for a lot of flexibility re which languages are taught and when. More than one language is greatly encouraged and lies at the heart of the 1+2 Approach.

6. Have you attended the IOE CI Annual Conference before? If so, what do you enjoy most about the Conference?

Yes, I have attended the last two conferences and prior to that always longed to attend but was not free to do so.

The conference provides an invaluable opportunity to discover new publications with the fantastic array of publishers there. Teachers always need to see materials, leaf through books, try out interactive ideas however high or low tech they might be.

The seminars meanwhile offer food for thought, are illuminating (e.g. those on research) and stimulate further ideas to develop together or back in your own dept. (There is nothing so prized amongst teachers as simple, practical ideas which can be put into practice immediately!)

Last but not least is the chance to network and to encourage each other in developing effective ways of learning and teaching Mandarin Chinese.

The conference ought to be a must in the calendar of every UK teacher of Mandarin Chinese!

7. From the list of speakers and workshops, which part of this year’s conference are you most excited about?

That is impossible to say! The above answer highlights the all-encompassing aspects such a conference offers to a delegate! Perhaps one thing I have omitted is in fact one of the most important: catching up with old friends and seeing how they got on since the last time you met with a particular idea, research or something which they have developed as a result of any discussion. The personal element to these occasions cannot be underestimated!

Thank-you Meryl for taking the time to chat to us.

If you are interested in attending the Conference and participating in Meryl’s workshop, please click here to book.

A little bit about Meryl


A Welsh speaker from Aberystwyth, Meryl is an enthusiastic advocate of other languages and cultures. At University Meryl initially read Russian and German, later Swedish. On graduation, her knowledge of French proved to be an effective springboard for learning Italian whilst working in Rome for two years with homeless people. Following this experience, Meryl trained as a nurse, then midwife, so that her knowledge of languages could be married to a practical skill. Meryl has always been very interested in health issues. These two aspects, languages and health matters, took Meryl to Romania (where she helped to set up mobile health clinics in rural areas) and later to China, where she joined a team looking at the use and effect of Traditional Chinese Medicine in various regions in China.

Meryl spent eight years as a secondary teacher before she became a Modern Languages Support Officer for Perth and Kinross, where she worked for another eight years teaching in both primary and secondary schools, providing CPD sessions, MLPS training, support for the launch of the Confucius Classroom and Foreign Language Assistants. Meryl has also presented at a variety of conferences both in UK and abroad and over time has formed associations with schools and universities in Europe and Asia. These contacts extend from Brittany to Beijing, from Finland to Bangladesh.

Most recently, in light of CFE and 1+2, Meryl has focussed on developing cross-curricular approaches to language teaching. This was initially to provide support for the teaching of Mandarin in primary schools. Her work has been shared with other interested parties such as the University of Leiden, who are also exploring the most effective methods for the teaching of Mandarin and this work has greatly influenced Meryl’s approach in the teaching of European languages.