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Young Learners

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

January 31, 2009

Introducing Foreign Languages into UK Primary Schools

The introduction of English to Japanese elementary schools in 2011 for all 5th and 6th graders has a lot in common with the introduction of modern foreign languages (MFL) into British primary schools for all Key Stage 2 pupils from 2010. (Key Stage 2 corresponds to 2nd to 5th Grade in Japan, or students aged 7 to 11.) For example, the subject will not be a core part of the curriculum so there are guidelines but no fixed curriculum, regular class teachers with little subject knowledge will be expected to teach the foreign language in many schools, MFL is quite an unpopular subject among older children, MFL is not seen as an important subject by many people, and consequently British people are very poor at foreign languages compared with most other Europeans. Because of these similarities, the introduction of MFL to primary schools is probably of considerable interest to anyone involved with English education in Japanese elementary schools.

Government Policy
in 2007 the UK government announced that all children in Key Stage 2 would be entitled to learn an MFL from 2010. Many primary schools already have some MFL instruction but currently it is the decision of the individual school or Local Education Authority. However from 2010 it will be an entitlement area. This means that all children are entitled to learn an MFL but it will not be a core part of the national curriculum.

Which Language?
Due to its status as an entitlement area rather than a statutory subject, there is no fixed programme for MFL in primary schools. There are some guidelines, and detailed lesson plans are available from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) for French, German and Spanish. Schools are free to choose which language or languages they teach. French is the most popular MFL in primary schools, as it is in secondary schools, but schools also teach other European languages such as German, Spanish and Italian, and some schools teach community languages. Community languages are languages spoken in the community where the school is situated and which are probably the native language of some of the children in the school. Community languages include Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Gujarati, Chinese, and Somali. Schools can choose to teach the same language to every year group or can teach several languages throughout Key Stage 2. Obviously this is quite different from the situation in Japan where in mainstream schools the only foreign language taught is English. While other languages are not completely ruled out in elementary schools (the government textbook Eigo Noto and accompanying CD contains greetings in several languages) the focus is very much on English.

Types of Programme
The types of MFL instruction at British primary schools can roughly be divided into two types - language acquistion and language awareness, although in practice of course many programmes will be a mixture of the two. Language acquisition programmes aim to produce a certain level of proficiency in the target language while awareness programmes emphasise enjoyment. Acquisition programmes tend to focus on one language, have 1-2 hours of class time per week, incorporate four skills and start in the later stages of Key Stage 2. Awareness programmes can feature several languages, require up to one hour of class time per week, incorporate two skills (speaking and listening) and can begin in the lower part of Key Stage 2 or even before. The programmes envisaged in Japan are probably more towards the language awareness end of the spectrum although here too it will vary greatly from school to school.

In most cases the teacher providing the MFL instruction will be the regular class teacher, although specialist language teachers will also be used (mainly from secondary schools), as will native speakers of the target language.

By 2010 it is hoped that 6000 new primary school teachers will have completed a teacher training course specialising in MFL. The main teacher training course in Britain is the PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate of Education) which is a one year course completed after graduation from university. Several teacher training institutes are offering PGCEs in primary education with an MFL specialisation (French, German or Spanish typically). While acceptance on one of these courses doesn't require a degree in the target language, such a degree is preferred and more than 50% of entrants do have such a degree. Although the PGCE is too intensive to include much tuition in the target language, the course includes a four week stay in a country where the target language is spoken. During this stay the trainee teachers are placed in a primary school where they observe lessons and also teach part of the regular curriculum in the target language. Trainees who have a degree in the target language will also probably have spent six months or a year in a country where the target language is spoken, as most language degrees in the UK include a year spent overseas. It is also hoped that 18000 existing teachers and 9000 existing assistant teachers will also have received some kind of training to teach MFL by 2010.

Teachers who complete the PGCE with an MFL specialisation will be well-equipped to teach MFL. However, the majority of teachers teaching MFL for the first few years are likely to be regular class teachers who have very little subject knowledge in the language they are expected to teach. Many teachers may have only studied French, for example, for two or three years when they were at school. In some cases the language will be taught by non-specialist native speakers who may have little or no knowledge about language teaching or pedagogy in general. Specialist language teachers will have subject knowledge and teaching knowledge but may only have taught at the secondary level and may not have experience of teaching younger children.

Attitudes to MFL
Currently in the UK, MFL is only a compulsory subject in Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). In Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16) it is an entitlement area (students can study it if they wish but it isn't compulsory). From age 16 no subject is compulsory. MFL is not needed to gain acceptance into a university (unless, in some cases, the student wishes to study that language at university). English is spoken and understood throughout the world, and many British people generally don't anticipate ever needing another language. Attitudes towards MFL are generally quite negative, possibly due to the above reasons. MFL in Key Stage 3 focuses on 'communicative competence' which means students are expected to speak the foreign language rather then just learn vocabulary and grammatical rules. Children of this age are very self-conscious about speaking in a foreign language in front of their peers and this is another reason for the unpopularity of MFL. Introducing MFL at an earlier age aims to overcome this problem by enabling children to begin speaking other languages while they don't have the self-consciousness of older children and while they are in the comfortable surroundings of primary school. In the long run it is hoped that more children will choose to continue studying an MFL in Key Stage 4 and beyond.

A Case Study of a Primary School with a Successful Programme
As mentioned above, some primary schools are already offering MFL to their students. Byron Wood Primary School is an inner city school in Sheffield. The area is high in unemployment and low in educational achievement. There are a large number of immigrants in the area and in the school. French is taught to some extent to all students in Key Stages 1 and 2. In Year 5 (age 9-10) a language awareness programme allows children to learn a little of several languages. In Year 6 (age 10-11) children can choose from French, Spanish, German, Somali, Urdu and Arabic. The school budget allows one specialist language (French) teacher to visit the school one afternoon per week. This teacher teaches French to Key Stage 1 students and also provides French lessons for regular teachers who can then continue the French tuition in Key Stage 2. Other languages are taught by non-specialist native speakers such as students from Sheffield University and local community members. Regular teachers and these visitors plan lessons together.

Sheffield primary schools have a link with IUFM in Bordeaux, France (a teacher training institute) allowing French newly qualified teachers to spend the summer term teaching in Sheffield primary schools. The French teachers stay with host families and spend three weeks in a primary school, teaching French for 15 hours per week. Byron Wood Primary School has been able to benefit from this programme as well.

More information about MFL in UK primary schools can be found at
(general information about MFL in all key stages)
(schemes of work for Key Stage 2 French)

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I can't say that British people are poor in foreign languages. I know a lot of young people from British who can speak three or four languages.

Its all very well but do they really know what they are doing? From my experience as working along side japanese teachers in elementary schools the kids new more about the English language than the teachers.
Another concern is will this affect small private English schools?

I have met teacher teaching French and as a native to the language I was really disappointed that such a beautiful language is completly distorted by non specialist teacher. I beleive in more training...

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