Moving away from CE: a fresh approach to languages

Teachers Koko Mookherjee and Sophie Aravinthan explain how their teaching of MFL has changed Holmwood House

Common Entrance, or ‘CE’ as the tests are most fondly (perhaps less so by pupils) referred to in school, are the two most significant letters that will haunt our Year 7 and 8 pupils as they embark on a journey that will culminate in them triumphantly achieving the accreditation required to propel them onto the next chapter of their schooling.

And so, with vim and vigour, the autumn term is a hive of industry in Languages for Year 7 pupils as they excitedly start their French topics for examination; an enthusiastic leap onto a treadmill that will steer them through the next two years; hours spent learning all the examination topics, hours being drilled on the prescribed questions, hours perfecting oral presentations… they’ll be brilliant – totally prepared and well versed for passing the exam.

And yet, one can’t help feeling that there is something missing… spontaneity, creativity?

Over the last two years we, as a school, have been moving away from CE. We have instead created our own accreditation certificate for all pupils to achieve by the time they leave for pastures new at the end of Year 8; the ‘Holmwood House Certificate’. 

As a Languages Department, this has opened up a world of possibilities for our pupils. It has broadened our horizons and has breathed new life and energy into our curriculum and learning. Pupils are no longer shackled by the constraints of rote-learning topics to pass the exams but are allowed the freedom to adopt a more holistic approach to their language learning. This provides the chance for pupils to really enjoy learning a language and to develop confidence in their achievements.

Perfect, fluent linguists? Not by any means but, and here’s the simple truth, they are enjoying learning, they are gaining confidence and they do want to be better

So how are we doing this? Our Year 7 and 8 pupils still have the areas of study, grammatical and linguistic content within their learning but the work they produce to demonstrate their accomplishments allows them a degree of flexibility. 

Progress and achievement is not solely evident from pieces of writing in their books or from stilted recordings of pre-learned information but instead gives them the opportunity to be creative and resourceful. Pupils have used chromebooks to record short films or songs in French; they have collaborated and cooperated together to create pieces of drama or visual presentations; they have evaluated and edited their work, taken time and responsibility for reflecting upon what they have produced and this has given them a buzz. They thrive upon taking ownership of their learning – and actually enjoy drafting and re-drafting a piece of work to improve it!

The degree of differentiation inherently implicit in these types of tasks builds confidence instead of undermining it. Pupils are learning from their peers and this encourages more spontaneity in conversing in French. For our more kinaesthetic learners, this approach to learning has really opened a door! 

Pupils still need to complete ‘exercise book’ tasks that reflect their competence in the four skill areas – listening, speaking, reading and writing – and sit exams under the broader umbrella of life skills, however, the variety of assessment styles offered to pupils affords them a greater opportunity to realise their potential.

Variety is indeed the spice of life and just learning French may not be everyone’s cup of tea

They are assessed not solely on linguistic competence but also on their modus operandi; how they have reasoned, reflected and made progress from their initial starting point. They are also assessed on their determination and commitment. They are moving away from just learning lexical items and pre-set vocabulary and answers and they are beginning to live the language and communicate in the language in the true sense of the word and promoting their higher order thinking skills.

Perfect, fluent linguists? Not by any means but, and here’s the simple truth, they are enjoying learning, they are gaining confidence and they do want to be better. 

This momentum at the top end of the Prep school naturally filters down to the pupils in the years below who can see the older pupils practising their language around the school – filming, preparing plays, watching slide shows researched and prepared by the 7s and 8s. They too, are getting a taste of learning languages in similar fun and creative ways.

The most dramatic change in the languages curriculum at our school has been in the Pre-Prep. Moving away from just learning French – we have introduced Spanish and Mandarin into the mix, too. Although the benefits of learning different languages are commonly accepted (Foster and Reeves (1989) suggest a greater cognitive development in higher order thinking skills and Hancock and Lipton (1976) presented the notion that as a child gets older, the brain’s ability to restructure itself diminishes and by a very early age (between 6-9 years old) the window has virtually closed) and propelled us towards delivering three languages. Variety is indeed the spice of life and just learning French may not be everyone’s cup of tea – here was the opportunity to create a spark. A dim response to French could light a firework in Mandarin for a child.

Our Year 1, 2 and 3 pupils learn these languages within the context of the culture of that country, drawing from personal experiences of holidays perhaps in Spain or eating Chinese food – even visiting Disneyland Paris! Our aim is to broaden their cultural and linguistic horizons and prepare them for a globally diverse future, embedding the traditional with the emergent. Learning a little about the geography of Spain, France or China; learning a little about the history; highlighting their prior knowledge (yes, Kung Fu Panda!); and reassuring their base confidence.

The pupils’ enthusiasm and enjoyment is palpable and within it all are embedded our key skills. Can they find patterns between words, languages? Can they use reasoning to identify cognates or similar sounds? Can they collaborate to produce basic dialogues? 

We have sown the seeds and we are really excited about an amazing harvest. 

W: www.holmwood.essex.sch.uk

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