May 2011


  • Global positioning
    PISA data shows English and Welsh schools’ performance falling behind that of other countries. Or does it? And is importing other nations’ education policies the way to move up the tables? It’s not that simple, says Ian Bauckham. More
  • Business studies
    Government figures show a quarter of secondary schools have converted to academy status. But is the transition merely a change in funding distribution, or a radical overhaul of how schools operate? With a ten-week timetable, t two business managers from a mixed comprehensive in Cumbria found out. More
  • Speaking their language
    A six-year ASCL project has found that learning a group of languages at primary school can have a positive influence on children’s attitudes to languages and their choices at GCSE, though there were more surprising results. More
  • Positive gestures
    The education system is still highly compartmentalised, says Les Walton. It is time for heads, principals and others to dismantle the boundaries between their sectors and learn from each other. More
Bookmark and Share

A six-year ASCL project has found that learning a group of languages at primary school can have a positive influence on children’s attitudes to languages and their choices at GCSE, though there were more surprising results.

Speaking their language

In 2004, ASCL began a project on the development of modern foreign languages in primary school. Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Discovering Language project aimed to develop ‘multi-lingual language awareness’ as a foundation for language learning in Key Stage 3. In the longer term it examined whether introducing languages to children in this way would encourage them to take up the subject at GCSE.

Pupils in primary schools in three English local authorities took short courses in French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Latin and Punjabi in years 5 and 6. They were then tracked through their secondary schools and the study was completed in 2010 when the pupils had reached year 11.

The impact of the programme on year 10 students was positive in many ways, as both students and their teachers highlighted. However, because so many other factors are involved it is difficult to make generalised conclusions and to establish whether participation did increase take-up of languages at Key Stage 4.

There are, for example, significant differences between individual schools which invariably have an effect on the popularity of languages. Students’ decisions to continue or discontinue a language beyond Key Stage 3 were also influenced by factors such as their parents’ and siblings’ experiences of language learning. Literacy in English may also make a difference.

However, focusing on one factor only – young people’s experiences of language learning at primary school – does reveal some interesting findings.

Cultural attitudes

There are some differences between the pupils who participated in Discovering Language and those who learned a language via a different programme, and even greater differences between these two sets of children and those who had had no language experience at all.

For instance, although all pupils claimed to have travelled abroad, there was a marked difference in pupils’ inter-cultural attitudes. Those who had learned a language at primary school, either on the Discovering Language or another programme, were much more positive about making contact with people from other countries than those who had learned no languages in primary school.

The Discovering Language pupils seemed more likely to enjoy learning a language at Key Stage 4, while those with no primary language learning experience had the lowest levels of enjoyment.

Some teachers said they noticed a difference in pupils’ motivation and confidence at the beginning of year 7 and, in some cases, this difference continued into year 10, although most teachers found it difficult to draw any direct correlation.

Annectodal evidence however, suggests the programme did have an impact. Debbie Smith, head of modern foreign languages at Kettering Buccleuch Academy, felt that, in terms of their language learning, her students had a greater appreciation of how languages work.

“There was definitely more of an interest in how words were formed and how you could cross-reference words,” she told researchers.

The Discovering Language pupils were more aware of the usefulness of languages in securing a university place. This was the case even among those who had dropped a language. So part of the remit of the programme – to make pupils aware of the usefulness and relevance of learning a language – appears to have been successful.

A slightly higher percentage of Discovering Language pupils elected to learn a language in year 10 (38 per cent) compared with those with other primary school language experiences (36 per cent) and those with no previous experience (34 per cent).

While not statistically significant, this is clearly an encouraging finding. This may not, of course, be an accurate reflection of how many pupils would have continued with a language if their choices had not been restricted by the structuring of the options framework. Many pupils reported being discouraged by languages clashing with other subjects, for example.

Confidence boost

Some of the teachers said the pupils who had completed the Discovering Language programme were among the most confident when they first began in year 7.

“They have often covered the language we cover in the first few weeks of year 7 and therefore feel confident with it. Those pupils are the ones who tend to volunteer first and others can follow their lead,” said Hilary Copeland, transition coordinator at Neale Wade Community College, Cambridgeshire.

In some cases, however, this greater confidence in their ability does not seem to last into year 10.

Jo Winterbottom, head of modern foreign languages at New Mills School, Derbyshire, gave a convincing account of why pupils’ confidence diminishes with increased exposure: “I think the problem with language progression is that it’s a stepped progression. They can do quite a lot quite quickly and they get quite a kick out of that. But after a while, the enjoyment fades.

“Their confidence goes because they start comparing what they can do in French with what they can do in English. And that’s a constant frustration. Even very strong kids will say, ‘Well, I’m not very good, because I can’t say this’, rather than, ‘I can say that, that, that and that’.”

One unexpected finding was that the Discovering Language pupils seemed to have the lowest levels of confidence in their own ability in languages. This could be a reflection of how the objectives of the programme – to give pupils a taste of several languages – differ from those of other linear, single language learning programmes. Pupils may not be as confident in the language(s) they are currently studying – most likely to be French – because they have spent less time exclusively on this language.

In line with the two previous evaluations, all of the teachers who were interviewed were highly enthusiastic about the programme. Some were keen to emphasise how it sustained pupils’ interest in languages, even into secondary school.

“I think they’ve had a good languages experience and I think there is a virtue in doing something for a period of time so that they don’t get bored with it,” said Jo.

Other teachers felt it excited primary pupils’ curiosity about culture as well as language, giving them a sound preparation for learning languages at secondary school. It was also praised for being a multilingual programme which sustains pupils’ interest in the long term.

Primary-secondary transition

Finally, as in previous years, teachers also cited the advantages of the programme in facilitating transition between Key Stage 2 and 3 and in overcoming the difficulties faced by many primary teachers who lack the subject knowledge to teach languages competently and confidently. The Discovering Language programme, they said, represented a “realistic and practical solution” to the existing multiple problems surrounding the primarysecondary transition in languages.

This commendation of Discovering Language by teachers – primary and secondary – has been a consistent feature of all three evaluations of the programme carried out over the years and must surely bear testimony to its potential as a highly effective initiative.

  • Julie Nightingale is a freelance writer specialising in education.

This article is based on the third and final evaluation report on Discovering Languages by Dr Amanda Barton and Joanna Bragg of the School of Education, University of Manchester.

What next?

The Discovering Language project is moving on to look at the development of language awareness in Russian. ASCL members interested in encouraging their feeder primary schools to participate should go to or contact project director Peter Downes at

Speaking their language