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No short cuts to a language

Should we welcome Dearing's short courses for modern foreign languages at key stage 4 or not? When the original national curriculum was being mooted, many teachers, sceptical about teaching a foreign language to pupils of all abilities, did not welcome the prospect of teaching French, say, to the least able.

However, many schools voluntarily introduced a languages-for-all policy - ahead of the compulsion confidently expected. Timetabling constraints usually dictated that the least able pupils were given the same number of periods per week as the most able.

Having implemented such a policy, they now find that in order to liberate part of the key stage 4 curriculum and to avoid previous attempts to cram a quart into a pint pot, modern foreign languages has been nominated as one of those subjects in which short courses may legally be offered.

The concession, however, is likely to be fraught with difficulties. How exactly are the new short courses at ks 4 to be implemented?

One suggestion is a reduction in the number of periods per week for those on the short courses. If, for example, those on the full course enjoy a weekly allocation of five 35-minute lessons, short-course pupils would have two or three.

But if foreign language learning is to stand even a minimal chance of replicating the ways in which we pick up our mother tongue, "little and often" has to be the best way. A double period, say, German on Monday and Tuesday, a single on Wednesday and then no language exposure until the following Monday has potential failure built in for a significant number of pupils, particularly those with a short memory-span.

A single period on each day of the school week would be the ideal. Given the demands of other subjects - notably science, technology and physical education - for double periods, modern languages often has to settle for two doubles and a single. But the language learning process still requires that these be evenly spread.

The problem with the short courses immediately becomes apparent. Two or three periods a week, even if arranged as single lessons (say, Monday, Wednesday and Friday) are still too thinly spread for the necessary continuity of learning. Given the inescapable fact that it is precisely the least academically able who, to a large extent, will be on short courses, the viability of the whole exercise begins to look extremely doubtful.

Michael J Smith is an examiner and a retired head of modern languages.

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