In language teaching, there is always a debate between, on the one hand, the way a language is acquired through exposure to the language, engagement with meaning and communication, and on the other hand, through explicit teaching, explanation and memorisation.
I think most of us are happy to make sure we maintain a balance of the two. Exposure to language, communication through language, spotting patterns in language, using patterns to generate new language to express ourselves, with the teacher providing input, explanation and structured practice.
There are current proposals from Ofsted, NCELP and the new GCSE panel that would seem to want to push the balance away from meaning and towards forms. With a carefully controlled syllabus where what pupils learn to say is not primarily based on what they want to be able to communicate, but instead as a medium for encountering and rehearsing specific grammatical features.
This is accompanied by an explanation that there is no time in our classroom situation for enough exposure to the language for acquisition to happen.
The reason this rings alarm bells for me is not because I am opposed to this idea. It describes very accurately many features of my approach.
We start Spanish in Year 9. And to get to GCSE by Year 11, we are short of time and I do have a very sharp focus on how explicit grammatical knowledge can accelerate the process of learning a language.
Dr Rachel Hawkes and HMI Michael Wardle have both used the example of Pets to ask what are we really teaching. In Spanish we might really be teaching the patterns of gender. In French we might be teaching the phonics of chien, cheval, chat, or oiseau, poisson and oie. Or word order. Or adjectival agreement. Or the verb to have.
Then we do some work on numbers, but really we are focusing on the vowel combinations in seis, siete, nueve, diez. The point being that greetings are useful, but not as useful as being able to read any word in Spanish accurately and confidently.
Then we do a lesson ostensibly on Family. Which is really about the pattern of masculine and feminine endings. And lessons on My Town and My House to look at plurals, negatives, high frequency words and endings other than o/a.
Of course, we can adapt the pace and we go back and reinforce to make sure pupils are accumulating learning not discarding it. And pupils are building on years of work on these features in French. So very quickly pupils get the basic concepts and are ready to start learning Spanish in units where they will develop their ability to extend answers spontaneously. They learn to give and justify opinions, and narrate events in detail. I am extremely pleased with their progress.
But they often are not.
Because for learners, forms are not of primary importance. I might be happy that they have a grasp of concepts and can apply them in the range of language I have given them. But the focus on building up a working kit of recombinable language suits some learners more than others. Others feel that what they are learning doesn't sufficiently match what they personally want to be able to say. That our attempts, which we think give them a picture of the language and how it works, ignore the specific individual things that they would like to learn to say. They are less concerned with mastering what to them seems abstract, and more concerned with feeling secure in saying specific things which are important and personal to them.
The Pets example given above would seem to be the very worst example they could have picked. To teach cat and dog because they exemplify a grammatical pattern but refuse to include snake and mouse, is not going to have the desired effect of removing obstacles to pupils' learning. For a pupil who has a snake or a mouse, it will seriously impact their ability to learn in that lesson and their attitude to languages going forward. Pupils' primary concern is meaning. And focus on form is secondary. Would we really have it any other way?
In my teaching, I have to keep this in constant tension. Pushing forward the things that I think will build up their repertoire, develop their understanding of how language works. And also delivering on their desire to feel that they can say the things that matter to them.
We can try to shift the focus. But by highlighting forms. Not by removing meaning.
As well as the rationale that "there is no time for acquisition", the other claim is that this approach is more equitable.
A colleague, Kate Shepheard-Walwyn, analysed our curriculum and learners' response to it as part of her MA. She looked at the idea of accelerating learning in a time constrained situation through a focus on understanding forms designed to equip pupils with the knowledge they needed to meet exam criteria. She found that the learners who responded best to this were pupils of higher prior attainment, in particular boys. This doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is an assertion that such an approach would be more equitable for pupils of lower prior attainment or who have previously not engaged with language-learning.
Hopefully you can see why I am extremely wary of any attempt to push our teaching any further in this direction. It is not because I am ideologically opposed to it. Or can't see the point of it. I have already gone far enough down this road and I am trying to claw my way back.
To come back to acquisition and explicit learning, to meaning and to forms. I think that we have to keep them in balance. Researchers trying to decide between the two ways of learning have not resolved the debate. But we don't have to chose between the two. It is a balance we constantly address.