Just a small question

A combination of catching up with all things Language World and a conversation at work has raised a question which puzzles and perplexes me.

Just a small question.

What constitutes ‘great literature?’

The Languages programmes of study: key stage 2 clearly states that pupils should:

“… read great literature in the original language.”


I know that in my head I have a definition of what constitutes great literature for me.  Other opinions are, of course, available, but I would expect a combination of some of the following:

  • addresses issues of significance to the reader
  • explores aspects of true human experience
  • may provoke an emotional response
  • contains beauty in the language
  • makes the reader consider something they have never thought of before

To be able to read a text which does any of the above, then I need a certain level of language knowledge, skill and ability to access it. Now, even as an adult with a GCSE in Spanish, I’m not convinced that I can read ‘great literature’ in Spanish – even if I truly want to.

Which is why I am struggling to make sense of the two halves of the phrase “… read great literature in the original language.”  I am all for using authentic songs, rhymes, stories and poems when teaching foreign languages at KS2 (or at any age, for that matter).  And although many of these items could well be called ‘classic’ (classic fairy tales, classic nursery rhymes etc), I can’t see how this constitutes ‘great literature’ as per my own definition.

So I wonder if my personal definition is limiting my ability to understand what is meant? Do I have a misconception of ‘great literature’?


What’s really interesting, though, is that the English programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2 only contain the word literature twice –

Through reading in particular, pupils have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually. Literature, especially, plays a key role in such development.”

“… to develop their love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment.”

Not ‘great literature’. Just literature.  In English lessons, KS2 pupils will not be required to study great literature, they will only have to read for enjoyment. This, I get. This, I understand. This works for me in the context of foreign language learning too.

So why the difference? And how to address it?

As I said, puzzled and perplexed. Clarifications most welcome!


Consultation on GCSE subject content and assessment objectives

I have just thrown a VERY cursory glance over the document entitled Modern languages GCSE subject content and assessment objectives published today on the DfE website along with similar documents for other subjects.


The general tone of the ‘proposed’ content strikes me as being similar to the O level. It could be the frequent appearance of the phrase ‘literary texts’ which brings to mind a mini Gove jack-in-the-box, popping-up every time a sentence contains mention of  ‘contemporary  culture’ so that it doesn’t become too modern-sounding.

It’s not that I object at all to the use of literary texts in the appropriate place, but the specific reference is just too, well, insistent.

Oral examinations (not speaking tests, I note, which is perhaps too modern?) are to be internally conducted but not assessed – some pressure relieved there?

There is a hint of CLIL in the phrase “make appropriate links to other areas of the curriculum to enable bilingual and deeper learning, where the language may become a medium for constructing and applying knowledge“.

My “Award for Raised Eyebrow” was won by the reference to “translate sentences and short texts from English into the assessed language to convey key messages accurately and to apply grammatical knowledge of language and structures in context. 

And the “Two Steps Backward” trophy goes without question to the equal weighting for each of the 4 skills. Again.

As I say, it was a very quick viewing, and I’m sure there’ll be other things which occur to me in the weeks to come.

Responses required at DfE by 20th August.

Maximo veteris dux Eboracensis

©Crown Copyright
Disclaimer – Prince Andrew has nothing to do with the primary Curriculum Review!

So the big ‘story’ of the day for us language teachers was the official appearance of the draft Programmes of Study for the primary National Curriculum, which can be found here.

Despite the flurry of rumours doing the rounds over the weekend, these Programmes of Study are actually only for primary English, mathematics and science at the moment – information for other subjects is yet to come, along with the fallout from the secondary consultation.  The reference to compulsory languages appears in two of the FAQs, and towards the bottom of page 4 of the letter from the Secretary of State for Education to Chair of Expert Panel, with his response to the panel’s recommendations for primary curriculum.

I am absolutely delighted to officially read that learning a foreign language is to become a compulsory part of the Key Stage 2 curriculum.  It is something which benefits pupils to start learning when younger, and which also has potential on a wider, economic scale for the nation.

I have no wish to dampen any enthusiasm, but if you would indulge me in one moment of disappointment and one of confusion.

My confusion is from a Twitter exchange I had with @educationgovuk, on the idea that

“The new foreign languages Programme of Study will require an appropriate balance of spoken and written language. Pupils must learn to speak in sentences, with appropriate pronunciation. … And they should become acquainted with songs and poems in the language studied.

I enquired, with no tongue in cheek, as to how this would work with Latin, as a) we don’t know how it was pronounced, b) it’s not a spoken language anyway and c) I’m not aware of any authentic songs in Latin (although Classics scholars please feel free to enlighten me).  Adeste Fidelis doesn’t count.  The Twitter response pointed me in the direction of the Minimus Mouse scheme, which apparently has versions of Old MacDonald’s Farm and other nursery rhymes in Latin.

  • If Latin isn’t a spoken language, how is there supposed to be ‘an appropriate balance of spoken and written language’?  If a school chooses Latin as its curriculum language, how will it undertake to provide that appropriate balance?

My disappointment is much more serious.  Two years ago, primary schools, secondary schools who supported them, along with and trainers and consultants, were poised to roll-out a programme of language teaching and support to primary schools across the country, until the Rose review was pushed aside following the General Election.  Years of networking, confidence-building and training had been undertaken to be ready to offer a language in the primary curriculum.  Suddenly, not only was that not happening, but several friends and colleagues found themselves shifting their roles, or worse, losing their jobs completely as a result.

And now, primary language learning is back. Just like that.  Those experienced professionals who found themselves without a job, or sidelined into other roles, will suddenly be in demand.  Yes that’s good, but it’s a bit of a smack around the face at the same time because it didn’t need to happen.

  • Foreign languages in the primary curriculum was more or less there – and now we’re having to start all over again?

It’s like the Grand Old Duke of York – neither up nor down at the moment! Or should that be Maximo veteris dux Eboracensis 🙂

Above average … for all?

I was catching up today with a very good friend who is a retired teacher.  I happened to mention that I had just read this article in the TES, headlined Labour to ‘guarantee’ C in English and maths. Now that would be something good … perhaps even miraculous? With the best will in the world, this seems at best an ill-advised statement to make. Whilst I am completely in favour of every child leaving school with a minimum level of literacy and numeracy, I cannot accept that a GCSE grade C is either the way to demonstrate this, nor achievable by all.

Mike Baker’s article from the ASCL conference in Manchester words it slightly differently:

A further question for the Labour Party’s policy review, he [Andy Burnham] said, would be how to ensure that all students reach adulthood with a ‘decent proficiency in maths and English’. He said he wanted a debate to see if it is possible ‘to have the ambition for all students to leave with at least a grade C in GCSE maths and English’.

I’m sure there are several people who would be willing to engage in this debate with the policy makers.

My retired friend said it reminded her of when she was a pupil at school, at a presentation event.  The local dignitary charged with handing out the awards praised all those who had been successful, and ended with the encouraging words “Now next year, I want to see all of you getting above the average.”

Now I don’t claim to be any kind of mathematician, but  I would love to know how he expected that to happen …

A ‘toofer’ response from on high

In December, concerned about issues arising from the Schools White Paper The Importance of Teaching (and learning?), for the first time in my life I wrote to a number of Members of Parliament, to seek their views on language teaching and learning in schools.

I had three responses acknowledging my email, all of which indicated that because these people were very busy, it might be some time before I received a response.  (I hope they are ‘busy’ finding out about and representing my views, actually.)

Today I received an email  from an address which showed up as ‘Unmonitored.ACCOUNT’.  I almost deleted it, as it didn’t look particularly healthy sitting in my Inbox, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Because as it turned out, the email was from the Public Communications Unit at the Department for Education, replying to my messages to both Michael Gove, and Sarah Teather.  Toofer the price of one – or rather, one response, where I asked two separate people for their views.

Dear Ms O’Sullivan
Thank you for your emails dated 13 December addressed to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for Children and Families, about modern foreign languages in the curriculum.  I hope you will appreciate that due to the large volume of letters that Ministers receive, I have been asked to reply. 

The Coalition Government is fully committed to the teaching of languages in schools, not only for its social and economic benefits, but also because learning a language helps pupils to understand the different cultures of people around the world.  In his speech at the Westminster Academy on 6 September 2010, the Secretary of State announced that learning a modern or ancient language would be one of the core subjects of the new English Baccalaureate, along with English, mathematics, science and a humanities subject: further detail was included in the White Paper The Importance of Teaching. 

I know that primary school teachers and others have worked very hard over the last few years to stimulate an early interest in language learning, and a recent NfER study showed that 92 per cent of primary schools are now teaching foreign languages within class time at Key Stage 2.  The Coalition Government believes that learning a language at primary school can inspire children with a love of languages that will stay with them throughout their secondary education and beyond. 

Given the importance of language learning, and the benefits of an early start, we expect that the majority of primary schools that are already teaching languages will continue to do so.

On 20 January, the Secretary of State for Education announced that we would be carrying out a review of the National Curriculum to return it to its original purpose – a core national entitlement organised around subject disciplines.  The review will consider the place of languages within the National Curriculum in both primary and secondary schools and will ensure that our core curriculum can compare with those of the highest performing countries around the world.  In designing the new curriculum, we plan to consult a wide range of academics, teachers and others with an interest in what is taught in schools.  You can read the full remit for the review at: http://www.education.gov.uk/nationalcurriculum

We want to hear from as many people as possible as we take this review forward, and to generate a lively debate about what is taught in our schools.  In the first instance we have launched a Call for Evidence: 
to which anyone can contribute their views and experiences. 
I hope that you will feel able to respond.
Yours sincerely
Public Communications Unit

Now, the whole prompt for writing in the first place was the White Paper, so that’s not helpful.  And having already given my response to the Call for Evidence, I’m not sure where that leaves me.

Toofer, or BOGOF?