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The Ofsted curriculum research review: languages

 Curriculum research review series: languages - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Many departments around England are looking at their curriculums at the moment, mainly because for some time Ofsted have put curriculum at the heart of their inspection guidance and because Ofsted recently published a review of research into classroom language learning (link above). This should be required reading for departments.

This is one of those important documents that comes along every so often and which reflects the times. The current 'zeitgeist' is all about the knowledge curriculum and cognitive science. Gianfranco and I were aware of this when we wrote our book about memory last year. In that book we explained at the outset that models of learning and memory are useful to know when thinking about language learning, but they are only one part of the equation. Some would even say a small part, since much language learning happens 'implicitly', unconsciously as it were, by-passing working memory.

The Ofsted review explicitly references cognitive science models of learning, as it no doubt does in its other subject reviews. It also, like the TSC Review (2016), builds on the three pillar structure of Phonics-Vocabulary-Grammar. You will find the same three pillar model used by NCELP. 

"Typically, language assessment systems incorporate these 3 ‘pillars’:

  • the system of the sounds of a language and how these are represented in written words (or scripts other than Roman)

  • vocabulary

  • grammar, including inflectional and/or derivational features (the systems for changing the form of a word and for creating new words, respectively) and syntax"

Their prime model is skill acquisition theory - the idea that you can automatise consciously learned bits of language (phonemes, words and grammar rules). They essentially downplay implicit learning, saying that there is not enough time in classrooms for this to happen. Only a minority of learners, they say, become "experts" rather than "novices". (I am not convinced this novice/expert dichotomy is useful).

Like the TSC Review, this research review is very selective. It also references the TSC Review a number of times so I have the feeling that it's like someone marking their own homework. There is an acknowledgment that second language learning is complex, but the review clearly comes down on the side of a lego-like, 'building strong foundations through explicit teaching' approach. Having heard Michael Wardle (the Ofsted MFL person and the report's main author, I assume) talk about the risk of "mush" in pupils' heads if you don't explicitly teach phonics, vocab and grammar, teachers will easily identify with the need for clarity and for pupils to be able to understand what they are learning.

So the report comes down on the side of what David Wilkins called a 'synthetic syllabus' - this means breaking down the subject matter into bits and putting it together again (like lego) - hence 'synthesising' the language. The bits in this case are sounds, vocabulary and grammatical rules. The trouble is (seeking a metaphor here) is that building a language this way is like building a planet with lego pieces. As researchers have often pointed out, language is too complex to build up in this way. And much research which has not been considered in this report, is sceptical about synthetic syllabuses. We don't learn a language (first or second) that way, so the argument goes. History tells us it doesn't work well for most learners.

"A language curriculum needs to be planned carefully for pupils’ progress by considering the building blocks of the subject (in languages, the sounds, words and rules about how these connect to create sentences and meanings) and the sequence of these blocks."

I'm not going to say there isn't good advice in this report. Like the TSC Review before it, there is plenty of common sense guidance about being succinct with grammar explanations, building networks of vocabulary and collocational skill and the importance of being able to decode the written word and sound out words correctly. Their skill acquisition model of declarative knowledge becoming proceduralised and automatised is founded in research. But it's only part of the picture.

Although reference is made to natural orders of acquisition, the review, in somewhat summary fashion, dismisses the evidence in classroom settings, implying that we can expect students to acquire structures in the order we teach them. My reading suggests this remains doubtful. Most schools will continue to teach tenses in a particular order, starting with the present.

Regarding vocabulary, you won't be surprised that they talk about the importance of favouring high frequency vocabulary, particularly the most frequent 2000 words. Recent discussions over the reformed GCSE have revealed that this is a contentious area. What should the high frequency words be for school learners? The review explores these issues, including the potential risk of over-emphasising topic-specific vocabulary.

I would like to have seen a much stronger emphasis on the role of comprehensible input (though to an extent this is implied - the review wisely avoids the use of second language acquisition jargon since many readers will not have heard of it) and the importance of communication through interaction. As you might predict, I would also have welcomed a greater emphasis on chunking. While they say that collocational skill is important, they don't explicitly recommend teaching through collocations (in the sentence builder way, for example). This would have fitted neatly into the working memory model.

It's hard not to come away with the impression that this review carries a good deal of bias towards the existing DfE view of language teaching, one which does not align with what much research would say. It's also hard to say that the guidance will lead to improved outcomes. We've done pronunciation, vocab and grammar for years. Is it the case that we just haven't done it well enough? Are there that many schools just relying on pupils 'picking up' the language? I don't know - Michael Wardle will have seen many.

From a department's point of view, with inspection in mind, the review should not hold any great fears. If you are using an EPI-style approach you are covering the three pillars. If you use Knowledge Organisers à la Barry Smith, the same applies. If you just follow a text book with add-ons you may well be covering the essentials. Whatever your approach, you just need to have a reasoned plan which covers the bases. On phonics, if your classes clearly cannot read out written words accurately, there is an issue to address, for example. 

To sum up, here are the main areas Ofsted expect to see in a MFL curriculum plan as they appear in the document. Make no mistake, there is a political aspect to this review, as there was to the original TSC Review in 2016. But look at the guidance below and you should find it reasonable, even bland. Perhaps you could use it as part of your discussion.

Phonics

  • Curriculum plans show clear logic behind progression in phonics, including around when to teach differences between English sound–spelling correspondences and those of the target language.

  • Planned practice and review of phonemes and how these link to graphemes is in place.

  • Curriculum plans show how small differences in sound can unlock meaning for pupils.


Vocabulary
  • Curriculum plans recognise that vocabulary is an important component of language knowledge.

  • Curriculum plans recognise the importance of building a strong verb lexicon, especially in the early stages of language learning.

  • Curriculum planning of vocabulary, grammar and phonic knowledge and progression should go hand in hand, as they are all related and connected.

  • Curriculum leaders consider both the breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge they will teach. They:

    • make sure that they prioritise high-frequency words

    • consider carefully which topic-based vocabulary (other than high-frequency words) they teach

    • ensure that learners can use these words across different contexts

    • consider how ‘deeply’ items of vocabulary need to be learned and at what point

    • consider how and when to introduce more advanced semantic aspects of vocabulary knowledge (such as synonyms, antonyms, shades of meaning and how they change with context).

  • Teachers aim to increase learners’ automatic and fluent recall through:

    • a schedule of planned revisiting to ensure that words are retained in long-term memory

    • introducing and using vocabulary in comprehension and production, in both the oral and written modalities and across different topics.

  • Curriculum leaders also think strategically about:

    • which words are the most important for the scheme of work so that teachers can focus on these to develop learners’ level of mastery

    • gradation (what pupils learn and when across the years of study)

    • making links between words within word families and recognising similarities and differences between English and the language being learned

    • how to link vocabulary to external accreditations or assessments.


Grammar

  • When planning the curriculum for grammatical progress, leaders consider the nature and rate of grammatical progression, the complexity of grammatical concepts and structures, and which aspects of a grammatical structure are introduced and when (such as which parts of a verb paradigm).

  • Leaders make sure that all pupils can understand grammatical concepts and structures rather than being required to work it out for themselves, through:

    • an explicit but succinct description of the grammatical feature to be taught

    • practising the grammar point (through listening and reading)

    • practice in productive use of the features being taught (through speaking and writing).

  • Teachers consider productive use of grammar in free writing and speech in a range of contexts. Using a language spontaneously is central to pupils’ language ability and based on their ability to manipulate language.

  • The curriculum includes ample opportunity to revisit the same grammar in different contexts, for different tasks, with a range of vocabulary.

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