Primary MFL

primary languages

As a trained secondary school teacher I am qualified to teach languages at primary school level, and I had the opportunity to work with a primary school class to gain some experience a few years ago whilst doing my PGCE (resources can be found here). Recently, my (independent) secondary school have, for various reasons, asked the MFL department to deliver French, German and Spanish to pupils in our accompanying primary school, so from September, the MFL staff will teach these languages to pupils from Year 3 to 6.

From a general perspective the introduction of MFL at primary level in an independent school is very interesting. Being an independent school means that we do not have to adhere to every government initiative that is regularly rolled out, however, most independent schools will follow a curriculum very similar to that of the National Curriculum and most will offer GCSEs and A Levels (or IGCSEs and the IB). Every school is different, and will have its own reasons for making the choices that they do. Where I currently teach, a language at KS4 is mandatory for most pupils, even though the national picture has changed somewhat over the last few years, and French is the first foreign language they experience (offered at primary school and then from Year 7 -13) We also offer Spanish and German from Year 8  to Year 13 and have previously been able to offer GCSE Italian and some Russian. The Dearing (Languages) Review  of 2007 encourages the teaching of a foreign language to all pupils at all levels, especially with MFL no longer being a mandatory part of the curriculum in KS4 from 2004. At the same as this change at secondary level, primary languages became an entitlement for all pupils in Key Stage 2.

“Every child should have the opportunity throughout Key Stage 2 to study a foreign language and develop their interest in the culture of other nations. They should have access to high quality teaching and learning opportunities, making use of native speakers and e-learning. By age 11 they should have the opportunity to reach a recognised level of competence on the Common European Framework and for that achievement to be recognised through a national scheme.” (page 15 of the National Languages Strategy for England) .”

Although I am in favour of this, I am aware of problems in the past when this idea has been introduced (The Nuffield Project in the 70s, for example). Teachers will argue that it requires more work, more planning and more resourcing. A lot of secondary school teachers are not used to teaching younger pupils, and often chose to train at secondary level as they prefer to work with older pupils. It could also be said that it is just one more thing to add to the mountain of work that teachers do on a day to day basis, but I can also see the advantages of MFL specialists spending a small amount of time, once a week, with a dedicated class. 

Many primary school linguists are not specialists, and this is a problem that is highlighted in research from 2000 looking into the statutory provision of MFL in the Key Stage 2 curriculum. Often, the MFL teacher is brought in from outside the school which creates difficulty in an MFL teacher getting to know the pupils well leading to issues with reporting and assessment.  

It is common practice for secondary schools with an AST in the languages department or with specialist Language College status to build up links with local secondary schools and to work directly with the languages coordinator of the primary school and pupils, thus improving the progression between the two schools from Key Stage 2 to 3. The flip side to this is that this can create further issues at Key Stage 3 with pupils coming from various feeder schools, with various levels of understanding and possibly even various languages.

In order for the teaching of languages at the primary level to be effective we must ensure cohesion between the two levels of schooling and take advantage of the specialist (primary (@lisibo) and secondary) linguists that have a high level of skill and can offer excellent provision. The KS2 curriculum must be well planned with a clear focus if it is to have any impact at all, and for pupils to be encouraged and stimulated by the learning of a foreign language.