Fewer steps on the language ladder

22nd December 2006 at 00:00
Philip D Delnon Swanscombe

With regard to the coverage of modern foreign languages (TES, December 15), let me offer some suggestions.

First, a language ladder of 17 stages is daunting for learners, and cumbersome for teachers to operate. Time spent in checking grade descriptions is lost teaching time. Five stages ought to suffice: the first three leading to what is now GCSE, and that in turn to what is now A-level.

It can be done; indeed, it has been done, and it had students opting in to languages.

Second, lessons in the early-years should be brief, fast and frequent. Long lessons at lengthy intervals inhibit retention and militate against motivation. Anyone who claims that language lessons belong to the "chalk and talk" era ("Timing is everything", TES magazine, December 15) ought to get out more. "Little and often" is the key to early success, with longer lessons later on to deal in-depth with the grammar.

Third, GCSE grades should be criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced. It is mainly the public and grammar schools that have retained languages, making for a smaller pool of more able candidates who ought therefore greatly to exceed the national average in A*-C grades. This is not happening. Norm-referencing means that candidates who obtain A* and A grades in other subjects are awarded Bs and Cs in languages: there is no incentive for students or schools to opt for languages until this is put right. It should not be beyond the wit of ministers to explain this in terms which even the tabloid press can understand.

Fourth, someone should bang a few heads together in Westminster. If the "surplus" secondary language teachers fit the national teacher-age profile, then if they are to be deployed successfully at primary level, they will need training and mentoring - and even then they can only be a stopgap.

Some 82 per cent of language graduates do not go into education (source: University of Bangor).

A career in teaching languages needs to be made substantially more attractive if there is to be long-term success. This requires politicians to think of more than their own pay, perks and pensions.

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