Modern Foreign Languages in the Primary School

Mar 21, 2021


“We estimate that about 20% of all primary and middle schools in England are teaching a foreign language as a substantial part of the curriculum for children aged below eleven.”

This quotation comes from the conclusion of the report of a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation in 1977.  The committee of researchers comprised some well known figures of the time from HMI and academe, including Professor Eric Hawkins, still a powerful influence on the language teaching profession in this country.  The context in which languages were taught in primary and middle schools then was very different from that operating today.  There had been the introduction and rapid development of primary French in the sixties.  However, an extensive longitudinal study of pupils’ attitudes and performance conducted by the National Foundation for Education Research between 1969 and 1974, spearheaded by Claire Burstall, reached the conclusion that further expansion was not necessarily an advisable or appropriate course of action. 

In the years that followed that research, many LEAs and state-maintained primary schools cut back their provision, while the independent sector pursued its tradition of giving access to foreign languages to children as early as possible. But interest in teaching MFL in the primary years did not go away and, by the 1990s, was ripe for major development.

Because of this interest, we were funded to run two major projects exploring aspects of teaching MFL in primary schools. 

Analysis and evaluation of the current situation relating to the teaching of Modern Foreign Languages at Key Stage 2 in England

The research

In this research, we explored a wide range of perceptions of and reactions to the current state of the teaching of Modern Foreign Languages in primary schools. The following sets of people were involved:
• generalist primary and specialist language advisers and inspectors
• headteachers from various sectors and stages
• language teachers, both established and peripatetic, from state-maintained and
independent schools
• heads of language departments
• parents
• teacher trainers, and
• primary, middle and secondary school pupils


In the current debates about MFL in primary schools, few admitted to being opposed to its presence in the curriculum per se.   Attitudes towards the idea of foreign languages in the primary school were overwhelmingly positive.  Many had welcomed the overt support given to its development by government and the production of a framework for its implementation in the form of Guidelines by the QCA and the recent production of a more detailed Scheme of Work for Key Stage 2 were generally perceived by those involved in primary and secondary schools as helpful steps in tidying up what appeared to be rather piecemeal provision.

At the same time as welcoming this apparent commitment, many participants in the research pointed to the enormous problems and consequences of bringing about fully integrated national curriculum status for MFL in England.  The strong opposition of a significant number of primary heads, even those who understood the value of early foreign language learning, to the introduction of another subject into the curriculum, cannot be overlooked.

It is a matter of regret that the predominant language – and that, arguably, with the most potential in terms of existing staff expertise to have a realistic chance of becoming more widespread in a statutory status – is French.  Through the evidence presented in this research, it is clear that other languages are at risk.  Ironically, however, where languages other than French are taught at primary level, many of the problems associated with primary-secondary transfer are reduced or even non-existent.  We would urge QCA to produce full versions of the Key Stage 2 Scheme of Work in German, Spanish and Italian, thereby publicly acknowledging the value of these languages and supporting teachers of them.

This research identified the following as crucial to the successful development of primary MFL.

  • easing of existing statutory requirements in Key Stages 2 and 3
  • a reliable supply of suitably trained teachers
  • additional funding

 The final report from this project can be downloaded from here.

Sonica Spanish
An evaluation of a digital programme to teach Spanish in primary schools

The research

The aim of this project was to evaluate the Sonica Spanish Digital Education Programme in terms of, among other things, its effectiveness in raising achievement in Spanish in the target pupils and engendering enhanced engagement with language learning among these pupils, its manageability in both the school and the classroom, and its technological appropriateness to users and learners.
Particular focus points for the evaluation were:
– the technologies used, their ease of use and accessibility, their levels of interactivity and their reliability;
– patterns of usage of the teaching materials;
– the quality and range of resources offered, in particular their fitness for the full range of learners;
– the quality and range of user support services;
– the impact of the materials on classroom practice and pupils’ learning;
– the ease of which the materials can be adapted, both in terms of teacher competencies and pupils’ individual needs.

The evaluation was planned to draw upon data gathered through interviews of head teachers, teachers and pupils, and through observations of teaching sessions.


The main conclusions of our evaluation were as follows:
– The use of the Sonica Spanish materials had undoubtedly excited and stimulated the pupils in the classes/groups we visited.
– Participating pupils had improved their knowledge of Spanish, and their awareness of some aspects of the culture of Spain.
– Using the Sonica materials seemed to have increased pupils’ engagement with language learning and to have enhanced an already fairly high level of motivation to learn a language.
– A key component of this enhanced motivation had been the ways in which Sonica used computers and linked technology.
– Most teachers using the Sonica materials had as yet barely scratched the surface of their potential. In particular, some teachers had yet to appreciate the major advantage provided by the materials in terms of modelling correct Spanish pronunciation.
– The Sonica materials were capable of being used in many and diverse ways. As yet, in the schools we visited, they tended to have been used in a fairly homogeneous way with a great deal of pupil repetition of spoken words and phrases.
– Teachers who had used the Sonica materials were very complimentary about their design and the effects they had had upon their pupils.
– Many teachers would have appreciated a more detailed teacher manual to accompany the materials. This was especially necessary for non-Spanish speakers (the majority of teachers who will use the materials).
– There were a number of technical errors currently in the materials. In our view it would be a real shame if materials of such potential were not received as well as they might be by teachers at large because of these errors.

The final report from this project can be downloaded from here.

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