Enlivening your approach to languages education

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It can be difficult for primary schools to maintain their commitment to teaching modern foreign languages. Suzanne O’Connell looks at the challenges for schools and some ideas for enlivening approaches to language learning

Since September 2014, teaching a modern or ancient language has been a statutory part of the key stage 2 curriculum. It is generally acknowledged that learning languages is beneficial both for the individual and for the country they live in.

However, the UK does not have a good track record when it comes to learning modern foreign languages and it could be getting worse. There is widespread disquiet in the secondary sector about the grading of language GCSEs and A levels in comparison to other subjects and the introduction of the EBacc does not appear to be remedying the relatively low uptake.

The report, Language Trends 2015/16: The state of language learning in primary and secondary schools in England, provides a good indication of what’s happening in schools. The report is published annually and the 2015/16 version identifies the main challenges for primary schools as being:

  • Finding curriculum time.
  • Confidence of classroom teachers.
  • Accessing professional training.
  • Recruiting suitable staff.

In spite of these challenges, the report notes that almost all primary schools in England now provide at least some teaching of languages to pupils throughout key stage 2 and that just over one-third of schools have access to specialist expertise.

Although more secondary schools would seem to be starting to build on what pupils have learnt at primary school, this is still very much in the early stages of development. Many secondary schools do not see primary school language teaching as the foundation for their own practice.

One of the difficulties remains deciding which language should be taught. Three quarters of primary schools teach French but the upward trend for Spanish continues with 22 per cent selecting this option. Fewer primary schools are now teaching Chinese and the requirements of the new national curriculum are given as a reason for this, with more emphasis now being placed on written skills.

Finding the time

One of the main issues plaguing primary language learning is finding time in the curriculum. With pressures to deliver the core subjects so high, languages are often relegated to afternoon slots and a minimum amount of delivery time. For some 50 per cent of schools it is still a challenge to find time for languages.

Language Trends 2015/16 found that 37 per cent of primary schools report meeting the new national curriculum requirements for language teaching in full. However, other schools are reporting a number of obstacles to doing this. To make up for some of the deficit, 41 per cent of schools teach languages outside of class time, with most clubs taking place during lunchtime or after school.

In key stage 2, 54 per cent of schools teaching a language in years 3 and 4 do so for between 30 and 45 minutes a week. In years 5 and 6 the amount of time increases to more than 45 minutes. Is this sufficient to ensure a foundation that will develop into fluency by the end of secondary school?

On the other hand, some schools have made an even greater commitment and 42 per cent of schools teach at least one language in key stage 1. However, this proportion has declined slightly since 2013 when 53 per cent of schools began their language teaching early.

Embedding language in other lessons and parts of the school day is a strategy used to help make up for lack of discrete teaching. This is an option but requires other staff within the school to take up the mantle of language teacher. According to Language Trends 2015/16, teacher confidence is still an issue with 45 per cent of schools indicating that non-specialist teachers are reluctant to “have a go”.

Training and development

Training might help but can be difficult to access. Availability of courses is an issue as well as the lack of money to send teachers on them. With the expected continuing squeeze on budgets it is unlikely that this situation will improve in the near future.

Fewer than a third of primary schools report that any of their staff take part in any form of regular CPD for languages. Ninety per cent of schools do not have any involvement with their local Teaching School in respect of language learning, and yet this could be a solution.

Woodroffe School in Lyme Regis, Dorset, is a Teaching School and part of the Jurassic Coast Teaching School Alliance. The language department has worked closely with local primary schools to address the “disconnect” that can be found between primary and secondary language learning.

Headteacher Dr Richard Steward explained: “There should be cooperation between local primary schools and strong links with secondary schools. There should be a common language and approach. This way, when pupils get to year 7 they can carry on rather than re-start. A national approach is really needed but this is not going to happen.’’

One of his suggestions for improving links is the involvement of sixth form students and exchange students across a cluster as well as the use of secondary school language departments and expertise. This could help primary schools who are currently struggling to recruit for themselves.

The right staff

The report suggests that 19 per cent of schools indicate difficulties with recruiting suitably qualified teachers. One-third employ a specialist member of staff to teach languages, whether alone or in conjunction with class teachers; up to 18 per cent employ an external specialist teacher. For the remaining schools, it is the class teacher who teaches the language without the support of specialists.

Dr Steward has concerns about the practice of schools sharing teachers without sufficient consideration for the scheme of work they are using: “For example, a local teacher goes into several local primary schools and teaches the children songs. They learn the songs but they don’t learn the language.

“It is vital in language learning that the blocks are built in the right order and that grammar is not forgotten simply because the children are young. Much better to audit current teaching staff and see who would be best to train up as the language specialist and then get them to work with the local secondary school MFL department.”

Bringing language learning out of the doldrums

However, in spite of the concerns and challenges referred to here, many school are making language learning work. Along with data collection and analysis, Language Trends 2015/16 identifies some good practice case studies.

Many schools have adopted the practice of teaching one or two structured lessons, with the remainder of language teaching being spread throughout the week. This additional exposure to languages can be through taking the register, greetings, in the dining room, etc.

Where there is a thematic approach to the curriculum, language teaching can be part of this. Although many schools have bought in schemes of work, those that adopt a thematic approach will often create resources themselves and draw on online sources that are openly available.

Story-telling and reading can be an excellent motivator for children when engaging with a language. Using fairy tales they may already be familiar with will help them to listen in while enjoying the sound of another language.

Follow up can then include re-telling of the story and writing and reading activities which involve pupils looking at the printed text.

The use of actions as memory-triggers can help pupils, particularly where they are created in discussion with children in the class and are seen to be relevant to them. Many linguists are strong advocates of the role of music in language learning. Combining songs into a scheme and emphasising the rhythm of words can help pupils both learn and enjoy.

One advantage of learning a modern foreign language is that children can be encouraged to recognise that it is useful. Opening up real communicative experiences such as writing to or messaging a native speaker online gives a real sense of purpose. Some schools continue to offer trips to the country where the language is spoken or, as a minimum, cultural days during the year.

Concerns about the future

As if the course for modern language teaching in the UK wasn’t difficult enough, a further potential obstacle has been put in its way. The prospect of Brexit and additional difficulties in ensuring internationality mobility are a major worry for many.

President of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain, David Adger, released a statement earlier this year calling on the government to develop a clearly articulated language policy for the UK. He asks for “deep and sustained engagement with language” at primary school level and a continued commitment to research and the development of multilingual skills at every stage of the curriculum.

With the squeeze from core subjects, it can be difficult for primary schools to protect the time set aside for language teaching. Now threatened with a post-Brexit insularity it is perhaps even more important that they have the courage to continue to do so.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

Further information

Language Trends 2015/16: The state of language learning in primary and secondary schools in England, British Council & Education Development Trust, 2016: http://bit.ly/2kReD80

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