Introduction to the interview with Wolfgang Pojer

by Antoinette Camilleri Grima

Wolfgang Pojer

Wolfgang Pojer is the headmaster of Hauptschule Birkfeld 1 (HB 1), in the province of Styria, Austria (  He provides a case example of how a lower secondary school has taken the lead in transforming the language curriculum, and in diversifying the language teaching methodology options.  Wolfgang Pojer reveals the ways in which this school has made important strides in motivating learners to learn foreign languages.

This contribution illustrates how a number of suggestions provided in the Guide for the improvement of language education are translated into daily practice in a whole-school context.  This interview focuses on the following:

  • The diversification of languages on offer (Guide, Chapter 5). In HB 1 the interest in a varied range of languages was indirectly created through the presence of foreign teachers at school who were participating in a number of European projects, and also through student visits abroad and student exchanges with schools in various other countries;
  • Exploiting media access as part of language teaching methodology (Guide, section HB 1 took the initiative to use university resources to hold videoconferencing with British schools. In this way the students could use English and learn science at the same time.  Other schools followed their example and did likewise.
  • Educational travel (Guide, section  This is part of the school development plan.  Both teacher and student participation in international programmes for language and cultural development is supported.  This is especially done when the projects involve cross-curricular aspects.
  • Linking teaching establishments (Guide, section 6.5.4). HB 1 staff is very willing to establish links with other schools in other countries and several concurrent projects are running in this area.

Wolfgang Pojer is a member for a working party set up by the Austrian Ministry of Education, in the area of Content and Language Integrated Learning.

  Diversifying language learning methods and options: innovative technology and school partnerships

A. Camilleri Grima interviews Wolfgang Pojer
Headmaster, Hauptschule Birkfeld I, Austria

Question: Can you give us some background to the school?
Pojer: Hauptschule Birkfeld I is a lower secondary school in a rural area 52 km north-east of Graz, the capital city of the province of Styria in Austria.  The school is located in a small country town with a population of 1,700 citizens, and it is surrounded by farmland and forests.  The students" parents belong mainly to the lower or middle class, and many of them work in the agricultural sector and in related spheres.  Jobs are provided by a tool-producing factory and a pet food factory, and by the service sector (e.g. shops, restaurants, kindergarten, schools, and garages).  Employment for academically trained people is not commonly available, but the local people believe that a good education is their children"s only chance to improve their economic future. Therefore language learning is acknowledged as one of the key issues to support. The same applies to information technology. Parents and children are aware that the job situation in their home region will force them to either commute or move.

Question: What about languages spoken in the school catchment area?
Pojer: Many parents speak a broad dialect of Austrian German.  Children of primary school age find it challenging to acquire Standard German, and to many of them this is a kind of new language. The number of immigrants is very limited, and most children are monolingual when they start school.

Question: I understand that your students are rather culturally and linguistically homogeneous.  What linguistic baggage do they bring with them when they reach lower secondary level?
Pojer: In Birkfeld there is a primary school where English is introduced as a foreign language in the first year.  There English is taught through cross-curricular activities. Besides our school there is another lower secondary school on the same premises as Sprachenhauptschule Birkfeld I, which specializes in music, and in Birkfeld there is also a prevocational school and an upper secondary school.

Question: Could you give us a picture of the Austrian principles or school regulations with regard to language education so that we can place the situation of your school against the background of the rest of Austria.
Pojer: The learning of foreign languages is compulsory for all learners from year one to year 12. The most popular foreign language is English.  At primary level it is normal for children to be given a period of 50 minutes per week by the class teacher.  The class teacher is expected to be qualified to do this but necessarily to have specialised as a teacher of English. The number of native speakers of English who assist classroom teachers is increasing. At this stage the focus is on listening and speaking, whereas writing is almost neglected.  At lower secondary level (10-14 year olds) at Hauptschulen, English is usually taught in sets (bottom, medium, top set) according to pupils" abilities. Lessons are given by specialist teachers (who would have followed a three year course of studies at a teacher training college). The national curriculum requires a minimum of 12 English lessons a week over the four years of lower secondary education.  The school management together with parent representatives normally decide on the number of English lessons per week depending on their school"s profile which they are allowed to define themselves.  In addition, further languages or other language activities for English (e.g. conversation lessons/clubs) can be introduced but the total number of compulsory lessons (English, Maths, German, Geography etc)  must not exceed  a total of 121 periods a week over 4 years (EF_Strategies.ppt).

Question: What level of foreign language competence are your students expected to achieve?
Pojer: At the end of lower secondary schooling students are expected to have achieved level A2 of the CEFL (Common European Framework for Languages), but some gifted top set pupils quite easily master the Preliminary English Test (Cambridge) which is based on level B1.  In their final year pupils are offered the opportunity to register for one of the Cambridge exams, either KET=Key English Test (level A2) or PET=Preliminary English Test (level B1). They first sit mock exams. As the exams are not free of charge, the regional government usually co-finances them.

Question: How has your school managed to achieve such a high profile for language education?
Pojer: The language department of Hauptschule Birkfeld I has always had a very good reputation.  Since the early 1990s the school has been involved in various language activities and this has sustained and improved the delivery of quality language teaching.  The staff is also regularly involved in intensive teacher training at both the national and European levels.  In fact, our previous headmaster acknowledged the merits of the staff and supported all kinds of innovative initiatives.

Question: Can you give us some examples of such initiatives?
Pojer:  For example, in 1992 HS Birkfeld I was the first Austrian school for children aged 10 - 14 to link up with schools in the UK via satellite. The school did not have the facilities on the school premises to set up video conferences but was invited to use the hi-tech equipment at the Technical University of Graz.  Subsequently, some British schools encouraged Austrian schools to join a bilateral project with the aim of trying out modern technology, namely video-conferencing via satellite. What British teachers had in mind was not merely chit-chat using high technology, but rather the exchange of information based on work produced as part of the curriculum for humanities and science. The Austrian pupils, and of course their teachers, had to meet the challenge! This was an excellent way of creating an English-speaking environment in the classroom which was otherwise felt to be artificial.

Question: What did your students talk about with their British counterparts?
Pojer:  Austrian students in their second year of English had to communicate with British 14-year-olds and talk about topics such as alternative energy, waste disposal and how forests are affected by air pollution. Despite initial problems caused by the age and language gap between the British and the Austrian pupils, the video conference turned out to be a natural starting point for the use of English as a medium of instruction. Appropriate parts of the curriculum were selected and the language used was simplified without losing the core message of the topic. The link not only helped to inform both parties about environmental problems but also covered parts of the National Curriculum, especially the European dimension.  Some publicity was made about this link between Austrian and British students and this aroused so much interest that several more schools got involved.  It was then that schools were encouraged to develop their own profiles and quite logically Hauptschule Birkfeld I selected a specialised profile encompassing modern languages and IT.  This step was strongly supported by the former head, by the majority of staff members and by the parents.

Question: Are any other foreign languages taught apart from English?
Pojer:  For many years French was the only other language - apart from German and English - that was offered on an optional basis.  More recently, and also as a result of international school contacts, trial lessons for languages such as Spanish, Hungarian, Italian, Polish and Russian are welcomed by pupils and parents as they are open for any child free of charge. The goal is to raise the language awareness and the European dimension and to make young learners ready for a lifelong learning process (Lakesandrivers_results).

Question: What do you mean by "trial lessons"?
Pojer: Trial lessons are very often after-school activities open to everyone who is interested. There is no extra fee because we want equal opportunities for all children. Lately two boys were so desperate to learn some Russian that they agreed to have lessons on Saturday mornings.  You have to understand that when Austria joined the EU, European education programmes such as Comenius offered even more opportunities for pupils as well as teachers. Since then Hauptschule Birkfeld I has been involved in three different Comenius projects with partners in the UK, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Spain, Poland, Turkey and Latvia. Comenius assistants who came to the Austrian school did not only support the projects they were involved in, but also introduced their mother tongue to interested pupils and adults.

Question: These trial lessons seem to be offering a significant contribution to the construction of a plurilingual identity. This has been a key issue tackled in our ENSEMBLE project. Can you tell us more about what is happening in your school? 
Pojer:  Our school has been involved in a number of projects.  Within the Comenius framework, for example, some members of staff went for work experience sessions in Barcelona, Portsmouth and Patras.  Furthermore the head and members of staff have successfully taken part in EU-funded INSET (in-service-training) seminars (Comenius 2.2., Arion) in the UK, Finland and Sweden.  Similarly, students have had a chance to meet boys and girls in Barcelona, Rybnik and Gorizia.  A joint project with schools in Sweden and Slovenia provides a safe platform for kids to exchange texts, questionnaires, images, music charts and the opportunity to chat.  The project "Science Across The World" has been used to deal with science topics at an international level. Through this project, schools in Australia and Japan exchange their findings with their Austrian counterparts.  The latest development is the collaboration with Herschel Grammar School in Slough (UK) which includes teacher training, teacher exchanges, joint projects and pupil exchanges/visits to the other country.  Teacher and student exchanges are part and parcel of our school development plan (RoadMap_ACG).

Question: It sounds like your teaching staff is very active indeed. Have these international contacts left any long-lasting marks on your curriculum?
Pojer:  When it comes to assessment and methodology two main changes have now become ingrained in our system.  In terms of assessment, after a period of piloting the Austrian version of the European language portfolio, the staff decided to make the portfolio compulsory for all pupils attending language classes.  In the area of methodology ICT plays an important role at the school, and multimedia is used to teach and practise languages. Learners can use the internet to access study areas from home.

Question: I would like to return to the question of diversifying the pedagogy of language education.  How are you dealing with English across the curriculum?
Pojer: English has now become relevant across the curriculum.  It is used when dealing with a number of topics in geography, biology, science and history.  Conversation lessons for each year group have been introduced. It is our school language policy to keep the number of students in language classes and groups small so as to make sure students have more opportunity to converse. Native speakers of English employed by the school create a top-quality English environment and "safeguard" a high level of pronunciation, intonation and accuracy.  The presence of native speakers in the staff room has also had a very positive effect on teachers" language competence.

The conversation lessons aim to develop oral communication skills and whereas games, role plays, baking and cooking are the main issues in years 1 and 2, debates, video films, the production of English magazines and the integration of content and language are the major issues for years 3 and 4.  For example, video films used are "Muzzy in Gondoland" "Muzzy comes back", and "Wallace and Gromit" and "Mr Bean" episodes. Children are invited to write their own stories and to illustrate them with their own drawings. Some pupils even come up with their own crossword puzzles and music charts. It is mainly the older pupils who have debates based on games such as "Lost in the desert" or "Shipwrecked".

Question: It must be fun, but also hard work, to be a student at your school! How is this hard work rewarded?
Pojer: Hauptschule Birkfeld I has been awarded the European label for innovative language initiatives twice and also became part of an Austrian network for language projects.

Question: Congratulations! Tell me, what is it like to be Head of such an active and lively school?
Pojer: The crucial principle for being successful is the commitment and dedication of all staff members, and their willingness to embark on new projects as well as their acceptance of professional development.  As Head, it is important to show appreciation for the work done by staff members, to contribute financially in support of social events (e.g. staff outings, educational trips, excursions) and to encourage teachers to take courses abroad within Comenius actions.  Additional training activities abroad which are not eligible for EU grants are partly funded by the school.  Other incentives for extra work are given. The head seeks to provide a school environment that allows pupils as well as staff members to feel good (Network x2).

Thank you and Well Done!

The Role of the Head teacher in the Implementation of Plurilingual Education
Project work for pluringualism
Diversifying the language curriculum
Let's begin with the youngest
Challenges and opportunities of bilingual education
Social and economic considerations in setting up a new bilingual programme
Using a foreign language as a medium of instruction