Harnessing pupil curiosity with Primary MFL

Dylan McCarthy

Dylan McCarthy is a Primary school teacher in Trafford. Having spent over 10 years in the classroom with children from Reception through to Y6, he is currently on sabbatical working in partnership with schools around the country on innovative ways of delivering the curriculum.
He founded Stepping into Business (SiB), a not-for-profit social enterprise, to deliver enterprise education workshops, games, activities and CPD sessions to teachers in Primary and Secondary schools. Delivered by teaching staff, these courses bring learning to life, developing important life skills and making the curriculum relevant to children from the moment they enter school. SiB have recently been funded by Innovate UK to bring their classroom experiences online, with an exciting game due to launch later this year.

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Teaching a foreign language in Primary school is often a bit of a misnomer. French and Spanish are the standard options and you as the teacher are typically in one of three situations:

  1. A foreign language expert is brought in one day a week to blitz-teach every class in the school.
  2. There is a resident foreign language teacher in the school who teaches each class.
  3. You teach your class a half hour lesson every week, where possible.

There are many perks to situation one, but some glaring downsides as well… While the children are taught by a native speaker, this person is often not a trained teacher. In my experience, it is very much a roll of the dice as regards the quality of teaching that"It’s very hard to build up a relationship with learners in weekly 30-minute sessions." is provided through these organisations. I have sat in too many lessons where the half hour session is spent assisting in behaviour management or helping the language expert translate / convey their objectives for the children.

There is also the disadvantage of this not being a sustainable method of teaching – it is very hard to build up a relationship with learners in one half hour session a week, and moreover, the language expert is often not contracted for the whole of the school year. In addition, when a good MFL teacher does work with your class, you more often than not use it as an opportunity to catch up on marking or administration tasks at the back of the class so are not involved anyway.

Situation 2 solves this problem immediately, and hopefully there are not the same issues with behaviour management. However, it is a fact that schools using this as their preferred delivery of MFL often use it as teacher release time for PPA. This again raises the sustainability question as the regular class teacher is not in the learning loop at all. On the plus side, at least there is someone present in school who can be approached to answer questions and provide help where required.

Situation 3 is the most preferable in my opinion. This is an excellent opportunity to not only introduce a new language, but everything else that goes with it – the culture, arts, religion, geography, sport and role in the world played by that country, both now and in the past. I have taken this approach when introducing French, Spanish, and where possible, with Japanese too. It is a fantastic way to engage children in many aspects of the curriculum simultaneously.

Lesson Hook

It was my own experience in university that really opened my eyes to this teaching approach. Faced with the daunting task of learning a new language with three alphabets - two of which have 48 characters, the third having a modest 1,945 - I was seriously questioning my decision to study Japanese one term into my undergraduate course. But I was too invested in everything else that went with the language – my lesson hooks!

So my advice would be to hook the children into learning the language through any means possible. Many children will never visit French or Spanish speaking countries, and may never even get an opportunity to speak with a native, so the relevancy of learning a foreign language is opaque at best. However, by enticing children into the world of the country through a broad range of cross-curricular samples, they will be far more inclined to learn the language.

Introducing the language

On introducing a foreign language with my class, be it one they already studied or not, my first questions always relate to what the children currently know about the country. Have a few facts and figures ready to share, some examples of previous encounters with the culture in everyday life – from words (café, reservoir, sabotage) and concepts (fiancé, entrepreneur) to fun trivia (France is the most visited country in the world!) and sport (Grand Prix, ballet). This is a must to whet the children’s appetites.

Not knowing a huge amount really helps too, as it can be a voyage of discovery for the entire class, where everyone has the opportunity to share. Somehow the language seems to keep in step very easily, the half hour of strained language teaching of what seems like endless repetition of colours, animals and numbers, quickly becomes an hour of language and culture, where everyone enjoys and learns together.

Language approach

When learning a language, generally we all follow the same pattern. Our verbal skills come first. It is very easy to communicate our meaning without a full vocabulary, through body language and appropriately-timed grunts – but the older we get the more self-conscious we get, so it is best to start this"Get the children interested, get them talking and building up confidence." as early as possible, before children build up these inhibitions. Research shows that children under the age of 7 are the most receptive to picking up a second language.

Second comes our ability to read, followed by writing. If we stick to these principles, learning a new language should be straight forward. Get the children interested, get them talking and building up confidence, recognising words, and finally, if necessary, start writing. With constant box ticking and evidence gathering for every other subject, it is easy to fall into the same trap with MFL – but give yourself and the children a break. Take a step back from writing and filling in worksheets. Let the children develop an interest, maybe even a love, for the new language by exploring it through their areas of interest, rather than the short-lived bragging rights of counting to 10 in some arbitrary tongue.

Some real examples

While writing this I asked my 6 year old son what language he would like to learn. He wasn’t bothered really. When I asked him what country he would like to learn more about, it was hard to stop him reeling off country after country. One he mentioned was Argentina, because Messi, the best soccer player in the world, comes from there. What do they speak in Argentina? Why does Messi choose to play in Spain rather than England? Is Spain like Argentina in other ways?

So if you are teaching Spanish in school – why not start by looking at the different countries around the world where Spanish is spoken, or registered as an official language. A quick search on the Internet shows some interesting results. Dependent on the age of the children, this can lead into other discussions on exploration and the (dis)similarities between these countries. Why not investigate the various cultures? What are the main sports in each country? How is the landscape different? Is there a common religion? How does the climate differ? What are the main festivals and how are they celebrated? How does school life contrast to that in the UK? What are the main industries in the countries – how do people earn a living? What sort of food do they eat? Is wildlife similar to the UK? And always remember to ask “WHY?”

Every one of these questions provides a hook for the children in your class. Some will engage more readily with one question than another as happens in other lessons. However, the important thing is that their wider knowledge, global learning, appreciation and understanding of other cultures is expanding at the same time as they are learning a very useful skill – a new language!

Do you teach Primary MFL? Share your tips below!

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