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What works? DfE small scale project summaries

I am grateful to David Wilson, SEND consultant, for bringing my attention via the MFL Resources Yahoo group to a document published (August 2017) on the DfE site.

The original DfE source is here:

The DfE carries out research projects using "project associates" (statisticians, economists and researchers) which aim to help develop the DfE's vision for education and inform the practice of teachers. If you scroll down the page linked above you'll find two reports and their key findings. Both reports were used to inform the useful Teaching Schools Council on MFL pedagogy published, with no great fanfare, earlier this year. (As an aside I am curious about the link between the DfE's reports and the TSC - I thought the latter was independent.)

I am simply going to copy, without commentary, the key findings from the two projects, one based on a literature review, the other based on interviews with MFL teachers in schools. I do not know how thorough or selective the "rapid literature review" was, nor whether the selection of research fitted with any preconceptions about language learning. As far as the second survey is concerned it would be wise, as the summary suggests, to treat conclusions with caution. (It makes me wonder if they should have spent more time and money on a more thorough piece of research.) See what you think.

Part 1: Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy: Literature review

The report presents the findings from a rapid literature review of UK and international research evidence on teaching and learning of MFL, with a focus on effective pedagogies. The aim of the literature review was to develop the evidence base on what makes good MFL teaching by providing a summary of the existing research. The primary focus of the work was on secondary schools but pedagogy more generally was also considered.

The literature search utilised an extensive combination of ‘secondary education’ keywords with ‘language teaching’ keywords and ‘pedagogy’ related keywords to search a range of bibliographic databases and language journals. Article abstracts were then coded for relevance against a number of research questions to agree a final list of the most relevant articles for inclusion in the review; it is not intended to be comprehensive. The selected articles were summarised and the findings synthesised by a range of topics.

First and foremost, it should be noted that the review was limited by the scarcity of robust academic evidence. To be able to say conclusively that certain pedagogical approaches are more effective than others, requires research evidence produced by robust trials in schools with detail about specific approaches and how they should be adopted in the classroom. Evidence to meet these standards was not found. From the literature reviewed, findings were grouped in to the following key themes:

Vocabulary Development and Usage: No evidence was found about specific pedagogies that are used for vocabulary development and have a clear, positive impact on outcomes, or of the relative strengths of different approaches. However clear arguments were present in the literature about the importance of vocabulary levels in the acquisition of language skills and that vocabulary should be explicitly taught.

Grammar Usage and Development: the evidence about grammar teaching is that it should be taught explicitly and that a range of approaches should be used depending on the grammar being introduced and the skills being developed.

Use of target language: a range of different approaches were advocated ranging from immersion in the target language to restricting first language use to simple classroom instructions or for clarifications and to support awareness of target language. No clear consensus could be drawn from the evidence.  

Impact of technology: evidence was mixed with different reviews drawing different conclusions as to the impact of technology. Evidence was found to support technology use in specific areas, such as: vocabulary acquisition, extended writing and communication.

Other evidence: literature that does not fit easily within the previous categories summarises a range of evidence on factors affecting language learning, and finds strong evidence to support; intentionally and explicitly orienting students’ attention to features of the target language, practice and automatisation of explicit knowledge, the impact of working memory on explicit language learning and varying difficultly in learning different features of language.

Part 2: Interviews with teachers

Overall, the outcomes of this research identified few differences between the views and practices of participants across schools that are more or less effective at delivering MFL provision. Rather, provision was often determined by student needs, ability levels and key stage, resources and time available, learning objectives/focus (including working to the new GCSE specification) and the teaching style/preferences of individual teachers. General findings and notable (although small) differences are detailed below. 

Use of target language: Departmental Leaders and teachers in more effective schools were more likely to use or require the use of the target language in the classroom nearly all the time. (Those in less effective schools more commonly used it selectively.)

Vocabulary and grammar: a pedagogical approach set by Departmental Leaders that requires equal focus on both accuracy in vocabulary and grammar and authentic exposure to the target language, was slightly more common in the more effective schools. In less effective schools, this approach was more readily encouraged among teachers, but not necessarily required). 

Practicalities: Teachers in more effective schools highlighted issues of balancing administrative/workload issues with having enough class time to effectively cover the curriculum. However, it was predominantly teachers from less effective schools who tended to report that teaching time for languages had been reduced.

Use of resources: Leaders in more effective schools were more likely to suggest that there was some guidance to use textbooks as a core resource – in less effective schools, textbooks were regarded more commonly as a resource to dip into.
Homework: Homework tended to be used either to reinforce and extend learning undertaken during class time, or as a way of learning vocabulary lists (with tests then carried out in class). Teachers in more effective schools were more likely to set a piece of writing as homework. 

Effective teaching: The common factors for effective teachers reported across all school types were enthusiasm, passion, subject knowledge and the ability to build good relationships with students. Supportive departments were also important in motivating teachers, although teachers in less effective schools also highlighted the importance of student behaviour and class management.

Support and guidance: Interviewees in more effective schools reported having more external training opportunities available (such as local network membership, teaching Leadership courses and the commissioning of external consultants).


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