Practical classroom ideas and strategies for teaching Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in primary schools, from Juliet Park.

Our book aims to help all primary teachers (in particular, non-specialists) to demystify the teaching of languages so that it is accessible, fun and engaging for children and teachers alike! It is based on the findings from over 1000 primary schools who use the ilanguages scheme of work to learn and teach French and Spanish. The book also supports language co-ordinators in curriculum planning, s well as how to prepare for an Ofsted Deep Dive.

Teacher confidence in language teaching

Teacher confidence in foreign language teaching surveys show that foreign language teaching is the area of the primary curriculum where teachers have the least confidence. Ofsted’s Languages Curriculum Report highlights that many primary schools are ‘barely out of the starting block with their curriculum,’ due to:

  • a variation in staff expertise
  •  too much focus on teaching vocabulary but not supporting children to generate their own language
  • too little assessment and a lack of quality transition to secondary school. 

The Ofsted review highlights the three key pillars for language learning: phonics, grammar and vocabulary. The ilanguages scheme covers these fundamental components through a range of activities and methods to enable children to access the language and for teachers to learn alongside them.

When planning a scheme of learning, it’s important to think about how to sequence and provide sufficient exposure to grammar elements, and how to contextualise them so that they are meaningful and engaging for the target age group.

Three pillars of language learning

Let’s look at the three pillars of language learning and activities to support them.

Pillar 1: Phonics

In French, there are 36 phonemes and in Spanish there are 25. If children already have a knowledge of English phonemes, there’s no need to teach the ones which are identical to English, as they will naturally pronounce these correctly. It’s best to focus on the sounds that learners tend to struggle with – that leaves 22 in French and 16 in Spanish. A structured and well-sequenced synthetic phonics approach is most effective, and, as you can see in this image, using a ‘gesture’ approach makes the sounds memorable. The ‘Phonic planet’ approach is an effective way to group all the words learnt with a particular phoneme and allows children to practise listening for the phoneme rather than the word.

Pillar 2: Grammar

It’s vital to understand the rules of grammar and the structure of the language, especially those which are conceptually very different from English. To sequence the curriculum well, Year 3 learners should be taught these two key concepts: the concept of gender and the concept of adjectives coming after the verb in French and Spanish e.g., le cheval noir/span> and el caballo negro (the black horse). The idea of gender can be tricky. Children can get confused and think that it must be a male horse, so we need to reinforce the issue of gender with inanimate items like a table (la table, la mesa) for example. In Year 4, we can build on this to teach the concept of adjectival agreement, so when a feminine word is described, we say la tortue noire and la tortuga negra (see how the adjective changes its ending). We can present this step-by-step and explain the rule with examples, using colour to highlight the different endings when words are feminine and plural. Children can then come to the board and practise editing the words – this physical action helps to make the learning stick.

Pillar 3: Vocabulary

Learners need to have come across a new word at least 6-14 times (depending on its difficulty and the aptitude of the learner) before it sticks. This means that we need to be creative and use multiple methods for teaching vocabulary. Songs, especially those with a catchy tune, are often embedded in our memory from very early on. The ‘Jacques a dit’ song is sung to the Match of Day theme tune; it repeats the same words over and over and so the learning sticks. Board games are a great way to motivate children, such as the ‘Monster Board Game’. Children start with a blank piece of paper and each time they land on a square, they read the phrase and draw it. At the end of the game, each child has a different monster and must then write a short description of it using the high frequency verbs il est/il a or es/tiene (he is/has).

Monster Board Game (c) iLanguages, 2014.

Year 3 ‘End-of-year expectations’

Let’s now explore what an able learner would be able to produce linguistically and grammatically at the end of Year 3, and examples of activities and approaches to guide them. The English translation is given as a guide.

EnglishHello. how are you? My name is Sophie and I’m seven years old. Here is a grey cat. I like white mice and I love black dogs but I hate green snakes. I would like a computer and also a black skateboard. It is fantastic! I love Saturdays but I hate Mondays. Goodbye!
FrenchBonjour. Ça va? Je m’appelle Sophie et j’ai sept ans. Voici un chat gris. J’aime les souris blanches et j’adore les chiens noirs mais je déteste les serpents verts. Je voudrais un ordinateur et aussi un skateboard noir. C’est fantastique! J’adore les samedis mais je déteste les lundis. Au revoir!
SpanishHola. ¿Qué tal? Me llamo Sophie y tengo siete años. Aquí hay un gato gris. Me gustan los ratones blancos y me encantan los perros negros pero odio las serpientes verdes. Quisiera un ordenador y también un skateboard negro. ¡Es fantástico! Me encantan los sábados pero odio los lunes. ¡Adiós!

Nouns

Animals are ideal for introducing nouns to children. Although we need to move beyond word level quickly, nouns are an ideal starting point for teaching about gender (masculine and feminine) and single and plural forms. We start with indefinite articles, especially as in French we need to emphasise the sound difference between ‘un’ and ‘une.’

Short sentences

To reinforce nouns and gender patterns, teachers can use an engaging story with cognates and animated videos. Children can now start to write short sentences using the conjunction ‘and’. We use images and colour, along with mini whiteboards, as a quick way to assess and offer feedback. It’s important for learners to hear the sound before seeing the correct spelling with the sound.

Storytelling to promote fluency

Teachers should revisit previous materials at intervals to promote recall and memorisation. Talk4Writing lends itself well to foreign language teaching. A text-mapping activity can be used to build learner confidence in speaking and fluency.

Opinions, multiple adjectives, and articles

Children can now continue to practise word order with more than one adjective and noun. They also start to recognise opinion phrases with single and plural definite articles. The ‘Aladdin Story’ introduces and provides the perfect opportunity to practise the conditional tense phrase ‘I would like.’ Children can re-enact the story, which introduces further nouns. Children can further practise their language learning in school or at home, using the ‘Language Builder’ app. Activities include phonics, vocab and grammar practice and even allow children to listen, record and compare their own voices.

Aladdin and Genie. Aladdin asks (in French): je voudrais un portable, s'il vous plait.
Aladdin and Genie. Genie says (in French), 'Voici un portable'. Aladdin says, 'Merci, Genie, j'adore le portable!'

References and resources

  1. Ofsted (2012) Research review series: languages. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/curriculum-research-review-series-languages/curriculum-research-review-series-languages (Accessed: 01 May 2021)

iLanguages: www.ilanguages.co.uk

Author

  • Juliet Park

    Juliet is Director MFL for a Yorkshire-based MAT, Languages Teacher and National MFL Consultant. She is a successful Author of languages resources and regularly delivers training for awarding bodies and trainee teachers.
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