MFL – the way forward

Up to now, I have not written a blog about my subject, MFL. However, I am inspired to do so, having been sent an email from my subject association, the Association for Language Learning, asking me if I would be interested in the so called “Language Futures” project.

I looked it up and my heart sank. Perhaps I should reserve judgement until I have heard more about it or seen it in action, but it essentially talks about project based learning with the teacher as facilitator. It says “Language Futures has been designed to foster deep learner engagement and to enable students to take responsibility for their own learning. This is achieved through five core features: student choice and agency,  teacher as designer and facilitator, school as base camp, project-based learning and building a learning community”.

The trouble is that there is nothing new about any of this. It has been tried and has failed, over and over again. Back in the early 1990s, I remember reading a job advertisement for an MFL teacher at a school in a deprived area of Essex. It promised an opportunity to join an MFL department at “an exciting time, with the development of resource based learning, IT and trips abroad to foster learner engagement.” The school has long since closed.

However, it is true that something needs to be done. The standards achieved in foreign languages in British schools are diabolical. I do not exempt myself from blame. In all my years of teaching, my GCSE results have never matched those of English, maths and science. And under the controlled assessment regime, examination administration took up an ever greater proportion of teaching time.

I think back to when I taught in abroad. In all MFL lessons, not just English, the pupils used text books which had a rigorous approach to grammar and vocabulary – the past tense was introduced in Chapter 3 of Book 1, for example. The teacher was not a “facilitator” – lessons were almost exclusively teacher centred. But they learnt and lessons were relatively close to one another, so they had time to practise and did not forget so easily! And before anyone says that this is because all foreigners are more motivated to learn English, they learnt just as well in their other foreign languages. Motivation resulted from pupils realising that they were achieving – ongoing practice of grammar patterns resulted in their being able to produce meaningful language. So different from what I have often seen in the UK, where desperate MFL teachers give out stickers to children who ask in French if they can remove their jacket.

So what should we MFL teachers be doing, instead of once more going down the dead end of progressive teaching methods? Well, Tom Sherrington had the right idea when he was Head of KEGS in Chelmsford and I believe he is trying to do the same thing at Highbury Grove. Instead of a carousel of languages, you initially have one language and stick to it. In the lower school, you need at least 3 one hour lessons a week to stop pupils forgetting previous material so easily. There is a focus on grammar and different tenses are introduced early on and practised repeatedly. Students are entered for GCSE in Year 9. With pupils thus inspired (motivation coming from achievement), the way is open for increased uptake at KS4 (a second language, or AS in the first language). The irony is that, by then, the children know enough grammar to begin to engage in cross curricular activity which will be meaningful.

I am trying to persuade my SLT to go down this route. I have not yet succeeded but I haven’t totally given up yet. My task would be made much easier if my subject association were not so entranced with methods which have failed, time and time again.

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