Phorms is no ordinary school.
Even at the preschool level, a visitor might be surprised to walk in and hear four-year-olds seamlessly switching between languages as they set the breakfast table or help each other tie their shoes.
“Most of the kids switch so fast between English and German, they’re not even aware they’re doing it,” says Meadhbh Greene, a reception teacher at Phorms Campus Berlin Süd, originally from Ireland.
“We make sure that language is interwoven into the daily fabric of their lives.”
Since the Foundation of the first school in 2006, Phorms has been doing things a little differently, using two-way immersion on all levels from day one – in contrast to regular public schools in Germany where children must wait until the fifth or sixth grade before they are first introduced to English.
Phorms Education, which introduced a new model of education in Germany nearly ten years ago, now has seven schools in the country: in Hamburg, Berlin-Mitte and Berlin-Süd, Frankfurt City and Frankfurt Taunus, Munich and the Josef-Schwarz-Schule in Baden-Württemberg.
“It really works because it copies how we acquire language as children, naturally,” Greene explains.
“You can look back as far as Aristotle for support of the immersion method – he talks about active learning and passive learning. The kids are always actively engaged and they learn without even realizing it.”
The two languages are treated as equally important, making the school a prime choice for both German parents who want their kids to learn English early on, and expat parents who want their kids to get to know the German culture and language.
“The goal is to achieve competency in the foreign language in all areas: in reading, listening, and writing,” explains Selena Mell, Head of the primary school at Phorms Campus Berlin Süd. “Students should acquire the same language skills equally in both languages.”
As opposed to offering separate language classes where students get only an hour of instruction, at Phorms more than half of the subjects are taught in English while the rest are taught in German.
“Students learn the language in context, and have the same expectations in math, social sciences, and other areas as students at any other school,” Mell says.
Teachers are expected not to simply translate when a student doesn’t understand, but to use a mix of learning tools, kinaesthetic, visual, and otherwise, to help students to interact. Students learn to utilise facial expressions, body language, and contextual queues.
“When students don’t understand what is said, they develop lots of different ways of finding out how to solve the problem,” Greene explains. In her preschool classes children might ask each other for help use hand gestures, or just keep guessing until they get it right.
Greene calls it peer-to-peer learning – and says it’s a skill that can change students’ lives.
“They learn how to solve problems themselves and develop ways to learn in the future,” she says.
“When you translate that later on in their lives, our students look deeper into contextual cues and ask more questions,” Mell confirms. “They communicate when they need assistance – because they have learned through the program to do that.”
Sean Jackson, a native Californian and secondary teacher at Phorms Campus Berlin Süd, sees the proof of such skills daily in his English literature classes.
“In a public German school students primarily practice reading and writing,” he says. “But my students listen, speak, respond, and engage in discussions in English. They develop a constant ability to listen and respond, incorporating their own vocabulary and thoughts.”
He says that students and teachers alike understand that language cannot be acquired merely through worksheets and vocabulary lists.
“They realize that the learning of a language is the utilization of that language on a daily basis. There’s a constant analytical discussion here.”
But it’s not all about analysis – Greene adds that immersion can also make students more confident, more caring individuals.
“Studies in the US have shown that there are lower instances of bullying among bilingual children, because they are more accepting of differences. And they’re not afraid to ask for help,” Greene says. It’s something she sees daily in her own work.
“Children recognize when another student is having difficulty understanding, and they offer to help. And kids who struggle at the start of the year get to the point when they’re the ones offering help, and that’s great for their self-confidence. It’s something they take with them when they get older.”
You can learn more about the Phorms schools and their concept at one of their information events. Click here to find out more.
This article was produced by The Local in partnership with Phorms Education.