Motivating students to engage with language learning


With languages no longer compulsory at key stage 4, showing students the relevance of languages and inspiring them to want to take their learning further is key. Karine Kleywegt looks at her school’s approach.

Since the removal of the requirement to study a modern foreign language at key stage 4, secondary schools have seen a severe drop in students opting to take a GCSE in the subject.

While the move to compulsory key stage 2 language study in the new primary curriculum from September 2014 is welcome, secondary schools are still fighting the reality that students perceive languages as a “hard” subject and feel inclined to drop them at GCSE.

We all know that language skills are incredibly important in later life, providing learners with a competitive edge in career choices in the international jobs market and in a world where speaking only English is becoming less of an option.

At Dartford Grammar School for Girls in Kent, we work from one central priority – ensuring the enjoyment of language learning through high quality teaching. It is important that language lessons fuel student curiosity, interest and enjoyment, creating a positive attitude towards learning about different cultures and communities.

By doing this, we have found that students can develop an empathy and appreciation of our diverse and multicultural society and foster respect for different cultures, traditions, communities and languages. 

To ensure high quality teaching and learning, we aim to offer students the highest possible standards in languages at every key stage. By awakening their interest in languages at key stage 3, we can raise student achievement and increase the uptake at key stage 4 and in the 6th form, as well as the number of dual-linguists. 

In years 7 and 8, students are taught two languages of their choice out of French, German and Spanish. It is compulsory for them to continue with one language in year 9 but they can still choose to do two, which many do. The students have the opportunity to study three languages at A level and the majority of our A level language students go on to study a language at university. 

Our teachers use a variety of appropriate resources, including CD, online resources and independent learning tools, as well as different teaching styles to provide a challenging and stimulating curriculum that is accessible to all students. 

It is also incredibly important to assess and monitor student effort, achievement and progress to identify and meet their individual learning needs.

Lesson structure

We have found that the structure of lessons can have a powerful impact on the effectiveness of student engagement. All languages lessons begin with a starter activity as students enter the classroom. This five-minute exercise helps build on previous learning and links to the learning objectives of the lesson.

It also eases students into the lesson in a productive way. The lesson objectives are then stated; these will be related to vocabulary, grammatical concepts etc, so that students are clear on what they are expected to have learnt by the end of the lesson.

The main body of the lesson is comprised of an introduction, reinforcement, application and development of knowledge and all four language skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking) are covered. 

It is important to maintain student concentration levels, especially in language teaching, so lessons are usually split into two 25-minute slots. By giving feedback during the lesson, we can keep students on top of what they are doing well and where they can improve.

Varying lesson activities takes into account different teaching and learning styles; we use a range of activities and provide students with the opportunity to develop creativity and independence in their language learning. 

The traditional notion of language lessons where activities are mainly teacher-led is a thing of the past. Students should have the opportunity to speak in pairs or small groups and review their work and the work of their peers so that they feel they have an ownership of their learning.

It is a common belief that the quickest way to pick up any language is to be immersed in it. With this in mind, the target language is the principal means of communication in language lessons. 

In addition, this helps students get over any shyness or embarrassment about talking in front of their classmates and develops their overall communicative abilities. Moreover, students are encouraged to develop an awareness of the technicalities and concepts of the target language and are more likely to develop into fluent speakers.

All language lessons end with a plenary session which usually lasts around five minutes. This provides students with the opportunity to reflect upon what they have learned during the lesson and review their progress against the lesson objectives. By using rich questioning in this session, students have ample opportunities to demonstrate their full understanding and leave the class with a great sense of achievement.

Motivating methods

In order to motivate students, I think it is a good idea to provide opportunities for spontaneous use of language about something students are interested in. We also find students enjoy group/pair work which allows them to support one another and feel more confident when answering questions. Short plays and role-play about the topic in question are also a fun way to engage students and make learning feel less like work.

We believe it is important to encourage a sense of achievement by praising and rewarding students for their efforts and progress. 

Taking part in competitions such as Vocab Express’ European Day of Languages Championship and competing against other schools can have a really positive effect on students, creating a sense of community spirit and also increasing awareness of languages around the school.

We were among 194 schools (and 16,000 students) from across the UK that took part in the week-long Vocab Express championship in 2012. Our students answered questions in order to score points towards our individual scoreboard position and the school’s overall ranking. We were incredibly proud to win the championship last year after 25 of our key stage 3 students scored the top combined score. We also won the individual cups for Spanish and German!

I remember that the students were so excited by the prospect of competing against other schools that they were practising through their break times.

We are proud to offer students a wide range of enrichment activities to prepare them for future studies in languages and for success in an increasingly globalised community. 

Through our partnership with other European countries, including France, Germany and Spain, we offer students the chance to go on residential trips abroad in all key stages. 

This enables students to interact with native speakers, build international friendships and become immersed in the culture of another country. Learning languages is just as much about this as it is about developing grammatical skills and vocabulary.

We also have a strong extra-curricular programme for languages. This includes clubs for students who need some extra support, clubs for students to share their passion for languages, and film clubs which help students gain a better understanding of different cultures as well as improving their language abilities.

The use of new technology is also an effective way to engage and motivate. We use a variety of websites, online learning services and electronic books and we are fortunate that we have a specialised language room with a digital language laboratory system. 

Having access to native speaker audio files supports the learning process, offering a strong grasp of pronunciation and accurately taking into account the intonation of words that is crucial for many languages. 

We want to foster a love of learning languages that will last a lifetime. We hope that through a “fun” and passionate approach to language teaching, our linguists will leave school confident in their abilities and ready to make a significant contribution to the wider world.

  • Karine Kleywegt is curriculum leader of languages at Dartford Grammar School for Girls in Kent, which uses language resources from Vocab Express.

Further information
This year’s Vocab Express European Day of Languages Championship runs from March 6 to 12. Visit


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