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In the balance: the artful mix that goes into becoming a Modern Foreign Language teacher

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 February 2022

Caroline Conlon.

JESHOOTS-com / Pixabay

Many teacher educators are concerned that the Government’s Initial Teacher Training Market Review and its ITT Core Content Framework impose too many generic requirements, and leave insufficient time for each subject’s unique characteristics and methods. Teaching and learning a second language is a complex, messy business and, as the Ofsted Subject Review on languages recognises, ‘there is no single way of achieving high-quality language education.’

Languages teachers, therefore, need not only to have subject knowledge expertise in the languages and associated cultures they teach, but also in second language learning theories and pedagogy.

The PGCE Secondary languages programme at UCL does not promote any single teaching methodology and the team would agree with Professor Li Wei when he says, ‘… the best method is the one that suits learners’ needs and improves learners’ learning.  We need to avoid dogma, try things out, be prepared to adapt and change and always keep a healthy level of scepticism around what the theory says.’ (Languages Today, Issue 39) At IOE, we develop autonomous, principled professionals who feel confident to take risks in the classroom as they explore innovative, inspiring and effective pedagogy. This has been highlighted by former Student Teachers (STs) as one of our strengths.

Based on the premise that learning a Foreign Language in a classroom is not the same as acquiring a first, native language, we consider theories and research in Second Language Acquisition to support our STs in creating classrooms where there is a good mix of knowing about and using language to communicate.

One example might be the discussion we have about target language use, as we support our student teachers with making informed decisions about how much to use in their classrooms. We encourage them to aim for a judicious use of English and to plan their routine target language use carefully. Some STs script this in their lesson plans to ensure that the language is appropriately pitched and becomes progressively more challenging for learners. Students need to hear the language before they can produce it themselves and well-planned lessons will incorporate plenty of practice before asking learners to produce new language: input before output! We also encourage our STs to promote language learning strategies to build learner confidence to cope when they encounter the unpredictable.

In the same way that we seek to strike an effective balance between theory and practice on our PGCE programme, so we support our cohorts in learning to strike a balance between teaching learners to use and to know about new languages. The knowledge vs skills debate is common to all subjects on the secondary school curriculum, but has recently come to the fore in languages with the Ofsted Subject Review’s emphasis on the three pillars of phonics, vocabulary and grammar.  These three pillars are claimed as key to securing learners’ self-efficacy, potentially marking a shift back to a knowledge-based approach similar to that of the grammar-translation method of the 1970s.

This position has been reinforced by the DfE GCSE consultation proposals, now enacted, despite the many fierce challenges to this direction of travel from across the wider subject community.  We may better look to the current Key Stage 3 Languages Programme of Study for inspiration when it states, ‘teaching should enable pupils to express their ideas and thoughts in another language and to understand and respond to its speakers, both in speech and in writing. It should also provide opportunities for them to communicate for practical purposes, learn new ways of thinking and read great literature in the original language.’ Like the many respondents to the GCSE consultation, we too challenge methodological dogma that does not prioritise culture and communication. We would always want our well-informed, expert teachers to create engaging and dynamic schemes of work to motivate all types of student.

The government is rightly concerned about the low uptake of languages in schools and has set itself an ambitious target of 75% of pupils taking a modern language GCSE by 2022, rising to 90% by 2025, as part of its English baccalaureate. According to the 2021 Languages Trends report, current uptake sits stubbornly at around 50%. We encourage our student teachers to think more specifically about the challenge of motivating learners who are being schooled in an English-speaking context, whilst continually reinforcing the need for second language educators to capitalise on the many language and cultural skills learners bring to our London classrooms in our multilingual, multicultural city. Experienced teachers, researchers (eg Dörnyei and Cziser’s 10 commandments for motivating language learners) and the IOE PGCE Languages team alike highlight the importance of culture and creativity to motivate and engage all learners; inclusivity underpins all that we do.

We constantly stress the underpinning role of culture in language learning and explore ways in which our subject can make a valuable contribution to every learner’s developing inter-cultural competence. During our STs’ second school practice, we include two projects to nurture both teacher and learner creativity.

The first, a film-making and podcasting task, reinforces the potential of digital technology to enhance language teaching and learning. The second, a literary text task, encourages all our student teachers to engage explicitly with the KS3 national curriculum requirement of introducing learners to authentic writing and a cultural artefact from target language countries. This enables them to see the potential for generating learner interest and creativity. We end the PGCE year with a range of collaborative projects including our long-standing short film project with the BFI. All three tasks are explored in detail in Success Stories from secondary foreign languages classrooms, which I edited with our former Subject Leader, Colin Christie.

Just as ‘language teaching should provide the foundation for learning further languages, equipping pupils to study and work in other countries’. (DFE 2013), so initial teacher education should provide the foundation for teachers to exercise their professional agency as they make subject-specific pedagogical choices from the range at their disposal to secure progress for every learner in whatever educational context, in which  they find themselves. We want our teachers to select the right tools at the right time from the language teaching toolbox that we help them fill during their PGCE year.


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