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Observation is key to success in languages

The handwringing that attended the latest fall in GCSE language entries and top grades in French and German is no substitute for clear strategic thinking. Estelle Morris took the lead by relaunching primary languages when she was Education Secretary, a decision that met with a tremendous response from teachers. Around 70 per cent of primaries now offer language lessons. Children enjoy them and teachers are getting a second chance to learn a language themselves.

These children will not have to start from scratch in Year 7, when taking on new vocabulary, sentence structures and pronunciation, all at once, has proved too much for most to handle. Observation of primary pupils who use ICT, games and song shows that much basic vocabulary can be learnt quickly, and that children can progress smoothly to constructing sentences, provided these are carefully modelled rather than copied.

- Secondary provision, by contrast, is in a state of confusion. We currently have three versions of the national curriculum: the 1995 one; a new one to begin next September; and a self-contained key stage 3 languages strategy - based on the national literacy strategy - which is being launched through a system of (underfunded) national networks. This in turn is supposed to be revised in light of the new curriculum.

The attendant rewrite of secondary materials alone will cost tens of millions of pounds. The cost in terms of frustration, disaffection, and teachers who have burnt themselves out trying to make an impossible system work, is much higher.

At least the third version increases from level 3 to 6 the requirement to listen to language at near native speed, thus tackling one of the biggest sources of failure. Year 9 students I've spoken to have complained of foreign languages coming at them "like a machine gun, as if it's all one word". The problems inherent in presenting language in this way have never been thought through.

To avoid repeating such disasters, we need an approach based on research, which should take into account current brain research and involve direct observation of children. During the Dearing review, a senior official told me that the ministry had commissioned no research at all, a state of affairs that has two consequences. The first is that there is no valid basis for the national curriculum. The second is that policy can be based on political values alone, which in this context means promoting mixed- ability teaching. This is meant to benefit lower-attaining students, but as these are the very ones who are failing language exams, this issue should be top of the research agenda.

John Bald, Literacy and languages consultant.

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