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Modern languages are in crisis says former ASCL president Ian Bauckham. Here he highlights why and shares key findings from a review on languages in schools. More
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Modern languages are in crisis says former ASCL president Ian Bauckham. Here he highlights why and shares key findings from a review on languages in schools.
It is a strong statement to say, “Modern languages are in crisis,” but when we look closely at what is happening across the country then the claim may well be justified.
We know that competence in languages is important for the economy. One study by Cardiff University (https://tinyurl.com/zhuwwwm) quantified the nation’s collective ineptitude in languages as costing the economy 3.5% of gross domestic product (GDP), and in the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2016 (https://tinyurl.com/j9tw4vv), 54% of employers said that they were dissatisfied with their employees’ language abilities.
But language learning is not simply a utilitarian exercise to improve the nation’s business performance. Language learning brings vital educational and personal benefits as well. The ability to see one’s own language and culture from a different perspective is a more indispensable aspect of education than perhaps ever before.
Will Brexit, as some suggest, mean that languages are less in demand than before? Quite the opposite, in fact: without guaranteed trading relationships, British business will have to place an even higher premium on establishing contacts and building trust abroad, and for that they will need language skills.
A modern language is part of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) suite of subjects – a recognition of its importance. However, in 2016, of those 16 year-olds who achieved a grade C in four out of five of the EBacc subjects, 78% were missing the language element, either because they did not take it or because they did not get a C. In fact, only one-third of 16 year-olds achieve a C in a language, and only half are even entered. Boys are significantly underrepresented in that figure. One statistic speaks volumes: despite the nation’s commitment to the teaching of French, only one in ten boys in England achieves a grade C in French GCSE. That is a shocking return on investment. (See https://tinyurl.com/jg93mwz and https://tinyurl.com/jh9nfdn).
At A level, the situation is worse still. Taken together, A level entries for French, German and Spanish have halved over the past twenty years, to the point where courses are becoming unsustainable in many sixth forms, university departments are closing and the supply of future teachers has to be drawn increasingly from abroad.
Faced with so many challenges, what to do?
There is evidence that one way forward lies in rethinking how languages are taught in schools. The 2015 Ofsted report, The Wasted Years, notes that many pupils in KS3 know that languages are important, but, in spite of that, choose not to continue with them if and when they are given the choice.
It is too easy to blame this reluctance on the dominance of English as a global language. There are important factors to do with the way that languages are organised, taught and supported in schools, which can be addressed and that will improve the take-up of languages and pupils’ success in them. In a review, which I chaired on behalf of the Teaching Schools Council (TSC) – Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review – I worked with an advisory group of professionals and, together, we made a number of recommendations to this end.
Vocabulary, grammar and phonics
Firstly, we made a clear statement about the knowledge content of language learning. In short, learning a language consists of learning vocabulary, grammar and phonics, and mastering combining these to the point of automaticity, so that they can be used for accurate communication.
The teaching of vocabulary needs careful planning. Words need to be selected with an eye to their frequency of occurrence, not just because they happen to fit a particular thematic topic (such as pets or holidays). Then they need to be taught using a range of well-honed techniques and planning needs to ensure that words are encountered a number of times (at least four times and up to ten) in increasingly less ‘scaffolded’ contexts. In European languages, verbs drive grammatical progress, and so special attention should be given to ensuring that, from the start, a strong basic verb lexicon is taught. It is much easier to learn to conjugate verbs later if the basic forms are already familiar.
Grammar must have a central place in language learning. Without grammar properly mastered, you cannot communicate. Pupils need to be taught the grammar of a language systematically, building up the whole picture in logical and well-planned steps. It is time-efficient to explain grammatical points up front, concisely. The next step is then to practise identifying the grammar in ‘input language’ (written or spoken) where other contextual clues have been stripped away. An example is distinguishing past and present tense endings from each other in sentences that do not have clues such as ‘last week’ or ‘today’ so that pupils really have to ‘attend to’ the verb endings. Only once this stage has been well practised, should teachers move on to expecting productive use.
We are used to young children learning phonics in English, but phonics in a foreign language are just as important. Courses should systematically teach the rules that relate the sounds of the language to the spelling rules so that pupils can read a passage out loud correctly and write down what they hear plausibly. Obviously, this is easier in some languages than others – French phonics are more complex than those of German or Spanish, for example. But even in French, pupils can be taught, near the start of their course, the rules that allow for correct pronunciation. This has many benefits later.
We are clear that the core content of a language course is vocabulary, grammar and phonics. The ‘four skills’ of listening, reading, speaking and writing (which have often been confusingly thought of as the content of courses) are simply ways in which the core knowledge is used. They should not be taught or practised in isolation from one another, but integrated at every stage. The ‘washback’ effect of GCSE assessment has often led courses to be constructed around practising the four skills separately, rather than focusing on mastering knowledge of vocabulary, grammar and phonics.
The end goal of learning a language is to communicate, of course, and teachers must be clear about what they are enabling pupils to communicate about. While basic language has to be practised, the more teachers are able to move on from the banal (epitomised by ‘describing my bedroom’), to using the language to learn about the culture of the country or countries of the target language, the better.
Equipping trainees and senior leaders is vital
The report makes some important recommendations about the centrality of subject-specific pedagogy in initial teacher training, and the need to identify what the subject-specific curriculum for trainees should actually contain. We concluded that much initial teacher training does not define that pedagogy clearly enough or equip trainees with the sort of specialist pedagogical knowledge that they need to maximise their effectiveness.
Finally, senior leaders have an important role to play in both supporting and challenging the work of language teams. Many said that they felt ill-equipped to do so, often because they were not themselves confident in the subject or its pedagogy. We therefore included in the report a section designed to enable senior staff to make a real contribution to improving outcomes.
The full report is available online at https://tinyurl.com/jjc8tww and we hope it will be used as a stimulus for rethinking approaches and enabling languages to become firmly established as a central and successful part of the secondary curriculum.
… despite the nation’s commitment to the teaching of French, only one in ten boys in England achieves a grade C in French GCSE. That is a shocking return on investment.
Ian Bauckham is CEO of Tenax Schools Trust (Bennett Memorial Diocesan School) and author of the report on the Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review