Teaching languages in primary school will become compulsory in 2010. So what support and resources are available to teachers dealing with primary modern foreign languages?

Irrespective of whether they go on to take languages at A-level or beyond, children can get an awful lot out of learning languages at primary school. An understanding of other cultures and countries, for a start. Not to mention a better chance of getting MFL GCSEs and other accreditation. And should they venture abroad one day, they might actually be able to understand some of the signage or even talk to people.

As the aforementioned historical leviathan, Blackadder, was once heard to say on meeting a French aristocrat in Mrs Miggins’ Pie Shop… ‘Can we talk, or are we going to spend the rest of the afternoon asking each other the way to the beach in very loud voices?’ It’s your choice.

While a basic grasp of, say, French, German or Spanish is always an advantage for teachers – all the better if you are fluent – it is not essential to have studied the language yourself, particularly when teaching very young children. Specialist language schools and colleges are able to use their expertise and resources to provide support for local primary schools, although it should be remembered that they do not carry all the responsibility for providing this support.

Royds School, Leeds
Take Danny Gleisner, primary languages coordinator at one specialist language college, Royds School in Leeds. A teacher of French, German and Italian; he is passionate about developing the learning of languages within local primary schools and has achieved impressive results. All the primaries that Royds supports teach languages across their schools, three have achieved international school status, with several others developing international weeks (during which Royds staff deliver Italian and Japanese language sessions) and making links with schools in other countries to enrich their children’s language experience.

Danny says: ‘For many primary teachers, most of whom will not have studied, or even spoken a foreign language since they were at school themselves, the prospect of having to teach a foreign language represents a significant, not to say daunting, challenge. But the presumption that you have to be fluent to teach languages is flawed in the same sort of way that assumptions are made about needing to be able to play or read music to teach it. Actually it’s more about using good quality resources, picking up ideas from specialists and using good teaching and learning strategies.’

Active partners in learning
There are currently 216 specialist language colleges in England. By 2010, the government hopes that 400 will be working with other local schools to support language learning programmes.

Although the language colleges’ core task is to raise standards of achievement and the quality of teaching and learning in modern foreign languages for their own pupils, using this as a catalyst for whole-school improvement, they are also required to be active partners in a learning society with their local family of schools – sharing resources and developing and sharing good practice.

According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), language colleges should take a leading role in the promotion of the National Languages Strategy.

As specialist schools, language colleges will contain a great deal of expertise, often employing teachers with a specific remit for outreach like Danny Gleisner. They will also have the capacity to develop innovative approaches to language teaching, scope for teaching languages other than the traditional European languages (including community languages) and develop links with schools and communities overseas through which language learning and indeed, learning itself can be enriched.
Within the Royds family of schools, Danny and colleague Susie Harmer run weekly sessions to model quality teaching and nurture the expertise and confidence of teachers. Using songs, storytelling and poetry, basic vocabulary is introduced and simple translations made.

‘We use familiar stories,’ explains Danny. ‘The pupils only see the French or Spanish words but as they know the story, they are able to notice some of the vocabulary they have seen before and work out what new words mean. We choose books where there are lots of repeated phrases which helps embed understanding.’

Translations of these stories are easy to find for the nervous teacher, but as with all good teaching it is important not to set the boundaries of learning based on your own knowledge. Danny Gleisner adds, ‘Most of the language is pretty basic and there are tapes within the scheme of work we use to help teachers and children with pronunciation.’

The Royds teachers use the La Jolie Ronde scheme of work, as a way of equipping primary colleagues who have observed them teaching with the capacity to deliver the scheme themselves the following year. Originally developed by the Wakefield local authority, La Jolie Ronde has been adopted by Leeds for use in all its primary schools from 2009. It provides interactive resources developed in accordance with modern languages framework for teaching French and Spanish at key stage two. There is a scheme of work for upper and lower primary in each language including detailed lesson notes plus additional CDs of classroom resources, interactive whiteboard activities and games, songs and poems. Lessons are generally divided into four 15-minute sessions.

Danny Gleisner often adapts La Jolie Ronde activities to complement his own ideas. So a food song introduces healthy eating complete with pictures of familiar foods. Verbal recognition games match words to facial expressions and Chinese whispers check out the pupils’ pronunciation skills. There are a lot of mini-competitions and a great deal of sequencing as pupils learn mainly through observation and doing.

Staff from Royds assist their primary colleagues in other ways, carrying out transition work in languages with Year 6 to prepare pupils who may have missed out on the primary languages initiative for the future study of languages at the high school. ‘Most of the Year 6 pupils with whom we have been working this past year have been exposed to two foreign languages by way of preparation for the breadth of language choice available at Royds,’ says Danny Gleisner.

Royds also has a termly primary languages network group, a forum for the exchange of information and ideas. Primary teachers also benefit from training provided by Royds’ advanced skills teacher in MFL, Louise Crossley, as well as input from a local authority education consultant. Funding is also provided for a primary teacher to attend the CILT Primary Languages Show in Manchester in February.

In conclusion
Now, very quickly, back to the politics. Of course specialist colleges alone are not responsible for primary languages – the local authority and the primary school itself also has to take responsibility – but they can, and will help. So just ask. Who knows, if you get children learning languages from an early enough age, then by the time they reach secondary school you won’t have to employ the Inquisition, dust off a torture box with spikes on the inside and out and threaten to roast a certain part of the anatomy sobre un fuego grande to get them to consider GCSE Spanish.

The National Languages Strategy
The National Languages Strategy, launched in 2002, says that every child should have the opportunity throughout key stage 2 to study a foreign language and develop interest in the culture of other nations.

By 2010, the government has committed to every child aged 7-11 being given the opportunity to learn a language at primary school. They should have access to high quality teaching and learning opportunities and be making use of native speakers and e-learning.

By the age of 11, children should have the opportunity to reach a recognised level of competence on the Common European Framework and for that achievement to be recognised through a national scheme. The KS2 language learning programme must be delivered at least in part in class time.

The aims of the strategy are:

  • To ensure an early start towards competence in a foreign language.
  • To develop language learning skills which can be transferred to any language.
  • To broaden linguistic awareness, extending literacy beyond English.
  • To develop cultural knowledge and awareness, extending children’s horizons.

Of the £115m put aside by the government to fund the first three years of the national strategy, £30m is to increase the number of specialist language schools and extend their role. Each existing and new specialist language school, and schools wishing to take a second specialism in languages, will receive an additional £30,000 per year in specialist grants, enabling them to work with local education authorities, universities and regional partners to promote language learning – in particular in primary schools and among 14 to 16-year-olds.