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At SUIS, it really is bilingual

THE Shanghai United International School is completely bilingual - taking the English National Curriculum for core subjects and fusing it with a native Chinese-language program.

However, the school is proudest of its Global Issues curriculum. In this they take themes, such as global energy needs or "the world and the universe," and fuse them with the high-language ability of their students.

I observed a team-teaching class, in which two teachers are responsible for one class. One teacher is Chinese, and the other is Western. In the class, I saw both of the teachers qualified under the British system.

Huang Yixin, the Chinese half of the teaching team, commented, "We both take part in lesson-planning and we both take turns teaching. It is quite cool the way the students can follow in both languages, following the English then the Chinese."

I was eager to see this in action and took my place at the back of the classroom. Charlaine Reid, the Western half of the team, introduced the lesson; explaining to these Grade 1 students what they would be doing. For the activity section Huang took over, in Chinese, and led the students onto the playground.

The students diligently split into pairs and drew their shadows in colored chalk on the running track while Huang and Reid split up to supervise and get the students to notice the size and direction of the shadows.

Then it was back into the classroom where Huang was waiting with a globe and Reid stood in the center with a torch. With the curtains drawn, they demonstrated the way the Earth moves around the sun, with a little flag showing Shanghai's location. They answered questions in both languages and the students explained back to them what they understood.

After break time came the finale. The students filed back out onto the running track and repeated the exercise, marveling at the way their shadows were now both shorter and pointing in a different direction; they made the connection between the globe they had seen in the classroom and the Earth they were standing on.

Later, Reid told me, the students would be taken to the school's observatory to use the telescope, and some would join the after-school Science Club with David Edwards.

International schools have a variety of children, and Shanghai United International School is no exception, enrolling students from more than 30 countries and regions with different educational backgrounds.

However, it would seem to be different from most of Shanghai's (indeed, the world's) international schools in that it really is bilingual. For once, this isn't just a tag-line, from what I have experienced, SUIS is truly bilingual.

It takes in younger students with one language and, from what I could see in their Grade 5 class, by the time they are ready for middle school, they have two - and this doesn't take into account the many who speak three languages or more.

Of course, other international schools teach one language, almost always English, and a second. But the second language is usually taught for two to three periods a week. Most international schools, therefore, teach in the single language of the school, English, for at least one and half hours per day. And they teach every other subject in English too, from math to history to science.

SUIS showed me how it shares all the other subjects between English and Chinese. Their theme classes are amazing to watch and they must be amazing to participate in, being bilingual and team-taught with two teachers in the classroom speaking both English and Chinese.

In comparison, in many other international schools, Chinese, or any other second language, is only taught for maybe one and a half hours per week. Now, SUIS' day is the same length as every other's - so how do they do it?

"This is something we do very well," says Laurel Li, the head of Chinese instruction. "Most of our students join knowing either English or Chinese, but not both. Within three to four years most students are fluent in both languages, not just speaking fluent (normally two or three years) but academically fluent."

They do this through English as an Additional Language (EAL) and Chinese as an Additional Language courses for those who join the school with one language. Students are given these additional classes until they are ready to join the mainstream.

"We had some Grade 1 students join our EAL course in September," says Amy Hamilton, the EAL coordinator, "and by January our management had to reassign me to spend more time with older students since all of the Grade 1 EAL were back in the mainstream."


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