Are Primary Schools Ready For Languages?

The general consensus regarding the introduction of foreign language teaching in primary schools is that it must be of a high enough standard to warrant its space in an already busy curriculum. Certainly, the value of introducing languages at a young age is widely appreciated, but there is a growing concern that the promises of increased fluency cannot be fulfilled by primary teachers.

The current 'no statutory requirement' to teach a language at Key Stages 1 and 2 has, according to some, resulted in amateurish teaching. Studies have shown that over 50% of language teaching in schools is of a very poor standard because teachers have limited knowledge of the language they are teaching. Many teachers find the prospect of teaching a language daunting because they have not encountered such a subject since they left school, if at all. The idea that brave members of staff will be holding the fort by being one step ahead of a text book is a genuine worry for parents.

There are movements, however, to improve language teaching in primary schools. Some virtual learning programmes are being funded by the Department for Education to better qualify teachers for the task. For the time being, most of these courses only focus on French but the hope is that they will expand into Spanish and German as well as less commonly taught languages. There are also a number of programmes that have been developed by various institutions such as universities that aim to give primary teachers specialist training.

Specialising in subjects, such as languages, is now being encouraged in teacher training. Currently, primary school teachers are 'all-rounders' who can approach any subject, but this may change with the move to a new curriculum. The Government is looking to provide generous incentives to teacher trainees specialising in maths, science or languages, so that children will get a better education in core subjects from a younger age. The selection process for trainees will also become stricter thereby ensuring that only the brightest candidates will be able to teach. This movement to having in-house specialists will also mean that outside linguists will not be required for language clubs.

Ideally, the new curriculum needs to be adequately funded and highly organised to guarantee success. Teachers need to be confident and capable when teaching a language to ensure that pronunciation and basic grammar is correct. Furthermore, there will need to be some attempt to ensure that primary school pupils reach a universal standard. This is necessary so that staff at secondary schools can continue teaching languages without having to undo previously learned mistakes or spend time helping some students reach the same level as the rest of their class. While consistency in ability is important, for the programme to be worthwhile, it is also crucial that there is cohesion between the choice of languages taught at primary school and secondary school.

Overall, the promise of better language skills in this country will only be fulfilled if our teachers are capable of teaching them. Hopefully, the new curriculum will be properly supported to ensure this is the case.
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