Skip to main content

So what about compulsory MFL at KS4?

 This is a longer than usual post, so bear with me.

Apparently, according to Teresa Tinsley via Twitter, the recently leaked suggestion form a KS2 consultation document that languages would not be compulsory was a mistake. The DfE has, it seems, not yet reached a decision, though one factor weighing on their minds must be the possibility that the EBacc will cause numbers opting for languages to rise to the point where compulsion may not be necessary.

It may be wishful thinking to assume that the EBacc will cause sea-change in attitudes to MFL at KS4, though there is already clear evidence that the falling trend in GCSE entries has been reversed.

So what is at stake here?

Arguments in favour of compulsion go like this:

All other comparable countries to ours, except the USA, have languages in the core up to 16, and often beyond. To raise the status of a subject which is considered intrinsically important you should make it compulsory. If it's compulsory, it must be important, like maths, English and science. Thirdly, Britain is suffering in the job market because of our lack of second language skills. Fourthly (and surely most importantly), Britain's youngsters are missing out on all the life-enhancing opportunities which knowledge of foreign languages bring. It so happens that most of these young people who are missing out are working class, so raising the status of MFL fits with the government's social mobility agenda.

A useful insight into the government's view on social mobility is found in this recent comment on Laura McInerny's blog by government advisor Sam Freedman. I'll quote a fair chunk of it as it is quite revealing. He says that, with reference to our narrow common core at 16:

 ... one reason why we have such a large “opportunity gap” between rich and poor. Most middle class children study a wider range of academic subjects to 16 which ensures a wider range of post-16 choices and a greater liklihood (sic) of progression to university. Too often, especially over the past ten years, poorer children have been sent down routes at 13/14 that have diminished their options at 16 and subsequently. Our basic principle is that unless the national expectation for young people is broadly in line with what middle class parents expect of their offspring we have little hope of closing the opportunity gap. While we didn’t want to compel schools or young people to take a wider range of subjects when, in some cases, it may not be appropriate, we did want to challenge schools to ask questions about whether as many young people as possible were taking a wider range of academic courses that would give them more options post-16. (my emphasis)

It appears that the social mobility argument is fundamental in the DfE's thinking and this is to be applauded, though I am concerned that they are more concerned with comparisons with other nations than the intrinsic arguments for learning a second language.

Why do MFL teachers have mixed views about this issue?

Whilst it is to be deplored that MFL has become, to a considerable extent, the preserve of the middle classes, we also know that in the Labour years up to 2004 when languages became optional, many children were "disapplied" from exams, many children were not motivated and failed and many teachers had to deal with unmanageable classes. It has been claimed that Estelle Morris, Minister of Education at the time, made languages optional as one means to reduce truancy rates.

The government also remains concerned that MFL may not be suitable for all students, as Sam Freedman's last sentence indicates. They remain reluctant, as I would be, to return completely to the pre 2004 situation. EBacc was a clever way of using accountability measures to encourage schools to value MFL more highly. One would think, however, that if they were really totally focused on the social mobility agenda they would go the whole hog and make languages compulsory along with maths, English and science.

On balance I think they are right not to go the whole way with this exercise in social engineering. The other countries we may compare ourselves to are different in that their second language is nearly always English, which is a much easier sell to students who come into contact with our language through film, TV, music, the internet and often the world of work. English is the lingua franca, French, German and Spanish are not.

Schools should make sure, by high quality teaching, adequate timetabling and option systems, that all students, whatever their background, should have equal access to foreign language learning, but I do not believe we should force feed children who, often legitimately, do not see it as vital to their own needs after the age of 14.

It is often claimed that our youngsters are at a disadvantage because of their relatively low level of foreign language skills compared to some other nations, but let us not forget that they have one immense advantage: they speak English.


Popular posts from this blog

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

Using sentence builder frames for GCSE speaking and writing preparation

Some teachers have cottoned on to the fact that sentence builders (aka substitution tables) are a very useful tool for helping students prepare for their GCSE speaking and writing tests. My own hunch is that would help for students of all levels of proficiency, but may be particularly helpful for those likely to get lower grades, say between 3-6. Much depends, of course, on how complex you make the table.

To remind you, here is a typical sentence builder, as found on the frenchteacher site. The topic is talking about where you live. A word of warning - formatting blogs in Blogger is a nightmare when you start with Word documents, so apologies for any issues. It might have taken me another 30 minutes just to sort out the html code underlying the original document.

Setting work for home study

A major challenge for language teachers just now is selecting and sharing work with students to do at home. Here a few suggestions on the issue to add to your own. The sites I mention are the tip of the iceberg and focus mainly on French. I have stuck to free resources, not subscription sites.

By the way, I'm not getting into the use of tech here, as I have no great expertise on that. In any case, I imagine for younger learners especially it may be a question of setting other types of work.


For advanced learners the job is not so tough. There is a plethora of listening, reading and grammar material they can use, whether it be from their textbooks, other resources shared electronically or online resources. You may have your favourites, but for a selection for French you can check out my links here and here. You may want to stick with topics on the syllabus, or free up students to read and listen more generally to what interests them.

One idea I used was to ask students to c…

"Ask and move" task

This is a lesson plan using an idea from our book Breaking the Sound Barrier (Conti and Smith, 2019). It's a task-based lesson adapted from an idea from Paul Nation and Jonathan Newton. It is aimed at Y10-11 pupils aiming at Higher Tier GCSE, but is easily adaptable to other levels and languages, including A-level. This has been posted as a resource on

This type of lesson plan excites me more than many, because if it runs well, you get a classroom of busy communication when you can step back, monitor and occasionally intervene as students get on with listening, speaking and writing.