Skip to main content

Why Michael Gove is wrong to advocate translation

One of the intriguing elements to emerge from Michael Gove's recent speech in parliament about his National Curriculum reforms is his desire to see a "new stress on learning proper grammatical structures and practising translation". The precise references to translation (both to and from the foreign language) are to be found on p.175 of the National Curriculum Framework Document.

I have blogged previously about the value of translation in language lessons and my view is essentially that it can have a small place within a much wider diet of target language work.

I do not know where Gove has got his affection for grammar and translation from. It is highly unlikely it would come from any advisers who know about second language language acquisition. Grammar-translation is a widely discredited approach to language learning. Unlike the communicative theory, direct methods, audio-lingualism it has no basis in language learning theory and is largely a hangover from the teaching of classical languages.

If classrooms were to return to a moderate diet of translation to and from the foreign language you would end up with students who are reasonable at knowing grammar rules, vocabulary and translation, but not much else. They would almost certainly be bored rigid and an Ofsted inspector observing a translation lesson would most likely fail it. It is an approach which appeals to a minority of (more able) students, but which, crucially, takes time away from more important aspects such as listening, reading and speaking. Time is already ludicrously short in the school curriculum as it is for progress to be made, so we cannot afford to devote it to translation. It worked for only a few in the past and the same will be so the future.

As for "learning proper grammatical structures", we cannot be sure what Gove means. If he meant the internalisation of grammatical rules by skill-building and comprehensible input, he might be on to something. I doubt very much that he does mean that. If he means recognising patterns and memorising rules, then this, although for some students an interesting enough challenge, does not lead to fluency.

My guess is that Gove views grammar and translation as something which is more "rigorous", heads down, rote learning based, which engages cognitive functions, as opposed to something more airy-fairy like acquisition through communication. If this were his view, he should consult some text books and applied linguists as soon as possible, as well as practising teachers.

Just consider what would happen if there were sections of translation to and from the foreign language in GCSE papers. Text books would start to feature it prominently and teachers would spend significant parts of Year 11 preparing students for it. This is known as the backwash effect of assessment.The consequence would be less time spent on activities which really develop acquisition.

It is likely that Michael Gove is more interested in English and history than languages, and that, in the end, this will all come out in the wash, common sense will prevail and any new programmes of study will reflect the mainstream of applied linguistic theory and not appeal to a discredited approach from the past. For this to happen teachers and other stakeholders should voice their concerns in the consultation process.


  1. I share your optimistic conclusion, but lament yet another occasion where a politician shoots from the hip and then skulks away into the shadows when the damage has been done. A deeply flawed man.

  2. Elisabeth Wielander28 February 2013 at 12:04

    Nobody (not even Gove, I think) will advocate a return to the old grammar-translation method, but in my view, translation can play a valuable part in language education. Completely negating its place in the language classroom is throwing out the baby with the bathwater: If used carefully and purposefully as part of a multi-facetted tool box, translation can raise awareness of linguistic structures, foster creative language use and draw attention not only to the L2, but to the learners' L1 as well.

    German teacher / researcher Wolfgang Butzkamm has long been a proponent of a re-evaluation of translation for MFL teaching as part of what he calls 'enlightened monolingualism'. For those interested in his views on L1 use in MFL teaching and learning (including translation), find links to his writings here: (much of it is in English).

  3. Thanks for the comment Elizabeth. I agree with what you say and in my teaching career I made reasonably frequent use of translation. My gut feeling was that students enjoyed the puzzle-solving nature and the challenge, whilst it clarified grammatical issues and highlighted differences between L1 and L2.

    I remain concerned that translation is given particular emphasis in the new PoS and that teachers might fall back on it too much at the expense of target language use.

    I shall follow up your link.

  4. I had a look at the first Butzkamm article from 2003. Very interesting. I wonder how many FL teachers actually use a monolingual approach? He challenges a lot of assumptions about language teaching.

    I have the impression that he is not arguing strongly for grammar-translation, but more like a healthy dose of L1 when needed to assist comprehension and acquisition.

    I like his comment that empirical research will never show which methods work best. Our theories of language acquisition are often hunches developed through experience!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Tell stories


How can we make listening more enjoyable and effective for pupils? How can we turn it from a potential chore to something more memorable (and therefore more likely to stick in their long term memories)? I am of the opinion that since humans are "wired" to engage in personal listening and speaking (the expression "social brain" has been used in this context), they may be more interested and attentive when the message comes from a real person rather than a disembodied audio source. (This may or may not be relevant, but research has been carried out which demonstrates that babies pick up phonological patterns better when they listen to a caregiver rather than listen to a tape or watch a video - see here for summaries of research into this area by Patricia Kuhl.)

One easy way to make listening stimulating for pupils is to tell them easy stories in the target language. I was reminded of this while reading Penny Ur's book 100 Teaching Tips (reviewed here

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…