Meeting of minds

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Rosemary Bevis and Ann Gregory discuss how children can make a smooth transition from primary to secondary learning

Successful key stage 2 to 3 transition in languages is recognised as a key issue and must be tackled before 2010, the date for "entitlement" to a foreign language throughout key stage 2.

Currently about 40 per cent of primary pupils are learning a foreign language, gradually bringing England into line with the rest of Europe.

Scotland has successfully introduced languages into primary schools and Wales has a bilingual programme, plus a pilot scheme in foreign languages.

In England, many pupils entering Year 7 already achieve national curriculum levels 3 and 4 in at least the two skills of speaking and listening, and are highly motivated "little sponges", eager to learn more.

It is now essential that secondary schools take account of this prior learning and avoid repeating the "failure" of the 1970s pilot French project, researched and reported by Burstall (Primary French in the Balance, 1974). In other words, we cannot yet again let primary languages fizzle out in a puddle of secondary indifference.

Communication is the key. What is happening in your area? How can it be followed up? Stereotypically, secondary teachers, faced with a range of primary provision and achievement, return to basics and hope pupils will not be de-motivated by repeating what they have already learned.

Stereotypically, primary teachers complain that no notice is taken of what they have achieved and of the information they have passed on.

Both phases can learn from each other - key players can get together, put names to faces, exchange contact details, observe each other in the classroom, meet regularly and plan jointly, taking account of the pupils'


Primary teachers, although experts in primary pedagogy, often need support to improve their foreign language skills. Secondary teachers need to understand and appreciate the primary ethos, but can share linguistic knowledge, resources and an understanding of progression and assessment.

Learning a foreign language in primary school is no longer a case of singing a few songs and the register in French; it develops oracy, literacy, cultural understanding and knowledge about language. Secondary teachers can help primary colleagues plan linguistic progression, moving beyond lists of nouns to a real helix of linguistic competence. They can work together to create lists of agreed phrases for classroom management.

Primary teachers must pass on information about pupils' learning; secondary colleagues need to read it.

The European Language Portfolio is a great aid to transition (downloadable free at, completed by individual pupils to give a picture of their language-learning history, including ethnic minority home languages.

Secondary teachers should show pupils that they recognise their skills and knowledge and are building on them, keeping records in class registers and redesigning the secondary syllabus and timetable. They may need to adapt their methodology in order to differentiate in Year 7, as other subject teachers do. Summer schools, earlier setting in Year 7, fast-tracking and intensive revision classes may be possible. Using "early star" pupils as models and support in mixed Year 7 groups, and using new material in revision lessons, boosts self-esteem and confidence in other pupils.

A range of joint projects should be considered. Short bridging units, after SATs, can maximise the time for foreign language learning by incorporating it into other subject areas. These units can be started in Year 6 and "presented" in Year 7. They can be based on QCA KS2 scheme of work, unit 12 (the YorkLa Reunion project) in the best practice guide from the National Advisory Centre on Early Language Learning (NACELL).

Special events can be organised, such as language festivals, with invitations to parents and support provided by secondary pupils. This can be a learning experience for all involved. Held in the more spacious secondary school, these events give primary pupils a "real" experience of the new site.

In Tameside, the PRISM (primary in secondary modern languages) team devised a travelling Miniville. Scenery, made by a technology department, was set up in secondary schools and groups of primary pupils arrived through "passport control" and changed their money before moving on to tasks in the "town", such as asking for a drink. Sixth-form students and foreign language assistants provided linguistic support.

We have run a transportable primary languages day based on an interactive puppet show, with morning workshops leading to pupils taking part in the story finale. By involving older pupils or student primary teachers, these events also act as in-service training days for accompanying primary teachers.

Many primary schools run cultural European days, where each class chooses a different country and the emphasis is on language awareness. They may also celebrate a festival, such as "le quatorze juillet", involving students from Year 10 and anyone with a knowledge of the language. A theme may be chosen and activities run in the morning as a carousel. These might include making sock-puppets, practising a simple conversation, flashcard games, board games, number lotto, karaoke, making a (differentiated) menu or postcard, and making a crepe. At break, refreshments can be ordered in the language at the "cafe". The day might end with demonstrations of what has been achieved, songs or a story, and the awarding of certificates of attendance or gifts such as sponsored bilingual dictionaries.

Activities involving several classes or schools require careful planning, with a co-ordinator to organise timetables, key vocabulary, activities, meetings, staffing, lunch arrangements, programme production, video-recording, safety advice, and so on. Secondaries should liaise with primary feeder schools at the planning stage. By involving large numbers of "animateurs" the work can be shared, and clear planning will ensure a little language goes a long way, building confidence and competence. Joint projects motivate children and staff, and can lay the foundation for future collaboration and mutual understanding.

Rosemary Bevis is a teacher, CILT associate trainer and independent foreign language adviser, specialising in primary languages

Ann Gregory is a senior lecturer at York St John College and chair of the Early Language Learning Advisory Forum

They are preparing a CILT Young Pathfinder on transition, due out in 2005.

CILT, the National Centre for Languages, has publications, resources and further information on language learning.

* This article is based on a talk the authors gave at the Association for Language Learning conference in March.

* The best practice guide includes details of bridging units, joint projects, the European Languages Portfolio and schemes of work

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