Friday, 26 September 2014

How to learn a language through distance learning

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Above: Logo of the European Day of Languages
Image credit: Council of Europe

The European Day of Languages has drawn some welcome attention to the subject area of modern foreign languages and encouraged people to learn one for themselves. But while the importance of learning other languages in an increasingly globalised society may be something you’ve heard of before, you might not know that doing so through distance learning is an option even for a subject as practical as this.

At NEC we offer IGCSEs in French and Spanish, as well as A Level French. The successes we saw for this year’s results – for example at IGCSE level, where a third of our learners achieved a Grade A* – shows you don’t have to learn in a classroom to learn a foreign language. Our students receive one-to-one support from a dedicated personal tutor who is an expert in their subject, and further support from their course co-ordinator. Students can also sit the oral component of their exams in Cambridge, where NEC is headquartered.

Our students learn a lot during their studies, but over the years we’ve learned a lot from providing the courses they study too. So in light of today’s focus on languages, we thought we’d put together some of what we’ve learned to help you if you’re considering learning a language, or if you’re already learning and just looking for some general advice.

Prepare and plan ahead

First, the all-important preparation. If you’re not sure which language you want to learn, look around online and you will find a variety of free activities and resources. As well as being a fun learning exercise in their own right, these resources will give you a taste of what a particular language is like, and can help you to choose whether you want to study one further.

Once you’ve chosen a language, plan out your study time to ensure you make good progress. How much time can you give to your studies and what resources do you have at your disposal? Do you work best late in the evening or early in the morning? Could you make more efficient use of your time by reading or listening to your language materials instead of the news during the morning commute?

If you’ve formally enrolled on a course, examine how your course materials are organised to help you create a study schedule.

Practise, practise, practise

Practice makes perfect, especially when trying to learn a language which may be very different to your own. This can be particularly relevant for speaking and listening. NEC tutor Robert, who supports learners enrolled on our A level French course, uses the example of how spoken English is a ‘time-stressed’ language, which means that native speakers are listening for emphasis or stress on certain syllables without even realising it. It then becomes necessary to get used to listening for different cues when learning a different language.

‘The rhythm and intonation of French is different,’ Robert explains, ‘And depends on following the grouping of words and the rise and fall of the voice at the end of phrases.’ Practice (and patience!) are therefore needed at listening and speaking.

‘The more we listen and the more we manage to imitate the music and rhythm of the language, the more we shall be in a position to communicate successfully with native French speakers,’ says Robert. He also points out, ‘This is where regular aural and oral practise with a distance learning tutor can help if you live in a part of the country where there are no native speakers of the target language.’

As you practise, try to avoid the common pitfall of ‘translation’ – thinking of what you want to say in your native language first, before then translating it into your target language. This will only make the process more complicated, and crucially hinders fluency. The sooner you can start thinking in the language you are learning instead of your own, the easier you will find it.

Review and maintain your progress

It’s important to review and test yourself as you work through your course. It can be very easy to forget things when you’re not actively trying to remember them, so reviewing regularly can help you recall significantly more of what you learn than if you don’t review at all. This is why NEC course materials include self-check activities and tutor-marked assignments to help our students progress.

Rewriting, re-ordering and condensing notes is a great way of making what you’ve previously learned more memorable, and the act of processing that information is widely known to increase your ability to retain it for longer. It’s a proven technique that students everywhere still use when revising for exams… which will come in handy for the next point.

If your course leads to a formal qualification in your chosen language, you may need to sit an exam. For our A level and IGCSE courses, NEC learners can choose to sit their written exams at one of our seven partnership centres across the UK, or alternatively at a local centre of their own.

There are also often oral exams for language courses, which may need to be taken separately to the written papers. At NEC we provide a way for our students to sit these exams by giving them the option to come to Cambridge, where we are based, and take their oral exams here.

To learn more about our flexible distance learning language courses, or to browse our full range, visit our website. You can keep up to date with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Teaching assistants: the unsung heroes of schools

Teenage Students Studying In Classroom With Teacher

‘If you enjoy working with children and would like to play a part in their education and wellbeing, a job as a teaching assistant could be ideal for you.’ This is how the role of a teaching assistant is introduced on the National Careers Service website.

There are more than 200,000 teaching assistants in the UK, a veritable army of passionate, patient and productive assistants to teaching staff across the country. With the demands of schools increasing all the time, and teaching staff under more and more pressure to raise standards, it is to teaching assistants that they often turn to for help.

A teaching assistant has a varied and interesting role, with no two days being the same. The TA might set up the classroom, create displays of pupils’ work and supervise a group activity – all before lunchtime! It’s often the TA who is the shoulder to cry on after an accident, listens to children reading and helps to build their confidence.

At secondary level, teaching assistants often work with small groups or individuals, perhaps with supervising a science practical, and in many schools they often have a specialism, for example providing additional support to children for whom English is not their first language.

At NEC we’re lucky enough to have two members of the team who have formerly been teaching assistants. Stephanie, who is the course co-ordinator for NEC’s new supporting teaching and learning courses (more on those later), told us about the ups and downs of her five years working as a teaching assistant in a primary school. ‘A job with challenges is a job worth doing, and when the challenges you face and the problems you solve have a positive effect on a child's life it makes it all worth while,’ she said.

‘The best thing about being a TA is when you witness a child discovering or achieving something for the first time, from doing a backward roll, to completing a whole page of a story, to building a bridge from junk that's strong enough and stable enough to carry a car. Supporting a shy child to find the confidence to speak in front of their class, and eventually in the school play is priceless. Tailoring the lesson plan to suit a child's individual needs and seeing them achieve is thoroughly rewarding.

Of course, things don't always go to plan, and children can take out their frustrations on staff as well as their fellow students. Training ensures you know how to respond at the time, and a supportive working environment enables you to cope with the event. It is a long time since TAs have been just an extra pair of hands in the classroom. Whether working with an individual child, small groups or in a whole class environment, there is nothing better than making a connection with a child that opens their minds and shows them the way to so many more discoveries.’

A career as a TA is a popular choice for parents looking to fit work around their children. There are often both full and part-time roles available, and being term-time only, it helps to avoid issues of childcare during the school holidays.

Many people that are thinking of becoming teachers often start off as a teaching assistant. This is an excellent place to start if you want to gain some valuable classroom experience before committing to training.

Whatever your reasons for becoming a teaching assistant, you will need to think about qualifications. And if you are, you’ll be pleased to know we now have a brand new set of courses accredited by CACHE which can help you!

At NEC we have recently launched a full range of supporting teaching and learning qualifications aimed at teaching assistants. From the Level 2 Award in Support Work in schools which is a great introduction if you’re thinking of becoming a teaching assistant, to the Level 3 Diploma in Specialist Support for Teaching and Learning in Schools for experienced teaching assistants looking to take the next step in their career, there is a course for you.

Like our other courses, this new suite is delivered by distance learning. This means that you can fit your study in around your other work and family commitments, allowing you to study at your own pace and in your own time towards a truly rewarding career.

To learn more about our new courses or to browse our full range of flexible distance learning courses, visit our website or get in touch and speak to our team. You can keep up to date with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on social networks, including Twitter and Facebook.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Lessons across the landing

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Down from high street store windows come the ‘Back to school’ posters, up on social media go parents’ photographs of young people striding out on the next leg of their learning journey. This week, most of the 8.3 million pupils who attend the country’s state and independent schools are climbing back onto what some see as the treadmill of testing and targets.

For young people being home educated, there is no distinction between where they live and where they learn. Every parent has the right under UK law to educate their child at home – and increasing numbers are making the decision to do so. According to Education Otherwise, which gives advice to parents about home schooling, the actual number of young people being home schooled is closer to 80,000 than the official figure of 20,000.

Uncertainty over the content of the national curriculum, the freedom for Academies and free schools to determine their own curricula and the perception that parental behaviour is under increasing scrutiny by schools are all contributing to the rise in home schooling. Since the law changed a year ago, 64,000 fines have been issued to parents for taking their children out of school in term time.

A survey of local authorities carried out by The Independent last month found that 1,700 parents had not accepted an offer of a school place. The reason? There is a shortage of school places, particularly at primary level. The Local Government Association warned last week that an extra 130,000 school places will be needed by 2017/18 because of a bulge in the birth rate.

Although home-educating parents don’t have to follow the national curriculum, many do want their sons and daughters to study for the academic qualifications that will enable them to go to university and exercise a degree of choice over their future careers. For those families, distance learning is one way to keep young people out of the classroom but keeping up with their peers. The number of NEC students under the age of 16 has been on the rise for the last twenty years. In 1990, around 25% of NEC students were under 25 years of age. In 2014, that figure has risen to almost 45%, following the trend for the growing number of families choosing to home educate increasing each year.

Distance learning doesn’t have to mean sacrificing outstanding exam results. This year, NEC students have once again done well in their GCSEs, IGCSEs and A levels. NEC student 15-year old Anna, who is from Colchester in Essex, took her English Language IGCSE a year earlier than she would have taken it had she been attending school. She achieved an A*.

74.7% of students taking GCSEs and IGCSEs across the subject range NEC offers achieved grades A*-C against GCSE performance in England of 68.6%. While schools across the country consider the impact of the changes to this year’s English exam papers on their overall GCSE performance, 92.3% of NEC students who sat the English IGCSE were awarded a grade C or above and nearly a quarter (23.1%) were awarded the top A* grade.

Home-educated Elliot Stevens from Nottinghamshire studied government and politics, history and law A levels with NEC and took his A2 exams last summer. He achieved top marks: A and A* grades in all three subjects, and is just about to start the second year of a degree in law at Cambridge University’s Robinson College. As Elliot points out, with distance learning as with school, you only get out what you put in: ‘Take it seriously and make a commitment to your ambition. Good planning will help tremendously. I enjoyed learning new things and knowing that I was working towards a goal, which for me was to attend university.’

To learn more about NEC, our learners, and our wide range of flexible distance learning courses and services, visit our website. You can keep up to date with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.