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It's good to talk. . . about languages

It is about time secondary English and foreign language teachers began to talk to each other about teaching language. That was the blunt conclusion of a research project at Southampton University examining how two groups of subject specialists tackled questions of grammar and linguistic usage and style.

The research team found that modern language teachers were talking to pupils mainly about the grammar of sentences, with the aim of helping pupils to move on from rote learning to a more creative approach to the foreign language. English teachers, on the other hand, were opting for much more diverse approaches, emphasising questions of style and genre. Very little time was being spent in English classrooms on teaching about language as a system or on language analysis.

Overall, the research team concluded, modern language teachers were taking a fairly traditional view of the usefulness of formal grammar. English teachers, on the other hand, were still debating the need for a greater emphasis on formal language teaching. Their classrooms were still dominated by literature, and concerns for personal and social growth and creativity.

But the research team felt that imposing formal grammar teaching would fail, as teachers' own knowledge about language remained "patchy and inconsistent", a problem which can only be overcome by substantial investment in in-service training. And second, the most successful teaching about language was found where staff felt that there would be a direct benefit to pupils' performance.

Coherent policy-making needs more research, the team suggested. But in the meantime, schools could consider the following points as a basis for increasing children's knowledge and skills: * bring curriculum planning for English and foreign languages into a single coherent strand; * use the experience of other countries' language policies and teaching methods; * base curriculum development on current classroom practice, closely related to the needs of teacher updating and development.

Grammar, language and classroom practice, by Christopher Brumfit, Rosamond Mitchell and Janet Hooper.

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