Meet the teacher: Miss Rebecca Riley

From puppets to performances, Miss Riley gives us an insight into modern languages at Heywood Prep…

Ask any of the pupils at Heywood Prep about Claude and Gloria, and they’ll break into a smile. The now-famous puppets regularly play a starring role in French and Spanish lessons, where they sing and chat to the children in their native tongues.

“Claude is French and Gloria is Spanish,” laughs Rebecca Riley, Heywood Prep’s modern languages teacher. “During our lessons I’m like a TV presenter, sitting in between them and introducing them to the class. They play games with the children, sing songs and help them practise speaking their languages in sentences too. It makes our lessons fun and interactive – the children are so animated when they join in, and they pick up the vocabulary without even realising it.”

A passion for performing

Role play continues once the children reach Prep too, but this time it’s the children themselves who take to the stage.

“My background is in musical theatre, and I love bringing that passion for performance into my lessons,” says Miss Riley. “When we studied French sporting vocabulary, each child chose an Olympic sport and dressed up in character to present their discipline to the class. We had everyone from cyclists to swimmers, and the fact it was such fun meant it wasn’t remotely intimidating.

“For me, the stand-out lessons are the ones where the children don’t even notice they are learning. By the time they reach Upper Prep, they’re reading entire pages in French or Spanish and they have all the skills needed to take those languages into secondary school.”

It’s fair to say that drama comes naturally to Miss Riley. A passionate singer and dancer, she has enjoyed stepping into the spotlight to perform in productions such as Dolly Parton’s smash hit musical, 9 to 5. And now hosts the weekly musical theatre club at Heywood Prep.

“I’ve loved being on stage since I was a child, it gives you such a buzz,” she says. “And drama and language go hand-in-hand – it definitely helped me when it came to picking up accents. Role play is such a great way to encourage confidence when it comes to speaking a language too, it can work wonders for self-esteem.”

Early beginnings

At Heywood Prep, French and Spanish lessons begin right from Nursery, when the children are just two. And Miss Riley believes this early start is a gamechanger when it comes to developing linguistic skills.

“When you’re young and learning your mother tongue, language is a natural part of your development,” she says. “As a result, children are incredibly receptive to absorbing a second language too. Their brains are like little sponges, they have the capacity to retain so much. On top of that, learning a language has amazing cognitive benefits at any age. It improves listening skills, memory and the ability to multitask too.”

Exploring cultures

Of course, one of the joys of learning a foreign language is that we get to discover alternative cultures. And Miss Riley is extremely well versed in both French and Spanish traditions, thanks to a lifetime of adventures abroad.

She says, “There’s something so special about immersing yourself in another country’s customs, food and music. My grandparents lived in Alicante, Spain, so I spent several weeks out there each year as a child. They’d take me to their Catholic church, where mass was said in Spanish, and I immersed myself in learning all the words. “I always spoke Spanish with my Grandfather, and still do, and we learnt the language together.”

“In my teens, I picked up Italian while travelling in Italy too. Then, during my French and Spanish degree, I spent a year in Paris. I lived in a very impoverished area and it was quite tough at times, but I taught English at eight different schools and it totally ignited my passion for teaching. The children there didn’t have many opportunities, and helping them unlock the door to a new language was so rewarding.”

Friends in far flung places  

Back in Corsham, Miss Riley is busy enabling the children at Heywood Prep to embrace other cultures, by setting up a pen pal scheme. From croissants and hot chocolate to paella and Picasso, the children will hear first-hand about their pen pal’s life through exchanging letters in French or Spanish. And who knows, perhaps one day they’ll even get to meet.

“Writing and exchanging letters is the perfect way to bring their learning alive,” adds Miss Riley. “When you discover that you’re able to use your vocab to communicate and build friendships, it’s such an incredible feeling.

“Ultimately, a love of languages will play such a vital role in our children’s futures. When it comes to careers, fluency in another tongue – or two – gives them a competitive edge. After all, the world has never been so internationally connected, be it through business, music, travel or even sport.

“But there’s more to learning languages than just landing your dream job. It encourages empathy, acceptance of others and it enables us to build relationships too. Speaking Spanish alone allows you to communicate and connect with a whopping 572 million people around the globe. Languages open a myriad of magical doors, taking us in so many exciting directions.”