Practical pointers for keeping and growing your primary French or Spanish

5th April 2017 at 16:24

Primary modern foreign languages

I wonder if you happened to read, as I did, a news item a few weeks back, where primary heads were being reported to have said that primary modern languages and music were disappearing from the curriculum due to funding cuts. 

It was interesting for me to note the coupling of primary MFL and music teaching. I understand this coupling. 

It is not as if, for example, that a classroom teacher or HLTA, with no particular leaning towards either of these subjects, above what they themselves received at  key stage 3/4, can do a little research over the weekend and come back the following week speaking French or Spanish, or take over from the peripatetic music teacher. 

They are both skill based subjects. Most modern language teaching specialists are either educated native speakers, or have taken their language on beyond school to university, before they began to feel even remotely secure, in respect of the accuracy, pronunciation or grammar of the language structures and phrases they were using. 

If there is no longer the funding to recruit these specialists either from the local secondary school, or indeed externally, where are they going to come from?

Solution 1: Grow your own expertise

Step 1: Appoint a primary MFL coordinator.

If you have not already done so, appointing a primary modern language coordinator in your school is a great idea. Someone who has at least some background in a modern language, even if it’s only a GCSE. Next make a plan to add “competency in a modern language would be an advantage” to your next advertisement for a classroom teacher or HLTA. 

If you have achieved or are in the process of doing either of these things then you have already made a significant step towards keeping your primary French or Spanish on the curriculum.

Step 2: Support and mentor your coordinator.

Take strategic steps toward supporting and empowering your primary MFL subject coordinator. If there is cover available, award them some specialist subject PPA time to talk to your other members of staff so as to ensure that modern language teaching is happening throughout the school. 

Ask them for an annual “Action Plan” detailing their proposals to help the school improve the quality of the delivery of its MFL curriculum. Check with them that everyone has suitable topics in either French or Spanish that they will be covering term by term and year by year. 

In short, collect long-term plans for modern languages and add them to the school’s curriculum on your school website. 

Next ask your coordinator to write a “modern language policy” and check that he/she has inventoried what resources the school has purchased and made sure that they are available for staff to use. If at all possible, award a little staff meeting time to him/her to share their expertise on delivering lessons. 

If all this is in place or more, it is time to think more about how you may grow your modern language curriculum.

modern foreign languages

Step 3: Enrich your modern language programme

Ask your coordinator to gather a team to plan some sort of special experience or “day” to think more about and celebrate the culture of the country whose language the children are studying. These are always fun and are a great way to raise your children’s awareness of the wider world. 

Creative activities may range from everyone turning out in the colours of the country’s flag, eating traditional foods, singing and performing traditional songs, dancing and perhaps even something a little more serious such as delving more into the history or geography of the country concerned.

Step 4: Introduce a more serious edge to the delivery of your MFL – assessment

It is at this point that both you and your MFL lead in school may have to consider whether or not your year 6 children have really made “the substantial progress in one language” called for by the national curriculum. 

A good measure of what “substantial” is supposed to look like is still the “2005 KS2 guidelines for Modern Languages”. 

This pre “Rose Report” tome, though a little dated continues to provide valuable insight into how children’s modern language learning, in terms of structures and vocabulary, should be progressing year by year. Consider these oracy (listening and speaking) and literacy (reading and writing) objectives from year 6:

“O6.3.1 Retell using familiar language a sequence of events from a spoken passage, containing complex sentences.

L6.2.1 read for enjoyment an email message, short story or simple text from the internet.”

It was generally considered at the time of issuing the key stage 2 guidelines for modern languages that pupils should attain, on average, national curriculum level 4 or grade 4 on the “languages ladder” by the time they leave primary school.  Compare these two reading “I can statements from the Languages Ladder”

Grade 4 (Year 6): “ I can understand the main points and some of the detail from short written texts in familiar contexts.”

Grade 2: (Year 3) “ I can understand and read out familiar written phrases.”

If your year 6 pupils, after 4 years of key stage 2 modern language learning, are not really able, on average, to do justice to the year 6 key stage 2 modern language guideline objectives or the grade 4 “I can statements”, the truth is that they simply have not made the “substantial progress” outlined in the current national curriculum.

How can primary MFL coordinators and primary heads support non-specialist teachers and HLTAs  to add “substantial progress” to their programme of MFL delivery?

Solution 2: Learn as you teach

An array of eclectic MFL resources can be very daunting for the non-specialist teacher. It is difficult when you don’t really speak the language to know exactly where to start or even how to begin to enable children to move onto complex sentences, or support them retelling a sequence of events, when your own hold on the language is not that secure.

What non-specialist teachers really need is a resource that has already done all that pulling together for them, something they can just “trust” to simply walk both themselves and the children through their modern language learning week by week. In short something that has been designed to teach the teachers to teach the children.

For an example of what a national curriculum level 1-2/3 year 3 scheme of work might look like, please check out this free resource.

An example of an initial year 3  “Learn as you teach” unit in French.

And this link for an equivalent one in Spanish.

Step 5: Add magic!

Finally check out the British Council “Schools online” global gateway which has succeeded in facilitating over 4,000 partnerships between UK schools and other countries since 2005.

Very few primary schools actually “go” to the country of the target language they are learning. I would not dream of suggesting that it is not a logistical, health and safety, not to mention risk assessment nightmare but it has been truly rewarding for those few schools who have made the effort to make it a reality for their children.

Thank you for reading.  I hope this was helpful.


Suzanne Webster is a retired  primary languages teacher and now writes and trains for Five Plus Solutions Ltd. She tweets at @Primary_MFL