Parrot-style learning out of fashion

13th July 2007 at 01:00
many pupils are not getting through teacher assessments in modern foreign languages because they are still learning parrot fashion, according to teachers who met this week to discuss ways to boost take-up of languages in Wales.

Teachers of modern foreign languages (MFLs) are hoping that changes to the national curriculum, proposed earlier this year, will create more confident and autonomous learners and stem the high numbers dropping a foreign language at GCSE. At present, it is not compulsory to take one.

At the training conference in Cardiff, hosted by language teaching centre CiLT Cymru, it was claimed that the current modern language curriculum is too teacher-centred and produces "parrots" who are bored with topic areas, lack confidence and are too passive in their learning.

From 2008, the new curriculum up to Y9 will move away from old-fashioned topics, such as shopping and booking campsites, and will approach grammar in a more integrated way. Teachers were given practical tips about using tapes to help pupils recognise different language patterns rather than simply listening to information.

Kristina Hedges, language teaching adviser at CiLT Cymru, hopes the changes will alter the way pupils learn.

"We're quite aware of what's going wrong and we know the type of learners we'd like to produce," she told language teachers. "We want to see pupils working more and teachers working less."

In last week's TES Cymru (July 6) she also told how language learning needed to be more vocationally based and less grammar-heavy to appeal to more pupils, particularly with the work-based 14-19 learning pathways initiative.

Her comments come as language promoters witness a year-on-year decline in language take-up across the UK. In 2005, only 31 per cent of all 15-year-olds took an MFL compared with 46 per cent in 1996. But under the curriculum changes, attainment targets for speaking and listening have been combined into a single attainment target for oracy, aimed at encouraging more conversation and interaction instead of dependence on passive listening alone.

New levels of assessment will also do away with box-ticking when a tense is learnt but perhaps not understood, and give teachers more freedom to monitor language development themselves.

Though the changes have been broadly welcomed, some fear the new freedom will mean attainment levels are open to interpretation and may lead to inconsistencies.

But Ms Hedges said the moves will allow teachers to be more creative and should lead to more "autonomous learning".

"Past experiences at key stage 3 have had an effect on the drop-off of people studying a language," she said. "We're hoping a more engaging curriculum will change that."

Irene Funnell is head of modern languages at Amman Valley comprehensive school in Ammanford, which is already integrating the new ethos into teaching.

"We need to get more independent work from our pupils," she said. "Now we'll have more freedom to do that."

New curriculum changes aim to boost pupils' interest in modern foreign languages

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