Innovations in primary language teaching

Written by: HTU | Published:

An imminent best practice case study publication is to bring together a range of innovative languages projects being pioneered by Teaching School Alliances. Therese Comfort and Eva Oliver look at some examples

Over the last few years, the primary languages landscape has changed significantly, often with local authority support being discontinued as a result of funding changes.

This, together with the fact that primary languages are due to become statutory in September 2014, means that many schools are looking at alternative ways to bridge the existing support gap, such as developing school clusters to share best practice.

The Department for Education-funded Languages Support Programme is supporting more than 300 primary, secondary and special needs schools, all part of Teaching School Alliances (TSAs), with developing and implementing innovative language learning approaches.

Each TSA typically includes a number of primary and secondary schools, working together to strengthen their practice, with support from a lead Teaching School.The Languages Support Programme is run through the Languages Education Team at CfBT Education Trust and a publication featuring these case studies is due out later in March.

Here we describe some of these projects, which while varying greatly, are all focused on developing engaging teaching and learning practice across primary schools in England.

Subject Leader’s Toolkit: Training language leaders

Subject leaders from the Elmridge-Cultivus TSA in the North West of England have created a Subject Leader’s Toolkit to support both new and existing primary modern foreign languages subject leaders. This is a very useful tool to help prepare for statutory orders at key stage 2 in September 2014.

This resource offers strategic and practical advice for subject leaders whatever their level of experience, providing them with a valuable management tool. Based on whole-school provision and involvement, it includes guidance on auditing, action-planning, writing a policy, curriculum-mapping, planning, progression, assessment, monitoring and assessing impact, resources, international links and transition. In addition, it develops links with local networks and initial teacher training institutions.

Participating schools are using it as part of their CPD provision for teaching staff. Subject leaders involved in this project have reported the added advantage that it has helped them further develop their own generic leadership and management skills.

The Subject Leader’s Toolkit will be featured at the Language World conference in March (see further information) together with other projects that are part of the Languages Support Programme, including other projects mentioned here.

Pass it on!

Oldway TSA in the South West of England has been running a project called Spanish Leading Lights. Fifteen 6th-formers have been leading Spanish workshops for children in years 4, 5 and 6 from six different primary schools.

One of the most innovative aspects of the project is that pupils are learning the language alongside their own teachers. The primary pupils then cascade the language they have learned to their peers back at school. The workshops are supervised by an advanced skills teacher and a Spanish teacher from the lead primary school.

Everyone has benefited from this approach: primary pupils have grasped opportunities to “grow” activities acting on their own initiative at school, thus reinforcing language learned in the workshops in more diverse ways.

These include leading activities in Spanish in other subjects such as maths and PE. The 6th-formers are improving their own knowledge of Spanish, becoming more enthusiastic about languages in general, developing leadership skills and gaining the opportunity to act as role models.

The primary school teachers have observed improvements in their own practice such as in improved pronunciation and being more confident using Spanish in front of the class.

Improving teachers’ learning

The Stourport and Haybridge TSA in Worcestershire is running a French Language Improvement programme for primary school teachers which will run over an 18-month period.

The TSA is hosting the programme in collaboration with one of its partners, the University of Worcester, which is leading on the delivery of the language improvement sessions. The length and rigour of the programme is designed to provide participants, non-specialist primary school teachers, with the opportunity to develop their competence and confidence in French.

Headteachers at participating schools have collaborated in helping identify teaching staff who would benefit most from taking part in this course. By completing an initial French skills audit, these teachers were able to reflect on what their skill levels and training needs are, helping to ensure the language improvement programme would meet their objectives.

The language improvement project includes four half-day workshops, an online “target language support clinic”, where teachers are supported by a foreign language assistant, and a joint lesson observation of a year 6 event on languages.

A full French language course, used as part of this programme, was developed by the Languages Education Team at CfBT Education Trust to teach language through contexts that would interest adult learners, using pedagogy and activities that can be transferred to the primary classroom environment. These courses are also available in German and Spanish.

(Don’t) talk to the hand

Belleville-Southfields Alliance, a TSA in south London, has been using hand gestures to facilitate pupils’ learning. The lead school, Belleville Primary School, was made a Teaching School in 2011.

Belleville languages teacher Sophie Lynch has carried out an action research project focusing on the use of gestures to support the teaching and learning of French for children aged five to 11.

Sophie’s motivation was to make language learning interactive and fun, moving away from a heavy focus on textbooks towards the use of games, activities and stories to build vocabulary, grammatical knowledge and develop cultural awareness. Her project focused on four classes of year 3 pupils, and evidence was gathered via teacher observations, pupil questionnaires and interviews.

Using gestures as memory triggers for pupils learning new words has proved popular and effective with Sophie’s pupils. Pupils themselves have developed an awareness of how linking actions to words can help them to remember new vocabulary, as stated by one year 3 pupil: “You do the action and you think of something and the word will pop up in your head.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, fun actions proved to be most successful in helping pupils remember vocabulary. For example, pupils who were trying to learn the word “chocolat” found it helpful to carry out an action whereby they wiped their face, as if their mouths were covered in chocolate.

Another example was placing your hand over your heart to signify the gesture for “mère”, drawing in the powerful emotional significance of this term. Pupils have also successfully developed gestures that relate to their peers in some way (point to a classmate called Sam as a prompt gesture for remembering the word “samedi”). For this method to be successful, actions have to be agreed by the whole class and must be consistent.

More information?

These case studies are to be featured on the Languages Education Team stand at the Language World conference in March. A booklet containing details of these projects and others is also being published to coincide with the Languages World event (see further information for details).

Further information
• For more information on the Languages Support Programme best practice and to access the case study publication when it becomes available, visit
• The Languages Education Team will be talking about these and other innovative projects on its stand at the Language World conference in Nottingham on March 22 and 23. Visit

• Therese Comfort is a former primary school teacher and SENCO. In 2003, she joined CILT (now the Languages Education Team at CfBT Education Trust) as head of primary. Eva Oliver is communications officer for the Languages Education Team at CfBT Education Trust.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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