Friday, 18 November 2016

The Teaching Schools Council MFL pedagogy review

The Teaching Schools Council (TSC) is not well known in the teaching profession. The government established the body in 2011. It co-ordinates Teaching Schools and their alliances. Its nine-member board has a mix of elected and co-opted members. Today the body published a review on MFL pedagogy, presided over by linguist and executive head teacher Ian Baulkham.

The review panel talked to teachers, heads, pupils, parents and researchers and emerged with fifteen recommendations. The ones I would like to pick out are as follows (with my gloss added):

The vast majority of pupils should do a language to 16.
(This is in line with government Ebacc policy. I still have my doubts.)

Grammar, vocabulary and phonics should be explicitly taught in a structured fashion. Practice and skill-building are recommended.
(The pedagogical bias in the review is clear and would suit those who favour a skill-acquisition view of second language acquisition. No reference is made to the comprehension hypothesis favoured by some researchers and teachers.)

Culture, history and literature should be taught without sacrificing the order of grammar teaching.
(Most teachers would support the teaching of culture, but I am not so sure about history and literature up to 16 - my first reaction was that this recommendation is suspiciously in line with DfE policy, but I am told the TSC is independent of government.)

Translation and reading literature should feature in courses.
(This represents a pedagogical bias which some would disagree with. Anyone who, like me, has written short adapted literature extracts for GCSE knows how hard to do and fruitless this is in practice.)

Meanings should always be absolutely clear to pupils.
(I detect an implicit criticism of a TL only approach and an encouragement to translate.)

The four skills should be taught together.
(I like this - there is an unfortunate tendency in some classrooms to divide sessions up by skill, e.g. "this is a listening lesson". The best lessons are often multi-skill and involve real communication in the target language.)

Two or, better, three sessions of 40-60 minutes per week are recommended.
(Perhaps they should have more forcefully recommended three. This recommendation is, however, very welcome given the woeful state of much school MFL timetabling. the report recognises the importance of distributed practice.)

Textbooks are recommended.
(Or more precisely, good textbooks which incorporate a rigorous progression and recycling of language. I would support this recommendation, but I wonder which textbooks they would recommend; the quality is variable and none are brilliant.)

Grouping by ability should ensure the needs of all pupils are met, notably those who wish to go on the A-level.
(It's not clear whether they advocate setting or not.)

Teacher trainers should ensure that there is a planned curriculum to incorporate the pedagogical framework laid out in the review.
(This implies that current training is patchy. My impression is that they are right on this.)

There should be a review of A-level grading.
(Severe grading is thus rightly acknowledged.)

Overall there is a lot to like in this thorough review. Their research sources are somewhat selective and take as read the idea that you can automatise skills through practice. (This is far from universally agreed by scholars.) The message to school leaders about timetabling is valuable and I welcome in general the reminder that a clear, structured progression of grammar and high frequency vocabulary is required. The review correctly identifies elsewhere that languages are unpopular with too many pupils, but whether arguing for more translation, history and literature is the correct antidote is very debatable.

There is no general academic consensus about which language teaching methods work best (as the review acknowledges) and I can imagine some scholars looking at this report very critically indeed. The review suggests a swing of the pendulum back towards traditional methods and alleged "rigour". the recommendations are in line with DfE subject guidance and Ofqual exam specifications. Is this pure coincidence?

The review is worth reading, but I have no idea how influential it will be. Since Ofsted now do not officially recommend any particular teaching methods it looks like another body has taken on that mantle.

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