I concluded that that provision was so patchy that we had to assume, in general terms, a "clean slate" approach. We did refine this to some extent by asking every Y7 pupil to fill in a survey sheet for us very early on. They could show us what they had done, what words they knew and could spell, what languages they had done and so on. The principal purpose of the exercise was to make sure we knew which pupils had covered a significant amount of ground in French. We could then use this knowledge to tweak lesson planning, build a good relationship with those pupils and provide some extension tasks.
Now, secondary teachers are sometimes criticised for the "clean slate" approach - the one where you assume that all pupils are starting from scratch. I am currently reading the book Learning to Teach Foreign Languages in the Secondary School (Pachler, Evans, Redondo and Fisher, 2014), a good standard primer for PGCE students in England. They are critical of the clean slate approach, but when it comes down to it they do not provide a huge range of ideas as an alternative. Here is what they list from a book by Jones and McLachlan (2009) Primary Languages in Practice:
- Sampling a lesson from a Y7 textbook.
- Enjoying a simple story, reciting and acting as the words are looked at to establish phone-grapheme correspondence.
- Simple spelling and basic grammar challenges (linking these to literacy)
- Learning to write a few sentences.
- Writing notices in the TL for around the classroom and school.
- Writing short emails to pen pals.
- Reading aloud or memorisation competitions.
- Devising challenge activities based on the Y7 textbook that clearly identify primary coverage such as an interview scenario, a poem or a song.
- Formative integrated assessments in the form of quizzes in the early weeks to build up a picture of what the pupils know/do not know, as part of the auditing procedure.
- Topic work that enables pupils to use what they know, e.g. create a brochure on their town or about a French town.
- Creating mini-plays in groups that require pupils to use previous as well as new learning.
- Skills lessons, e.g. vocabulary builders and pattern/grammar mind maps.
Other useful bridging projects can be for Y6 pupils to do taster lessons at their future secondary school; Y7 students can also go into primaries to talk of their experience at language learning; Y6 and Y7 pupils could also work together on collaborative language learning related tasks.
From the standpoint of the Y7 teacher there is clearly a delicate balance to be struck. One or two of the above ideas look useful to me (I wouldn't bother with mini-plays and the integrated assessments - time is too short and to assess properly you need to know exactly what you are assessing) but, in reality, the skilled teacher is likely to want to build up language skill in a structured way and make sure all pupils are taken along at a reasonable pace. Previous knowledge is unlikely to be firmly embedded so cannot assumed to be secure. In any case, any revision of previously learnt material is worthwhile. It is quite possible (and with no offence intended towards primary teachers who are often aware of their own limitations) that material may have been taught imperfectly, so work on accurate pronunciation in the early stages is important.
The ideas for Y6 teachers look good. Indeed, the latest National Curriculum already includes the requirement to write sentences.
By all means provide those pupils with good knowledge to show off what they know, provide open-ended activities which allow the fastest learners to extend themselves. Above all, make sure the pupils with solid prior knowledge know that you know what they can do. But they too have to understand that a Y7 is mixed ability and that some compromise is needed.
Is there ever a case for setting by prior knowledge? I would strongly advise against this. There may be a stronger case for setting by aptitude for languages, but even this is problematic in Y7 and hard to justify for a number of reasons (social/affective, reliability of baselining, general issues of setting by ability).
The Pachler et al book I mentioned above notes that there is no convincing evidence from research that starting a language young in an instructional setting leads to better long term performance five years later. I agree with them that one of the best ways to look at primary languages is as an opportunity to give children more confidence with language learning and communication, to build enthusiasm, cultural and linguistic knowledge, intercultural awareness and literacy. Secondary teachers need to carefully audit what their new intake has done previously, should make some allowance for it, handle it with skill, provide some extension activity, but should still focus essentially on taking the whole class together on the language learning journey.