Linguistics at school

Last updated 23 December 2011

This page of information on language teaching in England (and to some extent other parts of the UK) started as the handout for a discussion led by Dick Hudson at the September 1998 meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain, but it has subsequently been updated considerably to take account of the changes that have swept through our education system (and which are summarised in "How linguistics has influenced schools in England"). The LAGB has reacted to these developments by creating an Education Committee.

  1. Background to language teaching in UK schools
    1. L1 English
    2. L2 French, etc.
  2. Recent developments
    1. The National Curriculum for English
    2. The National Literacy Strategy
    3. A-level (AS/A2) English Language
    4. The foreign-language crisis and how schools are changing
    5. English as an additional language (EAL)
  3. Implications for academic linguistics
  4. Possible contributions from LAGB members
    1. Publication
    2. Courses
    3. Research
  5. Contributions of the LAGB
    1. Responsibility
    2. Debate
    3. Networking

A guide to acronyms

KS = Key Stage (KS1 = years 1-2, KS2 = years 3-6, KS3 = years 7-9, KS4 = years 10, 11).


1 Background to language teaching in UK schools

1.1 L1 English

1960s: the death of traditional grammar in English in most schools. `Should traditional grammar be ended or mended?' (Chomsky: Educational Review 1969 - pro mending). For this history, click here.

Now: `The overwhelming majority of teachers in the UK concede that attention to grammar and to the forms of language has been neglected.' (Carter 1996) Worse still, most teachers know very little about language structure.

Positive developments:

  • Official acceptance of non-standard dialects and dialect vs accent.
  • General acceptance of linguistics as important (but hard!).
  • Language Awareness (and the Association for Language Awareness) - acceptance of need for a general awareness of what language is like and for links between first and second languages in education.
  • KAL (Knowledge About Language) - acceptance of the need to teach explicitly about language structure.
  • `Oracy' - acceptance of spoken language as important and a concern for how to teach speaking and listening.
  • Genre - acceptance that many varieties exist and are `valid'.
  • Acceptance of multi-lingual classrooms and the importance of pupils' home languages.
  • A-level English language (and linguistics).
  • An agreed model of language levels: word - sentence - text.

1.2 L2 French, etc.

1970s: `Grammar-translation' methods replaced by `Communicative' methods.

  • Now: Grammar teaching has been reinstated as an essential component of language teaching thanks to the revised National Curriculum (1999). and the QCA revised definitions for public exams.
    • At GCSE, at least 20% of marks are given for grammatical accuracy.
    • At AS/A level, at least 25% of marks are given for grammatical accuracy and students are expected to know about the grammar of the language.
  • But meanwhile the number of students taking traditional European foreign languages is steadily declining (for more information, see the survey of press reports at CILT).

2 Recent developments

2.1 The National Curriculum for English

  • The National Curriculum was made obligatory for all state schools in England and Wales by the Education Reform Bill of 1988 and the first National Curriculum for English was introduced in 1990, but the curriculum for English was controversial and was revised in 1995 and again in 1999; it now applies to England and Northern Ireland only, and covers primary and secondary schooling to age 16.
    • 2011: After widespread consultation, the Government plans to revise the National Curriculum. Originally it planned to introduce a new curriculum for English, Maths and Science in 2013 and for other subjects in 2014, but in December 2011 it announced a year's delay in the plans for English etc. and the following documents:
    • 2009: After consultation by QCA, the GCSE English syllabus has been reformed as part of a general revision of GCSE qualifications. As a result, 'English language' will be available (for teaching from 2010) as a separate qualification alongside 'English' and 'English literature'. NB VERY IMPORTANT
    • 2007: A new Secondary National Curriculum was launched, which tries to integrate different subjects more than in the earlier curriculum. It will be implemented in schools from 2008-11, while the earlier curriculum is phased out. The 'framework' (i.e. curriculum) for secondary English is on the internet. One major change is that 'Language' is now recognised as a major 'strand of progression', alongside speaking/listening, reading and writing, and includes both 'Exploring language variation and development according to time, place, culture, society and technology' and 'Commenting on language use'.
  • To prepare for the 1990 curriculum, in 1988 the Kingman Committee, which had been set up to look at the language element of the English curriculum, recommended:
    • more explicit attention to the forms and functions of language, leading to more conscious Knowledge About Language (KAL) in pupils; but they recognised that most teachers lacked sufficient KAL because they had never studied language in this way during their own education. Consequently, the committee recommended:
    • an extensive in-service training programme about KAL for English teachers; the government accepted this recommendation by funding the 'LINC' (Language in the National Curriculum) to prepare teachers for teaching the new National Curriculum.
    • no return to the decontextualised grammar teaching that had disappeared from most schools in the 1960s.
    • teaching Standard English, but as an addition to pupils' existing non-standard repertoire rather than as a replacement for it.
  • In 1989 the Cox Committee also recommended that explicit KAL should be included in the National Curriculum for English.
  • QCA (Qualifications & Curriculum Authority) is responsible for the curriculum, and has also produced a number of useful supporting documents:

2.2 The National Literacy Strategy

  • Prepared in the National Literacy Project, heavily influenced by the Australian 'First Steps' programme; first trialled in1997, obligatory in all primary schools from 1999. Conforms to the general requirements of the national curriculum for English, but adds a lot more detail. It's now changed into the literacy strand of the Primary National Strategy.
  • Applies not only to primary schools (Key Stages 1 and 2), where it is implemented as the 'Literacy Hour' which takes place each day in almost every primary school class, but also (since 2001) to the first three years of secondary (age 11-14 = KS3). At secondary level it is called the English strand of the KS3 National Strategy. Both the primary and secondary strategies are defined by detailed documents called 'Frameworks' - one for KS1-2 (revised October 2006) another for KS3. (Click here for 'KS'.)
  • Among other things, the primary strategy prescribes a detailed list of technical linguistic concepts and terms to be taught in primary school, and suggests how to teach them. There is an official glossary of technical terms which a team of LAGB members have helped to revise and develop. (As of 2006 this glossary is no longer available on the Strategy website under literacy or English, but a slightly adapted version is available for foreign language teachers, with an explicit acknowledgements of its roots in literacy teaching.)
  • Various sets of support materials have been produced (with help from linguists) for training teachers in grammar. These include:
  • More recently, the focus of attention has broadened to include not only reading, but also speaking and listening; see for example:

One of the most controversial features of the NLS (and more generally of the National Curriculum for English) is the assumption that explicit grammar teaching helps to improve writing (and other language skills); some research seems to show that this is a waste of time, but a bibliographical search suggests that there is more research support for it than we might suppose. Moreover, the history of grammar teaching in the 20th century shows that one of the reasons it died in schools was the lack of research support in universities. The official policy is defended in a website about grammar in the Secondary National Strategy.

2011: The National Strategies (for primary and secondary education), which had absorbed the National Literacy Strategy, were ended.

2.5 A-level English Language

About 60,000 candidates per year take an exam in English Language - 35,000 at AS level (Year 12) and 25,000 at A2 level (Year 13). The LAGB discussed these exams in 1999 and again in 2003. More information:

  • facts and figures produced by Dick Hudson in 2003
  • a very readable and useful report on A-level English written by Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster in 2006 for university lecturers who want to know what their students actually did when studying English Language or English Literature at A-level in school.

2.6 The foreign-language crisis

Foreign languages are unpopular at school and the number of candidates at both GCSE and A-level is declining steadily and worryingly.

  • At A-level, take-up has been declining since 1992, after a rapid rise during the 1980s; but the decline seems to have stopped or even reversed - see figures.
  • At GCSE (year 11), languages were optional until 1998, and in 1965 they were taken by only 25% of children (figure from Nuffield Languages Inquiry: Where are we going with languages? p. 35).
  • But languages were unpopular at GCSE and one strand of the Government's official strategy on languages was to make them optional again at Key Stage 4 (years 10 and 11) from 2004.
  • The result was a disastrous collapse in GCSE languages, so the DfES reacted by sending a letter to all heads requiring them to put at least 50% of pupils in for a language; but this letter was widely ignored.
  • The National Curriculum for Languages was revised in 1999, and the general approach to teaching has changed radically and in the direction of more focus on language structure; these changes are gradually being implemented through documents and directives, and may be having positive effects on numbers (especially at A-level).
  • However, the Government became concerned by the collapse of numbers at GCSE and appointed Lord Dearing to head an inquiry into GCSE languages in 2006, with a view to finding ways to improve uptake.
  • In 2009 the Government commissioned the Worton Report on languages in Higher Education.
  • In 2011 the Government ended the National Languages Strategy.

Government documents about FL teaching

The Government has produced the following documents about foreign-language teaching (most recent first):

  • 2010 Addendum to the White Paper on Education: the English Baccaluareate
    • The English Baccalaureate is a summary of a pupil's performance at GCSE in a selection of 'core' subjects. These subjects include a foreign language (or Welsh) .
  • 2009 New Framework for KS3 Languages ('MFL')
    • This framework for KS3 adopts the same structure as the one for KS2, divided into five strands, one of which is 'Knowledge about Language'.
    • It includes a new glossary which is well informed though rather short of linguistic terms (e.g. determiner, case, gender), and entirely illustrated from English.
    • The learning objectives include comparison between the target language and English.
  • The Rose review of the primary curriculum: [officially abandoned by the new government in 2010]
    • 2008: Preliminary report (click 'Interim report') recommends:
      • integrating foreign languages with English in a single 'area of learning'
      • reducing the number of foreign languages learned in primary school to a maximum of two per child, rather than the variety of languages that some schools are offering.
  • 2008: Proposals for a 14-19 Diploma in Languages [officially abandoned by the new government in 2010]

This is one of the three 'academic' diplomas (along with Science and Humanities) which in 2012 will join 14 more vocational ones as an alternative to GCSE and A-level. It explicitly includes linguistics as one of the main strands. Discussion documents:

The curriculum fits into the new (2007) Secondary National Curriculum, and is now defined by:

  • non-statutory guidelines for KS2 (where MFL is merely a 'statutory entitlement', i.e. optional for a child but obligatory for a school)
  • a statutory 'Programme of Study' for the only obligatory age, KS3.
  • non-statutory guidelines for KS4 (where MFL is optional)
  • detailed 'schemes of work' (lesson plans including lists of words, phrases etc) for KS2

Published September 2006, when new overall regulations came in for all A-level exams.

This was published in 2005, after consultations where linguists had some influence. The document is important because of the prominence it gives to KAL.

Published in June 2003, this Framework of ideas and recommendations gives official approval to many of the recommendations made by the LAGB Education Committee. Specifically,

  • It adopts the glossary which we helped to produce for the National Literacy Strategy; a slightly adapted version is still available for foreign-language teachers although it has now (2006) been removed from the site for literacy and English teachers.
  • It explicitly recommends that MFL teachers should build on the language work done in the NLS.
  • It gives much more weight than previously to grammar, pronunciation and understanding of structure

The Government's response in 2002 to the crisis identified in the Nuffield report and also a number of consultation exercises. Its main decisions were:

  • To expand FL in primary schools. By 2010, every primary school should offer some language teaching in timetabled lessons.
  • To make them optional after KS3 (Year 9); till then MFL was supposedly obligatory till Year 11, but large numbers of pupils were regularly exempt ('disapplied'). (In 2005, the Government backtracked on this dispensation by requiring all schools to enter at least 50% of their pupils for a language at GCSE.)
  • To appoint a 'Languages Czar' (The National Director for languages) to oversee the implementation of the new strategy.

A joint project run by the FL team at QCA and CILT (the Centre for Information on Language Teaching) from 1999 to 2001 " to explore links between children’s work in developing literacy skills and in learning a foreign language." - an official endorsement of Language Awareness

  • 1999: The National Curriculum for England: modern foreign languages

The first National Curriculum for MFL was published in 1990, but heavily revised in 1999. (Neither of these documents is available on the internet.) The 1999 revision introduced major changes of principle, with much more stress on language structure. Like all other subjects, the secondary National Curriculum for languages was revised in 2007.

2.7 English as an Additional Language (EAL)

About half a million pupils in schools in England and Wales (i.e. about 10%) speak English as an additional language.

  • The majority have been here for many years, and may have been born here. These are treated at school like L1 English speakers, but a recent report by a linguist (Lynne Cameron) highlights the special difficulties they face in writing; this report was commissioned by the Office for Standards in Education, and reflects growing official concern about this large group of pupils.
  • The still significant number who have arrived recently are included in 'mainstream' classes alongside L1 pupils, but receive special support from EAL teachers (called Ethnic Minority Achievement teachers). Here too there is increasing official recognition of the need for technical support, which has led to training materials for EMA teachers on the use of grammar in the teaching of writing.

3 Implications for academic linguistics

  • Students will be better informed (no doubt with some misinformation).
  • Language teaching will be a more relevant career.
  • Student numbers could increase.
  • For a brief review of the implications for teaching grammar at universities, and some further web resources, see an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

4 Possible contributions from LAGB members

4.1 Publication

Write accessible and authoritative guides to KAL, for teachers, teacher- trainers, trainee teachers, classroom use. Act as consultants for publishers producing teaching material for use in schools.

4.2 Courses

Some departments already provide in-service courses for teachers. There is a list of these courses (and others) for those teaching A-level English Language.

4.3 Research

There seems to be a desperate shortage of relevant research, e.g.:

  • Linguistic development of school-age children.
  • Relation of explicit knowledge to competence (and performance).
  • Facts of non-standard dialects and regional accents.
  • Linguistic differences between varieties (including speech vs writing).
  • Descriptions of minority languages.
  • True theories of language (structure, acquisition, use)!

5 Contributions of LAGB

5.1 Responsibility

The LAGB has set up a permanent Education Committee to take responsibility for the LAGB's contribution to education.

5.2 Debate

The LAGB education committee organises two-hour sessions at LAGB conferences.

5.3 Networking

CLIE (Committee for Linguistics In Education) is sponsored jointly by LAGB and BAAL and has many contacts - in fact so far as we can tell it is the only body in the UK that regularly brings together representatives from all areas of language education, from L1 English through FL to Dyslexia.


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