As we linguists eagerly await news of the recent DfE consultation on proposals for primary languages, I’ve been wondering how generalist primary teachers feel about the Government’s plans to make foreign languages compulsory at Key Stage 2.
In my job as a teacher educator, one of my roles is to provide ‘Languages for all’ sessions to those primary trainee teachers not specialising in languages. Although the total number of hours allocated to these sessions is tiny compared with other subjects, students do get a taste of the basics – how to start planning a languages lesson, where to go for ideas, how to use minimal target language to maximum effect, and so on.
One theme we return to time and again is how to use stories in effective teaching and learning languages, and given the often limited range of languages and linguistic expertise amongst generalist primary teachers, I am constantly amazed at the quality of the work they can produce when working with familiar resources such as story books.
It’s widely accepted that story-telling can directly affect children’s literacy levels and overall success at school. Research tells us that children who are exposed to story book reading tend to have larger vocabularies, greater general knowledge and better conceptual development than their peers, not to mention better concentration spans and listening skills. It makes sense therefore that stories can be used effectively at Key Stage 2, and beyond, to support language learning.
If pupils are exposed to stories which are familiar to them, they can be challenged with increasingly unfamiliar language to enable them to make progress in the language. Conventional schemes of work suggest teachers should start with topics, and then conjure up interesting contexts in which to explore the topic, which takes a lot of thinking and planning time to engage and motivate learners. Stories turn this idea on its head. Whether they are fairy tales, real-life stories, familiar or traditional tales, fables, stories which have been created or adapted around a particular subject, they can provide rich opportunities for pupils to experience the language holistically, enabling them to start with the big picture and then break it down into ‘chunks’, rather than the other way round.
Not only do stories provide ready-made, fun and enjoyable contexts into which language is woven, the language itself is often high frequency, high value language which pupils can recycle again and again, equipping them with the tools to participate when they feel ready, to develop strategies, to make links with literacy and develop their knowledge about language. But perhaps most significant of all, stories can bridge the gap between pupils’ receptive and productive skills. Ofsted: Achievement and Challenge 2007-2012, observed that schools ‘did not begin teaching extended writing early enough in Key Stage 3 for students to make good progress in being creative and expressing themselves spontaneously from early in their language learning’.
Perhaps by moving the spotlight away from topic-driven, noun-pumping, language-based courses and ‘magpie-ing’ ideas from their own quality, tried and tested primary pedagogy, primary colleagues will see that a little language can go a long way.