We urgently need to raise expectations in MFL

I was recently looking at the website of a German school  with whom, back in the mists of time, I organised an exchange. Although somewhat less gaudy and sentimental than many UK school websites, the content was otherwise very similar to a school website in the UK. Alongside practical information about the day to day life of the school, there was a host of information and pictures of the various activities, projects and events that had taken place throughout the school year. As a linguist, I was interested to see that the German equivalent of STEM subjects is MINT! Tucked away in a not particularly prominent position was an account of Year 8’s production of a stage version of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”  in English.

The reasons for higher standards of foreign language learning on the continent have a lot to do with curriculum time allocation and priority given to languages in school systems where a poor mark in the subject can lead to repeating the year. The Association for Language Learning and other language organisations have pushed for more curriculum time in UK schools, but I think we are far more likely to convince the government of the need for greater priority for MFL if we clearly specify the sort of competence we think could be achieved. Over the years, I have seen too many presentations from MFL teacher trainers in ecstasy over language lessons where students ask the teacher for a book in the target language. You can hardly blame education ministers for being unconvinced if we appear to have such low expectations.

Far too often the energy of MFL teachers is taken up with time consuming, but language poor activities. Lots of power point presentations for relatively easy topics such as the weather and not enough reading of texts which would really give pupils the complex grammar and vocabulary needed for real communication .The Continental Café on Open Day. The European Day of Languages. Cross curricular project work where students’ knowledge of grammar is insufficient for the tasks, resulting in the howlers of Google translate.

In a previous post, I mentioned the approach adopted  at King Edward’s Grammar School in Chelmsford. 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.( I have never understood why most UK MFL textbooks leave the past tense until Book 2 – when I was teaching in Germany the past tense was introduced in Chapter 3 of Book 1!) 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). By then, the children know enough grammar to begin to engage in cross curricular activity which will be meaningful.

Of course, this is not the only model. Michaela Community School is trying out a revolutionary approach to MFL teaching which involves far more reading than is the norm in most schools.and it will be very interesting to see how it pans out. Sometimes this is caricatured as a return to the failed grammar/translation methods of the past. My response would be that the so called “communicative” approach has had 30 years to prove itself and has been found wanting.

I. like most MFL teachers, try to do my best in the system which we have and am currently trying to convince my SLT of the benefits of a different curriculum model for MFL. My hope is that schools such as KEGS and Michaela will have such astounding success in MFL that ministers and school leaders will finally sit up and take notice.




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5 Responses to We urgently need to raise expectations in MFL

  1. georgessimplon says:

    I broadly agree. The communicative approach is very difficult to make work in a bog-standard comprehensive with such little time devoted to mfl. I’ve never seen it work more than superficially in any school I’ve worked in or visited. And yet, as a TEFL teacher, I saw it work extremely well with motivated adults in small group settings. If we are not going to have substantial additional money, time, expertise and training, a more grammar-translation-oriented approach may be the best basis, but genuine communication and a heavy focus on listening and speaking are also essential. Tough gig, this language-teaching business.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fish64 says:

      Interestingly, schools on the continent manage to combine rigorous focus on grammar with genuine communication….


      • georgessimplon says:

        Yes. More hours on the timetable, and compulsory languages for longer. It irritates me that the only people in the uk who are allowed to develop their language skills post-16 are the committed and academically high-achieving linguists. A baccalaureate-style qualification would raise the nation’s foreign-language abilities, and improve attitudes to language-learning like nothing else.


  2. Pingback: So how far can you study the culture without studying the language? | fish64

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