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Breaking down language barriers

Exploring ways to help primary schools improve foreign language teaching practices

Published: 28 October 2019

The UK is in a languages crisis that is holding us back economically, socially and culturally, according to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. Southampton research is helping to improve foreign language teaching practices in primary schools, supporting teachers and influencing policy.

In today’s interconnected world, it is more important than ever that we can communicate in other languages. However, the dominance of ‘global English’ means that foreign language learning in English-speaking settings can be a hard sell, according to Dr Alison Porter, Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Southampton.

“With so many competing priorities in the National Curriculum and primary schools under increasing accountability and financial pressures, regular opportunities to learn languages can often be overlooked,” says Alison, who completed her MA and PhD at Southampton.

We are working in collaboration with other universities and teachers across the UK to explore ways to help schools to provide a consistent and engaging foreign language learning experience, and so encourage primary school children to develop a lifelong love of language learning.

Dr Alison Porter - Lecturer in Applied Linguistics

In particular, Alison is interested in the benefits of literacy in a foreign language: “Traditionally, school pupils have been taught to speak the language before they read and write it, for fear of confusing them. However, our research in schools has shown that giving children access to foreign language texts is very influential in helping them learn the language, so it could be beneficial to include this in their learning.”

Influencing policy

Alison’s research builds on the University’s strong heritage in influencing policy in language learning.

Our researchers were involved in a large-scale multi-institutional study that led to the UK government making foreign languages compulsory in primary schools in 2014.

Dr Alison Porter - Lecturer in Applied Linguistics

Today, as a member of the Research in Primary Languages (RIPL) Network – a group of universities that aims to improve understanding of foreign language learning – Alison has recently contributed to a white paper to advise the government on an implementation strategy for primary foreign language learning.

Empowering teachers

Alison’s research interests led to her co-founding the University of Southampton Primary Languages Partnership (SUPL), along with Emeritus Professor Rosamond Mitchell. SUPL is a network of researchers and teachers who collaborate to design, implement and evaluate foreign language teaching resources, funded by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Awards and Impact Support Funding.

“We’re working closely with around 42 primary schools across the UK to enable teachers to explore new ideas and think about changing practices,” says Alison. “As a result, teachers at these schools are now engaging in small-scale classroom research to develop, trial and evaluate French and Spanish literacy teaching practice.”

Working in partnership with the teachers, Alison and her team have created a bank of original, co-constructed resources that tap into different areas of the curriculum, including art, music and nature.  Teachers can use the resources, develop them further and then share their ideas with other schools in the network.

“I’m really proud that we are playing a part in empowering teachers to develop and share inspiring and creative language teaching materials – especially as national reports have noted that languages teachers aren’t given many opportunities to engage in continued professional development – and we plan to continue developing more resources to support them.”

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