As a former secondary school teacher, I hadn't learned the tricks of the trade required to motivate a child of that age, and I have always admired the patience, stamina and dogged determination demanded of a primary teacher on a daily basis. My new pupil, of course, turned out to be adorable. She always brought with her beautifully illustrated books of fairy tales and a pink, My Little Pony pencil case. Her parents, encouraging her to learn as she has extended family in Italy, were as supportive and understanding as they could possibly have been. She had a wonderful sense of humour and she was fun to work with. Yet the striking differences between her and the secondary school pupils I had taught for so long soon became apparent. It was up to me to adapt, and for me that adaptation was a challenge.
It is not simply a question of slowing down the pace, simplifying the material or finding more engaging or colourful activities; after seven hours of being in a classroom, frequently followed by after-school training, events or practices, a year three pupil is tired. Concentration is more difficult and the shorter attention span requires a change of activity more frequently than I had been used to. In addition to this, a secondary school pupil, however disenchanted they might sometimes become, knows on some level that it is ultimately in his or her interests to do a little work to make progress and pass an exam, though they may occasionally lose sight of this goal. To a very young child, however, a term can seem like a lifetime.
My young friend and I had some entertaining lessons. We took all the fruit and vegetables out of the fridge, together with some cuddly toy vegetables collected from our local Co-op, and played shops with some euros I had left over from the holidays. We did word searches, easy crossword puzzles and played guessing games. I made use of the more basic resources on the Languages Online site to help her learn the words for members of the family, pets and colours. In fact, colours and clothes became a favourite topic. She had extensive collections of pencils and felt tips and enjoyed exercises that involved colouring in. We learned how to describe the weather and make a weather map. She liked to “interview” members of her family about their preferences and fill in a questionnaire about their favourite foods. She found it highly amusing that some Italian sentences appeared to read backwards when compared with the English, and would love to read books with pages side-by-side in both languages to hear this, since it sounded so comical to her. Nevertheless, she was learning.
I did run into some problems. In one lesson I tried to teach her to tell the time, only to find out that she had not yet learned to do this in English. I got hold of a speaking calculator and attempted to do a few sums with her and teach her the numbers from one to a hundred, but found that in doing so I was expecting too high a level of arithmetic for that age group. Even reading a story gave rise to an interesting dilemma. I have always had a very structured, hierarchical way of teaching grammar, beginning with the present, moving on to the passato prossimo and imperfetto, then progressing to the future, conditional and finally the subjunctive and passive. (Yes, the gerund tense should fit in there somewhere, I know). My choice of order is based on immediate necessity and level of difficulty. But in an Italian storybook, however young the audience, you are (quite rightly) thrown straight into the passato remoto. This makes sense in view of the fact that it is the “storytelling” tense, or the one that is used for events in the distance past, but it is yet another verb tense to contend with, and can be confusing to a child learning Italian as a second language.
The requirements for the teaching of foreign languages in primary schools, now compulsory from Key Stage 2, are set out on the foreign languages: curriculum requirements page of the Key for School Leaders website, last updated in May 2017.
There is now a broadly itemised programme of study, with skill areas to be covered before the end of Key Stage 2. This can be delivered through any modern or ancient foreign language, which gives each school flexibility, since provision may depend on staffing and location. The British Council points out that this is happening while children are still “confident and curious”, and it publishes the results of the Language Trends Survey carried out in 2015 that showed that the number of primary schools offering foreign languages rose from about 25% to 90% between 2002 and 2010.
The response to the survey, published by the CfBT Education Trust, was largely favourable, with teachers from over 1,200 UK schools taking part. It suggested that – after the move to make the teaching of foreign languages compulsory – many schools successfully made languages an integral part of “education for global citizenship”, a vehicle for developing cultural awareness and compassion in children. There are examples of schools taking a thematic approach, for example by studying sport, history or animals through a language. Many schools clearly felt that learning a foreign language developed transferable skills, which could be used in learning the mother tongue, or used in learning a different language later on.
However, the survey authors list four aspects of foreign language provision in schools that present room for improvement: the need for more staff training in this area; the need for better communication between primary and secondary schools during the transition phase; the problem of some pupils being excluded from learning a foreign language in key stages 3 or 4 in secondary schools, an issue that the authors describe as “elitist” (with schools so frightened by the prospect of dropping places in league tables, it is not surprising that some pupils are discouraged from entering exams in subjects where they are unlikely to achieve good grades); and the ongoing perception that languages are less important than, for example, science or maths. The view that languages are difficult, while not necessarily offering the same career prospects as other subjects, is also mentioned in the report.
While these four problems are all worrying, it is perhaps the second that strikes a chord with me on a personal level. During my years of teaching in secondary schools, I often heard colleagues in the language department voice concerns about how pupils entered the school with such a varied range of experience in French that teaching the children as a class was often problematic. Some pupils have to switch languages altogether, having studied something at Key Stage 2 that was not offered at their secondary school. Some of the problems I experienced with my young Italian student could have been avoided by better communication between myself and her school. I am happy to admit I made a mistake in not realising this earlier.
But the fourth issue is also deeply worrying. Even now, I still hear people say openly that “we don’t need to learn foreign languages, as everyone speaks English”. There is a need to fundamentally alter perceptions here.
I believe strongly in foreign language teaching for primary school children, but it needs to be done fairly and consistently, with clear guidelines as to which grammar and vocabulary is taught. There is a certain vagueness about the specification as it stands. Bold though this move by the government was, we will only make real progress if it is properly valued and properly funded, with an appropriate level of training for teachers, and investment in not only recruitment but retention (teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate). Government also needs to convince pupils, parents and staff that foreign languages are an asset that will become increasingly vital to our students and their futures as global citizens, employed in jobs we cannot yet imagine, communicating and travelling more extensively than any generation before them. We cannot simply keep viewing foreign languages as an optional extra.