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Primary to secondary transition

A problematic area for language teachers is how to handle the transition between primary and secondary school. As a head of department I once did a survey of our feeder primaries (about 28 of them, mainly small, rural) to find out what the nature of their provision was. You won't be surprised to learn that it was very varied. The large majority of schools were offering a little French, with about half an hour a week at KS2; one or two did some Spanish. There was no common curriculum and the skill levels of the teachers were inevitably varied.

I concluded that that provision was so patchy that we had to assume, in general terms, a "clean slate" approach. We did refine this to some extent by asking every Y7 pupil to fill in a survey sheet for us very early on. They could show us what they had done, what words they knew and could spell, what languages they had done and so on. The principal purpose of the exercise was to make sure we knew which pupils had covered a significant amount of ground in French. We could then use this knowledge to tweak lesson planning, build a good relationship with those pupils and provide some extension tasks.

Now, secondary teachers are sometimes criticised for the "clean slate" approach - the one where you assume that all pupils are starting from scratch. I am currently reading the book Learning to Teach Foreign Languages in the Secondary School (Pachler, Evans, Redondo and Fisher, 2014), a good standard primer for PGCE students in England. They are critical of the clean slate approach, but when it comes down to it they do not provide a huge range of ideas as an alternative. Here is what they list from a book by Jones and McLachlan (2009) Primary Languages in Practice:

Year 6

  • Sampling a lesson from a Y7 textbook.
  • Enjoying a simple story, reciting and acting as the words are looked at to establish phone-grapheme correspondence.
  • Simple spelling and basic grammar challenges (linking these to literacy)
  • Learning to write a few sentences.
  • Writing notices in the TL for around the classroom and school.
  • Writing short emails to pen pals.
  • Reading aloud or memorisation competitions.
Year 7
  • Devising challenge activities based on the Y7 textbook that clearly identify primary coverage such as an interview scenario, a poem or a song.
  • Formative integrated assessments in the form of quizzes in the early weeks to build up a picture of what the pupils know/do not know, as part of the auditing procedure.
  • Topic work that enables pupils to use what they know, e.g. create a brochure on their town or about a French town.
  • Creating mini-plays in groups that require pupils to use previous as well as new learning.
  • Skills lessons, e.g. vocabulary builders and pattern/grammar mind maps.
Other useful bridging projects can be for Y6 pupils to do taster lessons at their future secondary school; Y7 students can also go into primaries to talk of their experience at language learning; Y6 and Y7 pupils could also work together on collaborative language learning related tasks.

From the standpoint of the Y7 teacher there is clearly a delicate balance to be struck. One or two of the above ideas look useful to me (I wouldn't bother with mini-plays and the integrated assessments - time is too short and to assess properly you need to know exactly what you are assessing) but, in reality, the skilled teacher is likely to want to build up language skill in a structured way and make sure all pupils are taken along at a reasonable pace. Previous knowledge is unlikely to be firmly embedded so cannot assumed to be secure. In any case, any revision of previously learnt material is worthwhile. It is quite possible (and with no offence intended towards primary teachers who are often aware of their own limitations) that material may have been taught imperfectly, so work on accurate pronunciation in the early stages is important.

The ideas for Y6 teachers look good. Indeed, the latest National Curriculum already includes the requirement to write sentences.

By all means provide those pupils with good knowledge to show off what they know, provide open-ended activities which allow the fastest learners to extend themselves. Above all, make sure the pupils with solid prior knowledge know that you know what they can do. But they too have to understand that a Y7 is mixed ability and that some compromise is needed.

Is there ever a case for setting by prior knowledge? I would strongly advise against this. There may be a stronger case for setting by aptitude for languages, but even this is problematic in Y7 and hard to justify for a number of reasons (social/affective, reliability of baselining, general issues of setting by ability).

The Pachler et al book I mentioned above notes that there is no convincing evidence from research that starting a language young in an instructional setting leads to better long term performance five years later. I agree with them that one of the best ways to look at primary languages is as an opportunity to give children more confidence with language learning and communication, to build enthusiasm, cultural and linguistic knowledge, intercultural awareness and literacy. Secondary teachers need to carefully audit what their new intake has done previously, should make some allowance for it, handle it with skill, provide some extension activity, but should still focus essentially on taking the whole class together on the language learning journey.


  1. An interesting post, Steve.

    I found out in the spring term last year that the Y7 brother of one of one of my Y3s, who had done 5 years of Spanish with me in primary and who was keen and of middling ability, had gone to secondary school and started Spanish all over again. He had gone from writing extended texts in Year 6 to saying Hola me llamo again. Imagine what effect this will have had on him as a learner, and of course the effect that it will have had on the other 26 of mine who went to the same school and found themselves in the same position. This, despite the fact that I had sent detailed information to the school about exactly what the children had done between Y2 and Y6. Admittedly the rest of the intake had done French or nothing (the school's language of choice is Spanish) but apparently no attempt was made to take any of this language learning into account.

    So they used the 'clean slate' approach. OK for some but very demotivating for others. I know from 14 years of experience how difficult it is to motivate KS3 students in language learning. Surely secondary teachers are making a rod for their own back if they do not take prior language learning into account. My own daughter has just finished Y7, and started French again despite 5 years of it in Primary. It makes me sad that she doesn't really enjoy it.

    I think the picture of provision in KS2 now is going to be an improving one, although, and this is my opinion, there are a lot of HTs who need to take the subject more seriously and not just pay lip service to it. Ofsted could help here, if only they would answer my questions about it! Secondary departments can also play their part. The non-specialist teachers in primary would appreciate the link being made. You can't moan about provision in KS2 if you're not prepared to find out more about it and lend a hand.

    I agree that the 'clean slate' model is probably the better option at the moment. But with a proviso. That the familiar language is taught in an unfamiliar context. This is going to entail some creative thinking and new schemes of work from secondary departments, who, and again this is my opinion, have had it easy for too long and who find it much easier to do what they have always done. (Remember again that I used to be one of them!) Seating plans in the Y7 classroom are very important, to spread out those who have more experience amongst those who need support.

    I could go on, but the most important thing is for primary and secondary schools to talk to each other and share information so that the best solution can be found.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment in detail.

      Yes, I suppose the key thing is for primary and secondary teachers to talk to each other. Secondary MFLers have to take the issue seriously. I doubt that I did so enough, although we did make some effort. The practical issues were getting people together from so many different schools and doing so when everyone is so short of time. It would be useful if every secondary MFL department nominated someone (as part of PM) to be the coordinator and, ideally, give hem a little time for the task, No doubt the situation will remain messy, but it's good to hear that you think there is progress being made at primary level.

  2. I agree Clare! We've been having consortium meetings to enable primary linguists to take a more independent approach to compulsory MFL if they are not buying into our primary services for next year. To this end, we are running a joint project for EDL and we have a new teacher going in this year to replace the original coordinator as we are switching language focus from German to French. They have a recommended scheme of work to use from us which is easy to RAG in terms of what they have taught which is secure, what they need more practice with and what they haven't covered from it, which we are intending to use as their starting point when they come up in Year 7. As you say, what's the point of teaching them for 4 years or more and then starting again! This year they have been assessed using a baseline test which we will probably re-do at the beginning of term to see how much they have retained as they start Year 7. Collaboration is key. Still can't believe the number of primary schools who tell me that their secondary feeders aren't bothered about it!

  3. But the difficulties of ensuring a secure progression from 76 to Y7 remain. Methodologically speaking, if secondaries had less of a grammatically based, "lock step", cumulative approach the transition would be less awkward. All textbooks stiil stick more or less to a grammatical syllabus, though. Maybe Clare is right that the focus should be on the same language but in new contexts.


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