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Ofsted and target language

Since writing this, Ofsted has just released (20 December) its latest guidance for MFL teachers. In the section Quality of Teaching, under the heading Good, they say:

Teachers routinely use the target language for classroom communication and generally insist on pupils responding in the language.


I hope Barry Smith doesn't mind me using this picture of a letter he posted on Twitter today.

I think MFL teachers may feel a little confused about the messages emerging from Ofsted at the moment (see above). Previous Ofsted reports have commented on the lack of teacher and pupil use of target language. It has been a consistent refrain over the years.

Here is some recent (August 2013) Ofsted guidance on how language departments could evaluate target language use. Teachers may find it useful to read these.


Teachers use English where the TL could be used to an unnecessary or excessive extent. Teachers use some TL for praise and greetings and for the occasional instructions, but switch rapidly and frequently between the TL and English.Teachers provide insufficient opportunities for learners to use the TL for meaningful communication.

Requires improvement

Teachers use the TL for organisational matters and for praise.They resort to immediate English translations by themselves or learners which reduces the impact. Learners are given opportunities to participate in conversations in the TL, but expectations of the spontaneous use by learners are too low. As learners move through the school, teachers expect them to use an increasing amount of target language.There are inconsistencies in the quality and quantity of the use of the TL across the department.


Teachers provide a consistently fluent and accurate model of the foreign language for learners to emulate. English is only used where appropriate. Students are encouraged to ask questions and seek clarification in the TL during teacher-led sections of the lesson.

So, on the one hand, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Ofsted are saying that departments can use any methodology they wish, provided pupils make good progress, whilst on the other they clearly state that, in good practice, "English is only used where appropriate".

What should teachers make of this apparent contradiction?

My guess would be that the prevailing view from inspectors, especially specialist linguists, is that target language should dominate the large majority of lessons. I support this view because it is only by providing large amounts of target language that students will make long term progress with their comprehension and, ultimately, oral skills. If I am right, this DOES imply the support for a certain general methodology, contrary to what may come from Sir Michael Wilshaw's office.

Do we really want a free-for-all in languages classrooms? Would it be acceptable for teachers to use English much of the time? Back in 1990 the National Curriculum stated that the target language should be the "normal" means of communication in the classroom. It was right then and is right now.

For the record, the last time my department was inspected by Ofsted (a lead inspector and linguist), teachers and pupils used the target language nearly all the time and most lessons were judged to be "outstanding". I doubt very much that would have been the case if we had used significant amounts of English.
Here is a paragraph from Ofsted's guidance to inspectors in which it is made clear that a wide variety of styles should be accepted. the bottom line is whether long term progress is good. For this the data tell a story.
Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time. It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.


  1. Hmm. As a parent I find my children have learned astonishingly little in primary and secondary language lessons over the last 10 years, mainly because as they put it, 'how can we ever learn how the language really works when it is only explained in the language we don't yet understand?'. So like their friends, they practice the same limited repertoire of phrases until they are blue in the face and bored rigid. I can't wait for this bizarre orthodoxy to be properly evaluated, which in my view would probably find it deeply wanting.

  2. Thanks for commenting. Sounds to me as though they may have been poorly taught.Hard to comment on the methodology used. Phrase book learning is too limited, but a good combination of communication and grammar practice should work well, if well executed by the teacher. I am not aware of any "bizarre orthodoxy" in language teaching. Of course, explaining how the language works is not the same as being able to speak and comprehend it. It probably helps.


    Maybe OFSTED should just pick a percentage of time that the TL should be used. Wouldn't that be easier for them to measure--especially if the inspector is not a specialist in that language? Or maybe a set of percentages wherein the percentage of TL use increases as the level of the student increases?

    1. Sorry for delayed reply. Thanks for your comment. the problem with a percentage of time for TL is that there are no doubt some lessons where considerable use of English is necessary and others where no English is needed at all. It's the old problem of judging pupil and teacher performance from individual lessons.

  4. TL teaching can be very off-putting for learners, especially when they are not given any chance to say what they think about it. A minority of learners love it.

    I think that there are certain things where it becomes an obstacle: Refusing to teach pupils to translate from English to French (which is what they naturally want to do) means they never tackle the few (8?) differences between the languages. As a result they stuck with either whole phrases or maybe using a repertoire of chunks.

    The "Target Language" does not just mean asking to remove a blazer. Pupils doing pair work or speed dating extending speaking on the topic they are studying, are also using the Target Language. I often have lessons where I communicate with the pupils in English, but they spend most of the lesson speaking in the Target Language in activities designed to develop spontaneity or extended answers...

  5. As soon as I use target language, students are more interested and it's a challenge for the ones who enjoy translating.. It's a good way to introduce a wide range of vocabulary over a period of time..It's effective if you can start in year 7..

  6. Yes. In general children get at what you practise. If you do lots of TL they are more likely to become good listeners. If you do lots of grammar analysis they will get good at that. However, one doubt is speaking. Fluency, I would argue, stems from listening along with practice at speaking.

    Thanks for leaving a comment.


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