A World of Languages and Languages of the World: a fresh approach to language teaching

Profile picture of Abigail Dean

Abigail Dean is Head of House and a teacher of MFL at Norwich School. She is a creator for The World of Languages and Languages of the World.

@WoLLoWeducation · theworldoflanguages.co.uk

I have taught MFL in secondary schools for over ten years. Pupils in my classes learn well, enjoy themselves, find success and gain a deeper understanding of the world. They are engaged, there is a buzz and we all come away from my lessons happy: it is going really well! And then they have to choose their A levels, and they stop. Very few of my beloved GCSE German students continue to A level. The pull of STEM subjects is just too powerful for these academic, interested, talented girls and boys.

In my previous school, languages at GCSE were not compulsory and for many, their language learning journey finished at the age of fourteen. Have a read of the British Council’s Language Trends 2021, and you will see this sorry pattern on a national level. Both French and German have seen numbers taking GCSE reduced by more than a half from 2005 to 2020.

At primary school, pupils’ languages journey often starts poorly (take another look at the Language Trends 2021 report) and it certainly does not transition well to secondary education. So, in the favourite words of Steffan Griffiths, my Head here at Norwich School, “What are you going to do about it?”

It is clear we need a new approach. At Norwich School we are, from September, introducing something a little different: The World of Languages and Languages of the World (WoLLoW). We (John Claughton, Ex Chief-Master at King Edward’s School; Steffan Griffiths, Head at Norwich School; John Wilson, Head of MFL at Cheadle Hulme School and I) have created a course for primary pupils and pupils in the early years of secondary education to ignite a life-long love of all things “language.” The course brings together the teaching of European languages, classical languages and English whilst looking at language from the fresh perspective of our multilingual and multicultural country. We should not be teaching languages in isolation: we need joined-up thinking and a broad approach which includes celebrating the previously ignored linguistic abilities of our bi-lingual and multilingual pupils. We need to bring our EAL pupils to the centre of our language lessons; we should ask them about their languages, words, syntax, songs; and we should embrace the experiences of our bilingual teachers, teaching assistants, support staff and sixth formers.

The course will explore the similarities and differences in languages (Why do we have I sing – ich singe, and I chant – je chante?) so pupils can begin to think across languages and make links. We want to ignite their curiosity and give ample time to the questions we, as linguists, want to focus on, but do not have time for in the MFL classroom.

“Miss, why do we have so many words in English?” “Miss, why is Spanish spoken in most South American countries but not in Brazil?” “Miss, why is it I recognise some of these words from Hindi?” My favourite: “Miss, why oh why do they have three genders and four cases in German? And what on earth is a case?”

Our course focuses on the whys and offers pupils a chance to play and have fun; to see languages and linguistics as a multi-dimensional puzzle; as a big game to be played; as a set of codes to be cracked. Along the way we will encounter history, geography, science, sociology, art, music, literature, poetry and even maths. We will develop pupils’ skills in literacy and oracy and we will help them learn how to learn. We will try to foster an appreciation of all languages: modern and classical; European and non-European; standard and non-standard – thus broadening pupils’ cultural knowledge and understanding, removing barriers of “otherness”, and promoting inclusivity and openness. We want to get them hooked on language from the age of 6 and I, personally, want to show those science-loving kids, through linguistics, that languages at GCSE, A Level and beyond really are viable and sensible options.

We knew we were on to something good. We took the course to Manchester University, to Pepperdine University in California, to the International School in Boston, to Queen Mary’s University, London and they loved it. So, we took it to ASCL and John Claughton, who knows everyone, took it to the Department for Education and the word is spreading. Suzanne O’Farrell at ASCL wrote, “I have not previously encountered such a rich and deep curriculum experience for pupils embarking on their journey learning about language and languages; this ground-breaking approach cannot fail to develop a lifelong appreciation of what the place, value and role of languages has in the world today. It is the perfect preparation to help all language educators create successful linguists in the future.”

We are not the first to try and bring this kind of change to language learning. Now there is an even more urgent need for this kind of programme. With input from primary, secondary and tertiary educationalists and with the time being ripe for change following our experiences with remote learning, we are going for it!

We are not limiting WoLLoW to Norwich School. We have big plans, and we are excited to share the course. We have engaged primary Headteachers and their staff along the way and have asked for their input and feedback. We listened when teachers spoke of their concerns about teaching a foreign language. We have tried to make lessons accessible to pupils and teachers; we have worksheets and teacher crib sheets which explain the grammar and terminology and provide the answers to the questions asked. We listened when feedback showed the pupils loved answering questions and being creative with language and have included opportunities for pupils to create poems, stories, idioms, drama sketches and even to create a language of their own. We listened to the concerns from Headteachers and middle leaders about how to embed WoLLoW in the curriculum map. We have linked our scheme to the national curriculum and have provided options as to how the course can be taught. We already have over fifty schools using our course, although we are keen to reinforce that this is a soft launch and we will be changing, tweaking and improving our resources throughout the year.

As language teachers, we cannot simply accept the decline and demise of our subject. We cannot accept the fact that STEM subjects are taking away pupils from the arts and languages. We cannot watch quietly as an increasing number of children are going through education without a solid awareness of language. It is down to us to speak out and bring about change: to reignite a passion for words, phrases, language and cultural exploration and to make language teaching fit for purpose in our multilingual world.

Published by WoLLoW Publishing

All posts on the WoLLoW website are owned by this account on behalf of the original post authors.

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