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How to Teach French to Mixed-age Classes

According to Amanda Speilman of Ofsted, “learning a second language can provide pupils with many wonderful opportunities and is a great discipline in itself”. While this is true, there can be challenges when implementing a languages curriculum in primary school, most notably a lack of staff expertise and time allocated to the subject. Add teaching languages across mixed-age classes into the mix and the challenge seems to be magnified again.

Normally, the mix is clear-cut with a consistent Year 3/4 and Year 5/6 arrangement, however some schools could present other variations across Key Stage 2, (such as Y2/Y3, Y3/4/5/6 or all of Key Stage 2 in one class). 

Questions frequently facing the mixed-age teacher are plentiful:

  • Should I teach independent content to the one year group within the class, then the other?
  • How do I ensure younger pupils are not left behind and older and more able pupils are stretched and allowed to expand their knowledge? 
  • How can I prevent some younger pupils from feeling demotivated, and even intimidated that their peers have more subject knowledge? (possibly meaning that they are less likely to have a go, which becomes counterproductive in a language lesson.)

There is certainly a lot to consider. 

 Let’s take these questions one at a time.

This is more difficult to do than in some other subjects where you can easily start one year group off on an independent task, whilst addressing and teaching the other year group.

Many language lessons in primary will be centered around speaking and listening activities, and rightly so. Oracy skills (Kapow Primary strands: Listening and Speaking and Pronunciation) are the most important building blocks in language learning whatever the year group. Even when focusing on developing the Reading and writing strand, you will need to ensure that pupils have an existing level of oracy competence.

This can make French lessons more teacher-led than many other subjects and it would be my suggestion that you teach the whole class together and that any opportunity to extend or support particular students of a particular cohort be only for a small portion of the lesson, when you are content that others are confident enough to work independently.

According to the Department of Education, “Language teaching should provide the foundation for learning further languages” – the all-important building blocks, not only in vocabulary and phrases, but also the skills and confidence to master a new language.

As confidence increases, so does fluency and spontaneity, the ability to communicate what they want to say, whilst all the time improving the accuracy of pronunciation. These aims set out by the Department of Education potentially support learning in a mixed-age class as there is more opportunity to repeat and rehearse vocabulary and grammatical structures when the new cohort is introduced to them for the first time.

This is also backed up by the Ofsted Language Review 2021 which states that spaced learning – where knowledge is rehearsed for short periods over a longer time – can be highly beneficial compared to mass practice, which can leave the pupil feeling overwhelmed. In so doing, with careful planning and delivery, information is stored in the long-term memory, which consists of structures (schemata) where knowledge is linked or embedded with prior learning.

In my opinion, children will arguably be used to the delivery of each lesson as a mixed-age cohort, as most of their learning will be conducted in this way. Therefore, language classes are likely to be no different. However, ensuring a growth mindset amongst pupils in a supportive classroom environment, perhaps using the older cohort of children as ‘teachers’ or ‘mentors’ can help younger pupils develop a have-a-go attitude to language learning.

In addition to this, Kapow Primary’s scheme of work has an overarching strand ‘Language detective skills’ which encourages pupils to be detectives rather than relying on the teacher to impart new vocabulary. This is an essential technique used to decipher a new language; looking for clues such as word similarities to be able to spot the meaning and is something the children love to do. It can make learning a new language less foreboding too, when they realise there are “hooks” on which to build their knowledge!

Despite being designed for individual year groups, Kapow Primary’s French scheme can be adapted to suit your school structure by creating a rolling programme that encompasses all of the key language components. The most common mixed-age plan is likely to be a two-year cycle for a Y3/4 and Y5/6 split – Cycle 1 and Cycle 2.

Here, vital language structures and skills can be revisited in different contexts, and as pupils progress through Key Stage 2, simpler vocabulary and structures evolve into more complex written sentences. Our planning documents are really useful for understanding how the curriculum has been designed, see:

Particularly, Kapow Primary’s French progression of skills identifies this progress throughout Key Stage 2, and can be used to ensure the correct skills are being taught at the correct time in the pupil’s language learning journey. 

In my own experience, I have tried to mirror similar themes in each cycle; for example, in Y3/4 Colours (Year 3) in Cycle A, followed by Clothes (Year 4 unit) in Cycle B, which also includes colour. This gives the opportunity to repeat the colours with Year 4 as Year 3 are introduced to them. With their prior knowledge, Year 4 pupils can build on previous foundations, for example, further extending adjectival agreement learning.

  • Teach French to the whole class, rather than dividing them into separate year groups. By teaching to everyone, the correct pronunciation can be modelled, and any errors quickly picked up and corrected. 

 

  • For group activities, team older children with younger children – a mix of higher and lower ability – or perhaps younger children would feel more confident working within their own peer group. 

 

  • Support a group or circulate around the room, during group tasks giving immediate feedback and encouragement and taking the opportunity to add extension tasks to the older children. Equally, a short 1:1 burst may encourage a less confident child to have a go! Some young children feel very exposed when making these new French sounds, especially in front of the class but once they are over the initial hurdle, they normally start to fly! 

 

  • Assess the older pupils’ prior knowledge by asking targeted questions. The assessment section on the lesson plan provides useful criteria for the teacher to be able to identify which pupils are showing a secure understanding and who is working at greater depth. 

 

  • Older children may feel comfortable in playing the role of the teacher for part of the task or be willing to perform their short role play. This stretches them and really helps build their confidence. Younger children in the class may just learn the key words, but it is worth noting that some may have a natural “penchant” for the language and work at a similar level to the older children anyway! C’est magnifique! 

Just as there are many differentiation techniques that work well when teaching a wide variety of abilities in other subjects, these also lend themselves perfectly to teaching a mixed-aged language class to ensure good progress.

Useful differentiation suggestions are listed on each French lesson plan, for those needing extra support and also extension tasks for pupils working at greater depth. For example, the younger children could work on recalling single words or short phrases, while, by comparison, the older children may be able to join phrases together or be confident in both asking and answering a question. 

With the very essence of language learning being all about listening, repeating, and recall, the extra rehearsal time that mixed-age groups may encounter can actually play huge dividends and leave the learner engaged and feeling positive about their language learning experience.  It is essential for embedding the new vocabulary and rules, allowing the language to flourish, thus enabling pupils to make substantial progress in the new language.

Written by:
Kapow Primary
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