Primary Languages: Effective Learning and Teaching (Achieving QTS)

Author(s) Cynthia Martin
Publisher Learning Matters Ltd
Published 2008
Pages 160
Price £18.00
ISBN 9781844451388
Reviewed by Mrs Jill Wallis
University of Bedfordshire
Review published 25 November 2008

This is one of a range of books in the ‘Achieving QTS’ range from Learning Matters and follows their well-established format of short chapters with clear ‘learning intentions’, a range of reflective and interactive tasks and finally, summaries of key points at the end, all of which create a helpful framework for the trainee teacher, as well as providing a good exemplar for their own lesson planning.

The book starts with a helpful and objective account of the history of language teaching, including research into the long-term impact of early language teaching on children’s language learning at a later stage (none, apparently). Perhaps a little longer could therefore have been spent on the rationale for supporting it again so strongly now, as Martin obviously does, to equip trainees with some ammunition for potential staff room crusades, but she does identify the greater enthusiasm, less dented by self-consciousness, of the younger learner.

Much of the book is a structured journey through the keystages, using the materials provided on the Primary Languages website, with close reference to curriculum expectations, resources and topics, and is very strong on both providing a rationale for these steps and offering an excellent range of exemplar activities and sources of further ideas and support. The final section of the book also contains an exhaustive list of websites, organisations and resource banks to support the new teacher in their work.

On occasions the timing within the book of her coverage of particular points can seem a little puzzling. For example she is many chapters into the book and well past the early stages of children’s language development before she engages in the very important discussion of the role of explicit grammar and KAL (knowledge about language) teaching for the development of a second language. Given that she concludes that such knowledge and teaching is indeed very important, it would be helpful to see that reflected in earlier lesson content, in discussions about the skills that trainee language teachers (and their colleagues) need and in why the transition from primary to secondary language learning can be as unsatisfactory as she suggests it is. (She suggests this is largely because secondary teachers ignore what children have already learned, which is perhaps rather simplistic and one-sided, given the syllabus and examination challenges secondaries face.) The absence of explicit knowledge about English grammar in most Trainees, and indeed in primary teachers in general, having not themselves been taught it, is something which the book would benefit from addressing more fully. Similarly, some more extensive practical advice and exemplars for Trainees about key differences between English and other languages, and how to teach this area of the subject would be most useful, and, I’m sure, gratefully received.

Another interesting area raised early in the book is the issue of Intercultural awareness, which Ms Martin strongly advocates, and her section on the importance of this is very effective. She reflects on the recent change of subject name, to Primary Languages (from MFL, modern foreign languages), to remove the perceived negative impact of the work ‘Foreign’ and to acknowledge the wide range of non-European languages now spoken in many primary schools, and she does briefly, much later in the book, discuss how schools could make use of their own multi-cultural populations to learn about each other’s cultures in a more relevant and easily exemplified way. However, in the intervening chapters, the possibility of actually teaching any of the languages spoken by the majority of EAL (English as an additional language) speakers is not raised at all, and it seems that, once the cultures of children from a range of multi-cultural backgrounds has been used to open the discussion, the expectation is that teachers will then segue into a discussion of the European cultures and languages which almost all of the examples on the book assume will be being taught. While I suspect this is a fair representation of the specialisms offered by current Trainees, it would be nice to see a discussion of how languages more closely reflecting those spoken within the schools and their communities could be more frequently used and offered.

Overall, however, this is an informative, clearly structured and practical guide to teaching languages in the primary classroom, giving immediate support to current Trainees but also widening their understanding of the bigger issues and the next steps for them to take in taking forward both their own careers and also the integration of language teaching across their local learning community. It further covers the key areas for trainee teachers of any subject, including planning, differentiation, assessment, etc., with languages-specific exemplars and clear rationales. This would be a very useful book for all trainee language teachers to acquire.