The news that GCSE entries for languages have risen significantly this year after almost a decade of steady decline is welcome, not least in the light in the continued drop of pupils in Key Stage 5 studying languages at A level. However, behind the headline statistics lies the fact that it is the introduction of the Ebacc as an accountability measure that is largely responsible for the increased uptake in languages at Key Stage 4. Whilst there is nothing wrong with that per se, a far healthier position would be one where pupils are opting to take a language to KS4 out of choice, rather than doing so in order to boost their school’s position in the league tables.
For the turn of the tide to become a more permanent reality it is ever more important that pupils’ experience of languages at Key Stage 3 is a positive and motivating one so that they actively choose to continue with their language learning beyond the age of thirteen or fourteen. The start of a new school year with a fresh cohort of pupils in year 7 presents an opportunity for language teachers at secondary level to reflect and ask themselves some serious questions about the language learning experience they offer to their new intake. To what extent have they liaised with primary colleagues (and vice versa) over content, methodology and pupil attainment? Are there flexible timetabling arrangements in place that allow for pupils who have already reached a certain level in their language learning to be grouped together so that they build on what they have learnt, or is it a case of ‘all back to square one and start again’? Of course, there can sometimes be practical reasons why it may be difficult to address some of these transition issues but they are ignored at everyone’s peril.
Practical issues aside, there are some strategies that can be adopted to ensure pupils are engaged and stay motivated. Activities, such as open-ended speaking and writing tasks, where support can be tailored to individual needs and interests allow pupils to demonstrate what they know and are able to do; this can inform planning for teaching and learning. Allowing pupils some freedom of choice over the types of tasks to be tackled gives them a sense of autonomy and independence that is likely to keep them motivated rather than not. Ensuring that the content of lessons is relevant and of interest to learners is also crucial. In this context authentic resources, possibly on topics to do with another curriculum area, such as geography or history, can really help to maintain pupils’ interest in language learning, especially when they involve active learning techniques and collaboration with other learners.
Finally it is worth remembering that September 26th is European Day of Languages – a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and raise the profile and importance of language learning.