Teaching languages: Some tips and a call to action!

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

Language education is under pressure at a time when language learning could not be more important for the next generation. Suzanne O’Farrell gives us some tips for teaching languages, and issues a rallying call...

GCSE and A level take-up in French and German is in sharp decline. This is happening at exactly the time we need more linguists as we prepare for life after Brexit.

Our success as a nation will depend upon our ability to forge global connections and to develop global citizens, and languages are an important part of achieving that goal.

As Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

As a languages teacher myself, I am passionate about this issue, and saddened to see the decline in GCSE and A level entries. So, this article is not only a practical guide designed to help colleagues who are teaching languages, but also a rallying call to do all we can to promote languages in our schools.

ASCL is speaking to the government about how languages can be better supported and we are lobbying for action over the problem of severe grading in these subjects.

It is worth reflecting that the benefits of learning languages extend beyond developing global citizens and confident communicators. Languages are useful too in developing cross-curricular skills by reinforcing linguistic competence and understanding of grammar and syntax.

The learning experience also gives pupils knowledge and strategies which can support the learning of other languages in the future. And recent studies in neuroscience indicate that learning a language improves cognitive performance and has many other benefits. With that in mind, here are some teaching tips:

Key stage 3

Key stage 3 offers the opportunity to make languages as stimulating and horizon-widening as possible, focusing on interesting subject matter, culture, songs, jokes, adverts, and so on. The aim is to make study enjoyable and rewarding, and to build pupils’ confidence.

  • Aim to develop a firm foundation. Establish a good understanding of frequently used key vocabulary and verbs, with carefully sequenced teaching of grammar, so that pupils develop their confidence and automaticity in these fundamental structures.
  • Try not to spend hours creating your own resources. Many of the teacher guides in good textbooks have worthwhile activities you can use.
  • Don’t get hung up on target language. Incorporate lots of quick-fire verbal translation to check pupils know the words.
  • Avoid using 9 to 1 grades in an attempt to mirror GCSEs. Instead prioritise formative assessment to identify and close gaps in knowledge.

Key stage 4

As language teachers will need no reminding, the reformed GCSEs in French, German and Spanish, graded 9 to 1, will be sat for the first time in the summer.

It is important to remember that while these are new and unfamiliar qualifications, the exams regulator Ofqual operates a system of comparable outcomes designed to ensure this does not disadvantage pupils.

It will ensure that a similar proportion of pupils achieve grade 4 and above, as previously attained grade C and above; and that a similar proportion achieve grade 7 and above, as previously attained grade A and above.

  • Aim to create linguists at key stage 4. Don’t teach to the exam, but for the exam. If they are successful linguists, they will be successful in the exam.
  • Mix topics and grammar so pupils have to keep retrieving knowledge, and expose them to lots of language in a memorable context.
  • Use metacognitive strategies – such as spaced repetition, interleaving topics, frequent low-stakes testing, and retrieval practice. They embed key knowledge in pupils’ long-term memories and help them master the language.


It can sometimes feel that summative assessment gets in the way of language learning. The priority should be formative assessment, so that you can identify knowledge gaps by – for example – frequent testing on specific constructions or vocabulary.

  • Not everything can be assessed. Be selective, making sure that assessment is focused on what you really want them to know and understand.
  • It is preferable to avoid assigning grades at this stage because we don’t know exactly how the new grading system applies to individual pieces of work or skills. Focus instead on assessing competency in individual skills and use raw scores in assessments.
  • Don’t rely purely on assessment to demonstrate progress. As language learning is increasingly skills-based, progress is not linear and can manifest itself in a number of ways. For example, pupils may become better at recognising where they are repeatedly making mistakes, spotting where Google translate produces gobbledygook, adapting language they have learned to a different context, or translating with greater accuracy.

Language assistants and trips abroad

The British Council report, Language Trends 2016/17, found that large proportions of schools “rate language assistants highly for their positive impact on pupils’ language learning in a wide range of areas, including listening and speaking skills, extending pupils’ vocabulary and general understanding of the language, cultural awareness and confidence”.

It continued: “However, as a result of financial pressures, state schools are increasingly unable to afford to employ language assistants from the long-standing programme administered by the British Council.

“More than half of those state schools who employed them in the past no longer do so, in spite of the fact that they value their support in preparing pupils for GCSEs and A levels. This has opened up a substantial difference in practice between the state and independent sectors, with 73 per cent of independent schools and just 33 per cent of state schools currently hosting a language assistant.”

The same report also found that trips abroad are under threat. It said: “More often than not, they (trips abroad) have presented pupils with their first taste of using another language in a real context and have not only given pupils a tremendous boost of confidence but inspired future learning and a love of the language. These are now threatened by a number of factors, including funding.”

We are not going to solve these issues in this article, but it is worth noting that trips abroad and language assistants are important elements in the learning of languages, and that the situation described by the British Council is yet another illustration of the urgent need for sufficient funding for schools.

Tackling the decline in languages

Other issues also have to be tackled in order to address the decline in the take-up of languages. We desperately need more language teachers, and more must be done to encourage people into the profession and then to improve retention rates.

And, as I mentioned earlier, there is also a long-recognised issue of severe grading in GCSE languages. Dave Thomson, of Education Datalab, in his blog, Which are the most difficult subjects at GCSE? (February 2016), wrote: “Answer? Law and astronomy, although there are very few entries each year. The much bigger issue is that GCSEs in modern foreign languages are graded more severely than other subjects.”

Ofqual has to tackle this historic anomaly so that students can have a reasonable expectation of similar grades to other EBacc subjects.

Britain has long regarded itself as a great trading nation. But we cannot rely on English being the lingua franca of a fast-changing trading world. If we are to successfully navigate the potentially choppy waters of life after Brexit, we need to reverse the decline in languages and develop a new generation of linguists. 

  • Suzanne O’Farrell is a curriculum and assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

Which are the most difficult subjects at GCSE? Education Datalab, February 2016: http://bit.ly/2rOR1sw


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