Reading University hosted a free conference yesterday to present the results a Nuffield-funded investigation of patterns of progress in French between primary and secondary schools. Researchers contributing were Professor Suzanne Graham, Dr Louise Courtney, Professor Theodoris Marinis and Dr Alan Tonkyn. The full results will be available on a dedicated website soon, and they present a complex picture. Educational research does not take place in a laboratory, and the researchers' honest look at what is actually happening, rather than what we might like to happen, shows up serious problems as well as important positive features. While we wait for the full publication, here are some key points:
- Pupils tested made slow but steady progress between Years 5 and 7
- Overall, pupils were positive about languages and their ability to learn them, giving positive ratings, usually between 2.5 and 3 out of 4.
- The researchers' clear focus on specific aspects of grammar - gender, agreement and verbs - enabled them to provide clear evidence of pupils' progress in these areas.
- Good teaching and good provision of time in the primary school had a positive effect on learning.
- Pupils enjoyed songs and activities that made learning fun.
- There was no consistency in continuity and transfer between primary and secondary schools, and it was hard to keep track of pupils. The sample shrank from over 250 in Y5, to 99 at the end of in Year 7. Sixty out of 159 pupils tested at the start of Year 7 were not available for testing at the end of it.
- There was very substantial disapplication from languages in Year 7, mainly among low-attaining and average pupils.
- Some pupils complained of poor behaviour in mixed-ability classes in secondary school.
- A significant minority disagreed strongly with positive statements about languages.
- Pupils disliked repetitive work, which was sometimes the result of long gaps between lessons, so that teachers had to go over previous work that had been forgotten.
- Writing was restricted to copywriting and formulaic phrases.
- There was a small decline in enthusiasm for languages during Year 7, and pupils tended to find them difficult.
Given the uncertainties since the decision in principle to introduce languges in primary schools ten years ago, this mixed picture is no surprise, and discussion afterwards reflected a very wide range of views on the way forward. Everyone agreed that many teachers needed much more professional development and support to teach languages properly. I personally disagreed very strongly with the established idea, originating from the work of Eric Hawkins, that we should "tolerate error" in pupils' writing. It is not surprising that children make mistakes while copying out formulaic phrases, not least because of the need to jerk their eyes back and forth while doing so. The toolkits on this site contain an approach to beginning writing that builds confidence and success by helping pupils to understand what they need to do to write in French, with minimal errors, and I was told that they have been recommended to teachers in Surrey. I invite colleagues interested in further research in this area to get in touch and we will carry it out. Some outcomes from pilot studies are listed at the end of this ppt.
Two further points stand out. The first is that the biggest single factor in success in languages is literacy skills in English, which accounted for 40% of the variance in test scores using regression analysis. Literacy in English remains the key to understanding these features of French, whether they are presented to pupils orally or with an element of writing. They matter, not because of pedantic obsessions with correctness, but because they run through French language from top to bottom.
The second is that substantial numbers of pupils in secondary school are not being given a fair chance to learn a language. Dropout at 14 is being replaced by "disapplication" or "alternative pathways" in Year 7. This is unfair, and a backward step. The only way to deal with it is to continue to develop teaching methods that enable all pupils to succeed, and to ditch unsuccessful methods, not pupils. The list of these is headed by copying, and presenting things pupils don't understand, irregular timetabling in primary schools - and mixed ability teaching in secondary schools. The result of the last, on this evidence, is that higher-attaining pupils are held back by poor behaviour, and lower-attaing pupils dislike French and either misbehave or drop out.
Professor Graham has commented as follows on Linguanet.
Thanks John for flagging up our event and I'm glad you found it useful. However, I think it's important to give a fuller picture of some of the points you have highlighted on your link, as I don't think all of them do reflect all aspects of our findings. So, taking some of your points:
•Good teaching and good provision of time in the primary school had a positive effect on learning
My response: Good provision of time was very important; however, we made no judgement of 'quality' of teaching and instead looked at the teachers' level of qualification in French and the amount of training they had had in MFL pedagogy. Both of these were positively related to how well children progressed. Agreed that it was the teacher's qualifications and training that were referred to, and it is important to clarify this.
•There was no consistency in continuity and transfer between primary and secondary schools, and it was hard to keep track of pupils. The sample shrank from over 250 in Y5, to 99 at the end of in Year 7. Sixty out of 159 pupils tested at the start of Year 7 were not available for testing at the end of it.
My response - losing participants is an occupational hazard in longitudinal research and in this study, this was not attributable to lack of continuity and transfer between primary and secondary schools (we in fact did very well, in our view, in retaining the number of pupils that we did as they moved to Year 7. The number we lost is much lower than one might expect - in Year 7, for our main testing, we had 165 pupils). Rather it was due to expected factors such as some learners not moving to the secondary school that most children from that primary went to (e.g. to independent schools, where a language other than French might have been taught), and to learners themselves choosing no longer to take part in the study. In primary, it was relatively easy to test the children in lesson time; in many secondary schools, we needed to test learners after school, and in some cases learners chose not to attend testing sessions.
The small sample at the end of Year 7 was largely due to us deciding, for reasons of time right at the end of the study, to survey only schools where there were large numbers of project pupils, rather than the whole cohort, which would have been very difficult in the summer term.
In response to my question at the conference, it was said that there was a high level of disapplicaton. I agree that sample loss is an occupational hazard, but see an attrition rate of over 60% over such a short period as very high, even taking into account the spread of pupils between secondary schools. I was particularly concerned at the loss during Y7, although I accept that the proportion of lower attaining pupils tested at the end of the year was close to that at the beginning.
•There was very substantial disapplication from languages in Year 7, mainly among low-attaining and average pupils
My response - this was not the case, and we didn't report 'very substantial disapplication' - rather 'some' disapplication. You are of course right to flag up disapplication as an issue especially for learners of lower levels of English literacy. Again, this was written on the basis of the response to my question. Do we know how many of the sample were disapplied?
•Pupils complained of poor behaviour in mixed-ability classes in secondary school
My response - some pupils did complain of this, but this was less widespread than is suggested here, as will be seen from the presentation slides when they are posted. This was a point made spontaneously by a presenter, and it will be useful to see the extent of it. I accept that the point was not made by all pupils.
•Pupils disliked repetitive work, which was sometimes the result of long gaps between lessons, so that teachers had to go over previous work that had been forgotten.
•Writing was restricted to copywriting and formulaic phrases
My response to both points - pupils did dislike repetitive work, but we didn't, in our study, attribute this to long gaps between lessons - this point was raised in the later discussion session by a conference attendee as something that can happen in primary schools. Professor Graham mentioned problems such as classes being seen once a fortnight only, and lessons being cancelled for sports day. The latter is an annual event, the former alas more common. I accept that this comment relates to primary schools, but it is also one I've heard reported from other universities.
We did not present evidence (and didn't have any) that writing was restricted to this kind of work - what we did find, and report, was that learners disliked copywriting and liked writing for a purpose (such as writing letters to penfriends). I have a note of a comment by a presenter saying that "higher level literacy was not much in evidence", and the printed summary of findings says that "beginner learners are mainly engaged in copy writing, but learners do not often perceive the relevance or purpose of copywriting". It continues,"Children like writing for a purpose, but there is little observed opportunity for learners to engage in free writing activities". I believe that these findings substantiate my comment, and stand by it.
As John rightly points out, we will soon post details of a website where all of yesterday's presentations and key findings will be posted.
Best wishes and thank you for promoting the event!