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Primary school children

Supporting primary languages teachers through online learning

Published: 14 February 2022

Dr Alison Porter, Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Southampton, is leading an ongoing project to empower primary languages teachers to create resources and share good practice. The latest stage of the project is a MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course – designed with the help of Kate Borthwick, Director of Programme Development, and the Digital Learning team. The project is co-funded by the University of Essex, with a contribution from the University of Reading.

National Curriculum

Changes in the English National Curriculum in 2014 made learning a foreign language compulsory for children from the age of seven. Southampton University was instrumental in this change through the work of Professor Rosamond Mitchell.

The curriculum change, however, exposed a lack of professional development to support teachers taking on this new role. Alison explained that "There is a real need for professional development in foreign language teaching. We know from survey research that foreign language professional development is either non-existent or very difficult to access. Teachers actively support one another on social media and through their own networks, but there is very limited access to research informed professional development."

My research aims to support teachers in making pedagogic decisions. What is a helpful and useful way to teach things? But also to explain the complexity of what it is to teach and learn foreign languages in primary school classrooms.
Associate Professor

Initial project

The initial iteration of the project involved Alison and Rosamond, before her retirement, setting up SUPL (Southampton University Primary Languages) to provide teachers with research-informed professional development. It received funding through the University’s ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) Impact Acceleration Account.

SUPL started off with a small group of teachers from the south of England. The group then held a one-day event at the University, inviting teachers from across the country to share their professional practice. This event was the inspiration for the MOOC.

Successful online course

Despite the challenges of COVID, the first MOOC ran for three weeks in July 2020 and was a huge success. There were more than 4,500 attendees from 140 countries.

Alison revealed “We had planned to go into schools and film, but COVID prevented that. We decided to go ahead with the MOOC, though, as we thought teachers were probably feeling quite isolated so it was a good time for them to do some professional development. So we filmed in our own houses, and three teachers we’ve worked with for several years produced videos showing techniques they use in the classroom.”

The MOOC had three key messages for teachers:

  • children undergo huge emotional and cognitive change at primary school so take this into account through motivation and engagement
  • children need a sense of progression because that leads to motivation.
  • provide opportunities and ideas to be creative with foreign language literacy

The course has been well-received and rated 4.9 out 5. Positive reviews from teachers include: "I recommend it to anyone who wishes to become a better teacher."

The MOOC continues to run three times a year. The next step for the project is to promote the course internationally.