Ventures in to uncharted territory

15th June 2001 at 01:00
Patricia Driscoll reports onpioneering research into primary language teaching

A thriving community of teachers in Kent are researching and developing their practice in foreign languages in the primary school. Last September each was awarded a Best Practice Research Scholarship by the Department for Education and Employment of between pound;2,500 and pound;3,000 to investigate an aspect of this challenging new subject.

The teachers are bringing together a wealth of experience of teaching languages and some of the best ideas from a wide range of classroom practices. This is an exciting development for primary modern foreign languages as there has until now been little classroom-based research evidence to inform the debate about how languages can be incorporated into the primary curriculum.

Primary MFL is a subject in its infancy. Its aims are not yet fixed by statutory requirements and the teachers are experimenting with different types of provision. Some aim to develop pupils' competence and skill in the foreign language while others take a broader perspective and aim to develop key skills and language and cultural awareness, or to make links with citizenship. Such research should enable policy-makers and practitioners to make sound judgments about what is achievable in a range of contexts.

The teachers in the Primary MFL Development Group have a variety of professional roles, experience and expertise and work in very different settings, ranging from small rural schools to large urban ones. All are using the QCA guidelines ( and the Kent primary MFL scheme Pilote to inform their work, but they are developing different aspects of the subject.

Currently the subject tends not to be addressed as a whole-school issue, and expectations vary with the vastly differing levels of teacher competence, confidence and perception of the role of languages in the primary curriculum.

Jackie Edwards, assistant headteacher at Brenzett School in Ashford, is investigating the most effective means of establishing languages within her school. She is using the bursary to manage the change process and find ways of supporting her colleagues in "having a go" at teaching a foreign language.

The perceptions of teachers, pupils and parents at the large Downs CE primary school in Deal are being investigated by Vikki Shulze. She will critically evaluate the national and regional guidelines in the light of her findings and tailor a programme to the school's needs. She will also identify the best kind of support for teachers.

Alison Wright is working as a peripatetic teacher at Christ Church primary school in Folkestone. She is researching teaching strategies and resources appropriate to key stage 1. The issues involved in teaching a foreign language at KS1 are relatively unmapped in English state schools, and she is usig the bursary to trial new resources and to fund interviews with pupils and teachers about their views of the new programme.

Tara Fuller, MFL co-ordinator at Bredgar School, Sittingbourne, is researching the rate of learning and progression of pupils in KS1 and 2. The evidence of her research will provide an assessment framework that is both coherent and realistic in her setting. The findings will be disseminated at the end of the year, but the impact of her research is reaching beyond her own school. From September, she will be released for one day a week to pilot the scheme in neighbouring schools.

Frances Chiverton is developing a foreign language programme that highlights cultural awareness across KS2, at St Stephen's in Canterbury.

Cherrie Chadwick, at the Downs, Deal, is creating a scheme of work for Year 6 pupils to help them get the most out of a residential trip to France.

Gloria Van der Woude, is the headteacher of a small rural school at Bodsham where a system of composite classes creates particular challenges in relation to differentiation for pupils in relation to their age, ability and level of maturation. She is developing a programme of learning activities with differentiated materials to meet the needs of pupils from Year 3 to Year 6 within the same class.

Denise Catt, SENCO at St Mary's in Deal, is looking into how resources can be developed and adapted for independent learning across all abilities in French and German.

A crucial issue is what happens to pupils after the primary phase: will the benefits of the primary experience be lost with everyone starting at the same point, or will secondary schools develop an understanding of primary practice so they can build on pupil's knowledge and raise standards. Linda Cox, second in department at Walmer School, is investigating ways of improving the continuity and progression in learning in French from primary schools to Year 7.

Professor Carol Aubrey and I mentor the teachers throughout the research and support them as tutors on an MA or postgraduate diploma course at Canterbury Christ Church University College, Kent.

At a national level the jury is still out over whether languages should be included as a subject in the primary school. But this government initiative is advancing our understanding about what can be achieved in the primary phase. Funded teacher-led research is important in enabling teachers' to contribute ideas, concerns and experience systematically to current debate and future policy decisions.

Dr Patricia Driscoll works in the professional development of teachers. She co-edited 'The Teaching of Modern Foreign Languages in the Primary School' (Routledge pound;24.99). E-mail: patricia.driscoll@btinternet.comDetails of Best Practice Research Scholarships on the DFEE website:

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