Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Primary Languages: Play on!

Last week my attention was drawn to an article published by the TES, "The 10 greatest shortcomings of modern language provision in England" by Dr Gianfranco Conti, a linguist who has been teaching in Malaysia for over ten years.  To say that this article has caused uproar in the languages communities over the past week would be something of an understatement.  I think that if Dr Conti had published this article only on his blog, I would have ignored it.  However this article was published and its content therefore validated by the TES, a national publication that speaks for and to the profession.  This means that Dr Conti's words and views will have a much greater readership, carry greater weight and therefore have a greater impact.

I am going to use this blogpost to express my concern at the way this article, now part of a national, educational publication, portrays primary languages and the way in which they are currently taught.  This is my personal reply to the article, after discussion with colleagues and a lot of thought of my own.

What does the article say?  Here is a screen-capture of the part I will be discussing:

1.  "Primary teaching is too ludic"

First of all, what is 'ludic'?  The OED defines it as "showing spontaneous and undirected playfulness".  It comes from the Latin ludus.  Wikipedia informs me that "In ancient Roman culture ... an elementary or primary school attended by boys and girls up to the age of 11 was a ludus.... Students were taught maths, reading, writing, poetry, geometry and sometimes rhetoric."  So if we were being ultra-pedantic we could say that yes primary teaching is ludic, because it is like that of an ancient Roman ludus.

But I digress.  Back to the OED definition.  With this choice of adjective, Dr Conti is implying, I think, that the activities in the primary languages classroom (and as Key Stage 2 is not specified, I am going to include Key Stage 1 in my reasoning too) are unplanned and tokenistic, without linguistic or other educational value.  This is far from the truth.  Yes, we play a lot of games in language lessons in primary schools.  Some of our students are four years old, and we need to be considerate of their physical and emotional maturity.  The learning needs to be accessible to them.  In EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage, i.e. nursery and Reception) children are assessed to see if they have reached a "Good Level of Development" (GLD) by the time they enter Key Stage 1.  This assessment is often carried out through observation of their play.  While playing they demonstrate what they know, and they use it as a way to explore concepts, to co-operate with their peers, to show sensitivity to others' feelings and to form positive relationships.  This approach is continued to a certain extent in Year 1, so we can't ignore it in our language teaching.

I'll admit it, I very often plan games into my lessons, for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, as, I know, do many of my KS2 virtual colleagues.  Although to call them 'games' is a bit of a misnomer.  I prefer to think of them as "activities which practise certain language points in a fun way, and which often involve practising with a partner, a key KS2 Framework for Languages objective".  The games always have a linguistic and/or more general educational purpose, and they increase the children's motivation and desire to learn.  They contribute to an enthusiasm that we hope they carry into their secondary languages careers.

Looking at my plans for last week, what games did we play?  Not many, as it turns out.  We were finishing units and therefore busy with summative speaking and writing tasks.  Here are some:
Year 1 Spanish: we threaded coloured beads onto shoe laces.  This practised fine motor skills and showed me that they had read and understood correctly the colour word cards that I had given them.
Year 2 Spanish: we played Which card? with our new words.  I shuffled the flashcards and hid the top one.  The children had to take turns, listen to each other and think carefully to work out which card was on the top of my pile each time.

Other games that I play regularly are Trapdoor, Battleships and dice games.  And of course we use dominoes and Tarsia puzzles. They all have a purpose.

Primary teaching is not ludic in the truest sense of the word.  We play games with the children because they enjoy it, because we enjoy it, and because these games allow us to support the language and to move the learning on.

2.  "...giving an impression that MFL learning is all about fun, songs, drawing and playing"

Language learning (not MFL - we can do ancient languages in KS2) should be fun.  We should enjoy learning it, shouldn't we?  I would hope that the 'fun' activities are built upon in Key Stage 3 and beyond.  There are certainly plenty of descriptions of and suggestions for fun activities on the many posts in the Secondary MFL Matters Facebook group.  So I hope that's the case.

I think the most important thing is to have a balance of activities, isn't it, a variety?  My Year 6 classes indulge in some fun language activities but they also work hard on building texts with complex sentences which contain conjunctions, intensifiers and adjectives.  And yes we might do some drawing to go with it, once the writing is finished.  You have to let them kick back sometimes.  The pressure on Year 6 is horrific.

As for songs, primary language learning is about songs.  And why?  Because it's specified in our curriculum document.  The National Curriculum says we have to teach them songs, so we do.  And it's fun.  I've often overheard children singing a Spanish song to themselves around school, but I've never heard them recite a dialogue or a list of nouns.  The melody and rhythm ensure that the words in the new language stay in their heads, and they enjoy taking the song home.  My husband failed O'level French twice, but he can still sing Savez-vous planter les choux?, although we don't let him very often.  Again, I would hope that secondary students are still allowed to sing the occasional song.  I once had a hard-to-reach Year 10 French student who came alive the lesson we used this song.  He learned to play it himself on his guitar.  Music is immensely powerful, and its benefits on all learning are well-documented.  But, like, games, it's not the only thing we do.  It's all about balance.

3.  "Primary should be the place where pronunciation, decoding skills, spelling, agreement, learning strategies and all the other basic skills...are taught"

Of course it should be, and it is.  Not least because all those things are listed in the National Curriculum document.  The article suggests that for the most part this does not happen, mostly because of all the games we play.  (I'm just thinking how tiring an hour of playing games would be.)  The games actually help us to do all that other stuff.

A great deal of great work is done in the primary languages classroom, often unnoticed and unmarked by senior leadership teams, by Ofsted and by secondary colleagues.  You only have to pass by the Languages in Primary Schools Facebook group to find examples of that.  The group has over 3700 members now, and is therefore the best barometer that we have of current practice.  I really do hope that this article does not add fuel to the fire of those secondary colleagues and others who believe that teaching a language in primary schools is worthless and that they should all start from scratch in Year 7 regardless of their previous experience.

4.  So what do we need to put right, if anything?

In some primary schools these "basic skills", or the requirements of the national curriculum, are not taught, for a number of very well-documented reasons.

a. Time allocation
When the new curriculum was introduced, the DfE did not specify or give any guidance on the amount of time that should be dedicated to language learning in Key Stage 2.  Ofsted also has been careful not to be specific, but we do have some hints as to what they think is suitable.  My opinion is that an hour a week is what is needed to go into the depth required by the "substantial progress in one language" of the National Curriculum.  Many schools are not lucky enough to have this amount of time.  Sir Michael Willshaw wrote in May about how languages and science are being pushed out of the primary timetable by English and maths, a point of view that he reiterates in the recently-published Ofsted annual report.  As a body of language teachers we need to continue to strive to gently persuade these school leaders of the benefits of language learning and the need to ensure that it is timetabled sufficiently.

b.  Subject knowledge
Some schools have employed subject specialists, which is good for the children and for the provision of languages.  However it does have an impact on the continuing professional development of staff who may leave the school and go elsewhere, only to find that they will be expected to teach a language there.  Some classroom teachers find themselves doing their best to teach a language that they either haven't touched since they themselves were at school, or that they have never learned.  The curriculum was put in place quickly in 2014, with next-to-no funding or training available to enable schools to overcome this difficulty.  Too many children are being taught a language by someone who is not enthused by it, and that can't be right.

c.  Transition
I've written before about this one.  It is by no means an easy one to solve, and the cause of so much strife between primary and secondary teachers.  Please talk to each other, and then please listen to what they have to say.  That's all.

So to conclude.  There are some serious problems underlying the teaching of languages in primary schools, just like there are in secondary schools, from what I understand.  I haven't stood before a class of secondary students since 2009, so I don't think it's my place to comment.  We are now in the third year - only the third year - of languages being compulsory in Key Stage 2.  But those of us in a position to do so are working behind the scenes to do whatever we can, wherever we can and whenever we can.  We see the positives and the gains despite the obvious difficulties.

In short, I found the article to be an over-generalisation of what happens in the primary classroom.  It demonstrates a lack of understanding and knowledge of primary methodology and of the current curriculum for Key Stage 2 Languages.  Although Dr Conti stresses that it is an attack on the provision, it does feel like an attack on teachers, who somehow have allowed this to happen and who are perhaps happy with the status quo.


  1. It is a pity that the work of primary languages teachers needs defending at all, but thankfully this post does it thoroughly and thoughtfully. i wholeheartedly agree with Clare.

  2. Having worked in both sectors I have learnt a lot from the primary sector and pleased to say that I am reusing techniques I discovered in the primary sector. Interesting debate but feel we need to be careful not to go back to a very rigid way of doing things. Strongly believe that well planned ludic activities have a real added value to classwork.

  3. It should also be remembered that learning a language is one of the hardest things the human brain can do. It is hard for many children and the new curriculum demands have added to that. Ideally the teaching and learning should take place in small chunks throughout the week. Until non-specialist teachers get the time and support they need this won't happen. I'd love to see how Dr Conti does it though Malaysia is a bit far for me sadly.