Foreign language teachers should teach more commonly used words and conversational subject matter to engage pupils in their subjects, a report published today recommends.
The Teaching Schools Council argues that such changes would help more students persist in studying foreign languages, which the research described as being in “crisis” beyond GCSE.
The council's Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review report points out that fewer than half of pupils take a GCSE in a language. It recommends that the "vast majority of young people" should study a modern foreign language up to age 16 and take a GCSE in it.
The report, designed to provide advice for secondary school languages teachers, suggests some language teaching uses vocabulary that is too specialised because it sticks with set themes, such as "free-time activities" and the "environment".
It said this could lead to students feeling they could not grasp basic conversational subject matter which, in turn, reduced their enjoyment in using the language and gave the impression they were not making progress.
The report reads: "There is some evidence that weak vocabulary teaching is a major part of the low standards achieved by many British pupils.
"A consequence of not attending to frequency of occurrence in vocabulary choice is pupils realising that they cannot say or understand basic things in the language."
Educator Ian Bauckham, who acted as chair of the review, said the current statistics suggested modern languages beyond GCSE were in a state of "crisis" in British schools.
"Currently fewer than half of pupils take a GCSE in a language and only one-third of pupils achieve a good GCSE grade in a language," he said.
"Without concerted action, languages in our schools are at risk, and may become confined to certain types of school and certain sections of the pupil population."
Mr Bauckham said the reviewers heard "many examples" of schools cutting back on their languages curriculum in recent years because class numbers were dwindling.
"Modern foreign languages in our schools are in a very fragile state," he said.
The report also recommends secondary schools gain a greater understanding of the existing language knowledge that students may have acquired in primary school, so that children do not have to start from scratch again when they move schools.