How to Improve MFL Uptake and Engagement Following COVID-19

Once an esteemed part of the curriculum, you can now argue that modern foreign languages (MFLs) have become the lesser cousin to STEM subjects.

Modern language learning in England’s schools is in crisis and the pandemic has further exacerbated potential uptake, with many pupils receiving little to no MFL teaching during multiple lockdowns.

So, how can schools put MFLs back on the map?

In this article we will we share tips on how to improve MFL uptake and engagement post-pandemic. First let’s recap why MFLs are suffering.

Why is language learning in decline?

Modern language learning has been in decline in state education for a long time – it has impacted uptake at A-level and degree level over the past decade at least.

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc), introduced in 2010, attempted to address this. While there was a temporary uplift in the uptake of languages as a result, according to the Languages Trend Report in 2020, by 2017 only 38.2% of pupils in the state sector were entered for the EBacc - and of those who entered 4 out of the 5 components, 80.4% were missing the languages component. If EBacc was supposed to boost MFL uptake, it hasn’t worked.

The government’s drive to increase interest in STEM subjects has also inadvertently pulled students away from language options. This is just a small piece of the puzzle - the reasons behind the fall in language uptake are complex.

Ofsted’s recent review into modern languages teaching in English schools found low expectations and a lack of CPD are affecting uptake. Other barriers identified by Ofsted include:

  • The trend to bring GCSE options forward to Year 8
  • SATs pressures in primary schools, squeezing time spent on languages
  • Poor curriculum planning meaning pupils are not making substantial progress in one language
  • Poor communication during primary to secondary transition
  • Pupil perception of languages as being ‘difficult’ (many experts believe languages receive harsher marking)
  • Pupils unable to see the relevance of languages in their lives
  • Pupils demotivated when comparing their linguistic ability to their peers abroad

In our Q&A with Jane Harvey, President for the Association for Languages Learning, smaller groups and funding difficulties, as well as the future supply of language teachers, were also seen as concerns.

So, what can be done? Resolving such a multi-factorial problem requires a multi-pronged approach. First, schools must make languages more attractive to pupils.

How can I make MFL more attractive to my pupils?

How the subject is seen in terms of importance by pupils is largely down to leadership teams. The stigma attached to modern languages as being ‘difficult to achieve good grades in’ must be addressed.

Lesson content needs to be fun, and the use of technology pupils regularly engage with is essential. YouTube videos, Netflix, language apps and following relevant language hashtags on Twitter are all relevant today. Platforms such as FlashAcademy provides pupils with a more engaging and stimulating way to learn languages.

If trips to other countries are off the cards, video technology ensures tours and language exchanges can still be organised virtually. Pupils need more culturally interesting content. Virtual reality apps, such as Expeditions Pro, can take students on a virtual tour of the Palace of Versailles or to explore the city of Barcelona.

And language lessons must impart a sense of how languages enhance life and employment opportunities. The benefits of learning a language at school are vast. It is up to leadership teams to ensure their young people can see the value of learning languages, and that this translates into the curriculum.

As we put lockdowns and social distancing behind us, school visits from people who use languages in their jobs can help to inspire.

How can I improve MFL uptake?

Making languages more popular in schools requires a holistic approach. Once children are engaged with language learning at primary level, there is more chance of the interest continuing into secondary school. A key driver for MFL uptake is trying to keep people engaged in languages throughout education.

Opportunities for interdisciplinary learning, such as looking at human rights in the social sciences, helps to integrate languages into the curriculum and increase language exposure. Other examples include cooking projects, combining languages with home economics, and media projects where you can combine languages with film and drama.

Schools should celebrate the European Day of Languages to further increase awareness of the importance of learning a language at school, as well as engage with other schools and programmes.

MFL uptake will improve if students can see the benefits and are attracted to the content.

How can I increase engagement in the subject?

The pandemic hasn’t been all bad when it comes to language learning. Independent languages consultant, Joe Dale, said: “One of the silver linings of living through the pandemic is the way in which the global language teaching community has come together, sharing ideas and resources through social media and free webinars.” Effective use of technology plays a big part in the engagement of pupils.

Language assistants in the classroom are also great for engagement. Curon Evans, a French and German teacher at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Glantaf in Cardiff, says, “one of the best ways to get students excited about all the benefits that language learning brings is by using language assistants”.

Language assistants enable pupils to learn colloquialisms and gain a sense of culture from the person, since they may not get to visit the country. In addition, language assistants can work with small groups of pupils where they may feel more at ease about expressing themselves.

The Languages Future programme brings language expertise in the local community into school.

Helping pupils succeed: The importance of Continuing Professional Development

Pupils need innovative teaching to make a subject more engaging, but teachers need the right support to achieve this. A survey of primary schools by the British Council found that teachers want more guidance on:

  • how much time to spend on language teaching
  • what content to teach
  • subject-specific professional development
  • research-informed resources

The Language Trends Report 2021, produced by the British Council, found a need for more resourcing and opportunities for online, language-specific Continuing Professional Development – a need for in-service training for teachers to improve their skills and knowledge was identified.

What next?

Modern languages learning is in crisis and we know that millions of children did not receive any language tuition during lockdowns in England. The Language Trends Report 2021, which examines teachers' views of language teaching in schools, concludes:

“As education in England bounces back from Covid-19, there is a need to include language learning and schools’ international engagement in any recovery plan.

“Two in five state schools and one in ten independent schools no longer have any international activities. At a time when the United Kingdom is renegotiating its place on the world stage, it will be important that schools seek to rebuild their international connections and activities.”

MFL specialist, Ellie Baker, says the time has come to make languages compulsory at GCSE again. As a result of both Covid-19 and Brexit, Baker argues that “Intercultural understanding is at risk as division between communities widens due to social isolation and a dramatic decline in travel. The need for foreign language learning is more important than ever to help bridge these gaps”.

Regardless of policy decisions around MFL, schools can and must do more to engage and encourage students and make MFL subjects more appealing. Ellie Baker echoes the views of many senior leaders: “We must put a stop to this language-free epidemic and put MFL back on the agenda.”

Looking for additional support? Join members from the Department for Education's review team, AQA, Pearson Qualification, ALL, NCELP on 19th October:

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