MFL Teaching and Learning: Insights from MFL Teachers and Leaders

Early in the summer of 2020, IG Schools conducted research with Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) teachers and leaders across England and Wales.

We discussed a number of the main challenges and key concerns they're currently facing and explored priorities for the new academic year and beyond.

Read on to learn about the core findings and examine how these aspects currently fit in with your school’s plan for MFL.

Adapting MFL for COVID-19

As with all subject leaders, COVID-19 and school closures placed a huge strain on MFL teaching and learning. While some staff have opted to run live online lessons, poor Wi-Fi or lack of space at home has meant this is hasn’t been an option for all. This may have detracted from the necessary interactive nature of MFL lessons, but others have acknowledged the benefits of pre-recording lessons and activities. This approach has allowed more flexibility for staff and pupils alike. Staff can plan and record ahead, as well as respond to what pupils need based on their feedback, with pupils, and families supporting them, being able to watch the lessons at a time most appropriate for them, for example when the home PC isn’t being used by a sibling or parent.

However, many staff have had to work on up-skilling in terms of using video technology, and other forms of EdTech, which has been a particular challenge for those working in schools who are at a very early stage in their digital journey. As some schools moved relatively seamlessly into remote working having already been utilising platforms such as Google Classroom, others were trying to grapple with this set up at the start of a protracted period of stress. Most teachers we spoke to recognised how this situation and their own learning in recent months has carved out a clear need for further training around EdTech, and effectively utilising digital tools for teaching MFL.

While the government intends to have all pupils back in school by September 2020, there is still uncertainty around the potential for local lockdowns or even a second spike of COVID-19 that could force schools to close again. As such, most MFL teachers and leaders are anticipating and actively planning for a blended learning approach for the next academic year.

Engaging with Pupils

The lockdown period has caused a number of issues for engaging with and getting feedback from pupils, and most importantly understanding what progress they are, or aren’t, making.

From speaking to a number of people within the education sector the IG Schools team have found that pupils of exam age, in particular year 10s who will be acutely aware of the uncertainty around their GCSEs next year and how these grades could impact their future, have typically been more engaged with work and activities set by teachers. This is compared to pupils at KS3, who many noted didn’t demonstrate the same drive, which has been disappointing for staff given the importance of enthusiasm for a subject at this age.

However, in some schools where MFL subjects are compulsory, teachers reported much more mixed levels of engagement, as those who wouldn’t have chosen to study the subject are lacking some of the motivation needed to progress with remote learning. This is a trend exacerbated by the current situation however, as it has also been noted in normal school time.

It has been well documented throughout the COVID-19 crisis that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds may have struggled to access the tools they need to learn effectively at home. While MFL staff noted the importance of school-based schemes to support these pupils, and the government’s free laptops project, some highlighted the lack of support on how to actually use and make the most of the technology pupils were being provided with. For example, some were given a Chromebook having never seen or used one before. It has fallen on individual teachers to provide this additional tech-focused support alongside lesson delivery, but without the right pedagogical training to do so.

Pedagogy, Curriculum and Assessments

It was widely acknowledged during our discussion with MFL professionals that quality pedagogy for teaching MFL in the classroom is different to that pedagogy which helps teachers lead with EdTech. The skills needed to make use of digital tools for remote teaching are something that many have had to develop alone during the lockdown period, searching for online training and advice from peers.

Some MFL experts however, such as Joe Dale, have long been proponents of using technology in the classroom as well as outside it, long before staff were forced into this state of play by COVID-19.

While its universally acknowledged that delivery is important, many highlighted the curriculum itself is also a key issue for consideration. With some subjects being pitted against each other as more difficult than others to achieve high grades, the sector is eagerly awaiting news from the DfE-commissioned review of GCSE MFL subject content. While recommendations for maintaining high quality teaching while ensuring all content remains rigorous were due to be published in Spring 2020, there is hope among the sector that COVID-19 won’t delay publication beyond the autumn term.

This however links to what some dubbed the “real worry”: exam success. As much as staff are committed to delivering a quality curriculum, developing a passion for one or more languages among pupils, and exploring new ways to do so, fundamentally these efforts all link back to pressure to achieve good grades – for pupils, for teachers and for schools. The expectations around needing to demonstrate quality in this way are keenly felt by many MFL teachers and leaders, to the extent that some feel it can be detrimental to their efforts.

Preparing for the New Academic Year

Thinking ahead to the start of the new term, and beyond, MFL staff are grappling with how much they want to, or should, continue teaching with the help of digital tools in the classroom, or instead take a back-to-basics approach after so many months of limited real-time engagement with pupils. Many feel that the biggest challenge is going to be around speaking and listening competencies, given the lack of practice that pupils are likely to have had in recent months. Alongside this, some teachers are predicting that the quality of writing among pupils may dip as they return to the classroom, having relied on online translation tools while learning from home.

For pupils who will be nervous to return to school, and reintegrate having worked better at home, MFL staff understand that speaking in any language is likely to be a challenge. But with the interactive nature of an MFL classroom, where pupils are encouraged to learn and share together, MFL teachers feel there is potential in these lessons to facilitate social interaction in a safe environment. Many are keen to be able to provide this kind of pastoral support that may be required in an innovative subject-specific way. Teachers are conscious of needing to boost pupil confidence more generally as well though, particularly for pupils entering into years 10 and 12, acutely aware that this is the start of an important exam-focused stretch.

To try and ascertain the different levels pupils are at and how the school-related consequences of COVID-19 have impacted their capacity for learning and established skills set in MFL, most staff are planning to run a variety of short in-class assessments from September to establish new baselines. This will also help define the progress and attainment gap expected to have grown between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers. These assessments will help inform which pupils need extra support, but also which topics are weaker for a class as a whole for example and could benefit from being taught afresh in an environment where pupils can once again ask real-time questions and tackle challenges with each other.

The new school year is going to bring unprecedented challenges for pupils, teachers and leaders alike, but we’re confident the enthusiasm to overcome these demonstrated by the staff we spoke to reflects the attitude of MFL teachers across the country. So many have sought out their own online training and CPD opportunities this year to improve their EdTech skills, but while this has now become very familiar, many staff expressed how much they enjoy getting out and meeting peers at in-person trainings and networking events. This may not be as easy to do during 2020, but as the sector has demonstrated, that doesn’t stop learning and sharing among MFL teachers and students.

This article was written by Lauren Powell, IG Schools Portfolio Lead 

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

National Modern Foreign Languages Conference 2022