National centre warns more exciting lessons are needed to avoid future linguistic disaster
Language teachers must improve their teaching at key stage 3 and push the subject hard to halt declining uptake at GCSE.
That is the verdict of Estyn inspector Steffan James, who warned of a potential disaster in modern foreign languages (MFLs) if teaching methods don't improve.
Speaking at CiLT Cymru's annual languages conference last week, Mr James said the way forward is to make MFLs as interesting as possible.
In Wales, the proportion of pupils taking MFLs at GCSE fell from 46 per cent in 1996 to just 30 per cent in 2006.
The number of pupils taking MFLs at GCSE fell further from 12,656 in 2006 to 12,285 in 2007.
Mr James said that of 47 MFL departments across Wales inspected between 2005 and 2008, only three received grade 1 ratings for overall standards (good with outstanding features) at KS3.
"It strikes me how few grade 1 lessons there are. There's a lot of mediocre stuff going on," he said.
"If we are going to encourage pupils to carry on in languages, we have to aim towards a grade 1 or 2.
"We have to get rid of this attitude that some teachers still have that it's good having one cushy class at KS4."
Mr James said language teachers are sometimes scared to do something different in inspections, thinking that inspectors want to see traditional lessons. In fact, they would prefer to see something more exciting, he said.
He pointed to games and other activities as ways to motivate pupils in language learning.
Earlier in the conference, held at Swansea's Marriott Hotel last Friday, Wales education minister Jane Hutt said schools must capitalise at KS3 on the good work being done at many primaries in the KS2 MFL pilot project, and ensure language is featured prominently in 14-19 learning pathways.
The Assembly government is currently developing a refreshed modern language strategy, which should be put out to consultation in the autumn term. Ms Hutt said extra resources are available for schools to improve MFLs under the Better Schools Fund, of which 18 local education authorities have already taken advantage.
Carolyn Goodwin and Nia Gwyn Jones, CiLT Cymru primary language teaching advisers, urged teachers to take the opportunity afforded by the fund to start MFLs at KS2.
In England, modern languages will be compulsory at that level by 2011, and already 80 per cent of English primaries are teaching some form of foreign language.
In Wales, consideration could be given to the case for adding MFLs at the next primary curriculum review in 2011.
The final evaluation of the KS2 pilot project will be sent to the Assembly government by the end of 2009. Ms Goodwin said schools must send a very strong message to Ms Hutt that they want more funding for modern foreign language teaching.