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Teaching foreign languages in primary schools: have we learned our lessons?

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Michele Morin, a languages teacher and former PGCE MFL student at Canterbury Christ Church University, looks at the transition challenges for Modern Foreign Languages from primary to secondary schools. She considers how to maximise the benefits of Primary Modern Foreign Languages (PMFL) teaching.

Union flag tongueEngland is ranked the worst country in Europe for the level of acquisition of foreign languages amongst teenagers (EC 2012). And yet for decades, English schools have tried to improve this situation, perhaps most notably through experimenting with teaching modern foreign languages in primary schools (PMFL). Clearly, something has gone wrong.

The first major PMFL trial in English schools, French from 8, was conducted from 1966 to 1974. It was cancelled when the Burstall report found no noticeable difference in language progression between children who had studied PMFL and those who began for the first time in Year-7. This report, however, was challenged because it lacked a satisfactory control group, and focussed on ‘profit and loss’ rather than conditions for success (Hoy 1976). Policy was being developed in a vacuum, with no clear goals or objectives. There was inadequate funding and support for capable teachers and no integration of the primary and secondary curricula. The lack of attention to these critical success considerations has been shown to have counter-productive outcomes or even a negative impact (McLachlan 2009).

What came out of this?

In 2002, the National Languages Strategy proposed that all Key Stage 2 children should have an ‘entitlement’ to learn MFL by 2010. There was no clear understanding of what this actually meant in practice.

In a recent announcement, Elizabeth Truss, education minister, indicated that from September 2014, PMFL will become a ‘statutory subject’ at KS2. Primary schools can choose from seven foreign languages: French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Mandarin, as well as Latin or Ancient Greek. Unsurprisingly, the first three are the most preferred choices.

Truss, though, stressed the need to consider Mandarin, which is ‘vital for the economic future of our country’. This highlights the continuing trend towards the corporatisation of education: potential economic value is more important to the government than the intrinsic and cultural justifications for learning a new language.

It is reasonable, then, to assume that given this importance, great attention will be paid to the lessons-learned over the past four decades or so.

But is this the case?

The key challenge has not changed since the 1960s: a comprehensive and enabling primary-to-secondary transition process based on coherent MFL pedagogy is critical. To date, though, there has been no attempt to coordinate the teaching of PMFL with the secondary National Curriculum needs. Primary schools have been responsible for choosing which languages to teach, as well as course content, delivery, and duration. These decisions are usually based on the language knowledge (or lack of) and availability of current primary teaching staff.

Therefore, KS2 pupils transitioning to secondary schools have been exposed to an inconsistent quality and quantity of PMFL teaching. This transition is further complicated by the absence of meaningful KS2 pupils’ assessments and inadequate to non-existent communications between primary and secondary schools. Continuity, which is essential to ensuring pupils’ progression is seriously compromised. This remains the crux of the programme put forward by Truss.

Nevertheless, pupils seem to enjoy learning languages in KS2. Consequently, they generally arrive in Year-7 with more positive attitudes towards other countries’ languages and cultures (Cable et al. 2012). But given the transition problems highlighted above, secondary teachers usually feel obliged to ‘start from scratch’ (Bolster 2009; Evans & Fisher 2012; Jones 2010), thus negating the value provided by PMFL teachers. This is also detrimental to the pupils, themselves: those with a greater knowledge of the (actual secondary) MFL are likely to become bored, demotivated, and disengaged.

How can we maximise the benefits of PMFL teaching?

Clearly, it is essential to build upon PMFL knowledge and not simply ‘start from scratch’. Allowing primary schools to choose which language(s) they wish to teach irrespective of wider, holistic needs is simply irresponsible. Coordinated transition arrangements that ensure positive continuity and progression between primary and secondary MFL education are, therefore, crucial. Certain activities have been shown to help substantially:

  • reciprocal visits for KS2/KS3 teachers to develop familiarity with their respective classes;
  • standardised assessment records including PMFL information;
  • pupil ‘portfolios’ to be transferred to secondary schools;
  • MFL-specific secondary school visits for Year-6 pupils (e.g., ‘French day’, parents’ information evenings, induction days).

None of this, though, addresses the key issue of PMFL consistency. This will require a coherent centralised policy that supports strong leadership, high levels of training and support, and appropriate provision of resources. Policy should be designed to ensure consistency of both methods and delivery of PMFL. The vague National Curriculum reference to KS3 building ‘upon the foundations’ of KS2 should be taken to mean that the KS2 curriculum be developed as a precursor to a revised KS3/KS4 curriculum otherwise failure is probable (DfE 2013:229).

Only nationally designed schemes of work of the highest quality (unlike earlier QCA schemes for other subjects) might assure KS2 content capable of replacing elements of the existing KS3 curriculum. And only specialist language teachers can deliver such a programme: this necessitates an enhanced primary teacher training process, something previously implemented and stopped by the government. Furthermore, a carefully planned differentiation programme (e.g., ability-based sets) will be needed to maximise the effectiveness of KS2-KS3 continuity (Evans & Fisher 2012). Finally, it should be recognised that a successful PMFL implementation will accelerate the path to current GCSE-level qualifications. Ultimately, then, GCSE and A-Level standards for MFL will have to be raised.

But is this enough?

No. Without the total commitment of the government, none of this will succeed. Clear policies and enhanced training to ensure the proper supply of qualified teachers are urgent needs. If the government is serious about its rationales and objectives, then it should do its utmost to ensure that a new PMFL programme serves its purpose: it must work. And this means learning from past mistakes: even –especially – the government should not be exempt from following the most elementary of teaching principles: learning from your mistakes.


Bolster, A. (2009). Continuity or a fresh start? A case study of motivation in MFL at transition,KS2–3, The Language Learning Journal, 37:2, 233-254

Cable, C., Driscoll, P., Mitchell, R., Sing, S., Cremin, T., Earl, J., Eyres, I., Holmes, B., Martin, C. and Heins, B. (2012). Language learning at Key Stage 2: findings from a longitudinal study, Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 40:4, 363-378

Evans, M. and Fisher, L. (2012) Emergent communities of practice: secondary schools’ interaction with primary school foreign language teaching and learning, The Language Learning Journal, 40:2, 157-173

Hoy, P. (1976). The Conditions for Success. Strasbourg. France: Council of Europe.

Jones, J. (2010). The role of Assessment for Learning in the management of primary to secondary transition: implications for language teachers, The Language Learning Journal, 38:2, 175-191

McLachlan, A. (2009): Modern languages in the primary curriculum: are we creating conditions for success?, The Language Learning Journal, 37:2, 183-203


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2 Responses to Teaching foreign languages in primary schools: have we learned our lessons?

  1. Laura Tuesday, 21 April 2015 at 18:00 #

    I just wanted to write a short comment to say I really enjoyed reading this article. It clearly presents the issues surrounding transition from primary to secondary school and it has helped me to personally understand everything a little clearer due to focusing on just the key points in connection with this current issue. I feel the opinions are extremely valid and it has summarised for me how and why the issue has become an area of concern and what needs to be done. Thank you!


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