Case study: Keeping the MFL flag flying

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

Languages education has been hit hard during the pandemic, while an Ofsted subject report has indicated varied quality in MFL delivery at primary level. Suzanne O’Connell finds out how Hounslow Heath Junior School is maintaining languages as a priority

Language teaching was suspended at one in five primary schools in January 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, two in five pupils did not engage with language learning during the first lockdown in 2020.

The findings are among those in the British Council’s annual Language Trends report, which surveyed teachers at more than 1,500 primary, secondary and independent schools across England (Collen, 2021).

The report’s author, Dr Ian Collen, lecturer in modern languages education at Queen’s University in Belfast, wrote: “The data presented from this year’s survey show that everyone needs to be attuned to the disruption to children’s language learning over the past two school years.”

This is a disturbing finding given the difficulties that primary languages have always been exposed to, such as pressure from other subjects in the national curriculum, a lack of teacher expertise and a lack of resources.

Between October 2019 and March 2020, Ofsted carried out 24 subject inspections focusing on modern foreign languages (MFL). The results of these have now been published (Wardle, 2021) and give a clear indication of what the inspectorate regards as good practice, as well as some of the weaknesses that are out there.

Languages in outstanding primary schools

The schools inspected by Ofsted were graded outstanding at their last inspection and inspectors found that there were three models of teaching offered by the schools they talked to:

  • A specialist teacher is brought into school to teach languages.
  • A teacher in school takes responsibility for MFL organisation and delivery.
  • A native speaker member of staff is asked to lead the subject.

They point out that any of these models can work effectively, however, their overview was not always positive about the practice inspectors had seen. A particular area of criticism was a lack of structured grammar teaching: “There was little in the way of linguistic progression.”

Other criticisms included limited assessment and communication between primary and secondary schools. Progression between key stages 2 and 3 has always been an issue and this subject report seems to consider that there has been little improvement.

One school praised in the report was Hounslow Heath Junior School in London. We caught up with headteacher Ritu Aulakh and Yasmin Encer, the leader of learning for MFL.

French at Hounslow Heath

“The French curriculum is ambitious and, in many ways, it exceeds the subject content of the national curriculum. The subject content is selected to fit in with the overarching cross-curricular topics, but links are not made for the sake of it.” Ofsted subject report

Hounslow Heath Junior School is a large school with seven-form entry and two specialist units, one for the physically disabled and one for pupils with moderate learning difficulties. They are above average when it comes to FSM, SEND and EAL and yet this has not stopped them from ensuring that all students have access to French teaching.

Ms Aulakh and Ms Encer talk about French at Hounslow with passion. It is not seen as the right of an exclusive group but rather as a “level playing field” from which every student can achieve. It is an entitlement among all their students.
The school chose French as its MFL 10 years ago and teachers delivering the subject are supported by a native French-speaking teaching assistant. The curriculum is carefully structured and links to other topics that pupils are doing. For example, during a topic on the planets, pupils were encouraged and supported in describing different planets in French, including making comparisons of size and distance.

High priority

“MFL is an important part of the school’s curriculum. Leaders have given the MFL team the necessary time and resources so that French can be taught successfully. Language learning is purposeful. Leaders want their pupils to enjoy and value language learning and they have achieved this. Pupils are very enthusiastic about their French lessons and enjoy learning about various aspects of francophone culture and traditions.” Ofsted subject report

Pupils appreciate that French is an important subject. This message is transmitted in a variety of different ways. French has its own specialist room for the lessons. The subject is well-resourced, and, of course, they have a specialist teacher to ensure continuity. Every class is now due to have its own small library of French books in their book corners.

They also celebrate the language as a whole school. For example, Bastille Day is an annual celebration at the school. There are boules competitions, a French café run by year 6 pupils and there is opportunity to try out pointillism. The school caterers provide a themed lunch which is offered to all the pupils along with a French cooking workshop.

The school is also fortunate to host some native French speakers and others who are exceptional in the subject. They participate in an extension group, which engages in projects and performances across the year. At Christmas, for example, they usually perform a pantomime. This year was a little different, however.

“We had to rethink our performances this year,” Ms Encer explained, “and we opted instead for a talent competition to avoid the mixing of children from different class groups.

“It was very much driven by the children. Some of it was slapstick, some was meant to be deliberately ‘bad’. It gave them an opportunity to practise French in a meaningful context and as the performances are seen by the whole school, the children know they must be accessible for everyone.”

Many of the pupils at Hounslow Heath are already speakers of more than one language and have a positive attitude towards learning another: “We want them to enjoy, learn and achieve,” Ms Encer continued. “That’s our motto and we want them to do this in French. We want the children to be as involved in the process as possible.”

Grammar and vocabulary teaching

“Curriculum plans show many opportunities for pupils to revisit vocabulary and use it in different ways. Staff model and reinforce correct pronunciation.” Ofsted subject report

Vocabulary is practised in different contexts with an emphasis on oracy. Key vocabulary and grammar are introduced and sequenced in a palatable and interesting way.

Ofsted’s report did raise concerns that the curriculum did not have enough emphasis on grammar but these have now been addressed, while also ensuring that the interest level of the students remained high.

“We do teach grammar explicitly from year 3 to year 6, but it is taught in a context,” Ms Encer explained. “For example, while reading a story we will pause to look at the verbs, how they are conjugated, and we’ll talk about how they would be different, for example, if the pronoun changed.”

Phonics is a priority and children have a phonics booklet in year 5 and are actively encouraged to look out for letter sounds and make a note of these when they come across them. Authentic materials are used which help students focus on enjoyment. Ms Aulakh added: “It’s important that pupils are encouraged to experiment with language. For example, a useful grammar activity can be making silly sentences – they explore, playing around with the language.”

When it comes to the transition to secondary, pupils are given a language passport in year 6 on which they colour in their lists of what they can do. This helps them to see their progression themselves. They not only make a note of their achievements in French but also in other languages that they can speak.

Ms Aulakh explained: “They should be able to celebrate their bilingualism and the pluralinguism that many of them have.”

What is most important for the teachers is that pupils retain their motivation and enthusiasm for learning a language on transfer: “The main issue is that they are happy learning languages,” Ms Encer said, “and that they see them positively. The approach we take here should equip them with this attitude whatever the models they encounter later consist of.”

During the pandemic

While some schools felt unable to maintain their language teaching during the pandemic, Hounslow Heath continued to make it a priority. They continued to teach French using Google Classroom and presented a variety of French activities online.

In spite of lockdown, the team maintained links with a school in France, listening to a couple of their lockdown radio station broadcasts and keeping correspondence going so the children felt that they had a real connection. It has been an extraordinarily difficult period for schools and it is a credit to the team at Hounslow Heath that they have maintained their MFL as a priority.

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

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