Learning maths in foreign language 'boosts MFL grades'

Experts say immersive teaching in a foreign language can boost GCSE performance in MFL and other subjects

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Experts say immersive teaching in a foreign language can raise GCSE results by an entire grade, yet English pupils are being let down through a lack of "coherent policy" on modern foreign languages teaching.

Multilingual teaching experts will meet at an international conference this week on Cross-Curricular Language Learning (CLIL) at Sheffield Hallam University on Friday 21 and Saturday 22 June.


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CLIL involves immersive instruction in a foreign language, such as taking science lessons in Mandarin. Schools that adopt it say it has a strong positive impact on exam results.

For example, Bohunt School in Hampshire was the first school in England to introduce immersive language teaching. The school website reports that learning in a different language contributed to strong results in MFL.

In 2013 the school’s first CLIL French group achieved 72 per cent A*-A grades at GCSE in the subject and a 100 per cent pass rate, with similar results seen in groups studying Spanish and Mandarin.

Conference organiser Dr Kim Bower said that pupils taught using CLIL approaches achieved a grade higher than expected in their GCSEs, not only in languages but across all subjects.

However, speaking to Tes, Dr Bower said that while CLIL was developed in Nottingham in the 1990s, other countries throughout the EU, such as Spain, were far more proactive in using these teaching methods, while only a minority of English schools did so.

“We have a few pockets of CLIL throughout the UK…but since the demise of language colleges we are innovation-lite, because there’s such a narrow focus on raising standards,” Dr Bower said.

She said changes in England’s exam system, along with an increased focus on school accountability, were the key obstacles preventing wider use of CLIL teaching in English schools.

Throughout Europe, most countries follow an EU objective of "mother tongue plus two", established in Barcelona in 2002, which aims to teach pupils two additional languages as well as their native language.

In England, however, just under half of pupils – 47 per cent – took a GCSE in a foreign language at the end of key stage 4, according to the British Council’s 2018 Language Trends survey. The survey notes that “schools in disadvantaged circumstances” devote less time to languages, while boys are particularly underrepresented in language study at GCSE and A level.

In addition, 35 per cent of pupils aged 13 to 14 are not learning a foreign language and seven per cent of schools no longer offer languages to Year 7 or Year 8 pupils.

Dr Bower said this stems from the fact that “we don’t have a coherent national policy on MFL in this country.” She said for schools in economically deprived areas, it is common for hardly any pupils to learn a language.

According to Dr Bower, these issues are compounded by the often dry and limited content on offer in MFL GCSEs. CLIL, she argues, helps pupils to see languages as relevant to their lives.

“People tend to teach to the test,” Dr Bower said. “Our examinations are very dull – children regard them as boring and irrelevant, so they don’t see languages as important.”

In her study Speaking French alive: learner perspectives on their motivation in Content and Language Integrated Learning in England, pupils report preferring CLIL lessons to traditional MFL teaching, as the content was more topical.

A Year 7 pupil said they preferred CLIL lessons, as “we’ve been doing…rainforests and that kind of stuff,” whereas in standard German lessons they would only learn about “colours and pets and things like that.”

Dr Bower said that children who have been taught using CLIL methods had far greater “fluency, intonation and expression” when they sat language GCSEs in Year 9 than pupils who had been taught in a traditional MFL context.

CLIL may also have benefits for pupils with English as an Additional Language. Dr Bower notes that in England, “we have a lot of multilingual schools” with migrant populations, which could adopt CLIL techniques as “a high-quality instruction model for all.”

For example, Queen Katharine Academy in Peterborough, a school taking part in the conference, uses CLIL to teach its EAL pupils.

Dr Bower said one of the most important benefits of CLIL teaching was how it improved pupils’ knowledge of different cultures.

“Improving cultural awareness today is the most important thing we can do in English classrooms,” Dr Bower said. “It’s vital we learn to appreciate otherness.”

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