Introduction to the interview with Wolfgang
by Antoinette Camilleri Grima
Wolfgang Pojer is the headmaster
of Hauptschule Birkfeld 1 (HB 1), in the province
of Styria, Austria (http://www.sprachenhs1-birkfeld.at).
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
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 220.127.116.11). 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 18.104.22.168).
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
Thank you and Well Done!