First moves and endgames

14th June 1996 at 01:00
The question of what form a national strategy for primary languages might take is set to become the focus of a major public debate. Beate Poole examines the options.

Foreign language teaching in the primary school has risen to the top of the agenda again. In response to parental demand, more than a quarter of primary schools now offer language lessons and the calls are growing for a national policy on primary languages. The issue will be the subject of a national conference organised by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority in October and a further conference to be held by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research in February.

So far the argument has between those who favour an early start in foreign language learning and those who are against. But this has done little to move the debate forward.

In the UK context, early foreign language learning is often seen as a problem which requires a solution rather than an opportunity: an opportunity precisely because with English as the lingua franca of the world many more options should be available to us. We do not need to rush into learning a particular language from as young an age as possible. We do not need to teach a stock of prefabricated phrases in a particular language. What we do need, however, is a considered approach to the whole issue and a careful weighing of the pros and cons of various options.

Let us make certain assumptions before discussing possible options: * We are not contemplating an early start simply because there are a number of countries where children start learning a foreign language early or because the school down the road does it.

* We are not contemplating an early start because industry needs it. While it is true that the country is short of people who are competent in a foreign language, the common belief that British industry relies heavily on people with foreign languages skills is open to question, as English is becoming more and more established as the Lingua Franca of the world. Undoubtedly some children will need a foreign language in their future career, but it is impossible to predict from an early age which language it will be and it is highly questionable whether such a consideration is appropriate at primary level.

* We are not contemplating an early start because by starting early we hope to find a panacea for shortcomings at secondary level.

Instead we assume that an early start is in the interests of the child. We also assume that it will help language learning in the secondary school even if there is, as yet, no clear evidence of any long-term benefits (interestingly enough the Danes have now found a later start to be more effective, TES May 17).

We assume that we want to do away with the present inequalities and we assume that we want to provide all pupils in the primary school with a coherent experience. If we further assume that we want to minimise any potential problems that an early start could create at secondary school level, something has to be done about the current random and largely unfocused pattern of provision. We need a national policy. Not a straitjacket but a framework which allows for maximum flexibility. A policy, while not dictated by the secondary school curriculum, still fits into a coherent plan for language education across the phases.

Currently the decisions on how early foreign language teaching is to take place are usually left to individual schools. Some focus on one language, some offer two, some offer community languages. Some include an element of language awareness and some include cultural awareness. Some embed foreign language teaching into the rest of the curriculum a few minutes a day, some have clearly identified slots on the timetable, some have after-school clubs and some offer a mixture. Some start in the last year of primary school, some start at age 5. In some, languages is taught by the class teacher, in some by a visiting specialist, while others rely on a foreign assistant. Some primaries liaise with the secondaries they feed, some don't. Some have local authority support, others don't.

Even if one specifies the learner, the teacher and the context as the crucial variables of any scheme, it is still extremely difficult to identify any clear patterns of provision. However, the key characteristics of some of the current schemes can be identified as follows: SCHEMEA (Intense)

Aims: To develop proficiency in one language, invariably French, offered from between four and seven years of age.


Four years of stand-alone lessons plus bits of other subjects taught in French.


Requires teachers with a high degree of competence in the target language and with near-native standards of pronunciation if they are to act as role models.


Can encourage good pronunciation habits although it is not clear just how long it takes to establish these and whether they are transferrable to other languages. Easier to resource in terms of material and teacher supply than a variety of languages.


Has limited pay-off as children often do not have sufficient first language skills to be successful in foreign language learning. Can be wasteful if that language is not continued in the secondary school. Undermines diversification. Needs careful timetabling and long-term planning for pupils to progress. Children might experience six years of learning French before they enter secondary school and knock-on effects of this on learning curve, motivation etc are impossible to predict. Can lead to early failures and frustration can lead to reinforcement of negative stereotyping. Cultural awareness at this age really needs to be taught in English.

SCHEMEB (Standard) Aims:

To develop proficiency in one language, but chooses a later starting age (eight upwards) at which children have at least basic levels of literacy in their mother tongue. The language is chosen from any of French, German, Spanish and Italian after consultation with the main local secondary school.


One or two years of stand-alone lessons plus some games and songs.


Also requires teachers with a high degree of competence in a foreign language but it will be more costly in terms of teacher training and professional development to provide teachers for languages other than French.


Should make language learning more successful as pupils bring higher cognitive and conceptual levels to the learning process and teachers are more flexible in using the four skills - reading, writing, speaking, listening - to support teaching and learning. If continuity of language is provided, will solve the problem of diversification to some extent.


Children still concentrate on one language and this can create early failures and demotivation. Has long-term planning implications and, as with Scheme A, it is wasteful if continuity of language is not provided at secondary school.

SCHEMEC (Awareness) Aims:

Primarily to develop children's awareness of language as well as their cultural awareness. Structure: Deals with a number of topics across a number of languages, focuses on similarities and differences. Possibly teaches aspects of the curriculum through other languages. Establishes links with several countries.


Is likely to be taught by the primary class teacher who knows the children better than any other teacher and is better equipped to foster and develop children's overall language abilities. Not all teachers might have the necessary language skills and not all teachers can link language with other aspects of the curriculum. Classes are often "swapped" and this can result in disruption.


Widens rather than narrows pupils' later choices. Support diversification of languages. Does not focus on achievement in one language and is therefore less likely to create early failures and result in demotivation.


Teachers do not always have the competences to integrate a foreign language successfully into the rest of the curriculum. Children's experience can be fragmented, progression is difficult to assess and tends to be horizontal rather than vertical.

SCHEMED (Continental) Aims:

To develop proficiency in one language but economic and political circumstances determine which language, as is the case with English throughout Europe.


Teaching time is maximised, amounting to a couple of hours a day in some Eastern European countries.


Teachers are usually well qualified in both language and methodology and focus on English facilitates resourcing.


Motivation tends to be high and modest achievements in the classroom can be compensated for by a language-rich environment outside the classroom. The media, for example, offer an overwhelming exposure to English. The typical child on the Continent will continue with language studies even if school experience is not that positive.


This is not practical here because English children don't have the same motivation to learn languages. Schools would not sacrifice so much curriculum time.

A Continental scenario seems highly unrealistic in the UK. So where do we go from here? I would like to propose a model thatJaddresses the specific context of the UK, where there is no logical reason to focus on one particular foreign language at such an early age. Rather than having a programme which aims to achieve certain levels of linguistic competence in a particular language, I feel there is a need for an enabling approach that prepares children for subsequent more formal language learning in the secondary school.

For any scheme to be successful it needs to take account of the three crucial variables of learner, teacher and context and recognise that the more impoverished the context in terms of learning time, number of role models and skills the children bring to the context, the greater the competences required of the teacher.

For a scheme to be of any merit it is likely to have the following fundamental characteristics:

* provides children with a valuable and positive experience, avoids early failures and is motivating. As the Burstall report in 1974 noted, nothing creates better attitudes to language learning than success

* arouses curiosity about a variety of languages and cultures, looking at similarities as well as differences, and establishes links with other

cultures that help break down negative stereotyping about foreigners

* builds a foundation for later language learning

* develops pupils' awareness of how languages work and develops transferrable language learning skills, such as the ability to discriminate sounds

* recognises the crucial role the written word plays in language learning and seeks to develop the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing

* provides continuity of learning experience even if continuity of language cannot be guaranteed at secondary level.

Structure: It would be wise not to put all our eggs into one basket for several reasons. One, we cannot predict which language children are likely to need or what type of competence they will need in any particular language. Two, focus on one language is likely to create early failures. Three, focus on one language has disastrous effects on diversification and by implication on the future supply of language teachers.

A diversity of languages should be encouraged, possibly a carousel of three from those languages which can be more easily staffed and resourced. It would then be feasible to use different languages for different purposes and develop different skills or different aspects through different languages. A diversity of languages is more likely to maintain good levels of motivation and interest.

It is integrated into the primary school curriculum and linked to clearly defined aspects of the key stage 2 national curriculum topics. It thus provides children with a more relevant experience and does not pre-empt topic areas which are likely to be covered by secondary schools in Year 7. It caters for progression and teachers have sufficient knowledge of language to move from the simple to the more complex.

Staffing: Any serious proposal for change will have serious implications for teacher training. Whether it is realistic to demand that all entrants to the profession should have at least a GCSE in a foreign language is open to debate. Whether it is realistic to expect all primary teachers to be able to teach a foreign language alongside nine national curriculum subjects is also questionable.

There might be a need for some subject specialisation in the primary school if new entrants to the profession are to be equipped with a level of competency necessary to deliver at least a module in a foreign language.

In conclusion, the logic of the situation seems to indicate that we ought to be providing a programme which makes children aware of what language is and how languages differ in relation to different culture rather than focus on achievement in any particular language.

If primary schools could develop in children some of the basic skills and positive attitudes necessary for successful foreign language learning and if primary school language learning could be seen as an apprenticeship for later specialised language learning, much will have been achieved.

SCAA conference details from Andy Harris, tel: 0171 243 9284; CILT conference details from the conference office, tel: 0171 379 5101 Four languages by eleven in Britain, and half the curriculum in Japanese in the US, see stories on pages VI-VII

Beate Poole is a teacher trainer and lecturer in languages at the Institute of Education, University of London, and is writing a Phd on primary languages teaching

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