Sunday, 20 April 2014

Languages 2014

As a teacher trained in secondary languages, I often find myself blustering through the primary curriculum followed by a trail of self-doubt and insecurity. I might be able to blag my way through English and humanities, but what on Earth gives me the right to teach maths or P.E.?

Most of the time, I remind myself that teaching skills are transferable. Yes, you need to adapt, but the fundamentals are the same; good progress, pupil talk, higher order thinking skills, VAK approach. I'm constantly learning (or deepening my knowledge), particularly in specific curriculum areas, and have made a lot of progress in the time I've been working with my lovely Y3 class, but I'm still in awe of the skills demonstrated by my primary trained colleagues.

However, in various staffroom discussions, I began to realise that the way I feel about primary teaching is how most of my co-workers feel about teaching languages. Many of them currently avoid it, using excuses like, "we couldn't fit it in" (in fairness, we do have abnormally short afternoons which are taken up with so many other subjects) amongst other things, and consoling themselves with the knowledge that my MFL club constitutes access to language learning.

But September 2014 is coming, and with it comes the new curriculum.

I am by no means an expert, and definitely not in Spanish (the chosen foreign language of my school). I was a French and German specialist, but I have a vague idea of what Ofsted are looking for in a language classroom, thanks to the constant threat of HMI in previous schools.

So, the standard 80:20 pupil:teacher talk ratio, rapid progess, at least 50% target language (including pupil talk), normal classroom commands and questions done in target language, learner autonomy in communication, application of grammatical concepts...

How do you create learner autonomy and promote language use in a classroom where the teacher is not confident or willing in using target language themselves? There are only two teachers in the school (myself not included) who speak some rusty Spanish and they only teach it under protest.

The first task, evidently, is to raise confidence in staff. Yes, you could employ a native speaker or language specialist to get the job done, but if you are going to integrate the principles of language learning throughout the curriculum (as suggested), then the rest of the staff need to get confident too. 

Schools simply don't have the money, resources or time to spend on sending every member of staff on a course. What needs to be done is ready to go lesson plans, with target language included, for every member of staff. Linked with that needs to be target language sheets for pupils so that they can ask to go to the toilet, if they can borrow a rubber, if they can get a drink (rather like most secondary schools already do).

Yes, it's time consuming, but it's worth it. You simply cannot get the required percentage of target language without the right scaffolding, support and confidence on both sides. It's not enough to have enthusiastic learners, or just enthusiastic teachers, you need both. And you need to give them the tools.

As for 80:20, why is it that primary teachers go into a blind panic about this? They are amazing at planning literacy lessons or numeracy lessons that are pupil centred. But ask most of them to do the same thing in a foreign language, and they lose the ability to think straight. That treasure hunt that you did for science? Yeah, that works for French too. And the Tarsia activity you did in history? Perfect for German! You know how you use chunking grids for practising with different connectives? Use that too!

For me, the area it gets really tricky is rapid progress. I've seen so many lessons at primary level focused on greetings, with no progression over the half term, just repetition. It's fine for playing with language and getting used to some of the sounds, but for the new curriculum, it will need a complete overhaul.

In my class, I have girl whose mother is a native speaker. I have been given all sorts of advice from my colleagues, such as "She'll enjoy the games, leave her to it" and "Use her as a translator, it shows progress in a different skill", but I'm not convinced by any of these.

If I leave this girl to the games, she shows no progress at all (except, perhaps, in her enjoyment of language). If I use her as a translator, then how do I prove her progress in Spanish? How is her skill measurable in interpreting single words and short exchanges for her peers?

On the other hand, this girl has not done much written work in Spanish. She currently tries to write things phonetically, using English rules (which works sometimes, but not with ll, y or v) and she rarely uses connectives. She gets her tenses mixed up too when writing, which shows a whole area where we could differentiate appropriately, stretch her and show good progress.

But how many members of staff in primary schools have the skills and ability to do this? I'm currently struggling, and get by through my knowledge of language teaching and my networks that I've developed over the years. Ideally, schools would be able to access this sort of expertise through their local secondary schools, but in cases where the primary curriculum is in a different language to that taught at KS3, this is not necessarily going to work either.

The new curriculum for language teaching has the potential to work. But only if the curriculum is directed by someone with the time and skills to support everyone appropriately, and if there are suitable links in place. Teachers need to stop seeing foreign language as a scary, unteachable concept, and realise that they already have most of the skills in place. Above all, for this to work, we need to co-operate, network and be a little more confident.

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