How to bridge the gap in language teaching between primary and secondary

Helen Abbott

Helen Abbott is currently subject leader of languages in a Prep school in Surrey where she teaches French and Latin and has over twenty years’ experience of teaching French and German in both secondary and primary schools. She has also tutored children who are just starting out in languages and has been an examiner for AQA. She is passionate about creating innovative and exciting lessons that inspire young people with a life-long love of languages.

Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I used to teach French and German at secondary level. Then I had children of my own. When I went back to teaching, my career had morphed into a version of itself where the people I taught had runny noses, could not stay on their seats for an entire lesson because they had too many important things to say to you/show you/sing about and because they expected to sit on the carpet to listen to you anyway, not at desks.

 

Teaching in primary was a complete eye-opener to me, not least because if you didn’t keep your eyes peeled, you fell over your charges who moved far too quickly and were often too small to see until it was too late! But the overriding difference, and the one that has kept me in primary teaching, is that I didn’t get cries of, “We’ve done this before!” every time I started a new topic. On the contrary, the children in front of me were brimming over with enthusiasm and not afraid of learning something new because they had no preconceived ideas about it being too difficult.

That is not to say that all my secondary pupils were bored of languages. It’s easy to enthuse children of any age because they lack the cynicism of their elders (usually), but they did think, that after sometimes six years of learning French at primary school, they had sufficient knowledge to move on from greetings and food vocabulary to something a bit more substantial, and certainly to write paragraphs, rather than one-word answers. It’s easy to understand why they should think this, but when a secondary school teacher has their medium-term plan to follow based on where the National Curriculum thinks every child should (or shouldn’t) be in a language, it’s very difficult to be brave enough to move away from that and teach spontaneously.

It would be frowned upon anyway. Too much paperwork in place. Too much assessment data to gather. Even if it’s flawed before you start because the pupils all have a different level of knowledge.

I currently teach French to Years 3-6. By the time my pupils leave me in Year 6, they understand genders, adjective agreements and position, the present tense with ER verbs, and possibly IR and RE depending on their ability. They can use the passé composé, in the first person at the very least. They have been writing sentences that start with an opinion since Year 3 and I expect them to use conjunctions to make their sentences longer. It must then be soul-destroying to arrive in their first French lesson in Year 7 and be taught how to say, “Hello!”.

language gap 2

The problem is, although languages have been compulsory at KS2 since 2014, any language, ancient or modern, may be taught, resulting in a range of different language knowledge entering our Year 7 classrooms. Sometimes pupils have been taught by a language specialist in a set slot, sometimes by the classroom teacher who is struggling to balance all the other requirements leading up to SATs or entrance exams, and the language element is often the first to be forgotten. Some schools introduce a language in Reception, others wait until it is compulsory in Year 3. How do you even begin to bring this range of experience together? Up until now, the answer has simply been: start again!

The obvious downside of teaching languages at all in primary is that when it is taught badly, children are switched off before they even reach secondary. However, this age group are clearly more open to new sounds and ways of communicating and if it is taught well, it undeniably enhances the academic breadth of the primary curriculum and instigates a desire to become proficient in any language. While most private schools are fortunate enough to have a language specialist, surely a budget for languages should have been a prerequisite before the government announced that every school should provide language teaching?

The first stride towards consistency could be to insist that every primary school in a given area teach the same language. No, don’t groan and stop reading – I’m not actually going to suggest that as a viable solution. Teachers who find teaching a language alien enough already are not going to want to be forced into teaching a language that they know nothing about. At least if they learnt French at school, they have a better chance of conveying some of its nuances than struggling with a new tongue, like Mandarin!

A love of languages has to be a common goal. The language teacher needs to model a good accent and fluency, just as a good Maths teacher will handle numbers efficiently and confidently. I do believe that grammar can, and should be taught at primary school if we hope to get our children to any sort of fluency by the time they finish their language studies.

language gap 3

I think the main responsibility lies with secondary schools. More liaison with primary schools about what has been taught is essential and above all, pupils need to be set so that those who have a sound knowledge already can be fast-tracked, while those who have done less can have a chance to catch up. Offering brand new languages gives children a positive, fresh start, while still allowing them to use some of their previously acquired language skills, such as verb conjugations and genders.

So if you are a parent reading this, I strongly advise you to ask your secondary school what their policy is in languages. Do they check what has previously been covered at primary level? Do they set their pupils as soon as possible? Is there an option to fast track and take a language GCSE early? And, if so, what is put in place for those students once they have taken their GCSE so that they can further advance their language skills? These should be basic considerations if we are to stand any hope of keeping up with our European counterparts in languages.
Let’s not forget that we teach languages in order to give our future citizens passports to other cultures and societies. We don’t want to turn language learning into an arduous task that has to be endured over and over again. Let’s revitalise the curriculum, provide consistency, build on previous learning and challenge ourselves to make our children true linguists.

Want to receive cutting-edge insights from leading educators each week? Sign up to our Community Update and be part of the action!

Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support us.
When you register, you'll join a grassroots community where you can:
• Enjoy unlimited access to articles
• Get recommendations tailored to your interests
• Attend virtual events with our leading contributors
Register Now
Login

Latest stories

  • How to handle stress while teaching in a foreign country
    How to handle stress while teaching in a foreign country

    Teaching English in a foreign country is likely to be one of the most demanding experiences you'll ever have. It entails relocating to a new country, relocating to a new home, and beginning a new career, all of which are stressful in and of themselves, but now you're doing it all at once. And you'll have to converse in a strange language you may not understand.

  • Is Learning Fun for You, Teacher?
    Is Learning Fun for You, Teacher?

    Over the weekend, my family of five went to an Orlando theme park, and I decided we should really enjoy ourselves by purchasing an Unlimited Quick Queue pass. It was so worth the money! We rode every ride in the park at least twice, but one ride required us to ride down a rapidly flowing river, which quenched us with water. It was incredible that my two-year-old was laughing as well. We rode the Infinity Falls ride four times in one day—BEST DAY EVER for FAMILY FUN in the Sun! The entire experience was epic, full of energizing emotions and, most importantly, lots of smiles. What made this ride so cool was that the whole family could experience it together, the motions were on point, and the water was the icing on the cake. It had been a while since I had that type of fun, and I will never forget it.

  • Free recycling-themed resources for KS1 and KS2
    Free recycling-themed resources for KS1 and KS2

    The Action Pack is back for the start of the brand new school year, just in time for Recycle Week 2021 on 20 - 26 September, to empower pupils to make the world a better and more sustainable place. The free recycling-themed resources are designed for KS1 and KS2 and cover the topics of Art, English, PSHE, Science and Maths and have been created to easily fit into day-to-day lesson planning.

  • Inspire your pupils with Emma Raducanu
    Inspire your pupils with Emma Raducanu

    Following the exceptional performance from British breakthrough star Emma Raducanu, who captured her first Grand Slam at the US Open recently, Emmamania is already inspiring pupils aged 4 - 11 to get more involved in tennis - and LTA Youth, the flagship
    programme from The LTA, the governing body of tennis in Britain, has teachers across the country covered.

  • 5 ways to boost your school's eSafety
    5 ways to boost your school's eSafety

    eSafety is a term that constantly comes up in school communities, and with good reason. Students across the world are engaging with technology in ways that have never been seen before. This article addresses 5 beginning tips to help you boost your school’s eSafety. 

  • Tackling inequality in EdTech
    Tackling inequality in EdTech

    We have all been devastated by this pandemic that has swept the world in a matter of weeks. Schools have rapidly had to change the way they operate and be available for key workers' children. The inequalities that have long existed in communities and schools are now being amplified by the virus.

  • EdTech review & The Curriculum Lab
    EdTech review & The Curriculum Lab

    The world is catching up with a truth that we’ve championed at Learning Ladders for the last 5 years - that children’s learning outcomes are greatly improved by teachers, parents and learners working in partnership. 

  • Reducing primary to secondary transition stress
    Reducing primary to secondary transition stress

    As school leaders grapple with the near impossible mission to start bringing more students into schools from 1st June, there are hundreds of thousands of Year 6 pupils thinking anxiously about their move to secondary school.

  • Generation Z and online tutoring: natural bedfellows?
    Generation Z and online tutoring: natural bedfellows?

    The K-12 online tutoring market is booming around the world, with recent research estimating it to grow by 12% per year over the next five years, a USD $60bn increase. By breaking down geographic barriers and moving beyond the limits of local teaching expertise, online tutoring platforms are an especially valuable tool for those looking to supplement their studies in the developing world, and students globally are increasingly signing up to online tuition early on in their secondary education schooling. 

  • Employable young people or human robots?
    Employable young people or human robots?

    STEM skills have been a major focus in education for over a decade and more young people are taking science, technology, engineering, and maths subjects at university than ever before, according to statistics published by UCAS. The downside of this is that the UK is now facing a soft skills crisis and the modern world will also require children to develop strong social skills as the workplaces are transformed by technology. 

In order to make our website better for you, we use cookies!

Some firefox users may experience missing content, to fix this, click the shield in the top left and "disable tracking protection"