Saturday 27 June 2015

We're on our way!

For those who couldn't be there, here is the text of the keynote address that I gave at the Entrust Languages Conference in Stafford yesterday.  I also did my Be a crafty Languages teacher workshop, which you can find here.

We’re on our way!

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when

The Hollies released this single, He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother, a couple of weeks before I was born.  Its opening lines describe the journey that we have taken so far along the road of Languages in Key Stage 2.  It certainly has been long, with many winding turns.  It has taken us more than 10 years to arrive at where we are now, and our journey is far from over.  The teaching of a modern or ancient language has been statutory in Key Stage 2 for just about one academic year now.   Can we already be sure where the road is leading us, and when we will arrive at our destination? 

The children’s journey

Where do we want this road to lead?  What is our destination?  Is it a more linguistically adept population?   It is a less monolingual country?  Is it for languages to be perceived as useful?  Is it a solid foundation of language learning and an enjoyment of the subject?
For most young people, the road will end abruptly at the end of Year 9 (unless Nicky Morgan gets what she really wants and all students really do have to continue with a language until they are 16) and their destination will not, let’s face it, amount to much. 
Our children in Key Stage 2, though, are at the beginning of the road.  We are opening the door for them, gently guiding them through it and setting them off on their way with their backpack ready to be filled with useful things. 

We hope that their journey will be long lasting.  We hope that the road will lead them through exotic colours and exciting experiences.  We hope that en route they will pass, and maybe have the opportunity to explore, the many intriguing side streets.  And we hope that they will have many songs to sing as they walk along, many stories to tell, and many friends from all over the world with whom to share it.  We definitely hope that they do not wake up one morning to find that they have to go back to the beginning and start their journey again…

What does the Key Stage 2 road look like?  Well, it starts from nothing and ends in Year 6 with the “substantial progress in one language” that the Programme of Study requires them to make.  What are the signposts on the way, the markers that will denote their progress?  The statements in the Programme of Study are vague, and can be difficult to decipher.  Dividing them up into skills helps, but it is only when we look at the journey alongside the guidebook of the Key Stage 2 Framework for Languages that it becomes clear.

For Listening, children are required by the new curriculum to “understand spoken language from a variety of authentic sources”, to “understand ideas, facts and feelings” and to “understand familiar and routine language”.   This is not to say that Year 3 children should be doing all of this.  This is the point that we should build up to by the end of Key Stage 2, as their knowledge and confidence gradually increase.

Children are required to speak about people, places, things and actions, to communicate ideas, facts and feelings, and above all to speak in sentences.  Children will speak using single words in Year 3, phrases in Year 4, gradually building up to sentences in Year 5 and Year 6.  Children will spend the 4 years of KS2 learning how to speak with increased confidence, developing their strategies to help them to say what they want to say.
They will engage in conversations with each other, asking and answering questions and giving their opinions.

The children will have a magic key in their backpack which will clarify and facilitate their journey.  They will learn the system of phonics in their language, the sound-spelling link, the key to their journey being a success.  This will lead to children who are confident readers, who can take a word they have never seen before and pronounce it correctly, thus sidestepping potential obstacles on their path.

Children will read lots of texts of different types, some written especially for them as learners, others authentic texts from one of the countries whose language they are learning.  Stories, songs, poems and rhymes will provide some of this content, and so are the ever present white lines that run all the way along the KS2 highway. 
Children will write at varying lengths during their KS2 journey, beginning with single words in Year 3, working through phrases and sentences in Year 4 and Year 5 and building up to paragraphs in Year 6.  They’ll also be able to adapt sentences that they read in order to create something new.

The children’s road will be built on a firm foundation of grammar, which will hold the whole structure steady and in place.  They will always compare the language they are learning with English, to see how it is the same and how it is different.  This will enable them not only to learn more about the new language, but also to reinforce their knowledge of English.  They will develop skills as independent learners, such as dictionary skills, which will help them to say what they want to say.  Even if the bridge between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 has been knocked down, they can confidently take an alternative route to the same destination with their Language Learning Skills and Knowledge About Language in their backpack.

So the children have their journey, and their journey is planned and its itinerary written by the route planners.  Not Google Maps or the AA in this case, but their schools and their teachers.  In turn, each school and each teacher has their own languages journey.  They may well have started at a different point and the route may have been different.  They may have been stuck at roadworks a few times waiting for the road to be completed or for the way to be clear.

The teacher’s journey

As for my languages journey, I'm just coming to the end of my twentieth year as a Languages teacher.  I spent fourteen of those years in secondary schools, flogging away with French and Spanish at GCSE level.  The last six of those years have been in primary schools, altogether a very different experience.  Younger children ask lots more questions.  “Can I go to the toilet?” “When’s it lunchtime?” and let’s not forget “Are you from France?” 
My particular favourite question was “Madame, you know the Eiffel Tower, is it in Sunderland?” 

One of the most common questions, however, is "How do you know Spanish?"  My answer is that I learned at school, the same as them, and then went to university to learn some more and lived in Spain for a while to learn even more.  I tell them that they have a head start on me as I didn't start learning Spanish till I was 16.  They are lucky to start learning when they are 5.  But then I also say that I am still learning.  I learn new things about my languages and other languages every day.  Languages adapt and morph on a daily basis, and you never finish learning them.

So I am not only a Languages teacher.  I am also a language learner.  I would say that I am in my 38th year as a formal language learner.

I started to learn French when I was seven, at middle school.  I grew up in Surrey, where there was at the time a three-tier system.  We changed schools at the end of what are now Years 3 and 7.  My learning of French in the first year of middle school (equivalent to Year 4) comprised writing out lists of things like numbers and months and colours, and sticking them on the inside of our wooden desk lid so that we could see them each time we lifted it up to get something out or put something away.  We were given a French name and a number.  I was Denise and my number was dix-neuf.

Then in the second year (Y5 equivalent) we went to the new building and were allowed access to the specialist French teacher, who we shared with the private girls’ school in the next village.  I can't remember exactly what we did, but there was a lot of chalk and talk and grammar drills, and the filling in of the little booklets, which I think were Eclair.  
There was certainly no technology involved.  In fact, there wasn’t any technology to be involved!  We only learned one song - Savez-vous planter les choux? - and didn't play any games.  There was no role play and certainly no pair or group activities.  However when I left middle school in 1981, aged nearly 12, I knew avoir and être, the present tense of regular verbs, and had started the passé composé.  I knew and could explain why boys said ma cravate and girls said mon chemisier

Then I went to secondary school, which in this three tier system we started in Y8, and started French again, from scratch.  After half a term we moved house, to the other side of Guildford.  I arrived at my new school after the October half term holiday.  My year group was coming to the end of a carousel of second language tasters.  I did 2 lessons of Spanish and had missed the German and Latin.  The following week we had to choose our second language.  I opted for Spanish as I'd tried it and because I have a Spanish godmother. 

I was put in the Latin group.  Initially I was disappointed, but in retrospect it’s the best thing that could have happened!  Latin has been immensely helpful to my knowledge about language, to my French, my Spanish and my English.  It also helps to make me unbeatable at certain quiz games. 

Meanwhile I was continuing with French and another new teacher with whom, again, the class was starting again, but at least this time it was with Le français d'aujourd'hui and the Bertillon family.  I remember telling my mum that I found French boring.  I fell out of love with languages for a while. 

I kept the same French teacher all the way through secondary school, for all of the four years.  Gradually it dawned on me that, far from being boring, she was amazing, and had us (admittedly the top group) ready for O level at the end of the 3rd Year (Year 9).  We spent the next two years practising, learning the past historic and writing countless 100 word essays (we did the AEB board), enjoying the challenge of trying to cram in all the great structures we'd learned.  I have spent many an idle moment trying to pin down exactly what her secret was. 

So that's my language learning journey from the late 70s to the mid 80s.  The road was unembellished, modest and traditional, but it suited me and I learned a huge amount. 
I went to France for the first time – on a school day trip - when I was 14 and was quite happy to have a go with the speaking.

However this road was not easy for everyone.  One of my friends was in the same set as me for French, and she also was the recipient of an A grade at O level.  She also had done Latin and so had a pretty good understanding of how language worked.  She should have done A level French but the thought of having to speak the language terrified her. 
It was something we had hardly done in 4 years, apart from answering the odd question in class, and so the O level speaking exam with a visiting examiner was a bit of an eye opener.
Your language learning journey will have been different, and it may or may not have suited you.  Many methods have come and gone, and in some cases come again, since then. 
The way languages are taught in primary schools now is worlds apart from the way I was taught in 1978.  Our children’s current journey is very different to the one that we will have experienced ourselves.

My road started in the south-east, and has led me gradually, and via a very circuitous route, to the north-east.  For a lot of the time I have walked hand in hand with other people.  I don’t feel that it is a journey that I have had to make alone.  Of course I have walked alongside my teachers, lecturers and fellow students.  But I have also had the company along the way of good friends, my Spanish flat mates, the family in France who housed me during my year abroad.  More recently I have walked alongside and been supported by the many language professionals with whom I have connected via social media over the last 10 years.  I feel a little like Forrest Gump when he begins his epic running across the USA and back and across and back.  It starts off being just him but gradually he is joined by more and more inspired runners until there are huge crowds running with him.  Except on my journey I am not the leader, I am not at the front of the group.  The crowds are mutually supportive, taking it in turns to direct and lead.

How has your language learning journey been?  Have you travelled alone, or have you had others walking with you?  Are you lonely and looking for someone to share your journey?
It is true that the day-to-day life of a teacher is not an easy one.  Particularly if you’re a teacher who has had to add another subject to their already busy planning and teaching schedule.  It’s easy to get stuck in a rut where there are no fresh ideas, where you can’t think round a problem to find a new way of doing it that is just right for your class, where you can’t find the information that you need to deliver the lesson to your own high standard.  And how many times have you spent ages on a resource only to find later that you have in fact reinvented the wheel?

As they said in High School Musical, we’re all in this together.  Whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared to admit it or not, we all face the same challenges and the same pulls on our time.  We’re working towards a common goal but we all have different tools at our disposal.  We have to support and help each other.

The year before I became an AST I did a “Becoming a subject leader” course.  It taught me that I didn’t want to be a subject leader, but it did teach me some useful things too. Like how important it is to build a culture of sharing, supporting and networking amongst your colleagues. 

If you want to connect with a wider audience, there are different forums and other online “outlets” that you can access.  For example there is the TES Forum, where you can discuss languages and their teaching, although the Modern Languages forum isn’t half as busy as it used to be.    I can’t recommend Twitter and the #MFLTwitterati highly enough for keeping you up to date with cutting-edge ideas and for the camaraderie.  If you follow my Primary Languages UK Twitter list, you can keep in touch with and get information from over a hundred primary languages teachers, specialist and non-specialist, as well as from organisations, publishers and suppliers.  If you are a Facebooker, there is the Languages in Primary Schools group, a closed group which has over 1700 members, and which is both immensely supportive and always positive.

It is a well-known fact that many of the teachers who find themselves having to teach Key Stage 2 Languages are in need of some help with the language itself.  They may be lacking in confidence in their own ability, or needing help refreshing the language that they learned a long time ago at school.  There has not been much money forthcoming for the majority of primary teachers who require upskilling, so the arrival of the Association for Language Learning’s network of Primary Hubs has been a godsend.  They exist all over the country so find one near you.  They are free of charge and allow you to link up and meet with other professionals who are in the same boat as you. 

The children have their language learning journey, and we as teachers have our own.  Everyone is at slightly different points along their own individual road.    And everyone has their own way of walking.

The teacher’s way

What is our “way” in terms of what we do in the classroom?
One of our main aims is to get the children involved in their learning.  They are no longer the passive recipients who sit silently in rows and then complete pages of exercises in their books.  We know that children learn best when they have the opportunity to help, support and explain to each other.  They learn best when they take part in an activity that they perceive to be fun, interesting or different.  They learn best when they have the opportunity to do the things that young children like to do: singing, dancing around, playing and laughing.

Confucius said:
I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.”
which is further clarified in the words of this Native American proverb:
“Tell me and I’ll forget.
Show me and I may not remember.
Involve me and I’ll understand.”
Both sayings emphasise the importance of children’s participation and involvement in their learning. 

When I was a secondary teacher, my colleagues and I had preconceptions about primary classrooms.  We thought that children were always up and down and out of their seats and unable to sit and listen.  It’s how we used to account for Year 7’s fidgeting and neediness.  But now I know differently.  Primary children work collaboratively, in pairs and in groups.  They change activities frequently to keep the pace going and to maintain interest.  Seating patterns are important and there is also a strong culture of helping others.  Much primary learning is characterised by active learning.  Children read, talk, write, describe, touch, interact, listen and reflect.  They learn by doing, thinking and exploring through planned and quality interactions.  The child is not a passive observer.

So what sort of activities and materials should we be aiming to include in our language lessons?  The learning set-up is a bit different to other subjects as the children rely more on the teacher as the source of knowledge than maybe they do elsewhere.

Let’s start with flashcards.  Of course they are very useful for the teacher when presenting new language to the class, but once the teacher has finished with them, they can be handed over to the children to help them to practise the new words and phrases.  They are easy to manipulate and require no ICT after you’ve made them.  And they always work when the computer, for some reason, doesn’t.  Children are very good at thinking of ways to practise new language in pairs or groups with sets of small cards.

Dominoes are a pair or group activity ideal for revising prior learning or indeed for practising new language.   There is the possibility of matching up words with pictures, words with words or even words with numbers.  How about matching up the two halves of a sentence?  There are many possibilities, all of which require the children to discuss the answer together and arrive at a decision.

Moving on one step from dominoes are shape puzzles, or Tarsias, as they are now more commonly known.  Each side of each shape has a word or picture that needs to be matched with another word or picture so as to create the final shape.  When the Tarsia is finished, it can be used as a reference tool, stuck down on sugar paper and added to.

Sorting activities like Trash or Treasure or Venn diagrams oblige children to work together to find the links between words and phrases.  The more sorting they do, the more familiar they become with the selection of words and their functions.

For practising structure in writing try a game of Showdown.  Each group of children has a set of cards with phrases or sentences in English or in picture form that need to be written in the target language.  The group captain chooses a card and puts it on the table for the rest of the children to see.  They each write on their own mini whiteboard the phrase or sentence that the card requires.  When they have all finished, the captain says “Showdown” and all members of the group show what they have written.  They discuss, looking at the evidence they now have, what the correct answer is.

For another way to practise structure, use dice, multi-link, Lego or paper chains. 
Each number or colour relates to a part of a sentence or an individual word.

There is even something as simple as giving each child a Post-It and asking them to test each other on the words you have been learning and note down the results on the Post-it for you.  Everyone will be busy, it will only be a short activity, and there won’t be lots of children sitting bored and restless while the teacher has to go round testing individuals.

When the class is playing a game like Chef d’Orchestre or Hide and Seek they will be enthusiastically speaking the language, but not thinking about it – the language is the means of winning the game or helping a classmate to find the answer.

And going right back to basics, every time the children repeat a word and perform an action to go with it, they are responding physically to the language, but also being active learners and involving themselves in the learning.

The children have their journey, each school and teacher has theirs, and we all have our own way of walking, our own style and our own preferences. 

The national journey

Where are we in terms of our national journey?

I recently invited teachers to complete a survey so as to find out a bit more about what is happening in the world of Key Stage 2 Languages.  There were 160 responses, representing 160 schools, which admittedly is only a tiny proportion of all the schools in England, but I think the answers give a good idea of what is happening.

76% of schools offer French, and 34% Spanish.  You’ll see that the percentages don’t add up to 100, and of course this means that some schools are offering more than one language.  Some schools offer two, and a smaller number offer three.  As you can see, the percentages for German, Italian and Mandarin are very low compared to French and Spanish.  This is probably largely to do with teacher expertise and experience, as well as being a reflection of the number of resources and the amount of support that is available for each language.  It is interesting to compare this with the same question posed to KS3 teachers.  There is a lot more German offered in KS3 while the French and Spanish are quite similar.

Language learning in the primary phase is only statutory in KS2, but about half of respondents said that their children learn a language in KS1 as well.  In the case of the school where I teach French, French lessons happen every other half term, so a half term on, half term off pattern.  Starting in Year 2 means that by the end of KS2 they have had more time overall.

More than half of the teaching is done by language specialists.  It is difficult to know how much the results of this survey are skewed by the profile of those responding.  Although more and more schools do seem to be going down the route of having a specialist do their Languages lessons for them.  I have been approached by 3 schools in the last few weeks.  We need to bear in mind the impact that this will have on staff skills.  If teachers are at a school where a specialist delivers the language lessons, and they then move to a school where they are expected to deliver the language themselves, they will have no experience to draw on.

The vast majority of children have their language lessons once a week, throughout Key Stage 2.  The new Programme of Study doesn’t specify a time allocation for the teaching of Key Stage 2 Languages, and the DfE has been less than forthcoming.  The Framework recommends an hour a week, saying that this hour can be cut into, say two half hours or three lots of 20 minutes.  There are some schemes of work, the Jolie Ronde for example, whose plans allow for several short lessons per week rather than one long one.  It is surprising, therefore, that very few schools appear to be going for the “little and often” model.  Maybe it’s just that it’s easier to timetable for and actually teach a longer session.
The majority of children have languages lessons that are between 30 and 60 minutes.  Personally my Spanish lessons work out at about an hour, and the French at about 45 minutes.  It’s also good to see that Year 6 don’t appear to be missing out on their language lessons too much.

It’s when examining some of the issues raised by this survey that we trip over some of the obstacles that have been left scattered on our road.  One the biggest obstacles is the big thorny briar that is Key Stage 2-Key Stage 3 Transition.  The word Transition in itself is misleading, as it implies a change.  However we now have a 7-14 Languages continuum, and we should be aiming for the journey to be as seamless as possible to maximise the progress.  It is clear, though, that at the moment this is not happening.

I asked teachers if they sent transition information for their Year 6s to the secondary schools.  26% of teachers said yes, 56% said no.  I also asked KS3 teachers if they receive information from their feeder primary schools.  8% said that yes, they receive the information from all or most of their feeders.  34% receive information from some of their feeders.  48% of secondary schools do not receive anything.  This means that about half of secondary teachers do not know what their new Y7s will have been doing in KS2, the language that they have been learning, and what they have covered.  If we don’t tell them this information, we are doing the children a huge disservice and probably consigning them to a Year 7 of repeating what they have already done in Key Stage 2.

In order to look in more depth at the situation I asked some more questions of the Year 7 teachers.  Only 21% agreed that their new Y7s will continue the same language that they started in KS2.  Only 40% agreed that they have adjusted their Year 7 Schemes of Work to take into account KS2 experience.  63% agreed that they disregard KS2 experience and effectively start again with Year 7.

All of this is disheartening for those of us who spend so much time investing in the linguistic future of Key Stage 2 children.  It is clear that the two phases have a lot to do.  Communication must take place and those links must be made.  Transition is so important, and can’t be ignored under the pretext of “We have so many feeder primary schools it would be impossible” or similar.  We have to make KS2 Languages work.  We have come too far down the road to let it fail now.

Transition isn’t our only obstacle, of course.  There are other obstacles such as Ofsted, who are reluctant to tell us what exactly they will be looking for apart from that it will be inspected in the same way as the other Foundation subjects.  They don’t appear to be taking a huge amount of interest in the subject, and don’t appear to be voluntarily observing lessons during inspections.


I’m on my way I’m making it
I’ve got to make it show, yeah
So much larger than life
I’m gonna watch it growing

It has been a long, long road, but we have the destination in our sights.  We’re on our way, we’re making it.  Great things are happening, we’ve got to make it show, and we are making it show.  We need to continue along the same road, wearing the same very suitable shoes, with the same backpack full of our best tips and tricks, walking briskly, resolutely and confidently, watching the children’s learning and love of languages growing. 

We’re on our way!

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