Pupils parlez OK, but literacy is lagging behind

9th January 2009 at 00:00
Teachers accused of neglecting reading and writing in foreign language lessons

Primary schools risk failing to instruct pupils adequately in foreign language literacy, government-sponsored research has shown.

The figures reveal that, on average, children spend only five to 10 minutes a week learning to read or write foreign languages.

The key stage 2 framework, published in 2005, demands that foreign language literacy skills should progress from reading a familiar poem aloud in Year 3 to reading and understanding the gist of a magazine article and writing short texts in Year 6.

But findings from the first year of a three-year project by Southampton, Canterbury Christ Church and the Open University show that while there is enormous enthusiasm among teachers and pupils for language learning, only limited class time was spent on reading and writing in 2006.

A report summary was published in June, but The TES obtained the full document under the Freedom of Information Act. The final document will be published later this year.

Pupils rated languages their third-favourite subject, after art and PE, specifically praising the inclusive and interactive nature of the lessons, which last 30 to 45 minutes.

But while there was a wide range of oracy (listening and speaking) activities, in the majority of lessons, only five to 10 minutes was spent on reading and writing.

The researchers concluded: "The experience up to Year 5 is not sufficient to launch children systematically into the creative use of the target language. Children's target language writing is their least secure skill, which suggests it is receiving limited attention in schools at present."

Catherine Cheater, whose primary languages schemes of work are among the most widely-used, said: "In some areas, where the KS2 framework is not at the centre of the local authority's strategy, I think there may be teachers who don't realise how important literacy is.

"I think there is an awful lot of input still needed to help teachers."

To assess how much pupils had learnt, eight "enhanced case study schools" split pupils into groups of six. In testing oracy, they found most Year 3 groups could answer and sometimes ask questions, but they could not develop these into a conversation. By Years 4 and 5, around half the groups could do this.

But when looking at reading, only a minority of Year 4 and 5 groups could read aloud with a good accent and half of the Year 3 groups spoke French, Spanish and German words using English pronunciation - for example, pronouncing silent consonants.

Only a few schools were willing to test Year 6 pupils on reading and writing. But the report shows that of 34 pupils assessed on the Asset Languages Breakthrough scale, 23 reached the highest grade - equivalent to national curriculum level 3. Of the 26 who took the writing tests, 15 achieved level two and two got level three.

The figures are small, but they show that in schools which focus on reading and writing, pupils can do well.

Carrie Cable, the Open University project director, said: "When we did this research, the framework was still relatively new. It takes time for it to work through four years. Also I think that schools are becoming more aware of commercial schemes of work that have literacy embedded in them."

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