Most of the interventions to improve take-up of languages at GCSE and A level have focused on secondary teachers and students. But Suzanne Graham is interested in a different approach: many believe that to influence those teens, you need to get them while they are young, when they are still in primary school. She wanted to know whether that really would make a difference.
“The current focus is to see primary as a way of solving the problems that we have in secondary in terms of uptake, motivation and attainment,” explains the professor of language and education at the University of Reading’s Institute of Education. “In the UK, and England specifically, we have low levels of uptake post-14 in languages. There are complex reasons for that, of course, but primary languages are seen as the way of laying the foundation for positive attitudes towards language learning, and also probably better attainment. I wanted to explore whether this belief was well founded.”
Her research suggests that it is.
Graham was a teacher before becoming an academic: she previously taught French and German in secondary schools between 1987 and 1995, while completing a PhD in 1994 that explored language learning at the transition from GCSE to A level.
The benefits of studying languages are numerous, she believes. “I haven’t researched it personally, but there is a feeling that having language skills improves your ability to think. You have more cognitive flexibility because your brain gets used to doing more difficult, different things.
“And there’s growing evidence that it improves cognitive function, as well as social and communicative skills. There’s also some evidence – although it’s fairly small at the moment – that learning a foreign language can help you with your own first language.”
So what is pushing young people away from these subjects? It’s not that they can’t see the positives, Graham explains. In the course of her research, the vast majority of students that she has spoken to – of all ages – have said that they can see the value that mastering a language would add to their lives and their future prospects. Rather, the issue appears be confidence.
“One of the big problems is that they don’t feel that they make as much progress as they would like,” she says. “Even if you think something’s important, if you don’t feel like you’re making much of an improvement, you’re not that likely to want to do it. This is true of primary-aged learners as well as older learners.”
The amount of time given to language learning in the primary curriculum is a key issue here, she says. A 2017 study, led by Graham, found that a disparity in the amount of time devoted to languages at primary level led to important differences in how much progress learners made both at the time and later at secondary school level. In the study, the amount of teaching time ranged from just 15 minutes per week in one school to an hour per week in others. Unsurprisingly, those that got more teaching time made more progress and were more confident in languages. “The learners who had 60 minutes a week did much, much better,” she says. “But the fact that those schools gave 60 minutes a week probably also indicates that there is an element of positivity in the school towards languages in general.”
Graham cites three key elements of successful language learning in schools: sufficient curriculum time, staff expertise in linguistic knowledge and pedagogical understanding of teaching languages. This is, unfortunately, not the norm at primary, she claims.
“The latest [British Council] Language Trends survey indicates that those conditions are not being met in many schools in England,” she says. “There are still big issues around curriculum time and we know that schools with the highest level of free school meals actually have the lowest amount of curriculum time in primary for languages.”
Guarding against boredom
Language Trends surveys have also highlighted the lack of linguistic knowledge in many primary staff, Graham continues, with a large percentage of them only having studied languages to A level or below. This is important, as her 2017 study found that teacher language proficiency was “an important predictor of outcomes for both vocabulary and grammar”.
“A lot of the people coming into teaching these days are of an age where they didn’t even have to do a GCSE in a language,” she says. “So some of them come to their PGCE with a very, very limited language level.”
Graham says that CPD often fails to make up for this deficit. Although all primary teachers receive some training in delivering language lessons, it’s still “a relatively small amount compared with the amount they get for other subjects”, which she says can leave them feeling underprepared and lacking confidence in delivery.
What this all adds up to is often poor-quality exposure to language, she argues.
“They need a lot of contact with the language and for that contact to be of high quality. If you only have a small amount of time, those conditions aren’t really being met,” she says.
As well as addressing these factors, Graham’s research also found that tackling differentiation in a better way may have a positive effect. Motivational issues in primary can often stem from insufficient differentiation, she says, with some pupils struggling to keep up, while others disengage because they feel that they’re covering the same ground and are getting bored.
“Teachers should be mindful of the need for learners to feel they are making progress,” she says. “They need to revisit language, but also to be moving forward. Teachers should try to cater as far as possible for that range of abilities and not to assume that all learners will find it easy. From our study, it was very clear that a lot of learners found it very difficult indeed. Just because they’re young, doesn’t mean that they will find it easy – that’s a bit of a misconception.”
Primary teachers also need to ensure a balance of activities that develop both literacy and oral skills, and employ the kinds of approaches that young learners “value and enjoy”. These should be centred around learning about the culture of the country and bringing the language to life in creative and playful ways, for example, by writing letters to imaginary pen friends, says Graham.
Secondary schools can change students’ opinions of languages. Her research found that there could actually be a boost in motivation when students reach secondary school, possibly because more time is dedicated to languages – the majority of state schools dedicate between 2 and 2.5 hours to languages per week in key stage 3 – and students feel that they are learning more.
But unfortunately this can tail off, she says, because pupils start to feel that they are focusing more on grammatical and textbook-based learning, rather than communicating in the target language.
“We found that the thing students thought was most important about learning a language was that it was useful for travelling, for being able to communicate with native speakers,” she explains. “But the thing that they were least confident in was being able to have a conversation. So there is this gap between what they want to be able to do and what they feel they can do.
“That’s potentially difficult for secondary teachers for a number of reasons. I think, again, it comes down partly to the time issue. To develop communicative competence fully, you need more than two hours a week.
“It’s really important that we support teachers by giving them enough language and pedagogy training, as well as time for language teaching.”
For all this to happen at both primary and secondary levels, Graham concedes that schools – and society in general – need a change in attitude towards languages. The benefits of language learning are just not realised enough, she says.
“I’m very much of the view that it helps with broadening horizons and perspectives, and making you more open-minded,” says Graham. “It’s important to recognise that there is such value in being able to speak to people in their own language, and that not everyone speaks English. It’s good to learn about how other people live and that’s especially important for young people.”
Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer