Teaching and Learning of MFL: What will it look like in the new academic year and beyond?

Ahead of the National Modern Foreign Languages Conference this October, Crista Hazell, Development Manager at the Association for Language Learning, shares her thoughts on the future of teaching and learning for MFL, particularly following changes in education as a result of COVID-19. 

2020 has proven itself to be a memorable year for so many reasons and yet we are only just at the start of September. Many colleagues have reached out for guidance, support and help and I am proud to be part of the MFL community who have come together and have shared feelings, thoughts, expertise and potential solutions of how we can ensure teaching and learning in MFL remains engaging, exciting, inclusive and relevant but also is a risk-free as possible.

Guidance and support from the Association for Language Learning has been forthcoming to support members as they return to school which can be found here. 

And of course, Ofqual are imminently going to update MFL teachers about the 2021 exams series of which GCSE MFL no longer shall have a speaking exam. Teachers were advised on August 3rd that additional information would be forthcoming and as schools have welcomed back learners including their exam classes, still clarification of the ‘speaking endorsement’ has not been issued. Ofqual of course have been rather busy in recent weeks and I am certain they have not forgotten of their promise to MFL teachers. 

The Press as well as parents and carers have raised concerns about the ‘loss of learning’ that has been inevitable throughout 2020 with Government directed school closures and then later the equity debacle as schools turned to blended learning switching to online learning to ensure learners kept learning. In April and May, the Education Endowment Foundation, headteachers across the UK, ASCL and ALL members raised concerns about equity and accessibility of online learning, but little changed from Government. Teachers did their best to ensure that equipment was copied, printed and posted so that materials and learning could continue in some homes and at the teachers' expense in many cases.

As educators and teachers, we are acutely aware of the need for learning to resume but this has to follow a period of time where learner wellbeing has been assessed and acknowledged. Searching for solutions to close learning gaps and the how to recover the ‘lost learning’ cannot be adequately addressed until learners return to school and their social, emotional, health (physical and mental) and wellbeing has been assessed, and their needs met. Learners have been through significant challenges, grief and loss – not only through bereavement and death as a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic but also the loss of routine in coming to school, meeting and making friends, being in conversation, going outside, having their voice heard, being acknowledged and being noticed. Learners might have had to have been carers for siblings whilst parents and the adults in their lives have had to work online or return to work as key workers. Once learners settle and become reacquainted to their educational establishments once more, learning can and will resume. Do not focus on the negatives and the gaps but meet the needs of the learners.

As passionate educators we know what is expected of our learners, undoubtedly we have crafted schemes of learning for each year group or key stage and within these we revisit key language, grammar, skills and have high expectations of all of our learners – every single one in the class. We differentiate tasks and scaffold learning. We create activities to recall and retrieve key terminology, language and constructions across all four language skills and support learners with enrichment, extension, cultural capital and provide support but also stretch and challenge. We must get to know our learners again, we must provide a safe environment for language learning where learners know they will be supported, guided and challenged.

Of course, this will look a little different, a new layout in the classroom if rows have been directed, limited movement around the classroom or school, some mask/ barrier wearing to protect not only learners but teachers, teaching assistants and foreign language assistants too.

Listening, reading and writing alone does not a great MFL learner make, we also have to create options where oracy is developed as well as the power of voice and expressing opinion. We do want our learners to be able to speak the language and despite new challenges that Covid-19 has brought us we need to develop this vital skill. So think differently about how speaking activities will take place in your classrooms – learners will need to be able to decode new language and previously learned language when completing reading and listening tasks so it is imperative they know phoneme and grapheme relationship so teach these. Within your department you might have some funds left so explore how you can purchase items to help you teach this without lots of teacher talk. If finances are tight look at the options you have, create short videos recording yourself on digital devices practicing the grapheme-phoneme link so that learners can learn these in class and reinforce them at home.

For many years language teachers have been inspired to revisit key vocabulary, grammar and chunks of language as a result of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting curve, but also knowing that learners do not learn language once through repetition and drilling exercises and then can read a target language text perfectly. Through retrieval practice starters we ensure that learners are required to work to recall prior learning where 5 or 10 phrases/chunks are read aloud by the teacher – these can be pre-recorded, so the sound file is played providing listening and translation tasks / gap fill challenges if need be. These phrases can then be used in a text where learners are expected to read it for recognition and comprehension requiring them to seek out correct answers which can then be taken by the learner and developed in to writing tasks pieces. These can of course be spoken aloud practicing pronunciation, intonation, confidence and pace but also captured on digital devices to form part of an oracy / speaking skill e-portfolio as a record of progress achieved.  

As language teachers we never create one task to be used once, we recycle and revisit language and ‘exploit’ and mine reading and listening texts so we need to remember to do this again – guided by the scheme of learning we have created but also by the learners and what they can do. Once we learn to listen to them and respond to their language learning needs we will be able to accelerate the learning for many of them, not all but many.

We are teaching learners of all kinds and this is not a sprint, it is a marathon. We cannot ‘catch them all up’ by Christmas, this is unhelpful and unrealistic. Language learning in 2020 and beyond is not rocket science, it’s much simpler than that! We simply need to think carefully about what we want learners to be able to do and support them all in achieving it recycling key language, enabling long term memory through repeatedly meeting, using and manipulating key language but before we do this, we have to get the professional relationship right. Patience, kindness, tolerance, care, encouragement, trust and love. If we get this right, the learning will come, and we will have language learners that truly love languages.

Crista Hazell is a passionate MFL teacher, leader, author, blogger and education consultant, working internationally with schools developing innovative and impactful teaching and learning strategies from over 20 years’ experience in UK schools. She is a published author, Independent Thinking Associate, SLE in MFL, Development Manager for The Association for Language Learning and a Mental Health First Aider. Her first book; Independent Thinking on MFL is available now. She can be found on Twitter at: @cristahazell

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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Further Reading:

Association for Language Learning Guidance

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Education Endowment Foundation

The Learning Scientists