Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The terrible state of MFL timetabling in England

School days are relatively short in most English secondary schools. Modern languages occupy a small percentage of those days, roughly between 8% and 12% in most schools from age 11 to 15. In addition, contact periods with the teacher are poorly spaced out, with many pupils only doing lessons once or twice a week. This almost certainly has a detrimental effect on individual and national achievement in languages.

A common timetabling pattern in English schools sees the week divided into 25 slots of an hour each. Some schools cling to 40 minute periods (with numerous double periods). More and more schools are moving towards longer sessions of 70 minutes or even, astonishingly, two hours. In extreme cases this can lead to pupils doing a language in a two hour slot once a week or even less frequently.

Schools may have some good reasons for opting for fewer, longer lessons; none of them make sense for the teaching of modern languages.

Although not necessarily unique to languages, 'spaced' or 'distributed' learning has a particularly powerful influence on achievement. I am not aware of any significant longitudinal research in school settings to support that claim, but Ebbinghaus's early work on the spacing effect and common sense alone suggest that there is a greater chance of knowledge passing into long-term memory if language input is recycled as often as possible. This is the 'little and often' effect which most of us would recognise with any form of learning.

Language learning places particular demands on students, many of whom find it a hard and even unpleasant and threatening experience. Anything schools can do to make it more palatable and effective is worth trying. Offering some teacher contact nearly every day in relatively short bursts would help a great deal.

Unfortunately schools work within many constraints and timetabling is a one-size-fits-all process which will never please every teacher or subject. I wonder, however, to what extent leaders bear in mind factors beyond the merely pragmatic. It would be an interesting exercise for a leader to ask their staff how they would ideally like their lessons arranged.

A weekly or fortnightly pattern based on short sessions of 35-40 minutes, doubled up for most subjects, can work. For languages this can mean four or even five contacts a week. Just think how much more could be achieved with those learners with short memories and who run out of steam after half an hour. Think how much more oral and listening work you could cram in - say 20 minutes several times a week. In a 60 minute or two hour lesson, you might only be able to maintain teacher-led oral work and pair-group work for that same same twenty minutes, but only once or twice a week, maybe three times. In addition, with several contacts per week, if a child is absent on a single day, it is easier to catch up.

More significantly, think how much recycling of recently learned language you could work into every lesson, with a relatively short space of time between lessons during which pupils are less likely to forget.

Eric Hawkins once famously wrote that teaching a language was like "gardening in a gale"*. You plant your seedlings to have them blown away by the gale of English by the next day. Timetabling in schools does language teachers and learners no favours at all. Perhaps language teachers could afford to be less accepting of the status quo and more vociferous in their complaints.


Ebbinghaus, Hermann (1885). Über das Gedächtnis. Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie [Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology] (in German). Trans. Henry A. Ruger & Clara E. Bussenius. Leipzig, Germany: Duncker & Humblot.

Eric Hawkins (1981). Modern Languages in the Curriculum, Cambridge.

* Hawkins even doubted whether the drip-feed of several sessions a week was effective and pushed for more immersion opportunities. He was the first director of the language teaching centre at York University.

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  1. Couldn't agree more. The other scourge is the 2 week cycle. I once inspected a school where one Y7 class had French period 4 (of 5) on Friday of Week 1 and period 2 on Monday of Week 2,i.e. 2 hours per fortnight with an 8 day gap between lessons (10 days if you include the weekend between Week 2 and Week 1). Progress nigh on impossible. The only stick we have to beat SLT with is the EBacc. Love it or hate it, at l;east it means that MFL has a bit more clout than in the past. We need a set of cogently argued premises for successful language learning/acquisition that is evidence-based and supports the notion that "little and often" maximises impact on student outcomes. It's the only language they understand. They can either have better timetabling or poor results. Poor timetabling does not lead to better results.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Getting the evidence is the tricky bit. These things are so hard to test over time with controls in place. It would help if other subject areas felt the same, but most do not. I's have thoight maths might feel the same, but my former maths colleagues wanted longer lessons, partly because of the fashion for one hour lesson plans which the DfE used to push.

  2. It's not often I sympathise with SLT but on this I do. As a linguist, I agree entirely with this post, but I understand that SLT have to find a balance between different subject interests. Interestingly, in two of the countries where I taught, MFL was given more time in the week at the expense of lessons on the students' native languages.....

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    2. SLT choose the timetable structure. With shorter sessions and double periods they could satisfy more subjects. I wonder if they grasp the issues for language teachers.