Supporting primary languages teachers: What does research tell us?

Several important findings are emerging from two ongoing research projects by RiPL members that we’d like to share with you.  The Progression in Primary Languages project (PiPL), led by Rowena Kasprowicz at the University of Reading, and Digital Empowerment in Language Teaching (DELTEA: Alison Porter, University of Southampton, and Suzanne Graham, University of Reading), are both investigating key issues for languages in primary schools.

While PiPL focuses primarily on identifying the kind of progress we can expect learners to make in languages from Year 3 to 6, it has also investigated what teachers themselves know about National Curriculum expectations, the clarity of current curriculum guidance, how to assess progress, and also what teachers believe the main aim of teaching primary languages should be.  A survey sent to schools across the country asked about those issues, receiving responses from 151 teachers responsible for teaching primary languages in state schools. Respondents included both generalist class teachers and also specialist language teachers.

Those PiPL findings are in the process of being written up for a research article, but we can share some of them here with you. Across respondents, there was a clear feeling that much more curriculum guidance is needed on what should taught for primary languages, and on what learners should have achieved by the end of primary school or in each year group. Respondents did not express a high level of confidence about knowing how to assess learner progress, especially if they were generalist class teachers.  They were however clear about the importance of language learning at primary school, especially in terms of developing learners’ cultural awareness and helping them to become global citizens.

These emerging findings indicate clearly that while teachers are strongly committed to languages in the primary school, they need further support with it.  Several of the findings also resonate with what is emerging from the DELTEA project, where Alison and Suzanne are exploring how digital technology can provide that support, especially in terms of strengthening teachers’ sense of competence, autonomy and relatedness for providing high-quality learning for their pupils, all factors that are important for teacher well-being. Throughout 2023, nine online, digital professional development  (DPD) modules have been developing teachers’ understanding of and skills in how to use digital stories to promote their learners’ foreign language literacy skills and knowledge of vocabulary and phonics, as well as learners’ intercultural understanding.

Before working through those modules, DELTEA teachers completed a survey in which they were asked about how they rated their own language proficiency, how autonomous they felt they were in their language teaching, how supported by and ‘close’ to the rest of their school’s staff body (‘relatedness’), and also about their sense of competence in different aspects of language teaching.  The latter included being able to assess learners’ progress, promote learners’ foreign language literacy skills, develop their intercultural understanding and openness to other cultures, as well as meeting individual learner needs. Teachers who rated their own language proficiency as lower were much more likely to say they were not confident in those aspects of their work, with confidence in assessing progress particularly low. That supports what was found in the PiPL survey, and it is also interesting to note a lack of confidence in developing the area that PiPL teachers felt to be very important, namely developing learners as interculturally aware global citizenships. DELTEA teachers’ average scores for relatedness and autonomy over the language curriculum and planning were also comparatively low.  We know from other research that sense of relatedness and autonomy are very important for teacher well-being (Lantz-Andersson et al., 2018; Worth, & Van den Brande, 2020).

While Alison and Suzanne are still collecting survey data from teachers after they have completed the DPD modules, they do have encouraging results regarding how far such DPD has had a positive impact on teachers’ sense of competence, autonomy and relatedness, which they presented at the Technology for Second Language Learning Conference, Iowa State University last October. Key messages were that the DPD showed promise in boosting teacher autonomy especially where teachers were working within a fairly constrained curriculum and timetable. It also developed teacher sense of competence, in part by allowing teachers to have their current practice validated by discussing it with others and learning about what research says about language learning, but also through carefully scaffolded examples backed up by accessible research summaries. The latter seemed especially helpful for less confident teachers.

What next for the two projects? Well, PiPL continues with its second year of pupil language data collection, alongside finding out more about how factors such as motivation and learning context influence learners’ progress. For DELTEA, 2024 sees the team working with DPD teachers to implement a classroom intervention using digital stories and a phonics AI app.  Watch this space for further updates!

Lantz-Andersson, A., Lundin, M., & Selwyn, N. (2018). Twenty years of online teacher communities: A systematic review of formally-organized and informally-developed professional learning groups. Teaching and Teacher Education, 75, 302-315. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2018.07.008

Worth, J., Van den Brande, J. (2020). Teacher autonomy: How does it relate to job satisfaction and retention? Slough: NFER.

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