Project 2 : Resources

‘These resources have been produced as part of the Languages Support Programme, funded by the DfE and mangaged by CfBT Education Trust. The responsibility for content creation and quality assurance lies with individual TSA.’


RESEARCH TEAM: Caroline Heylen

SCHOOL: Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School (boys’ grammar school)


  • An investigation into the ways in which learners can be encouraged to use more spontaneous target language in the classroom.


This research project is in the area of spontaneous use of target language in year 7 across the MFL department.

This area is important to the school because although there is good practice within the department the target language is not consistently used by all learners. By developing confidence in speaking right from year 7 it is hoped that this will result in a greater desire and willingness to use the target language throughout the school leading to better results in the speaking element of the GCSE exams.

In addition the importance of optimum target language use is a key feature on the departmental self- evaluation form as our most recent GCSE results have highlighted a weakness in the speaking element.

This is also being addressed as part of the DfE Language Development Plan for the Medway Teaching Schools Alliance.

 The research has the following main aims:

 To determine the reasons why some boys are confident to use spontaneous target language.

  • To identify the reasons why some boys are inhibited from using spontaneous target language
  • To identify good practice across the MFL department
  • To establish strategies to encourage more frequent use of target language that can be implemented across the department.

In order to achieve these aims the following questions were asked:

  • How do teachers encourage boys to use spontaneous target language in the classroom?
  • What are the contributory factors that inhibit some boys from using target language?
  • What can we do as a department to ensure that learners make more frequent use of the target language in the classroom?

1.2               Context

Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School (or ‘the Math’ as it is known locally) is a boys’ grammar school with 1180 students on roll that admits girls in the sixth form, and is regularly oversubscribed. The school became an Academy in April 2011.

The school is a National Support School and the Headteacher a National Leader of Education.  The school is also one of the first 100 schools in the country to have been designated a National Teaching School. In November 2008, it received its second consecutive ‘outstanding’ judgement from OFSTED.

The research project has been undertaken by Caroline Heylen, MFL teacher and Primary Languages Coordinator.

Despite the study of a language at GCSE becoming non-compulsory in 2004 ‘the Math’ has always encouraged the uptake of a language at GCSE.  In 2012 60% of boys took a GCSE in French, German or Spanish with 44% achieving A*/A.  However the introduction of the Ebacc has seen a renewed focus on the study of modern languages and boys are now required to select a language GCSE at the end of year 9. The current cohort of year 7 boys study both French and Spanish with the option to drop one language in favour of latin at the end of year 7.

With 30% of the GCSE MFL qualification dedicated to the speaking unit, it is vitally important that boys develop the confidence and motivation needed for this element of the examination, and so by focussing on year 7 it is hoped that good habits and a desire to use the target language can be fostered early on in the course of study.

1.3               Methodology

A mixed methods approach was used in order to pursue the aims of the project with both quantitative and qualitative data being collected. The data was collected by: observations of all the year 7 language classes; interviews with year 7 language teachers; completion of a questionnaire by year 7 pupils; unstructured class discussion with year 7 pupils.

A series of observations of all year 7 classes was undertaken to establish the level of target language (TL) being used by both teachers and pupils.

Following the observations a number of strategies were implemented with two year 7 French classes to see if this would impact on their spontaneous use of target language. The strategies introduced included:

  • Giving each boy a laminated prompt sheet with a list of useful phrases and questions to use in the classroom (see appendix)
  • Creating mixed ability team tables. Each table was allocated a French football team and we followed the fortunes of each team with the possibility of each team being able to gain extra points through good use of TL in the classroom.
  • Continuing to give classroom instructions in French but not getting boys to explain these in English to show their understanding before starting the task.

A series of semi-structured interviews were conducted with the year 7 MFL teachers to gain an insight into their views and perspectives on the use of target language in the classroom. A series of questions (see appendix) were used as the basis for a conversation with a view to establishing what teachers felt might help or hinder the boys’ use of target language in their classrooms.

Questionnaires (see appendix) were completed by 170 year 7 pupils. The questionnaire included a mixture of closed and open questions. The closed questions aimed to obtain information that would allow for comparison and more quantitative analysis whilst the more open questions allowed the boys to express their opinions in more detail allowing me to interpret the questionnaire results more clearly. The two classes taking part in the study completed the same questionnaire with the addition of two extra questions specifically related to the use of the ‘prompt sheet’.

Having compiled the results from the questionnaire a structured discussion was held with the two year 7 French classes to clarify points that had arisen from the questionnaire and to establish any impact working in the ‘football teams’ had had on their desire to use the target language.

1.4               Key Findings

1.4.1          Observations of year 7 language classes

The initial observations of the year 7 classes highlighted that use of the target language by the teachers was consistently high, with most activities being introduced and explained in the TL. The boys were therefore receiving lots of TL language input. Despite this the level of TL language being spoken by the boys was relatively low and confined to responding to specific tasks. As a rule it was noted that teachers would explain an activity in the TL using mime and gestures to aid comprehension but would then check the understanding by asking a boy to explain what had just been said in English.

1.4.2      The interviews with the MFL teachers highlighted their commitment to using the target language in class whilst also recognising that “pressure to get through material” could impact on  how much TL was used with a sense that things could be done quicker in English. Teachers felt that the main things preventing boys using TL in class themselves were “embarrassment and lack of confidence”  through to laziness.

1.4.3          Implementation of Strategies for two year 7 classes

Following the introduction of the laminated prompt sheet 57% of students felt that it had definitely given them more confidence to speak in French in the lesson. They commented that the sheets were “reassuring”, (it)”makes me want to speak more”, “I can ask if I need something”. 30% of the students felt that it might have given them more confidence to speak French and 13% said it had not given them more confidence to speak French.

From the teacher’s point of view it became noticeable in class that as the boys began to get used to having the prompt sheets they would try to ask questions in French as a matter of course. So if they needed something such as paper or to open a window,  they would consult the prompt sheet , and this developed further to trying to adapt the language for their own purposes;  so a boy who wanted to sharpen his pencil used the prompt sheet to help him say “Est-ce que je peux sharpen mon crayon?”. Having the sheets in front of them might have gone some way to tackling the “embarrassment and lack of confidence” identified by the teachers as something they saw preventing boys from speaking up in class.

The routine practice of getting a child to explain/translate instructions for a class task was stopped with the two year 7 classes in the project, and  question 7 of the questionnaire showed no significant difference in response between these two classes and the rest of the year 7 classes.  For the two classes in the study 68% of boys responded that they understood the teacher when they gave instructions in French/Spanish all the time or most of the time, with 70% of boys in the other four classes saying they understood the teacher all or most of the time. The use of the prompt sheet also allowed boys to use the TL to say if they had not understood a task allowing for this then to be repeated in the TL rather than having recourse to English and encouraging teacher/pupil interaction to be in the TL rather than in TL from the teacher with English being the medium to show comprehension by the boys.

The introduction of the teams had an important impact on the success of the prompt sheets. The boys’ enthusiasm for competition and the knowledge that they would be rewarded with points really encouraged them to have a go at speaking French, and the support of the prompt sheet meant that they were able to attempt most classroom interactions in French. In discussions with the boys 80% felt that knowing they would be rewarded with points was a good incentive for them to try and speak French. One of the teachers in their interview had identified “laziness” as a reason boys did not always use the TL and this element of competition certainly seemed to motivate boys to take part. In addition the small groups of mixed ability may have impacted on their confidence to speak out although this was not specifically evidenced in the questionnaire, however in the class discussions boys indicated that they liked belonging to a specific team.

1.5      Reflection

Final conclusions are that using the prompt sheet in combination with a rewards system encouraged the boys in the study to use more spontaneous target language in the classroom. As one boy said “if you are stuck then you can look for help and instead of asking in English you can ask in French easily”. The scaffolding provided by the prompt sheet gradually allowed boys to begin to alter the language for their own specific needs and so as the boys get used to using the prompt sheet the challenge is to encourage them to adapt the language more and more for their own purposes.

The study also indicated that there was no real need to ensure comprehension of tasks by asking boys to explain back in English what had been said, thus allowing the target language to remain more  the ‘language’ of the classroom.