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Teaching children modern foreign languages

In 2004 the government took the decision to remove the legal requirement for students to take a modern foreign language at Key Stage 4. Since then, the number of pupils taking the subject at this level has dropped from 61 per cent to 44 per cent.

However, during this time there has also been a large increase in the number of children learning another language at primary school level. In short, the landscape for teaching languages in English schools is changing, and the progress being made in this area was the subject of a recent report by Ofsted.

Achievements within languages were deemed to be good or outstanding in six out of ten schools visited for the research. Pupils within the lessons were said to be clearly enjoying their experience, while being given the opportunity to learn about different cultures at the same time. Of the 235 lessons observed, the standard of teaching was said to be good in two-thirds.

"Despite some occasional shortcomings in pronunciation and intonation, primary teachers’ subject knowledge and their teaching methods were predominantly good," the report noted.

Primary schools were said to be performing particularly well in allowing children to speak in and listen to the relevant languages; an area where secondary schools were failing.

Over half of the sessions observed in secondary institutions were said to be good, however Ofsted said: "There were weaknesses in too many lessons, particularly in speaking, listening and reading in modern languages."

Teachers in a lot of secondary schools were said to be unprepared to speak the language within lessons, with the report saying: "Too often, students were not taught how to respond to everyday requests and thus routine work in the target language and opportunities to use it spontaneously were too few."

Reading in modern foreign languages was identified as being an area for concern in both primary and secondary schools. In the former, examples of good reading exercises were described as "rare", while over half of secondary schools were said to have "ill-thought through" lessons.

The report said: "Reading was not taught beyond exercises in course books or previous examination papers and teachers made insufficient use of the wealth of authentic material that is available to develop students' speaking, listening, writing, knowledge about language, language learning strategies and intercultural awareness."

Commenting on the problems seen with modern foreign languages in secondary institutions, teaching organisations said departments were still struggling with the decision to remove the statutory requirement for pupils to learn a language until the age of 16.

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teacher (NUT), said: "In secondary schools, languages have long been among the subjects most severely affected by piecemeal changes to the secondary curriculum."

She added: "It is vital that the efforts made by schools to develop language learning are supported by funding and resources, including ensuring that children have access to lessons taught by qualified specialist language teachers."

Another key problem associated with the teaching of the subject identified by Ofsted was the lack of preparations being made to help children move more smoothly between stages.

At Key Stage 3, teachers are not taking the steps which will allow pupils to express themselves creatively with language later down the line. Teaching at Key Stage 4 was said to be focused too much on exam results and is not preparing students for further learning.

Similarly, the report said: "Most of the secondary schools visited had not yet modified their Year 7 curriculum or adapted their teaching of languages to build on, and exploit, the increasing amount of work being undertaken in the primary schools from which they drew their pupils."

There were, however, a host of examples of good language lessons outlined in the report teachers can take note of.

Some primary schools were said to be making good use of technology and the internet to allow children to hear native speaks. One school used a handheld camera to record pupils presenting a news report in Spanish, while in another institution the teacher took time throughout the week to let children practice the words they had learnt in their dedicated lesson.

The report praised a teacher in one secondary school who played French music through the lesson and "maximised the opportunities to use French and create a French atmosphere". The teacher also allowed pupils to set their own targets before lessons, then advised them if they should be raised.

Those in the teaching profession should perhaps be reassured that there seemed to be a lot of optimism surrounding language lessons they use and the promise they hold in the future.

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "With time, flexibility and crucially encouragement not castigation, improvements will continue and more of our young people will enjoy the benefits that knowledge of an additional language brings."