In February, the Department for Education (DfE) published the new Programmes of Study (PoS) for languages at key stage 2 and 3.
It soon became apparent that MFL teachers were slightly disturbed by the final drafts. It was in this context that a Westminster Education Forum took place last month focused on the future of the languages curriculum.
Speaking first, Jane Hough, MFL lead at the DfE, said that elsewhere in Europe, many countries start a compulsory second language much earlier than at age 11 and that “we want to follow suit”.
Ms Hough insisted that the new PoS had been significantly slimmed down in order to “open up pedagogic freedom” and said that starting language teaching in key stage 2 would raise expectations and give learners the skills to “operate in a global arena”.
When asked about the choice of the “Magic 7” languages which the PoS lists for key stage 2 study (French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Latin or Ancient Greek), Ms Hough was quick to add that the secretary of state has a clear policy which means that children as young as seven should be “learning a language that isn’t their home language as this gives them the chance to do something new”, thus promoting equal opportunities.
This view was not shared by many MFL colleagues who teach in very ethnically diverse schools, where they would like to see their learners given credit for speaking lesser spoken “home” and “community” languages.
Neither, Ms Hough added, would a “multilingual carousel approach” meet the requirements of the new PoS – one single language should be learnt for the four years of key stage 2, covering the skills listed in the PoS.
Moving to key stage 3, there was much talk of “spontaneity and independence”. Ms Hough insisted that it was vital to teach grammar as this allows children to be in charge of what they are writing, so that it is “not about regurgitating set phrases, instead encouraging independent usage”.
It was felt by certain members of the audience that this was highly aspirational when one considers that many learners at key stage 3 only have access to one or two hours maximum of MFL per week.
On a positive note, many participants were relieved to hear that attainment levels are going to be abolished.
Next, Dr Neil Jones, director of SurveyLang – the European Commission’s language competences survey – spoke with great passion about languages in a broader context and our capacity as a nation for languages compared to the rest of Europe. However, in the UK, he said, 80 per cent of learners are not achieving a basic level of language competency, with 30 per cent being totally “off the radar”.
I asked the question: “With between 90 to 180 hours across the whole of key stage 3, is this such a surprise and is it right to use words like fluency?” This, he felt, stressed even further the importance of the benefits of starting at an earlier age.
Professor Jim Coleman from the University Council of Modern Languages focused on the need to get more students into learning languages at university level, calling for more “career-ready linguists”.
However, the audience was worried that intercultural understanding is not given enough emphasis within the draft PoS, feeling strongly that this was a missed opportunity.
Elaine Taylor, chief inspector for MFL at Ofsted, insisted that this needs to be built into the teaching rather than as a “bolt on”. She insisted that primary MFL methodology done well makes a really strong contribution to language learning later on and warned that secondary practitioners had a lot to learn from their primary colleagues. She repeated recommendations for secondary teachers from the most recent Ofsted MFL report, Achievement and Challenge.
Use of the Target Language was ”flagged up before and is still an issue”, Ms Taylor said. She also stressed the importance of using authentic materials, adding it was “a shame these are underused as there is so much out there”. She said that textbook images are often dated and “not engaging or culturally specific”.
Ms Taylor spoke at length of “the need to broaden teaching approaches”. She has noted from her school observations that MFL lessons often contain a wealth of different activities to the point where they are “almost frenetic at times”, but “language competence increase” is still missing.
The focus, she believes, should be on selecting activities which increase confidence and motivation but which always provide opportunities for pupils to make significant linguistic progress.
Ms Taylor insisted on finishing her session on a positive by saying that the proportion of MFL lessons judged good or better has gone up since the last round of inspections.
Authentic resources (which some MFL teachers still insist are hard to source) and the use of technology are what are needed to bring language to life, she said, adding: “What seems to work is tried and tested methods done well.”
Other key elements include: teacher subject knowledge, creativity, openness to change, leadership team support and determination to make changes work, good teacher training and strong initial teacher training partnerships with schools.
Bernadette Holmes from the Language Centre at the University of Cambridge spoke next and for me was the most inspiring.
She sought to unpick what is meant by some of the more challenging aspects of the PoS and began with “understanding through literature and authentic sources”, which she interprets to mean: literature in the form of songs and rhymes, using modern technologies such as blogs or subscriptions to target language magazines.
Children these days, she insisted, “read far more than they have ever read before. They are never far from a screen – in school as well as in their leisure time”. She said that children can have “learning accounts that travel with them wherever they go” and as teachers we need to “encourage young people to believe that languages matter”.
Many rumours and misconceptions around the draft PoS were quashed at this event. However, my main concern remains that the draft focuses on “how” to teach at key stages 2 and 3 but not the “what”.
Will MFL teachers, who are already time-poor, genuinely make the most of the opportunity to teach whatever content they want, or will they continue to switch learners off with more traditional topic-based approaches? Several other key questions remain:
Will teachers entering into the profession have the knowledge and skills to teach the new PoS?
What support/resources will trainee teachers and their institutions need during the transition to the new PoS?
Is there sufficient emphasis on “what” to teach – are the key stages 2 and 3 PoS open to misinterpretation?
Is the balance between language learning and intercultural understanding correct?
What is the government’s plan to financially support the urgent need for high quality CPD?
Is it feasible with just 30 minutes a week in primary for teachers to focus on writing and speaking?
Do the proposed changes genuinely enable progression and continuity between key stages?
What is to become of the CLIL/FLAME immersion programmes (see link below)?
Is “fluency” truly achievable at key stage 3?
Suzi Bewell is currently the PGCE MFL curriculum area leader at the University of York. You can follow her on Twitter @suzibewell.