Are you ready to teach modern foreign languages?

Bonjour. Ça va?
Ça va, bien merci. Et toi?
Ça va!

It is a drill that many of us will remember from our own school days but, for many, modern foreign languages (MFL) weren’t first introduced until we reached Year 7 or beyond. From September 2014 if the sounds of children conversing in a foreign language aren’t already echoing around your Key Stage 2 classrooms, then they will be.

As part of Michael Gove’s much flaunted (and in some quarters, castigated) National Curriculum to be introduced at the start of the 2014/15 academic year, teaching pupils a modern foreign language will become compulsory from Year 3. The aim is to reverse the falling numbers of students opting to learn a language at GCSE and also to prepare the next generation of adults for work in the global economy.

Raising the bar

At present 10% of primary schools offer no language teaching despite the fact that the previous Government changed the status of MFL in primary schools to “highly recommended”. A report published in 2012 revealed that countries with high-performing education systems introduce the teaching of foreign languages at an earlier stage than in England. Ministers are keen for pupils to learn the basics in sentence structure and pronunciation before transferring to secondary schools, so that they have already acquired the foundations of the language before tackling more challenging work.

The requirement for primary teachers, who tend to be non-specialists, to teach MFL may cause some concerns particularly among staff who haven’t received any foreign language teaching themselves since they left secondary school, which in some cases might have been decades ago. With the proliferation of English on the continent and the rising popularity of apps such as Word Lens, most travellers can cope quite well on foreign holidays with only a minimal knowledge of a foreign language.

Some may be reassured that the Government is encouraging schools to select from a wide range of languages including French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Greek or Latin (yes, Latin); the only requirement will be for schools to teach one language only in order to promote continuity across Key Stage 2. Currently in secondary schools French, German and Spanish are the predominant languages taught, while others include Italian, Russian, Japanese and Bengali.

High-quality resources

Undoubtedly some schools will attempt to recruit specialist language teachers to lead the teaching of the chosen language to children between the ages of 7 and 11 but for non-specialist staffs who take on this responsibility, creativity is the key to engaging the pupils’ enthusiasm. High-quality primary teaching resources are essential in order to provide teachers with the tools to deliver the curriculum effectively, such as word and picture flashcards to promote vocabulary, CDs of songs and rhymes to sing together or games to encourage conversations.

Armed with primary teaching resources, teachers will gain in self-confidence by modelling the language to pupils (that’ll make the children sit up and listen!) and, as with other subjects, planning to engage the pupils by accommodating a variety of learning styles. For example, children who are strong auditory learners will be supported with songs, rhymes and listening activities. Role play combined with oral work is a great way to engage those who lean towards kinaesthetic learning while the visual learners will benefit from reading key vocabulary and linking it to pictures. Therefore a practical approach to the teaching of MFL that combines reading, writing, speaking and listening will provide pupils with an all-round introduction to the new language.

Of course, if your school opts to introduce a completely new language that even the teaching staff do not know, then let the children know that it’s a shared journey of discovery. Children’s relationships with adults are often strengthened by knowing that their teachers are not all-knowing, invincible superheroes – at least, not all the time.

About the Author:

Paul Harper is a former school head-teacher who blogs about education, teaching and school curriculum.

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