An innovative scheme is helping primary teachers brush up their language skills

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Linda Gordon's last serious brush with the French language was when she passed her O-level while at school in the 1960s. So to be asked to teach it to her primary class more than 40 years on was a little daunting, to say the least.

"Actually, it was quite scary at first, because I wasn't sure how much I would remember, or even if my recall was correct," she says. "But when the English department was asked to contribute to the teaching of French I knew I had to give it a go, as I had some prior knowledge.

"However, I was lacking in confidence and wanted some reassurance that I was teaching it right."

Ms Gordon, who teaches years 5 and 6 at St Bede's Middle School in Redditch, Worcestershire, is far from alone. As of this year, every key stage 2 pupil is entitled to learn a modern foreign language, yet studies suggest that more than half of staff delivering the subject in primary schools have limited knowledge and skills of the language they are teaching.

In response to the need to prepare teachers to take on this challenge, the University of Worcester has launched a course to "up-skill" those, like Linda Gordon, who already have some knowledge. Every Wednesday evening, 11 primary teachers from a variety of schools around the West Midlands log on to their computers, set up their webcams and take part in a 90-minute lesson in a virtual classroom. Initially, courses are offered in French, though other languages, including Spanish, will be offered as the course evolves.

Most of the participants have been fund by Links into Languages, which is funded by the Department for Education and Worcestershire County Council. The course costs £250 for 30 hours of tuition.

Judy Barker, the course leader from the university's Institute of Education, says: "There seemed to be an expectation by the previous government that primary schools could teach languages even though there were relatively few linguists working in primary schools and most teachers had little more than a GCSE in the subject. We saw that there was a real need to up-skill those who were in this position. They could teach their pupils how to meet and greet, but struggled beyond that." The learning of languages should not be restricted to the traditional choices of French and Spanish, however, as Linda Cadier, deputy director of Links into Languages explains: "Learning the traditional languages is good, but we need to raise our profile in the world by tapping all the community languages on our doorsteps and find some way of accrediting those children who are already bilingual. Our place in the global economy depends on us using talents we have in the population."

The Worcester project was developed after the university decided to act on the increasing number of its language courses being cancelled in adult learning and undergraduate degree modules, due to a lack of take-up. Ms Barker says: "We decided to investigate whether it would be more viable to use a virtual learning environment, or virtual classroom, to try to reach a wider number of people. The interest in learning languages in this country doesn't seem to be as great as elsewhere in Europe and it is becoming more and more difficult to find courses."

The institute sought funding from the university and purchased a software licence to enable the virtual classroom to be set up. The first cohort of primary teachers, whose course began last November and will end in March, arrived with a similar prior knowledge of French, usually an O-level or GCSE pass.

The course tutor varies their work to reflect how quickly they are progressing and to meet their own particular strengths and weaknesses.

Their initial session was held at the university itself to allow the participants to meet each other and the tutor and put faces to names. "Initially, they were quite reluctant to speak and reveal what level of language they already had and were embarrassed about their mistakes, though it was clear they want to learn and join in," says Ms Barker. "That self-consciousness quickly passed as they gained in confidence. They aim is to move relative beginners to intermediate – and possibly advanced – level. The course has really helped the teachers to achieve a larger vocabulary and learn more about the structure of grammar. They are now far better able to use the language and pass that knowledge on to pupils."

The course also allows participants to develop lesson plans and classroom resources that are checked and corrected by the tutor and stored in a database that each participant can access.

Teachers participating in the course agree they feel more confident and enjoy teaching French now, when previously they might have found it a huge challenge. "One of the things that really struck me about teaching a foreign language to such young children is that it is a real leveller," Ms Gordon says. "They all start from scratch and pupils who might otherwise struggle and are in the lower ability range really thrive in French lessons, where they seem to benefit from the repetitive nature of the teaching. There's absolutely no doubt that my skills have improved. My pronunciation is much better and it has reawakened my interest in language learning. I no longer feel that if I saw something written in French and didn't know what it meant, that I wouldn't be able to work it out. I now look forward to Wednesdays and doing the course and it's been worth the time and effort."

Participant Anne Molloy, from Great White Primary School, in Worcester, has been a teacher for 28 years. She has an O-level in French and originally trained as a secondary maths teacher. "When I moved into primary, the whole issue of language learning was making a resurgence so I dropped a few hints in school that I'd be happy to take it on," she says.

"Learning a language isn't unlike maths because there is that element of decoding. In language you are decoding what something means and using the language that you know already to help you decipher links between words. We can only teach French to a fairly basic level because of our own knowledge, so there is a lot of singing, and encouraging children to read simple words. We try to make it as relevant as possible. The pupils are starting to realise that knowing a foreign language is a wonderful skill to have and that we can't expect everyone to speak English. They know it is a courtesy to try to speak in someone else's mother tongue and understand that they are part of a much wider world.

"The great thing about this course from my perspective is that it is held in the evening, so it is more relaxed and practical than taking time out of the school day. I also like the fact that we aren't in a classroom, because in that situation it is easy to sit back and let others do the talking. Online, you know your turn is going to come to say something, which is a good thing."

Linda Parker, director of the Association for Language Learning, says up-skilling courses for primary teachers were extremely important.

"Generally there is consensus that the best people to fulfil the role of language learning in the primary classroom are the practitioners who have been trained to teach young children," she said. "There have been models where secondary teachers have taught languages in primary schools, but I think these are less effective. Primary teachers are already hugely adaptable and are expected to teach a range of subjects.

"I would expect, as the importance of language learning in primaries grows, there will be more emphasis on this in initial teacher training, so teachers finish training with enough knowledge to teach a language."

How languages are taught

Foreign-language learning in primary schools has been gradually phased in over the past five years. The requirement was that by 2010, all primary schools should offer an entitlement to pupils to learn a language. By the end of last year, around three-quarters of primary schools were using their own staff to plan and teach languages.

Language learning was made optional for secondary pupils at key stage 4 in 2004, even though schools continue to be required by law to offer them. The previous Labour government believed that take-up of languages at secondary school would be sustained, or even enhanced, if children developed a love of learning them much earlier.

Since 2005, the proportion of-16-year-olds take a GCSE in a modern foreign language has steadily declined from 61 per cent in 2005 to 44 per cent in 2010. The recent Education White Paper set out plans by the Coalition government to introduce a five-subject English Baccalaureate, which would include a modern or classical language and would form a benchmark in school league tables. Ministers have not yet outlined exactly how languages should be taught, but many experts believe there will be a return to traditional grammar-based learning.

An Ofsted report found that take-up of languages in secondary schools was highest in those schools where students enjoyed "purposeful experiences" at key stage 3, including opportunities to talk to or work with native speakers.