Lost in transition: early taste for languages

25th January 2008 at 00:00
Problems with the drive to teach primary pupils modern languages are revealed in new figures published as a result of a TES investigation.

A lack of communication between primaries and secondaries is threatening to undermine young children's learning of languages.

Figures obtained by The TES suggest most primary schools are giving secondaries too little information about pupils' progress in learning a foreign language. As a result, secondary teachers do not know what level, if any, the pupils have reached, or even what language they have been learning.

The last attempt to introduce widespread primary French in the 1970s failed partly because secondaries were not on board.

New figures, obtained under Freedom of Information rules, also suggest a class divide, as primaries in better-off areas are way ahead in providing modern languages in time for 2010, when all primary pupils should be offered them.

The National Foundation for Educational Research is monitoring the introduction of languages in primaries. Its first survey was carried out in autumn 2006 and a three-page summary was published in June. But the full 118-page report was not released - for the official reason that it was the first of three reports that would all be unveiled together in 2009. But challenged by The TES, the full report has now been published.

It suggests the proportion of primaries offering languages has risen to about 70 per cent. This is a significant improvement - between 1977 and 2000 the proportion was only around 20 per cent.

However, most schools are giving secondaries sparse information. Just 17 per cent of the primaries sent information on children's progress to secondaries and only 8 per cent said information on modern foreign languages provision was included in transfer documents.

This is important because difficulty with transition was one of the main reasons for the failure of a previous primary French pilot undertaken between 1964 and 1974.

A final report on that pilot found no difference between children who had learnt French from 8 and those who started at 11, partly because many secondaries had treated all pupils as if they knew nothing.

The NFER study said just over a third of the 3,789 primaries surveyed arranged for their pupils to visit their new schools or secondary teachers to visit them. But it was unclear whether these visits included any discussion of language learning.

At Canterbury Christ Church University, students on the primary languages PGCE course learn about the key stage 3 languages framework, visit a secondary and interview pupils about what they did in primary in an attempt to improve transition.

Dr Patricia Driscoll, manager of the university's language teaching centre, said: "There is a need for further investigation into transition - it is not just about a one-off visit or a one-off piece of paper.

"We cannot have that gap after primary school where the children just forget everything."

The NFER report reveals how far language provision is now dependent on class and geography. More than a quarter of primaries in the poorest areas are not offering languages yet - twice the proportion of schools in wealthier areas.

Researchers also examined 105 local authorities to see which had at least four out of five of their primaries teaching languages in class time. This was the case in 34 per cent of unitary authorities and 27 per cent of metropolitan authorities, but only 22 per cent of London boroughs and 8 per cent of counties.

Asked what challenges they faced introducing languages, more than a quarter of schools mentioned curriculum time. The second biggest problem was funding the courses.

Anna Traer-Goffe, head of Burrowmoor Primary in March, Cambridgeshire, is in a pilot where five languages are taught in KS2. She said timetabling was not a problem because they integrated languages into the curriculum.

"When the children learn about the Romans, they learn some Latin, for example, as part of that study," she said. "It is nothing more than good teaching."

But there was some good news in the report. While 60 per cent of schools spend one lesson a week teaching languages, 16 per cent have lessons at least twice a week, and 10 per cent manage to spend some time on the subject every day.

Crusoe mentality, page 27


The first year of secondary was a "terrible time" to introduce languages to pupils, says Cath Scarffe. As primary languages co-ordinator at Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield, she is glad pupils now start languages earlier.

"At 11, they have so many other things to cope with that the challenge of learning a new language is just the last straw for some pupils," she said.

Ms Scarffe has given language support to Kettlethorpe's feeder primaries for three years and much prefers the new system. "Pupils transferring to us at key stage 3 (KS3) have a real thirst for languages, which is very much a contrast to the way things have been," she said. "Now, it tends to be something they have really enjoyed in primary school."

Ms Scarffe and two colleagues spend one morning a week in one of 10 feeder primaries, often team-teaching with the pupils' class teacher, normally with a Year 6 class.

Lessons as short as 20 minutes take place within normal curriculum time. Teachers provide support for lessons during the rest of the week and have helped develop training materials to improve primary colleagues' language skills and build records of pupils' progress.

The approach is different from KS3 language teaching, with the emphasis on informal teaching and having fun.

A glimpse was on offer at nearby Crigglestone St James Primary this week. There, Ms Scarffe helped take a lesson on healthy eating, with pupils singing and dancing to a French song on this theme. Last term, the primary held its nativity play entirely in French.

Warwick Mansell

Photograph: Lorne CampbellGuzelian


70% teach modern foreign languages in class time;

91% offer French lessons;

25% offer Spanish lessons;

78% of schools in the North East teach languages in class time;

57% of schools in the east of England teach languages in class time;

13% of Year 3 children have some language teaching every day;

58% of Year 3 have a language lesson once a week;

6% of schools are unsure when they will be teaching languages to a recognised level to all 7 to 11-year-olds.

Source: NFER report.

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