Aiding language learning in primary school through tech

The language skills shortage starts with primary school, but there are various online tools that can help teachers improve their MFL confidence

By Chris Whittaker

In the past 15 years, education policy surrounding the teaching of modern foreign languages has changed significantly. From the 2004 decision to make learning languages optional at GCSE, through to the opposite decision made for primary schools in 2014, which saw the teaching of languages become compulsory for Key Stage 2, it’s been hard for our sector to keep up.  

Students affected by the changes in 2004 may be primary school teachers today, meaning that if they decided to opt out of MFL learning back then, they now may not have the skills or confidence to deliver language classes for their students. This can be hugely frustrating as, without a specialist languages background, it can be intimidating to teach MFL to children who may presume you to be an expert. Many teachers may also express feelings of resentment, as being a languages teacher wasn’t something they had in mind when they made their career choices. Secondary school teachers, who also have curriculum changes from 2016 to consider, which included an increased focus on grammar, literary texts and translation among others, the hope to build on better skills coming out of primary schools may falter if the foundation that students arrive with are so inconsistent.

However, if we combine a bit of creativity with technology and perseverance, there are ways for us to face the skills shortage together… 

How do we address the language skills shortage?

Some primary schools are working in clusters to source a specialist teacher if they do not have one based at the school. For example, five primary schools may employ one teacher to visit one day per week to deliver lessons on their behalf. However, this is expensive and offers no flexibility around school trips or inset days. School leaders and teachers need a more effective solution, and I think turning to technology and creative thinking can have a great effect.

Online learning platforms are available to teachers to help with lesson planning, monitoring attendance and creating personalised learning pathways for individual students across the curriculum. These platforms are particularly beneficial to schools with a shortage of teachers with MFL skills as it allows them to utilise free resources and to share best practice with peers. Lessons can then be mapped out online to include interactive puzzles and exercises to revise and consolidate learning. To really bring the lesson alive, presentations can be collated with embedded audio files, demonstrating new words to children with the correct pronunciation.  

School leaders and teachers need a more effective solution, and I think turning to technology and creative thinking can have a great effect.

Setting up a language club is another way to encourage students to continue to learn outside of the classroom, and integrating additional languages into other areas of the curriculum can also help reinforce knowledge by demonstrating how it can be used in everyday life. For example, if you are planning out an art lesson, why not remind students of the new vocabulary they have learned by labeling the paper, colours or equipment in the additional language?

Ultimately though, being able to deliver MFL lessons through an online platform can reduce the amount of time needed to deliver content, because it offers a greater sense of flexibility. Resources designed to be delivered to a larger group by a teacher – or teaching assistant if in smaller groups – are often in 15-20 minute slots, with the remainder of the lesson reserved for independent learning. The second element can be set for students to complete tracked activities and puzzles in an ICT room or individually throughout the week, which all appear in the online platform for the teacher to monitor and analyse.

Making use of technology adds another layer of efficiency, by offering a centralised area to monitor student progress and forecast attainment. Online learning platforms don’t just offer teachers a place to track this information, they can also help them to identify students who might need more help if they are struggling more with grammar or reading comprehension, for example.

Because there is so much ready-made content available, combining these resources with the management solutions available means that schools won’t need to depend on an external specialist teacher to deliver language lessons. Giving primary teachers the control, flexibility and ability to monitor progress can build their confidence so that their lessons are delivered effectively, both preparing and inspiring students with MFL learning for secondary school, ultimately producing a wider talent pool of linguists who can strengthen our future workforce.

Chris Whittaker is a modern foreign languages (MFL) teacher and has worked closely with online learning platform, EDLounge, to produce MFL Lounge, a resource specially designed for MFL teaching in primary schools.