Language learning in primary schools - policy has clear potential but could do better

  • Date

    Tue 5 Mar 19

pupils in classroom

Four years after it became compulsory for children to learn a foreign language at primary school, researchers have assessed the success of the new policy and have concluded that while it has potential, it needs more support to ensure its success

The Research in Primary Languages (RiPL) network, which includes academics from seven leading universities, teachers, and policy makers, found language provision across the country was patchy and Britain lags behind other European countries when it comes to language learning and teaching.

 Professor Florence Myles, from our Department of Language and Linguistics, leads the RiPL network and explained: “It’s clear from our research that simply requiring all primary schools to teach a foreign language is not enough.

“There are schools which illustrate exemplary practice, but a high-quality curriculum is not consistently provided in all schools and children do not receive equal opportunities to learn a new language. To raise standards in language proficiency, in line with other European countries, schools need central guidance and support in a number of key areas.

“At this critical moment in the country’s history, it is particularly important for young people to develop a global outlook and the confidence and motivation to connect with others around the world. Getting the right skills in languages from an early age assumes an even greater importance. This is crucial if we are to reverse the falling number of pupils studying languages at GCSE and  A-Level.”

Following a policy summit, held at the British Academy and attended by  major national stakeholders, the RiPL network are publishing a White Paper with recommendations for an implementation strategy for primary languages in England including:

  • Doubling the amount of time spent on language teaching – in England many primary schools only provide 30 minutes a week, which equates to just over 2% of available curriculum time. This is much lower than other European countries. In Spain the figure is 10%, in Italy it is 9% and in France, Germany and Finland 6% of curriculum time is spent on foreign languages.RiPL suggests a minimum of an hour a week.
  • Providing specialist language training for primary teachers - not just when they start training, but throughout their careers. This should include better use of digital technology to aid learning and teaching.
  • Providing more guidance on what should be taught and when, with examples of best practice to guide teachers. There should also be a nationally-recognised benchmark of what pupils are expected to know by the time they leave primary school.
  • Improving transition arrangements between primary and secondary schools – the current lack of continuity in curriculum planning means secondary teachers take little or no account of prior learning, so pupils are demotivated when they repeat what they have already learned at primary school.

RiPL also suggests language provision should be included in Ofsted inspections and says the Department for Education should consider setting up a National Task Force for Primary Languages, which would support school-led improvement in the teaching of languages in primary schools.