Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review —Considering the implications for practice, technology adoption and initial teacher training

On Monday 16 January 2017, I was part of a panel discussing the recommendations of the Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review, which was published in November 2016. Panellists were asked to contribute a five minute introduction. Below is the transcript of my contribution.

At a time when a greater appreciation of the important role of research in informing our profession is emerging, I see the MFL pedagogy review as a welcome and timely examination of the prevalent pedagogical practices in languages teaching, making some very useful recommendations for its improvement.

Systematic teaching of grammar and vocabulary

In particular, I welcome the recommendation that teachers should teach grammar and vocabulary explicitly and systematically with the aim of promoting the genuine manipulation and production of language (i.e. not just repeating set phrases). This is indeed one of the features that tend to repeat themselves across academically successful environments.

Why languages?

I wince at the accepted norm that languages in schools should be promoted as valuable in terms of usefulness to the prospects of employment or to the country’s future economic performance, rather than something that is intrinsically valuable and enriching to the person. But I greet with enthusiasm the recommendation that teachers should teach explicitly knowledge, metalanguage and strategies that can help students to continue learning in the future. Although I would add that such metacognitive strategies have been shown to play a substantial role in improving learning, not just in languages, but also across the curriculum.

The role of cognitive science

I also welcome the incorporation of findings from cognitive science about how we learn most successfully. The promotion of more frequent low-stakes testing of vocabulary and grammatical structures as key to their long term retention and embedding can be traced directly to findings in cognitive psychology about the importance of retrieval practice. The suggestions about the sequencing and frequency of lessons can be linked to findings in this field about the value of spacing and distributed practice, which suggest that little more often is best and that instructors should plan the return to key content at various points in the course.

Technology for fun?

But as a former head of MFL and current senior leader with responsibility for my school’s digital learning strategy, what caught my eye most strikingly was the notion that teaching should be supplemented with technology because technology is an “attractive resource”. Having spent the best part of ten years opposing the idea that technology is a tool for “fun and engagement”, the first thought that crossed my mind was: teaching shouldn’t be supplemented with technology to make it attractive, rather technology should be used when it supports teaching and learning — for example: online quizzes for frequent retrieval practice; presentation of content with the benefits of dual-coding in mind; and online collaboration tools that facilitate the timely administering of feedback. To be fair to the writers, the report does go on to mention how technology can support the acquisition of vocabulary, but overall I found the tacit acceptance of the view that technology is just fun and engaging a little troubling.

Implications for teacher training

In this I see implications for initial teacher training. I would suggest that, as a profession, we need MFL teachers who know their subject (the content); know how to teach it (the pedagogy); and know which tools are best for a specific purpose (the technology). This review tackled two out of these three pretty persuasively, but would have benefitted from exploring more explicitly the link between great teaching and great, effective use of whatever technology is available to support the processes involved in teaching and learning. Now, there’s a good reason to use technology!

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