15 Mar 2010

Strong leadership crucial for successful language learning at Key Stage 2

Researchers examining language learning in primary schools have found that strong leadership, with commitment to languages learning, is fundamental to securing a firm place for languages in the curriculum. The project, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), was led by The Open University, in partnership with the University of Southampton and Canterbury Christ Church University, to explore provision, practice and developments over three school years and examine children’s achievement in oracy and literacy as well as the possible broader cross-curricular impact of languages learning.

The research found that, of the 40 primary schools in England surveyed, those which moved farthest towards sustainable provision were those that capitalised on a wide range of languages-related opportunities, including local networks and projects; ongoing training; international partnerships; and local and national sources of funding and award schemes. These schools also made good use of any staff members with languages expertise as well as members of the wider school community.

Conducted across three school years from 2006-2009, the study found that:
• Schools have an expectation that funding for ongoing professional development will be maintained and that training to teach languages will receive greater attention in initial teacher education
• Most children were enthusiastic about their learning experience and appreciated the interactive teaching, and the wide variety of game-like activities, which made learning languages fun. Children indicated they were motivated by the language learning process itself as well as by their perceptions of the wider value of languages
• Many children who experienced difficulties in literacy in English and across the curriculum appeared more assured in languages and gained confidence throughout their involvement in structured yet varied oral interaction. Staff believed that this was of considerable value to their self esteem
• Staffing for languages was a key concern for head teachers. A number said that languages expertise was now a criterion when recruiting new staff
• The shortness of lessons and the relatively limited confidence and expertise among some staff appeared to constrain the amount of time spent on reading and writing other languages and the development of intercultural understanding, with implications for timetabling and staff development
• Children’s performance in the assessment activities carried out by the research team was variable, but findings indicate that children can achieve levels in listening, speaking and reading in line with national expectations after four years of learning one language (equivalent to Year 6 outcomes in the Key Stage 2 Framework for Languages (DfES, 2005) and/or Asset Languages Breakthrough). Writing remains the most challenging area for these learners; the best performances were found where children had received consistent provision, and where teachers’ linguistic skills were strong
• Teachers were concerned that children’s prior learning would not be taken into account in secondary school, and that this could have a negative impact on children’s motivation and enthusiasm for languages learning.

Carrie Cable, Senior Lecturer in Education at The Open University, said the research showed that learning languages at this level brought many benefits to pupils: “Teachers believe languages are making a substantial contribution to children’s development in personal and social learning, cultural understanding, communication skills, literacy skills and attitudes to learning. A number of head teachers also see languages learning as contributing to a school ethos which values diversity and increases tolerance and understanding of other people. Key issues are the need for guarantees of continued funding to support language learning, the integration of languages into the new primary curriculum and the recognition of children’s new skills by secondary schools.”

The Government has undertaken to provide all children in Key Stage 2 in primary schools in England with the chance to learn a foreign language as part of the new primary curriculum from 2011.

The research team was
- Carrie Cable, Senior Lecturer in Education, The Open University
- Professor Ros Mitchell, University of Southampton
- Dr Patricia Driscoll, Canterbury Christ Church University

About The Open University
• The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).
• The Open University is the UK’s largest university and the world leader in distance education, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, more than 1,100 are postgraduate research students.
• The latest edition of the Open University’s Research Highlights brochure can be downloaded from:
• Open Research Online (ORO), the University’s freely accessible repository of research publications, is available at: ORO has around 30,000 visitors from 170 different countries each month, and is currently ranked the fifth best higher education repository in the UK by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR).

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