What is going wrong with MFL teaching?

There is a fascinating sequence in the semi autobiographical film ‘Entre les Murs’ where the teacher François is explaining the imperfect subjunctive to a class of inner city Parisian kids. They heatedly debate the importance of learning language that only “snobs” use, and that their knowing this tense would never be remotely applicable to them in every day life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when they doubt anyone ‘normal’ would use this tense (and he freely admits to using it the previous night with friends), they accuse him of being posh (and/or gay). He insists that there will be a longer-term advantage to their knowing about this kind of language, and they shouldn’t criticise until they have mastered it.

His refusal to compromise to his students indicates a very high level of challenge, but is clearly a high-risk strategy too. He is well liked by his learners and is happy to engage in the debate with them. When I have used this extract with MFL teachers it has always provoked some interesting and extreme responses, ranging from “He’s right, but I could never get away with that in my school”, to “How dare he try to impose his language on those children?”

London Gifted & Talented have been engaged in a 4 year programme with several partnerships of independent and state schools across the country, looking at the critical skills and behaviours required for high achievement in Modern Languages and what can provide a high challenge environment for able linguists. At conferences and in training events nationally we have often been surprised by the number of MFL teachers who feel uneasy in adopting the strategies used by colleagues in other subjects to stretch and challenge their students. We also frequently hear of a variety of barriers which seem to be set against attempts to extend and enrich the MFL curriculum.

The High Risk Fear Factor?

A number of recent surveys and studies have indicated that learners see the role of their teacher as even more significant in MFL than in other subjects. Often they say that they will take the subject because of the trust they have in who is teaching it. This could be because MFL requires teenagers to risk performing ‘foreign’ and potentially pretentious practices in front of their ‘hyper critical’ peers. But what is interesting and necessarily provocative is that it would appear from the same studies that students tend to also regard learning in MFL as about being spoon-fed, working through a scheme, with the textbook as a monotonous reality. If this is blunt and difficult to ignore as a ‘criticism’, it may be worth asking why this recurrent observation seems to be obscuring more open and creative approaches to learning in languages. Are students really not seeing the ‘big ideas’ of learning in languages in the routine of the classroom?

For what it is worth, Ofsted seem to agree. In several reports in the last 3 years they have observed a number of weaknesses in schemes of work for modern languages. They observe that they tended to replicate the content of the course books or examination requirements. The result has been lessons of “mainly mundane and lexical content which failed to capture students interest…Few of the schemes seen indicated how students of different abilities might be taught. Too often, the teaching was uninspiring and did not bring the language to life for pupils….teachers need to broaden approaches to teaching and learning to enthuse students and increase their confidence, competence and ambition in modern languages…and how they build on students’ prior attainment…More generally, ICT (needs to be) used effectively to give pupils access to a variety of authentic voices…”

Can these findings offer pointers for lesson improvement? Do they raise questions about the nature of the subject itself? Is it sometimes about the difficulties of teaching a second language to learners who have little interest/ see it as too hard/ are already learning English as a second language? Does it say anything about the effects of wider societal issues that may be responsible for differences in language motivation/competence?

It is interesting that the findings detailed above seem to pay their regard to what is not happening in Modern Languages lessons, starting with what teachers are not doing, rather than what they could do. This may be a reason why colleagues might be less willing to experiment with their practice. Is there evidence of wider cautiousness? Why do such highly professional and rigorous teachers seem to condemn themselves to lessons which are too often tedious for them too?

The many schools and teachers we have worked with report that families often fail to see Modern Languages as a serious academic subject, particularly at Advanced/degree level and encouraged students to opt for other courses. This is coupled with a perception on the part of students that languages are simply ‘hard’. As a result, competition between subjects has often resulted in MFL departments losing their best linguists to ‘easier’ subjects or ones with apparently clearer career paths.

We have worked in very close partnership with our schools to strengthen the perception of languages and to encourage positive student choices to be made. Although the EBacc may encourage schools to promote further study of languages at GCSE, this needs to be for the right reasons. Our schools have highlighted what they see to be a number of priorities in developing positive engagement.

Authentic material and voice is regarded as an essential – but far more rarely used in many schools than ‘safer’ textbooks which seem to offer the safety of coverage and encourage a certain caution or fear of straying too far from the path. One MFL colleague commented that any departures from text books always left her with feelings of both anxiety and vertigo.

The nature of the exam itself at GCSE can be tedious for more able linguists, who are then not motivated to continue to AS or A2. Controlled assessment can more often than not amount to ‘contrived assessment’, designed primarily to secure evidence of performance. A far cry from an experience which would give students the opportunity to show what they are capable of at something like the limit of their ability, which would include a consequently greater risk of getting things wrong.

This preoccupation with coverage and accuracy is telling of a number of issues and may even represent many teachers and departments seemingly tying their own hands. At its most extreme these shackles seem to reflect a belief that learners cannot think unless they are given the language to express their thinking. The serious concern that many colleagues have expressed is that unless the fixation with languages as ‘knowledge of vocabulary’ by topic is abandoned in favour of an ongoing narrative that is skills based, then language teaching will continue to be seen as rather quaint and cautious.

Where else/useful follow up?

Modern languages, Achievement and challenge 2007–2010 (January 2011) 100042

Ofsted Subject Specific guidance section 5 evaluation schedule ‘Generic grade descriptors and supplementary subject-specific guidance for inspectors on making judgements during visits to schools.’ (February 2012)

‘Report on Modern Languages Achievement and Challenge 2007-2010, published in January 2011 Reference no: 100042’ as this highlights some key areas that MFL teachers have been encouraged to focus on by Ofsted.

Bartram, B. (2005). ‘The lessons don’t influence me’: societal influences on pupils’ attitudes to foreign language learning in England, Germany and the Netherlands, Education-Line, available at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/143083.htm.

Bartram, B. (2006). Comparing language learning attitudes: some methodological considerations, Research in Comparative and International Education, 1(1), 56–72.

Chambers, G. (1999). Motivating Language Learners, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Clark, A. and Trafford, J. (1995). Boys into modern languages: an investigation of the discrepancy in attitudes and performance between boys and girls in modern languages, Gender and Education, 7(3), 315–25.