​Primary languages: the problem and the way forward

Ian Bauckham has written this excellent blog for us…

I was asked recently to contribute to a conference about the future of modern foreign languages in primary schools in England.It is compulsory for primaries which follow the national curriculum to teach languages in key stage 2; for primary academies there is an expectation that their curriculum is of at least equivalent breadth and challenge.I offered the following thoughts and ways forward.

My starting point is the (perhaps controversial) observation that, given there were plenty of primaries teaching a language even before it became compulsory, it is pretty hard to evidence any difference at all in the long term language outcomes between those pupils who have had primary language teaching and those who have not.

I think there are probably several reasons for this, but the central one in my view is a lack of rigorous curriculum coherence across key stages 2 and 3.

Curriculum coherence is coherence in what is taught.If learning a language in primary school in KS2 is to be beneficial, it must be able to be directly built on when pupils move on to secondary school, as with all their other subjects in primary school.

If it cannot easily be built on, in terms of content or, if you like, ‘knowledge’, then secondary language teachers will ignore it.That is happening often, if not mostly, in our schools now.Secondary teachers in year 7 simply assume the whole class is learning the language they are being taught ab initio.The message pupils receive from this is that their prior learning, variable as it will have been, is simply irrelevant.

Determining the actual content of the KS2 language programme is therefore all-important, and the content thus determined needs to be clearly understood by secondaries.

Languages justify their place in the primary curriculum by the knowledge which pupils are taught and retain into their next stage.That is what builds that sense of progression, self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation which are so important. Local collaborative arrangements for doing this, for example between a particular secondary school and (some of) its feeder schools, may be good, where they happen, but this is emphatically not a national policy solution, as the capacity to create this curriculum coherence across groups of schools simply does not exist uniformly across the country, and there is no authority with the remit or powers to create this sort of coherence where schools don’t do it by themselves.

So in my view the appropriate policy response is to commission and make available coherent, fully supported teaching programmes for KS2 in French, German and Spanish (our most commonly taught languages in secondary – over 80% of all GCSE entries), the contents of which are well known to secondaries, and strongly encourage or incentivise primaries to adopt one of these for their school’s provision in liaison with local secondaries, to ensure the language chosen and taught to pupils can be continued when pupils transfer.

While such programmes need to be suitable in tone and content for primary children, there is every reason to assume that KS2 children can master formally taught content consisting of phonics, vocabulary and grammar.A look at what KS2 pupils are taught in other subjects is salutary.

By the end of KS2 pupils should for example have an explicit and automatized knowledge of the phonic system of the language (phoneme-grapheme correspondences), they should have a strong basic lexicon, not necessarily topic-bound but covering a range of frequently occurring lexical items, including a good number of common verbs.They should know a range of basic grammatical features, including present tense forms of common verbs such as be, have, go, make, like, put, take, and so on, and some other basic grammar such as noun-adjective agreements and word order, which may be language-specific.

All of this needs explicit teaching, practice and use in context.Above all, the premise cannot be that what content is taught doesn’t matter as long as it is fun and engenders a positive ‘feel’ about languages.What we teach matters, and having decided it matters, we need to teach it properly. Neither can we assume that because the pupils are younger, they will pick it all up without explicit teaching and practice.That is barely more likely to work with 9 year olds than it is with 12 year olds.None of us learnt our mother tongue via an hour of random exposure a week.

The programmes I propose need to be fully supported (by which I mean knowledge organisers, teacher notes, slides and recordings, practice exercises and assessments) as in many cases they will be taught by non-specialists, and so need to have both curriculum content and pedagogy built in.

Despite what the NC clearly envisages, I still hear arguments for ‘language awareness’ in primaries, without reference to one specific language, or indeed programmes that ‘hop’ languages. I do not recommend either of these approaches.That is not because I don’t believe that language awareness (meta linguistic awareness) is a desirable outcome, but because I think it is best achieved by teaching pupils one specific foreign language.

There will be anxieties from primaries who fear that this approach is tantamount to secondaries dictating the choice of language in local primaries.We will be told by some that any language learning experience in primary, even if the language learnt is then abandoned and another taught in KS3, is worthwhile.This strikes me as a very odd argument.Can you imagine another country – say, France – teaching German only to everyone in primary schools and then stopping it at age 11 and starting again with English, on the basis that learning a bit of primary German will help your English? Clearly, the best way to help your English is to learn English, properly and sequentially, from age 7 to age 16.

Only if we grasp this challenge and set aside our own preferences in the interests of coherence for pupils will we really be able to benefit from the extension of modern language learning into KS2 and see that benefit in longer term language outcomes.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.