A Summary of Ofsted's Languages Research Report for Teachers and Leaders
The language report shares findings about effective curriculum design, factors which affect language learning, and the pedagogy which supports effective teaching and learning. It centres on the three pillars of progression: phonics, vocabulary and grammar. The report provides insights into the status of languages in schools and which curriculum decisions leaders need to consider, as well as providing suggestions for effective teaching and assessment. The role of working memory constraints has significant implications for language learning, which leaders and teachers need to take into account. Explicit instruction is suggested as a very effective teaching approach, so long as it is based on a curriculum which has been carefully considered and sequenced.
You can download the original report from Ofsted's website. The summary below is my own interpretation of Ofsted's summary and whilst I hope I have done it justice, I am happy to be corrected if I have misinterpreted any of the findings.
The Case for Languages
Languages are an integral part of the curriculum as they open the mind to other cultures, build cultural capital and liberate from insularity.
Motivation has a strong relationship with continued language study beyond KS3.
The proportion of boys, disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND engaging with languages after KS3 is low.
There are a range of factors which affect pupils’ motivation and substantial ‘threats’ to pupils’ self-efficacy - their belief in their own ability.
Factors which are likely to have a positive impact on pupil self-efficacy include:
knowledge of the target language’s phonetic code
secure grasp of the building blocks which enables manipulation of language
being around non-native peers who can communicate effectively
being clear about how to make progress
Factors which are likely to have a negative impact on pupil self-efficacy include:
Comparing their foreign language proficiency with peers from abroad when on exchanges
The perception that languages are difficult (and might therefore be avoided)
Low expectations from teachers and leaders - especially for those with low prior attainment and those with SEND.
The lack of effective transition from primary to secondary: many children feel that they ‘start again’.
The building blocks of a language system are sounds, words and rules - phonics, vocabulary and grammar.
Principles of Curriculum
Progress means to know more and remember more.
Curriculums need to plan for progress by carefully considering what the building blocks and and how to sequence them in the subject.
Working memory limitations means that overloading learners with content will negatively affect the quality of learning: less can be more.
Distributed practice (practising rehearsal of knowledge in short chunks regularly and often) is more effective than massed practice (doing lots of rehearsal in one go).
Retrieval practice supports long-term memory development.
Explicit teaching works best with novice learners.
Pillars of Progression
These are the building blocks of the subject: they are not reductivist but rather they enable the progress that is necessary to achieve the goals of language learning: it is these three things that will enable pupils to learn the language so they can converse fluently, fully explore cultures and increase their economic prospects.
Cultural awareness can be more refined with improved linguistic ability.
The three pillars are:
phonics (and sound-letter correspondences)
These pillars overlap and require steady development to improve pupils’ understanding and language production.
The main tasks for beginners are:
learning the sounds, vocabulary and grammar of the language
understanding and producing these
Learning and practice will allow for the range, complexity and accuracy of these sounds, words and understanding and application of the rules of the language.
Practice will enable pupils to be able to improve both their accuracy and the length of what they can understand or produce.
Beginners need to focus much more on lower-level processes such as recognition of sounds and words. The more practice they have, and the more automatic they become in their understanding, the more complex content they will be able to learn.
Some concepts behind native language early reading and writing are relevant to the languages curriculum - particularly the step-by-step, explicitly approach to spelling and phonics.
A curriculum should have a clear, logic plan for progression in phonics - including teaching around differences between the target language and English.
There needs to be planned practice and review of grapheme-phoneme correspondences (sound-letter connections)
The curriculum should be planned to show how small differences in sounds can affect meaning
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a very strong correlation between knowledge of vocabulary and reading ability and grammatical competence.
Choices for what vocabulary to teach needs to be carefully considered with particular consideration given to the learners’ age and the word frequency.
A common estimate is that the 2000 most frequent words in a language comprise more than 80% of words in most written and spoken language.
For less frequent words, themes and topics - such as holidays and jobs - are common ways of grouping words. It is important though that words be selected based on their potential use across the curriculum, rather than only in a narrow aspect of the language.
Pupils will begin to cluster related words as they expand they vocabulary: it is important that they can use these clusters with different grammatical constructions. For example, if they have learned how to express a like for something alongside learning pets and adjectives, it is important that they can also apply the grammatical structure of ‘j’aime’ or ‘me gusta’ or ‘ich mag’ with other vocabulary.
Curriculum leaders can use Milton’s (xxxx) divisions to assess pupils’ word knowledge
how many words do they know?
how well can they adapt their usage of the word e.g. inflections, contextual use
how automatic or fast are they with their recall?
When vocabulary is introduced, pupils should have opportunities to practise understanding and producing language which includes the new words. This should be in written and spoken language.
Progress in grammar needs to be planned over time. There should be a logical progression from simpler to more complex structures and concepts. The language levels of the CEFR provide useful summaries of what grammatical knowledge is required at each level of proficiency, as well as providing a suggested progression.
Embedding grammar into their long term memory allows pupils to learn and understand more complex structures and concepts without becoming confused.
Teaching fixed phrases is limited in its use as pupils should be taught to manipulate language. There are only a few exceptions which should be taught without this teaching e.g. ‘s’il vous plaît’ in French.
Curriculum leaders can use the following factors to help sequence grammar:
how easy it is for the grammar to be spotted by the learner
how easy it is to understand its function
how useful it is to know (based on its frequency)
how different the grammar is from other languages a learner knows
how generalisable and regular it is
Grammar can be learned incidentally and implicitly but explicit teaching has a positive impact on how efficiently pupils can learn structures and concepts.
Systematic practice is also very important.
Planning for grammar progression should also take into account the intended vocabulary progression. For example, knowing lots of verbs supports the development of knowledge about how verbs work (tense, inflection, person)
Pupils need practice of grammatical structures and concepts in a range of creative contexts. The goal should be for pupils to master the grammar they are being taught at each step.
Planned and Purposeful Progression
Beginner learners are slower at recognising and producing small components of language such as sounds and words.
Over time, knowledge becomes more accessible and more automatic.
Once learners have become automatic in some basic knowledge, they are able to carry out higher order tasks such as drawing inferences, noticing nuance, and increasing the amount of language they can understand and produce.
Within the context of the UK and the languages curriculum specifications, it is likely that only a few linguists at GCSE and slightly more at A-level would be working at an ‘expert’ level: the vast majority of UK learners will be learning the building blocks of the language.
Listening and Reading - Comprehending Language
Novice learners need to decode what they hear or read. Decoding can be slow, effortful and error-prone in the initial stages. Pupils can sometimes draw on their first language, but this is not always helpful, reliable or efficient and can lead to guesswork.
Over time and with practice, knowledge of phonics, grammar and vocabulary becomes automatic and pupils can access this knowledge more accurately and effortlessly. This enables pupils to understand longer texts and spoken discourse, allowing them to access a wider range of meanings.
The more automatic language becomes, the more able pupils are to build knowledge and make inferences, as they are able to consider how the content links with their background knowledge.
There are clearly different demands between listening and reading.
Listening requires decoding sounds at speed, keeping information in working memory (unless the content can be repeated) and can sometimes include following different speakers with different voices and (potentially) points of view.
The differences between listening and reading should be taken into account when planning the curriculum and deciding on tasks and activities. The difficulties and challenge of tasks should be taken into account and sufficient time for practice should be allocated.
Speaking and Writing - Language Production
Novice learners’ language production - whether this is the sounds or letters - is slower, shorter and more likely to contain errors.
Again, learners become faster and more accurate with sufficient time and practice.
The automaticity that time and practice leads to builds pupils’ capacity to pay attention to other aspects of speaking and writing, allowing them to develop an idea and engage in discussion.
As pupils’ language production becomes more accurate and automatic, they are more able to use language across a range of contexts and in expressing increasingly sophisticated ideas.
Speaking and writing create different demands on a learner. Speaking requires pupils to be aware of the ongoing discourse between speakers and integrate new information into the conversation. This is reliant on listening competency. Speaking has a time pressure associated with it, making it different to writing with which learners can typically have more time to think about content and how to express it.
This section has been informed by research relevant to language pedagogy and cognitive science.
Second languages can be learned both explicitly and implicitly: learning can be ‘intentional’ or ‘incidental’.
Pupils’ ability to learn implicitly is affected by how analytical and engaged they are, and how strong their working memory is, giving them an advantage over how much they can attend to.
Intention learning is likely to be more efficient for most learners - “explicit teaching works best with novice learners”.
Use of the Target Language
This is a much-debated issue.
There is a fine balance between adequate exposure to a language without overwhelming and demotivating learners.
Using the target language should not act as a hindrance to learning e.g. explaining a grammatical concept in the target language can make it more difficult to understand.
Use of the target language is, however, essential for practice and reinforcement. This needs careful planning.
Teachers should use the target language where it supports and complements the scheme of work and builds systematically on pupils’ prior knowledge. Its effectiveness is really all in the planning.
Teachers’ use of the target language can be altered in line with learners’ progress: the more familiar the learners are with the language, the more able it is to be used beneficially and effectively.
The focus of target language use should be on that of the learners. There is strong evidence that pupils’ use of the target language correlates with their learning.
Pupils need both the competence and the motivation to create meaning in the target language. Classroom climates should support this and it should be remembered that spontaneous use is often less fluent, fast and accurate than rehearsed responses.
Authenticity of Spoken and Written Texts
This is another much-debated issue.
There is a lack of evidence about how the authenticity of a text supports learning or motivation.
Any texts used in the classroom should be selected in line with the systematic planning for vocabulary and grammar.
However, texts can also provide opportunities for pupils to follow their own interests and develop how they handle new material. Additionally, they can support pupils’ understanding of culture of target language communities.
Adapted authentic texts and bespoke texts are likely to be useful when they support the programme of language development.
It is important that learners are not exposed to too much unfamiliar language too early in their learning journey: it can demotivate and confuse them.
There is a suggestion backed by research that learners need to know about 95% of the vocabulary whether this be in written or in spoken form.
Any resources should be age appropriate and link to the scheme of work.
For listening activities, teachers must consider the speed of the speech and its transitory nature. It can be useful, initially, to provide texts in both audio and written format. This can support segmentation, comprehension and vocabulary. This can be useful at stages of language learning, especially when texts become longer and more complex.
Error correction can be useful and beneficial for many, but it must be carefully managed to avoid demotivating pupils and thus having a negative impact on learning.
There are three broad categories of error correction:
recasting - restating the pupil’s language with any errors being corrected
prompting - making the pupil identify the error themselves
explanation - providing information about a rule relating to the error.
Prompting is likely to be more effective for most learners, most of the time. Pronunciation is a possible exception, where a recast might be best utilised.
Recasting is limited in its effectiveness as it relies on pupils understanding the error; learners do not always develop knowledge about what was wrong and why.
In the early stages of language learning, there is some evidence that rule-based correction might be more useful than recasting. This is likely to be related to the differences between novice and expert learners.
Error correction in both spoken and written language is most effectively used when done immediately.
Correcting one or a few elements of language production is usually more effective than correcting every error.
The classroom climate is important: they should be places where mistakes are understood as being helpful, and where error-making and error-correcting are routine.
Preparing learners for the types of errors they might make is also an important feature of effective practice.
Leaders need to ensure that assessment is fit for purpose.
Formative and summative assessment should be used to inform classroom practice and curriculum decisions.
In primary schools, assessment in language is poorly researched. In one study, slightly more than half of all primary schools made informal assessments and only 16% carried out formal assessments of each child.
In secondary schools, assessment can be disproportionately influenced by GCSE summative assessments. There needs to be a balance between achievement in phonics, vocabulary and grammar, and assessments of integrated use of the language.
Curriculum leaders need to bear in mind that:
testing should be regular and planned, based on the content that has been taught
testing should be linked to a well-structured curriculum
tests in later years should also revisit content from earlier years
There should be formative and summative assessment of phonics in both reading aloud and dictation. Phonic tests might include asking learners to spell or read words which have yet to be taught, in both spoken and written forms.
It is important to test the breadth and depth of vocabulary. This can include:
spelling and pronunciation accuracy
knowledge of synonyms and antonyms
speed of recall
the function of a word in the sentence
It is important to test that pupils can understand the vocabulary and produce the vocabulary, in both written and spoken modes.
Vocabulary tests need to be carefully constructed otherwise their validity might be compromised. For example, if it is possible for pupils to infer the meaning of a word, or guess by using cognates, the assessment might be invalid. These skills are useful, but should not be confused with vocabulary assessments.
It is important to test exactly what is being looked for. It is also important to avoid situations where pupils can used previously learned learning to answer a question rather than having to engage with the grammar itself. For example, ‘yesterday’ next to a verb can be the indicator that a sentence is in the past tense, rather than the verb form.
It is important to check pupils’ grammatical understanding in all four modes of communication: speaking, listening, reading and writing.
Crucially, grammatical assessments must be aligned to clearly structured and sequenced learning progressions.
Achievement versus Proficiency
As learners become more proficient, assessments should be based across sentences, paragraphs and entire texts, and include language production that is more complex and longer, with less scaffolding.
How school leaders prioritise languages is a defining factor to the success of a curriculum in how it is planned and delivered.
Schools need to consider the following factors which can affect the success of the curriculum:
the level of staff expertise
leaders’ understanding of progression - more than just the different topics the children will learn
assessment and quality of transition to secondary school.
There can be subtle unconscious bias towards languages, such as taking last place in CPD programmes.
A major challenge for most primary schools is sufficient curriculum time.
There is a significant issue for primary-secondary transition. Many schools do not have conversations about prior learning and attainment. The Language Trends report found that it is very common that language learning in KS3 starts from scratch.
Poor transition is likely to be the most significant factor in pupils not seeing the benefit of learning a language at primary school.
There is significant disapplication from languages: only 68% of schools which responded to the Language Trends survey said that all Y7s access a language.
Staffing and CPD
Teachers’ expertise, teacher supply and CPD are integral to facing the challenges that schools face for teaching languages.
It is crucial to improve teachers’ proficiency and their expertise and confidence.
Most primary teachers have not accessed language-specific CPD in the last year.
Teaching and learning should focus on progression in phonics, vocabulary and grammar.
The key to an effective curriculum is to carefully sequence content around these pillars, recognising where they might overlap.
The introductory stage of language learning is likely to be slow as beginners are prone to making errors and require lots of effortful practice to acquire the initial language of a curriculum.
Once content has been regularly practised and becomes automatic, cognitive load is reduced and new content can be more easily learned. Mastery of content should be a curriculum goal.
Explicit instruction is an effective method of teaching for all learners.
Vocabulary should be selected based on its frequency and capacity to be used in multiple situations.
Using adapted authentic texts or bespoke content as teaching materials can be equally effective so long as they contain about 95% of familiar vocabulary.
Using the target language in lessons is more useful when revisiting and rehearsing previously learned content. It should be avoided if it acts as a hindrance to introducing new learning.
It is usually most effective to prompt learners to elicit which mistakes they have made in their language use.
Assessment should be used informally to support teaching and learning as well as more formally to evaluate the impact of the curriculum.
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