Best Practice

How to successfully increase MFL uptake at GCSE

How did one school manage to double the number of students opting for a modern foreign language at GCSE? Raul Ramirez explains

GCSE options decision day – a day where children make decisions that can have an important impact on the rest of their lives. A day where we as a department wait to see how many students have chosen to study a language.

Up until recently, opting to study a modern foreign language (MFL) wasn’t at the top of our students’ lists, but I can proudly say that this has changed and with little budget we have managed to double the number of students opting to take MFL in our school. So, what’s changed?

Similarly to other schools, our students perceived languages as “very hard”. So we contextualised why learning a language might be considered difficult and why students weren’t confident enough in their own abilities to select a language as a GCSE option.

With planning (and I will be honest, this was significant at times) and good communication between the languages department, students and senior leadership, we were able to do more than simply “sell” our subjects to students – we were able to tackle misconceptions, generate excitement, and make languages an appealing option again.


Exposure is key

Of course, it is vital that we don’t minimise the fact that learning a language at key stage 4 can be challenging, and students should be aware of this. However, it is just as important that they are informed of the benefits and how studying a language can have a positive impact on their lives beyond the school gates.

In research by Pearson (2023), UK adults were asked what would most encourage young people to study a language today and the top responses were:

  • Showcasing the benefits to their future lives.
  • Making the subject more interesting.
  • Learning about different cultures and lifestyles, as well as vocabulary.
  • Making content more relevant to young people’s lives.
  • Making it more accessible.

We couldn’t agree more. We realised that we needed to expose students to the subject to improve take-up. We had to grasp any opportunity where the students were in contact with the target language and promote language learning in more ways than one.

One way to do this is to go big with a foreign school trip, providing students with a great opportunity to practise their listening and speaking skills in real-life situations. However, organising these trips can be time-consuming and expensive, something that not all schools can afford. The good news is that exposure can be played out in many other forms.


Celebrate languages

While there are numerous online resources to support the European Day of Languages, which is celebrated annually in September, there are other celebratory days that can be used to help promote languages. For example, look at different national days of the country of the language you are teaching. This has proved a success in our school where we have held baking competitions, invited guest speakers and held presentations in assemblies. Of course, you will need to check the dates fit with your school calendar.


Involve other subjects

From my experience, cross-curricular activities are always well received, not just by the students but by the wider school as well. Consider pairing up with other departments and dedicate a lesson where students can explore the language through a different lens. For example, I have previously paired Spanish with food technology. Students created a simple dish and were exposed to Spanish by listening to the teacher narrate a lesson, by reading the Spanish cooking instructions, and by writing down recipes.


Involve other teachers

Students love to see staff members from other departments (especially senior leaders) participate in their lessons. For instance, I asked my headteacher and three other senior leaders to participate in an activity with my class.

Staff had a sticker with a word written in the target language on their lanyards. Students in key stage 3 were tasked (in Spanish) and during their break/lunch, with finding out what the words were. The staff members (in Spanish) would then provide the answer. This small activity proved to be a success and created a buzz around the school. You could see the students competing to fill in and spell what they thought they heard.

Creating positive experiences of languages is vital if we want to increase uptake, especially for those students who had previously had a negative experience with language learning.


Look outside the classroom

While it might not be possible to plan a trip to Barcelona, there may be plenty of opportunities in your local community/area to not only expose students to languages but help them realise the importance of languages.

For instance, try asking a local international restaurant for a lunch deal where you can bring your students. We are working with restaurants who are designing a small taster menu at a reasonable price. We are practising dialogue with our students so they can order their food.

We also take advantage of our location here in Portsmouth. We are planning to visit the local port where ferries often depart to Spain and France. By liaising with the port, we will be able to offer our students new opportunities to explore French and Spanish in a different setting.


Be transparent with pupils and parents

The key to good communication is being transparent with the information you provide to students and their parents. For example, at your next parents’ evening and “options evenings” (if you are lucky enough to have these) explain to parents, ideally in front of their children, how relevant language learning is and the benefits of selecting languages in the long-term.

In Pearson’s research, nearly 86% said that speaking another language has supported them in a multitude of ways, including understanding other cultures better (47%), having the confidence to travel the world (36%), making international friends (34%), increasing self-confidence (31%), and living abroad (30%).


Create excitement

Another opportunity where you can share important information is assemblies. If possible, ask for a morning assembly for year 9 and share information about the GCSE course and its more important components. Be honest with the requirements and the expectations you have but at the same time generate excitement. Network with universities and language experts and invite them in as guest speakers to help support your message.


Sell it well

Create some fancy posters and place them in classrooms and corridors around the school. Students forget dates, deadlines and the relevance of certain actions, but we can always help remind them about how amazing learning a language is.


Be yourself

Perhaps most importantly, it is all about being honest and real. If you have funny stories or anecdotes using languages, share those with your classes. Or if you are a native from a different country, share your lifestyle with your students. Tell them about the different festivities or just any anecdote you think could be relevant for the content being taught.


Final thoughts

There are plenty of opportunities to develop a better understanding of languages and the amazing benefits they can bring to our students’ lives. Sometimes this can be hard as we know that there is a curriculum to cover and several responsibilities that we as teachers need to take on.

However, I firmly believe that a passion for languages can only be developed by exposing our students as much as possible to the real impact of languages. It is about making it real from the moment your students step into your classroom.

  • Raul Ramirez is head of MFL at an academy in Portsmouth.


Further information & resources