Elementary Practicals

Lisa Lucas discovers what we can learn from the UK’s mandating of world language education in all elementary schools from second grade

The British government, in recognition of the value of language learning in early childhood, took a bold step this year and mandated compulsory teaching of a second language for children ages seven to eleven in English primary [elementary] schools. As of this September, all primary school students are required to study one of seven languages, and though the most popular choice is French, followed by Spanish, some schools offer Mandarin and Arabic. Many believe that this move is essential for the UK to remain competitive with its European counterparts. This is clearly a commendable move, but is it an incredible advance or a wildly optimistic plan? How will the schools actually implement this, and is there support in place to see this plan comes to successful fruition?

Newly appointed UK education secretary Nicky Morgan, in the wake of this, stated, “We want our young people to have the best possible start in life — that is why, as part of our plan for education, we want every child to learn a foreign language. It doesn’t just help them to understand different cultures and countries, it opens up the world.

“By learning a foreign language, young people can go on to study and work abroad, but it’s not just that. Knowledge of different languages and cultures is increasingly important to employers in the UK too. That’s why the ability to speak and understand different languages is vital if young people are going to leave school able to get a job and get on in life.”

According to a study by the British Council published this March, the majority of elementary schools were very positive about this development, if a little nervous on how they were going to successfully implement it. Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, commented, “Making languages compulsory in English primary schools is a really important step in fixing our national language crisis. We hope that, by introducing languages into the curriculum earlier on, children will stand a better chance of becoming passionate about language learning, and also learn many of the important cultural skills they need in order to become global citizens.”

The Language Trends Survey 2013/14 from the CfBT Education Trust and the British Council also highlighted some of the concerns. This study of 3,000 elementary schools showed that teachers supported compulsory language learning but worried that there were not enough qualified teachers to provide adequate instruction and that they did not have access to sufficient resources. Despite this, more than 80% of schools said they were at least reasonably confident about teaching languages in “Key Stage Two” (KS2 — grades 2–6), yet one third had no arrangements to assess students’ progress.

Tony McAleavy, director of research and development at CfBT, reiterates, “I am delighted that language is finally being given the place it deserves within the primary curriculum. I know that primary school teachers are immensely dedicated and that they will respond well to the challenge, but it is concerning that so many teachers lack confidence in the field of language teaching, and many schools lack teachers with advanced subject knowledge of languages.”

It seems that the key players here were being a little optimistic, or maybe just hopeful, and, although concerns were raised, schools and teachers in reality were more terrified than concerned. Paolo Pini of Language Angels, a company that offers tools and support for language instruction for elementary schools, paints a more realistic picture. “They understood the benefits the changes could/would bring but felt that there was little or no consideration given to the reality of the everyday impact the changes to the curriculum would have on them. Those who were already teaching a foreign language in KS2 (with differing levels of commitment and success) were continuing to do so. The majority that were teaching a foreign language were teaching French, with Spanish in second place and then a mixture of other languages including German and Italian. Many were teaching the basics and repeating the few things they had cobbled together year in, year out.

“Those that weren’t yet teaching a foreign language knew they would have to from September but were willing to wait until September itself before dealing with the issue. The biggest challenge was a reluctance by schools and teachers to teach foreign languages — particularly (and understandably so) from those schools that didn’t have a language specialist on the teaching staff. Schools with a language-specialist teacher on the staff or a peripatetic linguist regularly visiting the school were obviously more comfortable to teaching a foreign language. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough language specialists available to primary schools, and those schools that don’t have this luxury, or perhaps the budget available to pay for a specialist full time, part time, or otherwise, were stymied as to how they could deliver foreign language lessons using only their existing staff — normally with no linguistic expertise.”

In addition to the worry over existing teachers’ abilities and confidence levels, and demand for language teachers exceeding supply, schools also reported concern that the lack of communication between high schools and their elementary feeder schools would hinder the continuation of language studies beyond elementary level. Schools were unsure they could guarantee students would be able to continue the languages they had learned at elementary school.

“Our latest language trends survey shows that primary school teachers are overwhelmingly positive about the move to make language compulsory from age seven to eleven although they do have some concerns. Three quarters feel that implementing the changes will be challenging — as GCSE (high school exit) is the highest level of linguistic ability amongst staff in 24% of schools. There is also the issue of ensuring that children can continue with the languages they’ve learned at primary school when they move on to secondary school — which won’t necessarily happen without some changes to the way primary and secondary schools work together,” Vicky Gough of the British Council warned, and Paolo Pini confirmed her fears, reiterating this issue raised in the language trends survey. “The link between primary and secondary schools varies depending on which region you are looking at. The abolition of Language Colleges and its attached funding has had a huge impact, as has the removal of KS2 language consultants. Schools on the whole have nowhere to turn for professional advice. I think it would be reasonable to say that linking what is delivered in primaries to what is taught in secondaries [high schools] to ensure a smooth transition is patchy. We have come across some regions where there is significant communication between the different schools to ensure pupils are learning language skills and languages in KS2 that will be continued when they move into KS3 (middle school). However, in other areas we have come across primary schools that teach the language that suits them best, irrespective of the languages offered at KS3 by the other schools in their regions. The vast majority of schools we have spoken to and worked with still teach French at KS2. Perhaps this happens because it is the language which the schools find it easiest to get teachers and resources for, or perhaps it is because it is still the most popular foreign language taught in secondary schools.”
It is true to say that it has not been a smooth journey for most schools and students alike. School administrators are employing a variety of staffing models to meet the challenge — from recruiting a specialist to teach across the school, to employing a native speaker from the local community to work alongside classroom teachers, or running training sessions with staff from local secondary schools.

So what is the British government doing to tackle these problems? Education Secretary Morgan announced in September that thousands of teachers will receive extra training and support to improve the teaching of foreign languages thanks to £1.8 million ($3 million) of government assistance to fund a series of new school-led programs. There are nine projects that will work with more than 2,000 elementary and high schools over the next two years across England, aimed to help with the more challenging areas. These include the use of more spontaneous speaking and writing, grammar, translation, and the introduction of literary texts in a foreign language at KS3. Morgan commented, “We know that teachers are integral to this language revival, so we are backing these schemes — led by teachers, for teachers — so they have the support they need to prepare our young people for life in modern Britain.”

The largest share of the money ($500,000) has been allocated to the Association for Language Learning to run a series of regional projects across the north east, east of England, and north Midlands. The projects will offer free face-to-face and online training on major themes such as speaking, writing, grammar, and progression to those working in mainstream education. The training model is teacher led and will be provided at a local level by Lead Teachers to colleagues from the elementary and highs school sectors. This will offer participants the opportunity to train and network with peers and to share best practices. They have developed a network of hubs run by volunteers to offer training and “upskilling” programs for elementary teachers to get the confidence and the skills they need.

If a school does have teachers ready to take on this training to start with, or if the school is not located in these designated regions, then the easiest way may be to hire qualified language teachers, though this in itself poses many challenges, funds for salaries not withstanding. “The most significant problem remains the lack of foreign-language-specialist teachers available. There are so few available (perhaps as a consequence of the many years in which prolonged compulsory foreign language learning at school has been neglected) that it is impossible to sate the demand of all the primary schools in the UK. With a shortage of teachers, inevitably the cost of those that are available goes up, so school budgets (already under enormous strain) cannot often afford them even if they can find them,” says Pini, who is already working with many of the affected schools. This is where organizations like Language Angels come in, offering relatively inexpensive resources for language teachers to help them overcome the lack of specialist foreign-language teachers.

“I’m teaching years five and six. We teach half an hour per week. I speak only in French. I do it because there are only two of us who can speak French in our school, and I reckon we’re pretty well off at that. The rest of the staff are terrified of teaching any language, because their basic level is poor and they feel totally unconfident to teach a subject which requires grammar, vocal, and accent skills way beyond their abilities. Some schemes of work have been produced, apparently to allow non-speakers to teach, but ours, Jolie Ronde, is cumbersome and requires lots of prep to get a basic lesson ready. I’m currently using Language Angels on a free trial — it’s £200 ($350), but I’ll probably not buy it as we have no budget. It’s limited but not bad and much easier to prep lessons. I can’t speak for any other schools, but kids are enjoying it, though the level is basic: numbers, colors, body parts, etc.,” explains Paul Kaffel, PE curriculum leader and now French teacher at Malorees Junior School in London.

This brings us again to the regions not assigned any of this government funding — how are they coping? For those schools that do fall into the assigned locales, $3 million is a very small amount of funding even for one school to implement a language program — how much can this really achieve? Only time will tell, but it seems that the schools are mostly having to figure out how to make it work themselves.

“Languages are becoming more and more embedded in primary schools, and this initiative is working very well. Some examples include Springfield School, Bedford, and Rosendale, Herne Hill, where they teach Mandarin for 15 minutes a day. It is very early days to have a complete view of what is happening nationally since the new KS2 curriculum came into effect, but we are working on the latest language trends survey of schools and will publish a full report in March 2015. The key issues identified in last year’s survey were the wide variety of practice across the country, the need for more training for teachers, and the disconnect with secondary schools. Since last year’s survey came out, the government has provided more funding for training, which is very welcome, but we expect there to be a continuing gap between the very high expectations of the new national curriculum and what many primary schools are realistically in a position to provide,” reports Teresa Tinsley of CfBT, who is hopeful but wary of the over-optimism.

Kathryn Board, OBE, head of Language strategy and delivery at CfBT, adds, “There is already some excellent practice in primary schools which provide good models of effective language teaching for others to follow. However, for those schools who introduced language at KS2 for the first time in September, it is still too early to see what the impact of this is. We will be able to report on this in March 2015 when we publish the language trends survey; schools across England are currently in the process of being surveyed. It will be interesting to see to what extent schools have been able to find solutions to language teaching which achieve the very high expectations set out in the new national curriculum. CfBT has also been leading a research project for the Education Endow­ment Fund in order to test the link between effective language teaching at KS2 and an improvement in literacy levels. This has been a tightly managed research intervention with 30 primary schools in different parts of the country and is now being evaluated by the Institute of Education, who has extensive experience of evaluating education-research projects. This report will also be published in the early part of 2015.”

It seems that UK elementary schools are undergoing a little of trial by fire, finding their own way in most cases and finding their own teachers, funds, and resources. Only time will tell which practices will prove most effective, and with new research data to follow, it will be interesting to see how the British government reacts and how much it is prepared to invest in making this scheme work in practice.

Lisa Lucas was educated in the UK from age five but contends she graduated high school with little practical language skill. She is now a voluntary aide in a Los Angeles Unified School District elementary school, where she also organizes after-school programs including Spanish instruction.