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A close look at the draft Programme of Study for KS2/3

The document begins with a general statement of the aims of learning languages. This "purpose of study" begins with the clunky phrase "liberation from insularity" followed by: "A high-quality languages education should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world." No quibble there. The same introductory paragraph continues:

It should also provide opportunities for them to communicate for practical purposes, learn new ways of thinking and read great literature in the original language.

The third of those opportunities is very specific and reveals a bias we shall see flavouring the whole document. Why "read great literature"? Why not "watch great films" or "read online newspapers" or "read scientific papers"? Literature is not of interest to every language learner.

In the four aims of study which follow there is reference to "an appreciation of a range of writing in the language studied". Although there is also a reference to responding to spoken language, the bias towards the written form is evident. The fourth aim seems superfluous to me.

Moving on, I am not going to look at the KS2 section in detail, partly because it is not my area of expertise, but I do note the greater reference to writing in the list of things pupils should be taught to do. It is an impressive list of language activities. I wonder how much time primary teachers will get to do them. This section is entitles "foreign languages" to allow for Latin and ancient Greek.

Now, on to the KS3 section of the document (interestingly entitled Modern Foreign Languages). Does this imply Latin and Greek are out at KS3?

The first section is on grammar and vocabulary. This order is not random and reflects the priority allocated to this area. Two things stand out in this section. Firstly, pupils should be taught to:

use and manipulate a variety of key grammatical structures and patterns, including voices and moods, as appropriate

The reference to voices and moods seems fussy and in any case would be inappropriate in French at this level. Do we wish to teach the passive at KS3? Do we want to teach the difference between indicative, conditional and subjunctive moods?

Secondly, pupils should be taught to:

develop and use a wide-ranging and deepening vocabulary that goes beyond their immediate needs and interests

I would not argue against this, although the emphasis on going beyond personal interest is noteworthy.

The following section, note, separate from grammar and vocabulary, is entitled "linguistic competence". I would like to pick out some items from this list.

First, point 2 states that pupils should be taught to: "transcribe words and short sentences that they hear with increasing accuracy". There is no doubt that this sort of activity is a regular part of many teachers' practice, for example via dictation, note-taking and gap-filling, but I question whether it requires spelling out in this document. It seems over-fussy in a general statement of aims and practice.

Next, pupils should be taught to:

read and show comprehension of original and adapted materials from a range of different sources, understanding the purpose, important ideas and details, and provide an accurate English translation of short, suitable material

I welcome the reference to authentic resources and comprehension, but the reference to translating into English is out of place here and could encourage poor classroom practice, notably a reduction of target language use. This reference has the fingerprints of Michael Gove all over it and I doubt if many applied linguists would support its retention in a final document. Detailed comprehension can be developed and assessed by other means that translation and these other means, using target language, constitute better language learning methodology. I do not think Gove realises this. In addition, I would add that detailed translation into English, whilst a good, enjoyable challenge for many pupils and whilst it develops the use of the mother tongue, does not suit pupils of all abilities.

Next, the document states that pupils should be taught to:

read literary texts in the language, such as stories, songs, poems and letters, to stimulate ideas, develop creative expression and expand understanding of the language and culture

Notice once again the emphasis on literature and creative expression. Now, I have felt for some time that our course books are short on stories which fire the imagination of pupils, but the inclusion of the term "literary texts" seems inappropriate here. At KS3 you could go as far as very short accounts, "stories" if you will, but is the document seriously suggesting pupils read literature? This would break all the rules of gradation and selection, be too hard and ultimately demotivating for the vast majority of students. There is "aspiration", then there is poor methodology.

The final bullet point states that pupils should be taught to:

write prose using an increasingly wide range of grammar and vocabulary, write creatively to express their own ideas and opinions, and translate short written text accurately into the foreign language.

This contains the second reference to translation, this time from English into the target language. Now, I stress that there can be a place for translation here and there, but if you highlight it in this way and then design an assessment system around it, you risk going back to some of the discredited methods of the grammar-translation past. I repeat: whenever you do translation you spend less time doing target language communication and acquisition is compromised. You can acquire grammar without translation.

Of the eight bullet points in this section, four refer to writing and five to reading or writing. This suggests a slight retreat from the most important skills of listening and speaking. Are these competences considered less "rigorous"?

And that's it!

But I wish to add something else at this juncture. The MFL PoS is different to those in other subject areas in an important respect. The history programme, for example, has been much criticised for being a pub quiz style curriculum, a list of things to know. But at least it does not tell teachers HOW to teach, only WHAT. In contrast, the MFL curriculum says little about the what, much more about the how and that goes against the DfE's claim that they have no preferred teaching style and do not wish to tell teachers how to teach.

I note, as others have, that although there is early reference to insularity and deeper understanding of the world, there is nothing what we currently call intercultural understanding. This should feature more heavily. Further, the emphasis on "literature" is too strong and represents a clear cultural bias.

There is no reference in the KS3 section about which languages may be studied. I find this inconsistent with the position at KS2 where the only allowed languages are French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Latin or Ancient Greek.

I have not referred to KS2 in this evaluation, but I would note that the inclusion of Latin and Ancient Greek, but the omission of, say, Polish, Russian, Japanese and Arabic is anachronistic. Latin has a place, but not at KS2 or KS3 in my view. There is so little time in the curriculum for languages, that we cannot afford to spend it on classical languages. Michael Gove's own predilections are once again in play.

Finally, let us not forget that, if Michael Gove gets his way, most schools (academies, free schools and independents) would not have to follow this programme anyway! I have never got that.


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