One of the more disturbing statistics to emerge from the recently published Language Trends survey was the fact that only 46% of the primary schools surveyed had had any contact with the language specialists in their local secondary schools and only 11% of the secondary schools in the survey had received or requested data on the attainment of pupils in key stage 2 entering their schools. With the introduction of statutory languages in primary schools from September 2014 and a revised national curriculum for key stage 3 that is based on the premise that pupils entering secondary schools will have had four years of language learning behind them it will no longer be enough for secondary schools to simply ‘start again’ with pupils in year 7.
For too long this has been seen as the solution by some secondary schools and has led to much frustration amongst some primary practitioners who feel that their work has not been recognised or is undervalued. Pupils too, who have had several years of language learning behind them, can become de-motivated if they feel they are going over too much familiar old ground, and if there is a mismatch between the methodologies used in the primary and secondary sectors. By the same token however, secondary schools are sometimes justifiably critical of the patchy provision and mixed experience that may characterise some of their intake. There are of course examples of excellent practice where the two sectors are ‘joined up’ ensuring that pupils have a coherent and enriching language learning experience; the results of the survey however, suggest that these are far from the norm.
Co-ordination and dialogue notwithstanding there are however, a number of steps that secondary schools can take to address some of these issues:
• Linguistic structures and vocabulary can be revisited but with a different focus, one that presents more of a cognitive challenge. Looking at colours, for example, can be done in the context of flags from countries around the world and linked to the ideals and concepts that the individual colours represent. Pupils could think about what values are important to them and how they might represent aspects of their identity in a flag.
• Activities that require pupils to think about issues, to rank them in order of importance and to give a reason for their choices are more challenging and motivating than activities that simply require learners to label and describe. This might involve pupils in considering what they regard as essential in their everyday life and comparing that with what a young person of their age, but living under different circumstances such as in a less economically developed country, might think is essential. It could be looking at pictures of a typical classroom or bedroom in different countries around the world and talking about the reasons for the differences.
• A CLIL (content and language integrated learning) approach could be adopted whereby another subject (geography, history, science, citizenship etc) is taught through the medium of a language. The vocabulary of numbers and places, for example, could either be introduced or revisited with year 7 pupils whilst developing their map reading skills in a geography lesson: knowing how to use numbers to give grid co-ordinates, understanding what the symbols represent on a map, understanding the concept of scale and how to measures distances on a map, as well as giving simple directions.
• Exposing pupils to the culture of the target language country (countries) as much as possible, by giving a cultural “twist” to whatever context, theme, skill or grammar point they are being taught. They might, for example compare statistics for the most popular sports/types of music/food in their own country with those in the target language country (countries) and talk about the reasons for the similarities and/or differences.
• Starting from a text, whether spoken or written, an approach that is commonplace in the primary sector, enables pupils to see language used in context and to gain the confidence to tackle longer texts, including those from authentic sources, at an earlier stage. Time can then be spent focusing on grammatical structures and items of vocabulary featured in the text.
These are just a few examples of how a relatively small change can be made to the curriculum content in the secondary languages classroom that can make all the difference to pupils’ language learning experience, and ultimately to their motivation and desire to continue with their language learning beyond key stage 3.