What do secondary school languages teachers say they want to learn?

Laura Molway (http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/people/laura-molway/)

I recently asked a sample of 65 secondary school MFL teachers ‘what aspect of your classroom teaching, if any, would you most like to develop?’ 

A fifth (12) of the teachers said that the development of their pupils’ speaking skills was a key priority. 

Other frequently mentioned development priorities included 

  • preparing pupils for new examination formats (10); 
  • motivating and engaging pupils in language learning (8); 
  • meeting the needs of diverse learners (7); 
  • developing the skill of writing (4);
  • developing the use of new technologies for teaching (4). 

In explaining the reasons for their choices, teachers stressed the need for pupils to obtain good examination results, but they also highlighted the importance of building pupils’ sense of confidence and enabling them to become more independent in their studies.

I also asked teachers to take a look at eight principles for language teaching (below), which were developed by a group of teachers and researchers in a project available at www.PDCinMFL.com

I asked which principle, if any, they would most like to explore further in their teaching. Once again, over 70% of teachers chose a principle related to pupils’ speaking (Principles 1-4) and the majority (53%) identified Principle 2 (‘learners need to be encouraged to speak spontaneously and to say things they are not sure are correct’) as the principle that they would most value the opportunity to develop in their teaching. 

1 ORAL INTERACTION: Target language input is essential for learning but it can be made more effective if learners are encouraged to check the understanding of it by asking questions of what the teacher is saying or asking the teacher to repeat.

2 ORAL INTERACTION: Learners need to be encouraged to speak spontaneously and to say things that they are not sure are correct.

3 ORAL INTERACTION: Less spontaneous oral interaction should nevertheless be of high quality. By high quality we mean including substantial student turns; adequate wait time; cognitive challenge [e.g. by requiring a verb phrase or subordinate clause]; appropriate teacher feedback; nominating students rather than waiting for volunteers.

4 ORAL INTERACTION: Students should be explicitly taught strategies to use when faced with communication difficulties. These should be used alongside techniques for developing their oral fluency, such as repetition of tasks and chunking of pre-learnt words into whole phrases.

5 READING AND LISTENING: Learners need to be taught how to access a greater range of more challenging spoken and written texts, through explicit instruction in comprehension strategies and in the relationship between the written and spoken forms.

6 STRATEGIC APPROACHES: Learners need to develop their self- confidence and see the link between the strategies they use and how successful they are on a task.

7 WRITING: Writing should be developed as a skill in its own right not just as a consolidation of other language skills. For this to happen students should frequently write using the language and strategies they already know rather than resources provided by the teacher (e.g. textbooks, writing frames, dictionaries, etc. )

8 UNDERPINS ALL OTHERS: The principal focus of pedagogy should be on developing language skills and therefore the teaching of linguistic knowledge (knowledge of grammar and vocabulary) should act in the service of skill development not as an end in itself.


I asked teachers to explain their choice to focus on oral interaction and the three most common reasons were: 

(1) a belief that a focus on spontaneous speaking could increase pupils’ confidence

(2) a belief that a focus on spontaneous speaking could improve exam results

(3) a belief that speaking is the most important language skill

One teacher explained that a focus on spontaneous speaking ‘empowers students and gives them the confidence and the tools to communicate well’. Another noted that in order to develop their confidence pupils ‘need to have the experience of succeeding in ‘’getting the message across’’ ‘. For one teacher, the loss of foreign language assistant support meant that more in-class speaking practice was needed. This reflects a nationwide issue – the Language Trends survey in 2017 reported that just 33% of state schools were currently investing in FLAs and so for many MFL teachers, FLAs are an inaccessible resource for addressing the need to offer pupils more opportunities to develop their speaking skills.

Several teachers linked the need to develop spontaneous speaking to the demands of the GCSE and A-Level speaking examination. One teacher commented that her focus on speaking was also about her own performance within the examination:

‘I think as language teachers we have a big responsibility when we conduct the exams because if you’re not doing it right you can completely mess it up for the student. It’s not the same as other subjects where, OK, you prepare them for an exam that they’re sitting in the hall … we are actually conducting it so if we get the timings wrong or don’t ask the right questions…  I don’t think people realise but it’s really very stressful… it’s very stressful because do it wrong and that’s it. You don’t get a second chance.’

Teachers’ responses to my questions raise concerns about how, in an education system still affected by the current pandemic, MFL teachers will seek to develop their practice in relation to supporting students’ speaking skills. In my study very few teachers felt that they were able to access MFL-specific CPD due to time and budget constraints

There is also a question mark over the way in which pupils’ speaking skills will be assessed in the 2021 MFL GCSE: Ofqual is currently considering making the spoken language assessment a teacher endorsement to be reported alongside the 9 to 1 grade in order to reduce the pressure on teachers and students in year 11 (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ofqual-launches-consultation-on-2021-exams-and-assessments). If this goes ahead, some fear that an unintended consequence may be that the development of pupils’ speaking skills could become less of a priority in some contexts. However, I have no doubt that ALL Members, like the teachers in my survey, will maintain a commitment to the development of spontaneous speaking as a critical part of the language learning project and one that offers a key to pupils’ engagement.

ITET Latest Information: https://www.all-languages.org.uk/about/community/sector/itet-sig/

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