A lifetime ago I worked as a teacher on a summer school- and what an amazing, fun time it was. We had kids coming from all over the world to learn English on 3- week courses, staying in schools or colleges over the south of England, with the main requirement to have a good time and speak English “B2B”: breakfast to bedtime. Of course this didn’t always work 100%, but there were some wonderful success stories too, making me realise that the trip abroad was beneficial to the kids.

My favourite story from my years in summer school is of 2 girls who met aged probably 14 – 15 one summer, at our summer school in Kent, UK. One was from Greece, and the other from Sweden. They were the only ones of their nationality, so they had no compatriots to chat with in their own language. They hit it off with each other instantly, and had to speak English with each other in order to be mutually understood. Their basic English grew quicker than most of the other students on the course, as they used it all the time. And the girls remained friends, reunited with each other every summer at the summer school, and to this day are still good friends. They went so far as to learn each other’s language- not so good for their English, but a testament to how much they meant to each other.

There are many reasons for sending your child to summer school: it looks good to a future university; it should help with her grades in that language; she’ll make new friends and develop social skills; it’s a chance for your child to see a new place and visit some interesting cultural sites; the classes are often smaller, so your child will get more personalised attention; there is no curriculum to follow, so classes are usually more fun; and generally the whole trip will provide a boost in your child’s self-esteem. These are the fundamentals.

But not all schools are created equal. Here are some of my pointers for what to look for in a summer school:

  1. When possible, send your child to the country where the target language is spoken. I.E., for an English language course, send them to the USA, the UK, Australia, etc, and for a French one, to Canada, France etc. Why? Because learning a language is more than just taking a course, and then walking out of the classroom to be surrounded by your mother tongue again. Everything in the ‘other’ country will be in the target language: interactions in shops or restaurants, visits to local sights, the radio and TV… A good teacher will make use of the surroundings by sending students out to interview the locals, to shop in the local shop,. and to visit a town or special place, and this will encourage students to use the language in order to complete the task.
  2. Check that the school you have chosen receives children of a wide range of nationalities. This is not to encourage your little Spanish speaker to pick up French and Chinese at the same time as improving his English, but to ensure that there is less chance of language ‘cliques’ forming. If your child realises that he can speak his own language with a large number of the other students, he will make less effort to speak the target language. Also, in class there will be a larger number of nationalities, making the target language a necessity for class to progress.
  3. Find out if the staff interact with the children during mealtimes and ‘down time’. Class time itself is just a small part of the whole course. Children will be kept busy usually with learning in the morning and sports or other activities in the afternoon, but it’s the before, between and after times that are also great learning times. Do staff sit at the kids’ tables at breakfast and talk to them, or do they huddle off on a staff table or in a staff room? When the students are allowed into town after activities, are they accompanied by a staff member, who will chat and help them where necessary? When there’s an evening activity, are all the staff involved to make sure that the overall language used is the target one? It may seem less important, but it adds up to a lot of additional learning time.
  4. Are activities planned to encourage the kids to mix with students of other nationalities? Especially as a teenager, it’s easier to slink off and be by yourself when you don’t know the other kids at summer school. It lessens the risk of embarrassing yourself in front of your new peers, or losing face for any reason. It’s essential that there is a wide variety of activities for the children to choose from- not all boys want to play football, and not all girls love art. Every day should provide the kids to try something new, whether it’s physical and active like volleyball or yoga, or something more language focused like a debate group or joke club. The variety will give everyone a chance to meet new people in the process, and will boost the input of vocabulary no end too!

Of course it’s not always possible to tick all the boxes and find the perfect school, but these are things that most should offer as the norm. Naturally there will be clusters of children speaking one language, but this can be diffused fairly easily by attentive and considerate staff. Summer school above all needs to be a fun, friendly space for children to do more than just learn the language- going away with a lifelong friend too would be just perfect.