Language teachers hit back at critics

13th November 1998 at 00:00
The annual conference of Scotland's foreign language teachers trod a fine line last week between resentment at attacks on modern language teaching and acknowledgement that all was not well.

More than 400 delegates to the Scottish Association for Language Teaching crowded into Stirling's MacRobert Arts Centre. Referring to dismissive descriptions of modern language courses, Jane Renton, SALT's chair, said such a turnout demonstrated that teachers did not see their work as "crap" or "Mickey Mouse".

Yet the association's strategy paper, endorsed by the conference, is in places more withering about modern languages than the recent HMI report, which was the focus of the meeting.

Standard grade courses, for example, are described as "stultifying and intellectually bereft". The 5-14 modern languages guidelines, according to SALT, are "woefully imprecise". And the Higher Still programme is "sadly deficient" in modern languages content compared with the rest of Europe where most countries offer two languages to all pupils.

The association's position is that shortcomings are the result of policy and management weaknesses, not poor teaching.

Frank Pignatelli, its new president, said: "Teachers are a very, very easy target when things go wrong." The requirement was for a national strategy to help teachers do their job properly.

The Government and secondary school managers need to show more commitment to learning a range of languages, the paper states. Positive encouragement has to be given so more pupils continue with at least one language after 16 (the current uptake in fifth year ranges from 3 per cent in some parts of the country to no more than 12 per cent in others).

"Our students' experience of foreign language learning is fast turning into a few years' exposure to a limited number of French vocabulary areas," the paper declares. "Do we really want the next generation to be culturally stunted, communicatively challenged, monolingual also-rans in the Europe of the future?" The free rein given to primary teachers to train under the Modern Languages in Primary Schools initiative is said to have led to "huge over-provision of French in primary schools compared with diversified provision in S1". The association is calling on primary and secondary schools to get together so languages learned in primary can be carried on into S1 and beyond.

The conference provided the first opportunity for modern language teachers to hear at first hand from the Inspectorate about its controversial report on language learning, which many teachers complained they had not yet seen.

Isobel MacGregor, the HMI chiefly responsible for the report, defended its stance. "It did not say that modern languages in primary schools was a failure, it did not say that standards in French and German were plummeting and it did not say the teaching of foreign languages was atrocious."

Ms MacGregor said: "There were a very, very few instances where provision was judged to be unsatisfactory indicating major weaknesses."

Key strengths listed in the report included good or very good teaching in 85 per cent of primary schools, skills in making a foreign language accessible to all secondary pupils and enthusiasm in providing a range of learning experiences, especially in S1-S2.

But Ms MacGregor highlighted what HMI calls "points for action". In secondary schools, language teaching was too frequently understood to be simply about encouraging speaking skills, and there was a need for deeper theoretical understanding of the methods used to teach modern languages.

In primaries, most heads were uncertain what should be covered in a foreign language and the standards of pupil performance to be expected.

Ms MacGregor said many of these issues had to be addressed not just by teachers but by the Scottish Office, teacher education institutions, education authorities and the curriculum council.

She revealed the Scottish Office, in addition to setting up the national action group, would be holding a series of conferences across Scotland on the teaching of foreign languages.

Ms MacGregor said: "The report is a full and balanced view of modern language teaching in Scotland. It recognises the achievements that have been made but issues a series of challenges too."

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