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A Critical Analysis of MFL: Their Place in the Curriculum and Their Implementation

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Published: 16th Dec 2019

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A critical analysis of MFL: their place in the curriculum and their implementation in practice with a focus on the use of “authentic sources” to make languages more relevant to pupils.

Post-truth Brexit Britain represents the triumph of insularity and isolationism – a view shared by most academics who promote the teaching and learning of modern languages in Britain (Academics for Britain in Europe, 2016). The anti-immigration rhetoric deployed in the referendum debate played on suggestions that Britons feel “uncomfortable” living next door to people whose first language is not English. There is considered concern that “divisions on a range of big questions are widening and exacerbating tensions in our society” (England, 2016).

Now more than ever, it is the study of language and culture that can combat stereotypes and foster the communicative skill and cross-cultural understanding needed to ensure peaceful and prosperous relations between European states (Modern and Medieval Languages Faculty Board Cambridge University, 2016).

The 2013 National Curriculum (“NC”) opens the languages section with the statement:

Learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures. A high-quality languages education should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world. (DofE, 2013)

How does this sit in a society where “respected” journalists can claim that French is “bad for you” and “useless” (Paxman, 2016)?

For Britain to remain part of a globalised world there is an “ever urgent need for Britain to make its language skills a top policy issue” Baroness Coussins calls for “a national plan to ensure the UK produces the linguists we need to become a world leader in global free trade and on the international stage” (British Council, 2016).

Key policy changes have occurred in England regarding language learning in the last 2 decades.

In 2004 language study beyond age 14 became optional, and the number of pupils taking a GCSE in a Modern Foreign Language (“MFL”) decreased dramatically.

Subsequently the ‘EBacc’ was introduced in 2011, a performance measure for schools assessing the percentage of pupils gaining a good GCSE in five subjects, including a MFL. Schools scurried to deliver and a few years ago the number of GCSE students stabilised – even improved. This “EBacc bounce” was short-lived, and after an 8 % jump between 2011 and 2013 the number of GCSE students has plateaued. “The EBacc is having very little impact on the numbers taking languages post-16” (Tinsley and Board, 2016 p.111).

In 2013 reform of GCSE, AS and A level qualifications was initiated. GCSEs were to become more demanding and rigorous, intended to make them more challenging so pupils are better prepared for further academic or vocational study, or for work (Adams R., 2013).

These new syllabi for GCSEs and A levels in MFL started at the same time as I embarked on this course with the first exams to be taken in 2018. Not only will GCSE grades shift from letters (A* to G) to numbers (9 to 1) but schools too will receive a progress score that measures every pupil’s final results against their ability on entry. Further, in September 2014 it was decided that language teaching in primary schools was to become compulsory – a potential solution to our monoglottish woes – but not only will the effect of this decision not be seen for years to come, more worrying is whether the secondary schools can assure students they will be able to learn that same language from Year 7 onwards as they did in primary school. Within School A only Spanish is offered in Year 7, irrespective of languages pupils may have taken previously. Sceptics still see the introduction of primary languages itself as the Government’s quid-pro-quo, albeit a delayed one, for removing statutory provision at Key Stage 4 (Coleman, 2009 p.13).

In 2015, the government announced that the studying of these EBacc subjects would no longer just be recognised; it would be expected. A target 90% of KS3 students was set. A language at GCSE, while not exactly compulsory, is therefore once again expected to be the norm. The first cohort of students the 90% target applies to will take their GCSEs in 2020. This has resulted in a slightly increased take-up at GCSE, but not beyond that and through into further education (Ofqual/16/6094).

The referendum simply joins the series of policy decisions that have over the years had the unintended consequence of causing a sharp decline of MFL in schools, the consequent closure of some fifty Modern Languages departments in UK universities and a teacher shortage that is ultimately contributing to the country’s trade deficit with the EU because the UK’s foreign language expertise is diminishing along with its languages graduates. (Kohl, 2016)

For undergraduates there is now the very real fear that Brexit could spell the end for the Erasmus Programme through which British students (among others) can study for up to a year abroad. The scheme’s UK Director Ruth Sinclair-Jones has said that it faces “a sad moment of uncertainty”. (Vulliamy, 2016)

Languages aren’t an easy guaranteed A grade option and latest GCSE results confirm a further decline in both entries and A grades (Ofqual/16/6094). OFQUAL, the exams watchdog, is currently investigating the grading issue (Ofqual/15/5797).

I am currently witnessing this first hand as the Year 9’s approach the selection date when they can opt to drop languages. In year 11 there are currently so few pupils wanting to take French and German on to A level that this could result in there being neither A level offered in 2017 due to class size.

The authors of the latest annual “Language Trends Survey” conclude that:

The perception by pupils and others of languages as a subject which is

  • harder than others;
  • more unreliable in terms of achieving the high grades needed for university entrance;
  • peripheral to success in terms of university applications or subsequent careers; and
  • not relevant to everyday lives and interests,

means that languages have an unhelpful, even negative reputation for many, including pupils, parents and school-based leaders. (Tinsley and Board, 2016 p. 158)

Britain’s language problem is endemic, stretching from the early years through to university, and the all-encompassing nature of the decline suggests its roots lie in British culture itself. Educational theorists have asserted that “Teaching languages other than English in L1 English-speaking nations is ‘a losing battle’ (Dörnyei and Czisér, 2002 p.455)

How do we as MFL teachers surf against the tide? Have we now lost the battle?

I aim to attempt to justify and defend the current position of MFL within the curriculum and promote its implementation in practice through addressing the four conclusive points that Tinsley and Board make in their 2016 report. I agree that languages are challenging; I note that the results are unpredictable as evidenced by the results above; that they are peripheral to success in university applications is becoming more the case, so the savvy pupil chooses subjects guaranteed to produce results. The remaining (and only) point that I could have any real influence over is how I can make languages more relevant in pupils’ everyday lives, thereby helping them to understand the advantages and benefits that speaking another language can bring.

Designed to specifically encourage teachers to enable and facilitate the four recognised key skills of reading, listening, writing and reading by incorporating relevant authentic materials as everyday tools, the current NC asks teachers to reflect on how they can utilise authentic “sources” to capture students’ interests.

This could be perceived as shifting focus back from the learner onto teachers to be the centre of teaching, which, since the 1970s has been more focused on the learner. Teachers must now make a proactive effort to source and use authentic sources. Clarke observes that the use of authentic materials is a “growing moral imperative” (Clarke 1989, p. 73).

In January 2011 Ofsted had this to say about KS3 MFL “Reading was not taught beyond exercises in coursebooks….and teachers made insufficient use … of authentic material …to develop students’ speaking, listening, writing, knowledge …and intercultural awareness” (Ofsted, 2011).

Barry Tomalin, suggested that teaching culture, its values and behaviour to introduce intercultural sensitivity and awareness is a fifth key language skill (British Council, 2008). The role of the MFL teacher should be reinforced with this fifth skill.

After communicative language teaching appeared in the late 1970s, the behaviourist theory was replaced by cognitive theories, linguistic competence gave way to communicative competence, and the nature of materials changed dramatically from artificiality to authenticity. Since then, selective use of unaltered text from the real world has been believed to provide meaningful learning experiences.

This is clearly visible in the new textbooks being used at School A preparing pupils for new style GCSEs and A levels. The French specification states they have included materials which “will inspire students who are interested in the culture of France and French-speaking communities and countries” (AQA, 2016).

More focus again on the teacher to make the students interested in the culture, but these textbooks do not achieve the stated aim alone and are virtually out of date when published. Used as tools they can provide guidance for teachers (Ur, 2011 p.187) on the broad topics the students may expect in the exams, but it is up to teachers to embellish the topics in more current and creative ways, sourcing authentic materials to do so. Indeed, the Scheme of Work set by School A follows these textbooks almost to the tee.

At School A I have had the opportunity to observe all 7 MFL teachers. Of most interest was the engagement of pupils, and it was clear that lessons which went well beyond the textbooks captured the class’s attention. In KS3 and 4 there was a heavy reliance on the textbooks (rarely sufficient for all), but audio accompaniments to some of the books were used and most students I observed were completely flummoxed. In contrast, when they had Ipads they were actively engaged, motivated and eager to follow instructions.

Whilst searching out a clearer definition of “authentic sources” my research took me through applied linguistics academic debates, to the works of some of the members of MATSDA (the Materials Development Association) (Tomlinson B. 2011 Preface).

Authentic texts have been defined as “…being written for a purpose other than pedagogic” (Wallace 2014, p70). They are written for native speakers and contain “real” language. They are “…materials that have been produced to fulfil some social purpose in the language community” (Peacock cited in Pinner, R. 2014) in contrast to non-authentic texts that are especially designed for language learning purposes.

In this essay I intend to explore some of the benefits of authentic sources, with the aim of making languages more relevant to young people.

Firstly, they are “one way of maintaining or increasing students’ motivation”. (Guariento & Morley, 2001, p. 347). Secondly, they provide authentic cultural information. (Clarke 1989). Thirdly they provide exposure to real language. (Peacock 1997). Fourthly “they relate more closely to learners’ needs and encourage leaners to be more relaxed and self-confident which in turn helps them learn faster (Dulay, Burt and Krashen, 1982 p.72); and finally they go a long way to producing students that are “fit for purpose”.

“Motivation is one of the most significant predictors of success in foreign language learning” (Coleman, Galaczi and Astruc, 2007).

For Little, there are two main truths about school life – “that young people learn at least as much outside the classroom as in it; and that young people learn more from each other than they do from adults” (Little, 2015).

MFL seems irrelevant to many pupils, particularly post-Brexit. Public attitude towards Europe and, by default the Europeans, is at an all-time low, in the press and media (Graham and Santos, 2015). UK’s declining take-up of language cannot be fully understood without looking beyond the school gates (Coleman 2009).

Motivating these students means taking them out of their comfort zones, even against the general consensus of their own families. Pupils are motivated to learn things that are important and meaningful to them. “Students lacking motivation to learn a language need variety and excitement” (Kilickaya, 2004).

Most students of secondary school age have regular, access to worldwide communities through the internet. Their inter-communication is virtually instantaneous. They are, in their own way, motivated to learn and acquire skills, to understand a new game, or to access a new platform, because it is relevant to them.

“Today’s students represent the first generation that has grown up with the toys and tools of the digital age” (Prensky, 2001). Various means of describing this generation, include Digital Natives (Prensky, 2001), and NetGen (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005). The NetGen are typically visually literate, and have the unique ability to weave together images, text, and sound in a natural way, and to assimilate disparate information from multiple sources (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005). “Digital natives prefer environments which facilitate social networking and excel when provided with immediate and tangible rewards” (Prensky, 2001).

Teachers need to embrace modern technology as a means of providing authentic texts, tasks and materials for learners.

“Learning with mobile devices is an educational response to societal transformation characterized among other things by the detraditionalization of established modes of media and communication in everyday life.” (Bachmair and Pachler, 2015)

Most of the sources I use are from the internet, and at least 75% of my time I have Ipads “booked out” to assist my class, as they are not permitted to use their own personal devices in the classroom, a policy which, if reviewed and reversed could be beneficial (Chun, Kern and Smith, 2016).

I asked a class of Year 8 whether they all had smartphones or ready access to the internet at home. Assured that they had, I set a homework on Père Fouettard in anticipation of December 6th St Nicolas Day.  Internet research created an opportunity for independent and autonomous learning exemplifying S2 (DfE 2012). The results were imaginative and stunning.

Introducing a clip of the Walt Disney “Les Cloches de Notre Dame” in its original version when discussing Paris and its landmarks with KS3 connected their world with what I was trying to teach them. I saw the immediate effect in the classroom, the realisation that the film was the same simply in a different language with a different title. I would choose a similar approach again, the material provided an engaging lesson and took into account the needs of the group and was well matched to achieve the outcome I needed (S4).

Introducing French blogger Cyprien to KS5 whilst discussing la technologie left them all, without my asking, subscribing to his blog. I knew that they had accessed this and was thus able to perform an ad hoc assessment (S6) when they asked me the meaning of “certain” words. This independent and autonomous learning should be instinctive at KS5, but in accordance with S2 I barely had to ask them to sign up.

These pupils have tools readily available to them outside of the classroom which assist their learning, embodying all 5 language skills of listening, speaking, reading, writing and culture. I have set up interactive modules for them to work on in their own time, utilising the concept of flipped learning – a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short vocabulary learning exercises such as Quizlet or Memrise can be viewed by students at home before the class, so that class time is devoted to exercises, projects, and discussions. This not only embodies S4, out of class activities consolidate and extend the knowledge and understanding students have already acquired, but has the added benefit of being a means to monitor progress and inform future planning for me (S6). It further assists in securing progression for individuals (S5) because of the varied challenges it offers all pupils.

Bringing relevance to young people’s lives via authentic cultural information entails the use of popular culture to introduce intercultural understanding; to enable pupils to appreciate the richness and diversity of other cultures and to recognise that there are different ways of seeing the world.

Young people today are more exposed to popular culture than any other age group. The media available to them forms a major psychological part of their lives and life styles. All pupils need to identify with something, and a large proportion of them choose popular culture, which acts as a bond between them.

“Belonging to a group is very important to people. We all seek belonging be it with other people or on a more abstract level, with a school of thought or belief” (Hah, 2016).

Teenagers want to be part of and are strongly influenced by social media. I caught the attention of some KS4 students when mentioning that Radio 1 was seeking translators for a current French rap chart hit, and suggested we translate it together as a class exercise. We streamed the music, slowed it down, and had a go at translation. This was simply adapting my teaching to meet the needs of this group of students, and it proved an effective teaching approach in terms of their engagement (S5).

Radio 1 is running a #1millionhours asking listeners to pledge time as a volunteer. This has facilitated the teaching of le bénévolat to Year 12 as they can assimilate and connect. It suddenly appeared more tangible and real and (S1) generated high levels of enthusiasm, participation and commitment to learning.

Exposure to authentic materials can result in reactions of anxiety and frustration, but research has found that using engaging, appropriate and affordable technology can help alleviate student anxiety (Erbaggio et al., 2013). They need to feel they are doing something with a purpose in their mind plus be in a relaxing environment to discuss their own culture and the target culture.

“The ‘best’ teacher is neither the native nor the non-native speaker, but the person who can help learners see relationships between their own and other cultures, can help them acquire interest in and curiosity about ‘otherness’, and an awareness of themselves and their own cultures seen from other people’s perspectives. (Byram, Gribkova and Starkey, 2002)”

On National Poetry Day I introduced to all classes a poem by the late president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, reminding them that French is the official language of many different countries, reinforcing literacy across the curriculum but also drawing on my own in-depth subject knowledge (S3).

Jean-Marc Dewaele states his belief that languages inspire respect for other cultures; “it makes people more open-minded and tolerant of foreign values and practices and it improves emotional stability” (Rutter, 2016).

Dörnyei (quoted in Stefánsson, 2013, p.20) states that “The teacher is not only considered an instructor but also a role model, motivator, mentor, consultant.”

All MFL language learners need exposure to real language. Almost any second language learner who is provided with sufficient exposure to the target language will outperform those who are not given the opportunity to practice the target language in a social environment. (Stefánsson, 2013, p.25) With the re-emergence of the insistence on grammar in the NC the need for adequately qualified teachers (Havergal C., 2016) and the means to provide students with and taste for how the language sounds is brought to the fore (Ofsted 2008, p.47).

Research in the United States has found a direct positive correlation between language study and higher performance in maths, English and cognitive skills more generally (Caccavale cited in Tinsley and Han 2011)

I have witnessed this first hand when I have asked pupils to use dictionaries to source verbs in KS3, and overheard them expressing surprise at what a verb is.

In a powerpoint with KS5 on “le septième art” I squeezed in a “guess the film” vlog from French duo Caroline et Saskia; which for 20 minutes immersed them in rapid real French for their listening and comprehension skills S4. Pupils need ‘exposure to real language and its use in its own community’. Rogers (Rogers and Medley, 1988, p.467). This presentation (and many others) is now part of the depleted staff resources bank for the new curriculum (S4).

That English is the most used language to communicate at an international level (Mitchell, 2014) may now be in question (Steinhauser, 2016). Politicians have suggested that following Brexit English should no longer be classified as an official EU language, a debate that indicates the willingness of countries like France and Germany to revisit the EU’s language policy. (Fernandez Vitores, 2016)

In the UK nearly one in five primary school pupils has a first language other than English. If you speak English, the immediate benefits of learning another language seem less obvious. Since the language classroom is intended as a preparation for survival in the real world and as Clarke and Silberstein argued: Classroom activities should parallel the “real world” as closely as possible (Clarke and Silberstein, 1977, p.51). Authentic sources are a means of achieving this.

Of the 3 main values that an education can offer – intellectual development, social behaviour and emotional health –  emotional health or empathy (“the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”) is of fundamental importance in the holistic development of the character of a pupil, to help create an all-rounded person with a true sense of self-worth (Little, 2015).

Empathy provides a pupil with the foundation to trust and be trusted, and is at the core of everything that makes a society civilised. The pedagogical term – “authentic learning” has been suggested which directly relates to the students’ real lives and prepares them to face and deal with real world situations (Herrington and Oliver, 2000).

In a recent lesson with KS4 we were discussing the school system in France and I was able to link directly to a video produced by a 15 year old collègien to tell them about his daily school life. We plan to do the same in English and to respond to him online. Enabling these students to compare schools through the eyes of someone their own age has had a positive effect on the part of the syllabus we are covering (my daily routine). It has brought it to life, made it more tangible, and developed their linguistic and digital skills (S1 & S3).

Second language learning has both cognitive and emotional benefits. “One of these benefits that’s not obvious is that language learning improves tolerance, particularly tolerance of ambiguity” (Thompson, 2016).

People and skills are the heart of economic prosperity…Employers don’t just value what people know: they value what they can do … The majority of employers have concerns in these areas, whereas less than a quarter worry about formal qualifications. (Hardie, 2016 p.4)

Through its mobility of people and capital, its global technologies, and its global information networks, globalisation has changed the conditions under which foreign languages are taught, learned, and used (Kramsch, 2014).

The need to study a foreign language to bring about social and economic change has long been acknowledged by academics (Coleman, 2011). But the intangible benefits from being able to step outside a single language, culture and mode of thought and see the world through other people’s eyes are immeasurable.

“Employers value not only language skills per se, but the inherent skills and attributes – in particular the international and cultural awareness – that speaking a foreign language brings.” (Tinsley for the British Academy, 2013, pp. 15–15)

It is indisputable that there is a growing need for understanding across cultures to combat public distrust encouraged by the likes of Donald Trump surfing on the Brexit wave. Isolationism and protectionism, if taken too far, would break the trade-based economic engine that has delivered peace and prosperity to the world for decades (González, 2016).

Languages are soft skills, facilitating subjects, and necessary for entry to some universities, indeed UCL still requires a MFL to acquire a degree (UCL, 2016) and Princeton has recently made MFL a requirement.

Soft skills are crucial for today’s pupils. The modern workplace, where people move between different roles and projects, closely resembles pre-school classrooms, where we learn social skills such as empathy and cooperation (Deming, 2016 p.32).

If learning languages promotes empathy, improves tolerance, delays the onset of dementia (Valian, 2014), facilitates a higher performance in maths, English and cognitive skills and creates a new generation of pupils fit for purpose, then its position within the NC must be maintained. I see my future as a language and a foreign culture teacher, and impossible to perform without authentic sources to inspire, motivate and challenge the pupils (S1), bringing relevance to the subject for them, encouraging them to be mindful of others (Anthony Seldon at Legatum Institute, 2015) and anti-insular.

Sound preparation of lessons which always include the use of authentic texts and materials is essential. When planning I look at the SOW and think about the members of the class, their prior knowledge of the language, their individual needs, and how, with clear goals and objectives, varied topics and tasks, good visuals, sometimes games, and a smattering of entertainment, I can take them spiritually out of the classroom and across the Channel further into the real world.

Learning needs to be authentic and meaningful. More than keeping them busy or entertained, it is about giving learners the opportunity to think for themselves and to open their hearts and minds.

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