Document 505

Teaching Secondary Modern Languages in Scotland

Author(s): Brian C Templeton

Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material


Teaching and Learning in Modern Languages

Communicative Competence

Since the mid 1970s, the main aims of teaching and learning a modern language have been expressed as the development of communicative competence. The following four main components combine to contribute to communicative competence:
1. Grammatical competence (including phonology, orthography, vocabulary, word formation, sentence formation)
2. Sociolinguistic competence (expression and understanding of social meanings appropriate to different sociolinguistic contexts, and of grammatical forms appropriate to their expression)
3. Discourse competence (knowledge of different linguistic genres, together with their related devices for cohesion and coherence)
4. Strategic competence (ways of coping with grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse and performance difficulties).

Although there is still a need for grammatical competence, this communicative approach to language teaching promotes the use of real language in realistic contexts and as such represents a significant move away from the traditional, linear grammar-based methodology which had characterised previous approaches to foreign language teaching in Scotland. Much of the educational theory that underpins communicative methodology emanates from research into how children acquire their own mother tongue. It advocates that the communicative approach to the teaching of a second language should attempt to replicate in the classroom situation the processes and conditions under which acquisition of the mother tongue takes place.

Curriculum Design and Assessment Techniques

Alongside the development of the communicative methodology, several initiatives attempted to make the teaching syllabus more relevant to the real-life needs and interests of the learners. The identification by Van Ek (1975) of ‘The Threshold Level’ as part of the Council of Europe’s 1971-1981 Modern Languages Project was very influential in the area of curriculum design. By identifying both the most essential contexts in which a learner needs to operate and the elements of the language required of the learner in those contexts, Van Ek provided a model of a functional and notional syllabus design, which was and continues to be influential throughout Europe.

In Scotland the influence of the development of a functional and notional syllabus, allied to the development of a communicative approach to the teaching of modern languages, was seen most clearly in the Tour de France project (1975-1984), organised on a national level and convened by a team led by Richard Johnstone of Stirling University.

The thinking behind the Tour de France initiative influenced greatly the form of Standard Grade assessment in Modern Languages. The Standard Grade Arrangements Document for Modern Languages (1985) describes a functional and notional syllabus built around topic areas of ‘relevance and interest to the pupils’ and drawing upon authentic materials. The contexts within which the language learning will take place have as their purpose the preparation of the pupils for direct contact with speakers of the target language, whether this involves the pupils travelling to the foreign country or the speaker of the foreign language coming to Scotland.

The weighting accorded in the S Grade assessment arrangements to each of the four language skills reflects the perceived importance of each skill for a relative beginner, seeking to communicate in realistic situations. The skill of Speaking is weighted at 50% of the total mark, Listening is weighted at 25%, as is the skill of Reading, while the skill of Writing is not part of the compulsory assessment and therefore does not contribute to the overall aggregate grade for the subject. For those pupils for whom the assessment of Writing is an appropriate task, an optional paper in Writing is offered at General and Credit levels and, if successful, a Grade 1-4 is recorded separately for the skill of Writing on the candidate’s certificate.

Although the influence of the communicative approach to language teaching has been most pronounced in the developments associated with Standard Grade, it can also be seen in the documentation which lays out the aims of language learning in the other stages at which modern languages are taught. In P6-S2, the document Modern European Languages 5-14 sets out the aims of modern language learning as follows:
• to develop the ability to communicate in the foreign language and in doing so
• to contribute to knowledge about how language works
• to contribute to learning about ways of life in other countries.

Moreover, a strong resonance of the above-mentioned four components of communicative competence can still be found in the Subject Guide for Higher Still Modern Languages, where it is stated that language competence will depend on the learner’s progressive development in:
• knowing about language – its nature, its grammatical structure and the purposes for which it is used (grammatical and sociolinguistic competence)
• interacting with others and being aware of the ‘rules’ of interaction or of textual structure (discourse competence)
• successfully using strategies to cope with situations (across all skills) where a breakdown in communication has occurred (strategic competence)
• being aware of the cultural context in which the foreign language exists (cultural competence).

Recent Developments

The last decade of the twentieth century has seen the expansion of the teaching of modern foreign languages both in the secondary sector, where it became a core subject in S3 and S4 in 1992 (SED Circular No. 1178), and also into P6 and P7 of the primary sector, as a result of a favourable evaluation in 1993 of the extensive national pilot project: Modern Languages in the Primary School (MLPS). However, at the same time as the base for the teaching of modern languages was broadening, annual statistics issued by the former SEB indicated a significant decline in the number of pupils being presented at Higher Grade in a modern language. They also suggested there was a less positive correlation in modern languages than in other subject areas in terms of performance in Standard Grade and the grade achieved the following year at Higher.

Worried by the rate of decline and eager to understand better the reasons for it, the SOEID commissioned in 1996 a team of researchers from Stirling University to explore why, according to statistical evidence from SEB/SQA, the number of students entering for Higher exams in modern languages had declined by 50 per cent over a 20-year period (1976-1996). The report of the findings: "Foreign Languages in the Upper Secondary School: A Study of the Causes of Decline", referred to in this paper as FLUSS, was published by SCRE in January 1999. Appearing so soon after the publication of the highly critical SQML report, it seemed to confirm the impression of modern languages as a subject in crisis.

This large-scale survey conducted in 25% of secondary schools in Scotland sought to uncover the perceptions of students in S4 and S5, entered for Standard Grade at Credit level, as to their experiences in modern language learning. Among the many explanations offered as contributory factors for the decline, two of the most significant were identified as:
• a lack of “instrumental motivation” among the majority of students
• a lack of a feeling of real achievement and confidence in what had been learned by the end of Standard Grade.

Among the factors identified as contributing to this negative learning experience were the content of the S3/4 teaching syllabus, the approach to the assessment of the four language skills at Standard Grade, and how these in turn affected the teaching methodology used by many teachers. This was a criticism also made by HMI in the SQML report: “Teachers too often relied on the weighting of the assessment in Standard Grade examinations to provide the pattern for classwork, with up to 50% of time devoted to speaking practice”.

The position of Writing as an optional element in the assessment at Standard Grade was identified by the FLUSS report as a major factor in the lack of successful progress to Higher Grade, and again the SQML report identified the same problem: “The relatively poor performance of pupils in Writing relates to the extent to which writing is included as a skill in modern languages teaching in S1-S4, the ways in which it is taught, pupils’ and teachers’ perceptions of the examination as an optional extra, the nature of the main examination and the nature of the Writing examination”.

Closely linked to the neglect of the skill of writing, both reports expressed concern at the lack of systematic development of the pupils’ grammatical awareness. It is argued that this lack of understanding of how the language structure operates prevents pupils from creating their own language and often leaves them with only the knowledge of lists of vocabulary items and able to communicate only in very tightly structured role-play scenarios. Such criticism is not restricted to the teaching approach and teaching materials used in the upper secondary school, as similar shortcomings were identified in a study of modern language teaching and the teaching resources used in P6-S2, undertaken on behalf of Glasgow City Council and the University of Glasgow (Cavani and Birks 1998).

The swing of the pendulum back towards greater emphasis on grammatical competence as an essential element in communicative competence, and a more central role for the skill of writing, has been discernible in literature on the methodology of the teaching of modern languages in recent years. Susan Halliwell (1993) encapsulates the problem and tension that has existed within teachers of modern languages, when faced with the dilemma of how or if to teach grammar in an explicit manner. Heather Rendall highlights the pupils’ lack of grammatical awareness of their mother tongue as a barrier to the teaching of grammar: “As the teaching of English grammar waned and the terminology to describe parts of language became as foreign as anything taught as part of a second language, so pupils understood less and less what they found in the coursebooks”. (CILT, 1998)

Eric Hawkins would agree that the link between knowledge of the first language and learning a second language is of crucial importance. However, he sees the link as being the key to helping pupils gain a better knowledge of how both the first and second language work. The response advocated by him in "Awareness of Language: An Introduction", 1984, is the creation of an Awareness of Language course, the chief aim of which “will be to challenge pupils to ask questions about language, which so many take for granted”. Working in collaboration with their colleagues who teach English, the teacher of Modern Languages can draw upon progress already made by the pupils in the mother tongue “to develop insight into the patterned nature of language”, which is required if the pupil is to learn a second language at an accelerated rate under school conditions.

The need for a coherent approach to the teaching of Modern Languages across the three stages, which would identify agreed objectives and agreed approaches to teaching, is expressed clearly in the following terms by the Scottish Association for Language Teaching (SALT) in its position paper "Learning and Teaching Modern Languages in Schools and Colleges in Scotland" (December 1998): “Unfortunately, in practice, the emphasis on topic areas, seen as an answer to the problem of relevance, has led to the crumbling of language study into a large number of relatively random vocabulary areas, destroying the necessary coherence of progressive language study. A return to this coherence, as spelled out in the grammar appendix to the Higher Still Modern Languages documentation, is urgently required to inform all language learning and teaching from P6 through to Advanced Higher”.

Although the main decisions as to format and changes to existing practice had been taken well in advance of the publication of the SQML and FLUSS reports, the Higher Still Development team for Modern Languages was aware from briefing inputs by SQA and HMI as to the issues of concern. In particular the development team was eager to make changes which would lead to an increase in the number of students continuing the study of a modern language into S5/6 and improve the level of attainment in modern languages at this level, among pupils of all levels of ability. In this way it was intended to begin to address and dispel the “climate of negativity” identified in the FLUSS report. A reading of the Higher Still proposals, as set out in the documents "Higher Still: Arrangements for Modern Languages" (1997) and "Modern Languages: Subject Guide" (1997), will show how the development programme identifies and seeks to address the following concerns:
• Progression and Continuity
• Intellectual Content and Relevance
• Balance of Skills and Role of Grammar
• Clear expectations and a sense of achievement.

There is a clear attempt in the proposals issued for consultation on the review of Standard Grade (1999) to articulate with developments in these areas introduced in the Higher Still programme. This can be seen most clearly in the decision to redistribute the relative weighting attributed to each of the language skills. The following table illustrates and compares the proposed redistribution with the current weighting at Standard Grade and with the weighting of the skills at Intermediate 1 in the Higher Still framework:

[NOTE: Table here in original]

In this proposed redistribution, it is acknowledged that at this level there should be equal weighting given to the oral/aural skills (Speaking/Listening) and to the written skills (Reading/Writing), which mirrors the weighting of the four skills at Intermediate 1 (benchmarked against General level).

At the same time, it is acknowledged in the revision of Standard Grade that there needs to be articulation with the proposals which will result from the revision of the Modern Languages 5-14 National Guidelines. The official publication of the precise details of the revision at 5-14 are likely to follow shortly once the Minister has responded to the report on the Ministerial Action Group on Languages, and the general trend can be deduced from the Consultation Draft issued in September 1999. The most significant revisions are likely to include:
• the need to develop all four language skills, including writing, from the outset
• the inclusion of Knowing about Language as a strand, which permeates all of the four language skills or modes
• the development of a mutually supportive relationship between the learning of a foreign language and the skills acquired in learning a first language. This is referred to as "Language to Languages" and requires that: “Effective learning strategies developed in first or second language across the four modes should be used and further developed in the learning and studying of a foreign language”. (SCCC, 1999)

Although much work still needs to be done to develop and exemplify performance at this level, the following comment from the Consultation Draft indicates the shift that is being proposed and highlights the areas of articulation with developments being implemented in the upper secondary school: “Writing helps pupils to make sense of their learning, to see connections, to find out what they know and do not know. Moving from identification of the similarities and differences between the first language and the foreign language, the pupils will be increasingly aware of language patterns and structures from their reading and listening and will develop a range of strategies for accurate writing in the foreign language”. (SCCC, 1999)

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Information about Document 505

Teaching Secondary Modern Languages in Scotland


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2000
Word count 2514
General description One of a series of position papers on current educational developments in relation to language education

Text medium

Other CD Rom of teacher materials (LILT)

Text publication details

Part of larger text
Contained in CD Rom: LILT Materials
Editor J McGonigal / C Kay
Part of a longer series of texts
Name of series Position Papers: CD Rom: LILT Materials

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction


Author details

Author id 721
Forenames Brian
Initials C
Surname Templeton
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1950
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation University Lecturer
Place of birth Newton Stewart
Region of birth W Dumfries
Birthplace CSD dialect area Dmf
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Glasgow
Region of residence Glasgow
Residence CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Baker
Father's place of birth Colmonell
Father's region of birth S Ayr
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Ayr
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Shop Assistant
Mother's place of birth Dumfries
Mother's region of birth E & Mid Dumfries
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Dmf
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes Work and home
French Yes Yes Yes Yes At work and on holiday
German Yes Yes Yes Yes At work and on holiday
Scots Yes No No Yes Visiting family, relatives