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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Language teaching and learning beyond vocabulary and grammar: our success stories

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 March 2022

Zhu Hua, Caroline Conlon, Camilla Smith, Fotini Diamantidaki and Áine McAllister.

The strong reactions from the language teaching and learning community to the Government’s French, German and Spanish GCSE subject content review are hardly surprising. If the review’s intention was to make the subject ‘accessible’ and to motivate students, then making a few tweaks to words, themes and topics, question types and grammar will not do the job.

Learning another language is not simply about putting words and sentences together; it is about communicating ideas, feelings and experiences; connecting with people and cultures and broadening horizons. Language curriculum, assessment and pedagogy need to focus on developing intercultural competence.

So what has worked well in classrooms? How do we create space for cultural exploration and exchange of perspectives? And what role does teacher agency play? As a group of language education professionals, we reflect on these questions and our success stories.

Zhu Hua, Professor of Language Learning and Intercultural Communication: I have carried out research about language learning and use in migrant families, complementary schools, English classrooms, and the workplace. The way we think about language teaching and learning needs to reflect the changes in the learners themselves, the conditions they learn under and the social demands placed upon them.

Our learners are becoming increasingly diverse in their linguistic and cultural repertoires. In UK primary schools, 1 in 5 children now speak a language in addition to English. The reasons young people want to learn a new language range from heritage languages connecting generations of migrant families (e.g. Punjabi, Turkish) to languages of youth culture (e.g. Korean for K-pop, or Japanese for manga), from language of artistic pursuit (e.g. Russian, Italian) to language of promise for mobility and employability (e.g. Chinese). There is also increasing exposure to other languages and a growing awareness of the role of language in social justice and equalising opportunities.

All these changes urge us to embrace a multilingual and intercultural outlook in language teaching and learning. We need to make positive use of our students’ linguistic and cultural repertories. Our aims are not to simply add a list of new foreign words or a set of facts about another culture, but to enable students to make connections and comparisons. Our learners will become intercultural speakers, with a critical awareness of differences and similarities, mediating and transcending different cultural and linguistic systems and perspectives and in doing so, develop their own worldviews and become global citizens.

Caroline Conlon, Associate Professor and PGCE Languages subject leader: Teachers working in England’s assessment-led educational context may feel that, given its National curriculum, their professional agency to choose content is restricted, even centrally controlled.  In comparison to other countries, this view may well be justified, but I would argue that the current National curriculum for both KS2 and KS3 Languages gives us considerable room for manoeuvre if we look closely and resist the temptation to teach to the test.

The PGCE Secondary languages programme at UCL works to develop autonomous, principled professionals who feel confident to take risks in the classroom as they explore innovative, inspiring and effective pedagogy.  We do this with a focus on target language use, creativity and culture throughout our programme.  We highlight these as a means to motivate and engage all learners; inclusivity underpins all that we do.

The pandemic has forced many of us to revisit what and how we teach. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement encouraged many educators to revise their curriculum offer to ensure that wider perspectives and narratives were being included.

As a member of the Association for Language Learning (ALL) Decolonising Secondary Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) Special Interest Group (SIG), I have found it inspiring to be part of a group of educators who are thinking independently about anti-racist curriculum content that might genuinely provide ‘a liberation from insularity’ and ‘an opening to other cultures’.

Our subject is perfectly situated to ensure that we view our world through multiple lenses. Through the exploration of our common humanity, we are also teaching learners to confront the sometimes uncomfortable. Second language education in our multilingual, multicultural London classrooms is not just about developing communicative competence, but rather a setting in which to nurture criticality, mutual respect and shared understandings. As PGCE Subject Leader, I want to ensure that our Student Teachers understand that we must keep looking for the space to plan a responsive and dynamic curriculum, that explores the national syllabus in ever-new and inspiring ways.

Camilla Smith, Lecturer in Languages Education: Initial teacher education (ITE) should provide opportunities for student teachers to develop and articulate their early educational beliefs, values and principles. While these values will develop and shift over a teacher’s career, a sturdy framework built on reflective practice and critical analysis is fundamental. On IOE’s Languages PGCE , we encourage just this. As one student teacher told us, she enjoyed the ability to “explore many different approaches and styles of teaching to find what fits you best. There is no set way to teach [my italics] and the tutors will encourage you to become your own teacher”. The overly prescriptive nature of the proposed three pillars (phonics, vocabulary and grammar) ignores the importance in ITE of encouraging in our developing teachers a capacity to critically analyse the historical and contemporary wealth of (sometimes contradictory) language learning theory they are exposed to, and to be able to synthesise this with different approaches to practice, in order to “develop your style of teaching to make you the best you can be”.

If educators become ‘deprofessionalised’ by being restricted to one method, this will affect teachers’- and learners’ – motivation. We know that Languages teachers are already in critically short supply. The more they are demotivated by a reductionist curriculum, the fewer we will have.

Fotini Diamantidaki, Associate Professor of Languages Education and Applied Linguistics:  It is a significant challenge to teachers when students tell them: ‘I don’t need to learn (French, German, Spanish). I am English’. Beneath this candid response is the students’ reluctance to engage with a language that is foreign to them, and a false belief that learning another language can undermine one’s (English) identity. This outlook is far from their fault — students’ views reflect the wider discourse in society.

Literature provides an engaging platform for teachers and students to build a bridge between ‘self’ and ‘other’. The integration of literature in language learning holds numerous benefits to language acquisition. Crucially though, literature provides a platform for students to develop a dialogue between themselves and the ‘foreign’, creating a non-threatening environment for that dialogue to take place. Students can be made to feel at ease to express themselves, discussing difficult situations through the experiences of the fictional protagonist. This allows learners to become active participants, rather than sterile recipients of vocabulary lists and tests.

Áine McAllister, Lecturer (Teaching) – Languages in Education and in Refugee Education: For me, both dialogue and poetry are instrumental in empowering learners’ voices in any language learning context.  Learning a language requires emotional engagement. As the medium through which thoughts, memories and emotions are turned into words, poetry can foster profound emotional engagement and create a powerful learning impetus. The process of writing poetry asks us to distil our own narrative down to what is essential for us, and in doing that, we find our voice.

How do we use dialogue to elicit poetry in a language learning setting?  First, meaningful dialogue requires connection on a personal level between teacher and learner and among learners themselves. Talking is learning. Authentic conversation requires emotional engagement and is necessary for learning language. Second, dialogue should be socially constructed. Can the group work together to construct language; through mime, drawing or photography, for example? Third, the building of language through dialogue should be a democratic process, informed by how learners want to construct it and what they want to discuss.

I know from my own experience the profound engagement that learners experience under these conditions and the profoundly engaging language they produce. It remains to be seen to what extent these conditions can be created when working in accordance with the DfE’s GCSE MFL subject content review.

Below is a poetic arrangement of utterances that were built through dialogue with beginner language learners in a series of second language poetry workshops in a refugee camp. Using a model poem as stimulus, words were learned, then phrases, then sentences were built, then questions and responses were developed, then short conversations occurred.  Through this process and under the conditions set out above, learners arrived at what they wanted to say, or ‘voice’ through poetry.

 Three memories of Kurdistan

When I am sad, I remember
the beach. I watch the boats move on
the water.  Clouds light in summer sky,
I watch the rising and
the setting of the sun.

In springtime in Kurdistan, we
go to the mountain, there
are flowers, trees and figs.

I remember my father, he
puts his arms out and says come here.
My father is good and beautiful.
Now I’m happy when I
help my child write his name.

(This poem has been set to music in three separate movements by award winning Choral Composer Chris Hutchings as part of this #choirsagainstracism initiative. It has been broadcast and performed nationally and internationally in support of refugees and asylum seekers and to combat racism).

Picture credit: Phil Meech for UCL

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One Response to “Language teaching and learning beyond vocabulary and grammar: our success stories”

  • 1
    Xiao Shen wrote on 31 May 2022:

    I am very much inspired by this idea of teaching literature to learners , poetry in particular, as there are numerous beautiful poems through Chinese history. Presenting students with well-chosen poems which fit their level will not only enable them to learn the language “now”, but to see its development over time ,thus gaining insights into the civilization where the poem was created. Where good language teaching and learning takes place, culture helps. Thank you so much for sharing .