Teacher Toolkit: Teaching Primary MFL in Multilingual Key Stage 2 Classrooms

Who is this toolkit for?

This toolkit is aimed at teaching professionals delivering modern foreign language (MFL) lessons to Key Stage 2 pupils in multilingual primary school settings in England. If you are currently teaching MFL to classes that have a mix of both children learning English as an Additional Language (EAL) and monolingual English speaking children, this toolkit is here to support your pedagogical practice. There is a focus on French and Spanish teaching as these are the two most commonly taught languages in primary schools in England (Tinsley & Board, 2017). However, the concepts, ideas and suggestions made here are all transferable across languages.

Why was this toolkit created?

The introduction of a statutory MFL component within the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum in 2014 (DfE, 2013) meant that for the first time, all children aged 7-11 in England would be receiving weekly foreign language lessons. This addition to the curriculum has come at a time in which the linguistic diversity of primary schools is increasing, with 21.3% of pupils speaking a language other than English at home (DfE, 2020).

As part of a doctoral research project, the authors were interested in how children learning EAL might respond differently to the new MFL curriculum, compared with their monolingual classmates. There may be a reluctance within schools to teach a foreign language to children still new to English (Legg, 2013), however, there are findings that suggest that the multilingual background of a child might benefit them when learning new languages (Cenoz, 2013; Jessner, 2008). The tasks and teaching tips discussed here are based on existing literature and studies into foreign language learning and EAL pupils, as well as on data from the first author’s doctoral research. This includes research carried out with Key Stage 2 children on how they use their metalinguistic awareness when approaching MFL (by metalinguistic awareness we mean the ability to focus on the structure and form of the language both in an implicit and an explicit way (Ramirez, Walton, & Roberts, 2013)). The doctoral research also includes work with teachers, gauging their opinions and describing their MFL teaching practice. These views and experiences are used to inform the practical tips given within this toolkit.

This toolkit was created to offer support for teachers working with learners of EAL in the primary MFL classroom, by promoting pedagogies that can best utilise the linguistic backgrounds of all pupils, as well as highlighting best practice for overcoming barriers in the teaching of foreign languages in multilingual settings.

What are the aims of the toolkit?

The pedagogies used in the primary MFL classroom are varied (Maynard, 2012) and this toolkit offers guidance on how best to deliver MFL to groups of children with diverse linguistic backgrounds. This toolkit highlights how the language(s) spoken at home by your pupils could have an impact on the way they respond to their foreign language lessons. It provides suggestions on the type of activities that could be used when teaching a foreign language to learners of EAL, as well as how to make effective use of the multilingualism that these learners bring to the MFL classroom.

A problem is not knowing the full background of the child. Just because the EAL box is ticked, that doesn’t give a huge amount of insight as to what that means. Which language do they speak? I don’t always know” (FG2 Gemma – Quote from Finch et al., (in prep)

Why should we consider the linguistic background of a child in the MFL classroom?

You might be very aware of the language(s) spoken by the children in your class, especially if they are new arrivals to the UK. However, in many schools and for many teachers, the home language of a child is not always known (Gorard and Smith, 2010; Strand, Malmberg & Hall, 2015). You may find this is the case, especially if the child and their parents have high levels of English proficiency. Depending on the type of school and the policies in place, many teachers may not have any formal access to this information and very often the complexity of a child’s linguistic profile is not clear (Butcher, Sinka, & Troman, 2007).

However, by finding out some background information about the languages spoken in your class, you could open up a number of different possibilities for delivering foreign language teaching. For example, a child’s home language may provide them with phonological skills that could benefit them with their pronunciation of a new language. There may be sounds they can make very accurately that English monolingual children struggle with. There may be words that are very similar in their home language to that of the MFL, these so-called ‘cognates’ may make their vocabulary learning easier; for example the French word équipe (team in English) is a cognate of the Polish word ekipa When teaching MFL, you may mention that English syntax and morphology are different from the foreign language, for example in terms of different word orders or the use of gender distinctions on articles, nouns and adjectives. Understanding that definite articles have a masculine (el) and a feminine form (la) in MFL Spanish will be easier to learn for an Italian-speaking EAL pupil whose language already encodes the same gender distinction. By asking your pupils about the other languages they speak, you give the children the opportunity to make additional linguistic connections between their languages and the MFL they are learning in class. Here is a simple language profile you could complete with all your pupils learning EAL as they start their MFL curriculum. It can give you an insight into the languages they speak, write, and use outside of school. By having a short sample of their writing, you can see the type of script they use and spot things like punctuation differences. There will be additional materials you could use for more specific areas of language e.g. cognates, in the next section.

Which pedagogical practices could I use in the multilingual MFL classroom?

Working with International New Arrivals (INAs) in Key Stage 2

Although this toolkit offers tips for working with all learners of EAL, children entering Key Stage 2 directly from overseas may have a number of additional linguistic and cultural obstacles to navigate in order to access the National Curriculum in England (Strand, 2007). The pace of the educational environment in core subjects such as English and Maths may well prevent children new to English from engaging with lessons and interacting with their peers during tasks. It appears, however, that MFL may offer an alternative, slower paced classroom in which children of all English proficiency levels can participate (Costley, Gkonou, Myles, Roehr-Brackin, & Tellier, 2018; Finch, Theakston, & Serratrice, 2018). The use of songs, games and the repetition of vocabulary are easily accessible to the entire class and the children are all placed on a level playing field within a new subject.

They came from Syria and on the first day they came we did French and they loved it! They were joining in straight away and they couldn’t speak any English at all apart from ‘Hello’” FG3 Lyndsay- Quote from Finch et al. (in prep)

By learning songs together as a class, INA children are able to fully participate. The class can practise difficult pronunciation together and use gestures and pictures (rather than translations from English) as a way to learn new vocabulary through songs. The use of pictures and gestures as well as the use of the target language for instructions, removes English as a potential barrier for INA pupils. Furthermore, the use of role playing in pairs and small groups offers a unique opportunity for children with limited English to communicate on equal linguistic terms with their classmates. Pupils can learn names, ages, hobbies etc. through simple interactions that might not take place in English.

Teaching Tips for teaching MFL to International New Arrivals:

  • Learn new songs together as a class

  • Use simple role-plays to encourage interactions between pupils and for children to introduce themselves to one another

  • Avoid using English translations for vocabulary – use pictures or gestures instead

  • Use the target language for simple classroom instructions (these are often accompanied with gestures to help all children understand)

Using cognates with learners of EAL

There was a particular French word, so ‘nourishment’ basically and I overheard a group of three Italian speakers supporting one another and they recognised ‘nourriture’ looked like ‘nutrimento’ in Italian” FG1 Sharon – Quote from Finch et al., (in prep)

If you are teaching French or Spanish, you will most likely be aware of the vocabulary that looks or sounds similar to the English translation, and that your pupils can pick up on this very quickly. For example, the word family/famille/familia in English/French/Spanish offers English speaking children a ‘shortcut’ to the word’s meaning. For children with more diverse language profiles, there may be many more cognates between the languages they speak and their taught MFL. For example, when learning the French word magasin (shop in English) a Polish child could make the link to magazyn in Polish. Alternatively, they may find making the link between their home language cognate and the MFL counterpart easier to make. For example a Portuguese speaking child may not know the word nourishment in English to make a cognate link to nourriture in French, but they are able to connect the near-cognate nutrição in Portuguese. Encouraging children to make these connections can help them to build their vocabulary in the foreign language classroom, as well as help them to make sense of the language they are learning (Hawkes, Marsden, Avery, Kasprowicz, & Woore, 2019).

*Be aware of ‘false-friends’ too. Some words might sound alike, but have very different meanings* For example polvo in Portuguese means octopus but in Spanish it means dust!

As a teacher however, it can be very difficult to know the cognates between the many languages that may be spoken by children in your classroom and the MFL you are teaching. If you teach French or Spanish and have one or two predominant languages spoken by your pupils (e.g. Polish or Urdu), there are some cognate lists that can be found online and you can access some here. Although, be aware that different varieties of a language may use different vocabulary. For most teachers, however, the range of languages in the classroom and the time it takes to find out about the possible similarities in vocabulary, makes this unfeasible. Therefore, there are some other pedagogical approaches you can take to encourage children to think about cognates between their taught MFL and the languages they use.

Teaching Tips for using cognates in MFL:

  • When you introduce new vocabulary, ask the class if they know (or can guess) the meaning of any of the words. If they are correct, ask them how they knew this or why they made that assumption. Encourage learners of EAL to utilise their home language(s).

  • Encourage children to note down cognates between their home language and their taught MFL when you introduce new vocabulary. A template vocabulary sheet can be found here. You could set these tasks as homework to encourage family participation.

  • If you have a classroom display on MFL, include cognates from the languages spoken by your class. An idea of how to do this is available here.

A focus on pronunciation and phonology

In some languages you roll the ‘r’s a lot and that’s an advantage for children who speak Urdu because there’s some harsh sounds, and children who are Polish speakers and Arabic speakers find that easy. So, that’s an advantage for them” FG1 Sara – Quote from Finch et al., (in prep)

For many children, pronouncing words in another language can be a daunting prospect and may discourage them from engaging with MFL (Baran-Lucarz, 2014). However, for many learners of EAL, communicating at school while simultaneously mastering the particular phonological sounds of a new language, is part of day-to-day life. Teachers have observed that when EAL learners are then placed into the MFL classroom, they have much more confidence approaching the sounds of their taught foreign language (Finch, Theakston, & Serratrice, 2018). However, it may be more than a matter of improved confidence for some EAL pupils. The range of sounds in French and Spanish for example, may have a closer similarity to the languages the children speak at home, in comparison to English.

For example, some vowel sounds found in French are also common in German:

French <=> German

“eu” in “deux” <=> “ö” in “schön”

“eu” in “neuf” <=> “ö” in “Hölle”

Pupils can be encouraged to make links between the sounds they hear in the MFL and the sounds they use in their home language(s). Furthermore in the author’s longitudinal doctoral project, it was found that younger EAL children, when first approaching their MFL studies, may have a greater sensitivity to the sounds within languages and can distinguish between languages more successfully than their English monolingual classmates (Finch, et al., in prep). This supports the idea that learners of EAL bring a heightened phonological awareness to the language learning classroom (Canbay, 2011; Kuo, Uchikoshi, Kim, & Yang, 2016) that may boost their engagement with the subject and increase their pronunciation skills.

If you are interested in testing your pupils’ sensitivity to the phonological aspects of French or Spanish, these activities, in which children hear extracts from a story (The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) read in French or Spanish plus three additional languages (Czech, Italian, Turkish) can be used. The pupils will need to identify which language they think they are hearing in each extract: English; French/Spanish or one of two other languages. You can use this activity to discuss how your pupils knew which language was being spoken e.g. In what ways did the languages sound different from one another? Your pupils may pick up on cognates within these activities, but ask them to focus on the sounds of the language, too.

A focus on grammar and metalinguistic awareness

When approaching the grammatical aspects of MFL, some teachers and pupils may see this is a very challenging part of the subject (Barnes, 2006; Legg, 2013). However, there are lots of resources that can be drawn upon to help, including making grammatical linguistic links in the classroom. Most of your Key Stage 2 pupils will be familiar with grammatical terminology because of their English curriculum (Hardman & Bell, 2019). You can make use of this in your MFL lessons, too. Drawing on the content of the English curriculum can help link languages together and help pupils make comparisons between languages.

For your learners of EAL specifically however, using their metalinguistic awareness of grammar and syntax in their home languages can be an effective way to progress their MFL learning. Some different areas of grammar will be explored below.


Teaching grammatical gender in French and Spanish can be confusing for some pupils, as it is not a distinction used consistently in the English language. However, grammatical gender is common in many languages around the world and many learners of EAL will use it everyday in their other languages. Evidence from previous research suggests that children who use gender in one language can transfer this knowledge to new languages (Davidson, Raschke, & Pervez, 2010) This may help them to progress in their MFL learning more quickly.

Teaching Tips for introducing gender in MFL:

Your introduction to the concept of gender might start by focusing on how gender is used to identify male and female people in English, e.g. why do we use ‘him’ or ‘her’; ‘he’ or ‘she’? This link can help all the children in your class as a general introduction.

When you start to introduce grammatical gender in MFL, highlighting the gender of words referring to people can be a useful starting point.

For example in Spanish,

hermano (brother) vs. hermana (sister)

abuelo (grandfather) vs. abuela (grandmother)

The markers that show gender often form a pattern that your pupils can follow. The example above highlights the use of the ‘a’ at the end of a word to indicate it is feminine in Spanish. These patterns can be found in many languages around the world. For example, the above pattern is similar in Polish, with words ending in ‘a’ often being feminine.

You could ask your learners of EAL if they mark words referring to people (e.g. brother/sister) in their home language with certain endings (or other markers) to indicate gender. Follow up by asking if this same pattern can be applied to other nouns in their language. The concept of an assigned gender for all things can then be explored and grammatical gender that needs to be learnt e.g. chair is feminine in French (chaise), can be highlighted.

By emphasising to the whole class that gender is used in many languages, and it is not just an ‘odd’ concept that French or Spanish uses, pupils can gain a better general understanding of how languages work. A list of some common languages spoken in UK schools, indicating whether they use grammatical gender, can be found here.


The use of plurals may be the first grammatical component covered in your primary MFL classroom. The regular way we show whether something is singular or plural in English (by adding ‘s’ to plurals) is a useful first example of morphology. In French and Spanish, regular plurals are also marked in a very similar way, although this is not so noticeable in spoken French. Making this connection to English can be useful.

Teaching Tips for introducing plurals in MFL:

With your learners of EAL you may want to ask how their home language marks plurality. This might be especially useful if they are new to English and are still developing their knowledge of English plurality at school. You could do this by bringing in items to the classroom (realia) as examples or using items already present.

For example:

English: 1 apple 2 apples 1 chair 2 chairs

Spanish: 1 manzana 2 manzanas 1 silla 2 sillas

Ask a learner of EAL how they would say 1 apple/chair and 2 apples/chairs in their home language and highlight any pattern(s) you can see.

Research from the author’s doctoral study suggests that the patterns used to mark plurality may be picked up earlier in learners of EAL than their monolingual classmates (Finch et al., in prep). They may be more sensitive to these patterns at a younger age, and could have them introduced into their lessons earlier in Key Stage 2. If you would like to test how well your pupils pick up on the use of plurals in English, French or Spanish, the attached activities will test whether they can identify mistakes in the written and spoken use of plural words. After they have listened to each item, you can then ask them: 1) if they can see/hear a mistake (not all of the examples have mistakes in them) 2) if they can correct the mistake, 3) if they can explain what the mistake is. This can provide some useful insight into how well your pupils understand the use of plurals in MFL (and English) and how well they can use the grammatical terminology from their English curriculum when talking about another language.

Morphological Complexity and Similarity

When approaching other, more complex morphology in the MFL classroom, there is evidence that some learners of EAL may be better equipped to understand and assimilate this knowledge than classmates who speak only one language. If pupils are accustomed to a home language that relies on high levels of morphological complexity, they may be able to transfer such skills to their MFL learning. For example, if a child uses a language with many compound words (two or more words joined together to form a new word), they may be able to transfer this to other languages with similar structures (Pasquarella, Chen, Lam, Luo & Ramirez, 2011) e.g. in German dunkelblau is a compound word meaning dark blue in English.

Some languages, such as Hungarian for example, can add many suffixes and prefixes to a single root word.

For example:

olvas = read

olvastat = to make somebody read

olvastatnak= they make (somebody) read

If children have experience making many varied morphological additions to words in their home language, they may well be in a strong position to learn and add novel morphology in a new language. If you would like to test how well your pupils can make morphological changes to words, these tasks in French and Spanish ask pupils to add suffixes to root words to match other examples given.

Teaching tips for introducing suffixes and affixes in MFL:

Including a focus on morphology in your teaching may be a useful way of adding challenge to your primary MFL lessons and may be especially beneficial for some of your EAL learners. Identify morphemes in the MFL you teach e.g. sur- or -eux in French, and ask what they do to change a word’s meaning. Identify similar morphemes in English as a class, too. You could ask your learners of EAL if their home language has similar prefixes or suffixes that they add to words.


The way words are ordered in the MFL you are teaching may vary from English. This may be something you are able to talk about in your class. For example, some adjectives in French come after the noun, rather than before:

The blue door => La porte bleue

Art. Adj. Noun Art. Noun Adj.

Your pupils may pick up on this themselves, or you could point it out to them.

For learners of EAL, the syntax of their home language may also differ from English. This may sometimes cause problems in the English classroom, but may be beneficial in MFL. For Portuguese and Italian learners for example, the French structure above (Article – Noun – Adjective.) would be used in a direct translation. Even if the syntax of an EAL pupil’s home language differs to that of the MFL, they may be more open to the possibilities of using different word orders in different languages. In the author’s PhD work, it was found that young learners of EAL may develop their syntactic awareness for a new language earlier than their classmates (Finch et al., in prep). Many syntax activities, both online and paper-based, ask pupils to place words in the MFL they are learning in the correct order. Some printable examples created for this toolkit can be found here in French and Spanish. These tasks can be useful ways to gauge the syntactic awareness of your class. Furthermore, by opening up conversations about word order and comparing the word order of different languages, all your pupils have the opportunity to develop and broaden their understanding of how language works.

It is also worth noting that there are some types of words that may be present in the MFL, but not in all languages. For example, definite and indefinite articles are found in both French and Spanish. These are also used in English (the/a or an). Although English-speaking pupils might struggle with gender markings on an article (see above), they will be accustomed to the general presence of an article before a noun. However, in some languages, such as Polish, articles are not used at all. This could be explored in the classroom through translation activities (see Teaching Tip below) and is worth keeping in mind when supporting all your pupils, if they omit a certain word type from their MFL language production.

Teaching Tips for a focus on syntax:

You could set some homework for your pupils to translate sentences or phrases from the MFL into their home language. For your monolingual pupils, this would be a translation into English, for your EAL learners this may be into their home language. An example worksheet can be found here. You could then compare the languages as a class and talk about the syntax differences and similarities between them.

*Some pupils may solely use their home language verbally, and will not have experience writing it down. If this is the case, you could ask them to verbally translate it instead*

You could have fifteen different languages in a classroom and so it’s kind of impossible to plan for it” FG3 Emma – Quote from Finch et al., (in prep)

Integrating the home languages of pupils learning EAL can be challenging in any subject, but in MFL the challenge to link multiple languages may seem impossible. For example, how can you link English, Spanish and Polish all together if you don’t speak all three languages well?

If you teach in a school where there are one or two dominant home languages, then teachers or support staff may be in a position to make these links. However, if there are many languages in your classroom, it is most likely unfeasible to make all the links yourself. Other strategies will have to be utilised to create these connections. In Key Stage 2, this link can often be the children themselves. By opening up conversations about language that involve a child’s linguistic background, learners of EAL may benefit from an increased sense of inclusion in the classroom (Arnot et al., 2014). In fact, the whole class can benefit from multilingual examples and connections between languages, as pupils are able to experience a wider and more holistic view of language.

This toolkit has been created to help support Key Stage 2 teachers delivering MFL to linguistically diverse classes. Every class is different and every group of EAL learners is different, too. Therefore, the resources here can be used in different ways to fit your lesson and the pupils you teach. They could also be translated into other languages, if needed. The aim of the toolkit is to raise awareness of how the linguistic background of your EAL pupils could be utilised in the learning of foreign languages and to encourage teachers to make links between the languages spoken by the children they teach and the MFL curriculum.

Answer sheets

Which language task – answers

Error correction tasks – answers

Morphology task – answers

Contact: If you have any questions or would like to know more about this Toolkit, please contact Katy Finch (finchkaty (at) hotmail.com), who will be very happy to help.

This toolkit was produced as part of an ESRC-funded PhD studentship awarded to Katy Finch and supervised by Prof. Anna Theakston, Dr. Kamila Polisenska and Prof. Ludovica Serratrice at the University of Manchester (Award number: ES/J500094/1)

Professors Anna Theakston & Ludovica Serratrice were supported by the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative development (LuCiD, Grant ES/L008955/1)

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