What have we learned from the research and the work of language educators, school leaders, school communities, the Victorian School of Languages, and community languages schools about how best to improve, extend and mainstream languages learning? Relevant to all learning areas, there are four major areas of educational practice that educators and school community partners develop to improve learning outcomes for all students. Nicholas Abbey discusses each of these areas in this article.
The effectiveness and future of languages education are bound up with developments in autonomy, personalisation, community, and time. All four together comprise a solid foundation for student learning, engagement and achievement, and define the quality of a student’s educational experience.
Autonomy in languages learning has many elements and comprises individual learner autonomy, teachers' professional autonomy, and the level of school autonomy. Key aspects include:
Autonomy includes the development of Vygotskian teaching practices. Learner autonomy is best developed through scaffolding ever-more challenging learning tasks and by building on students' prior knowledge, culture and language(s). All in all, the growth of learner independence is supported by interactions with other students and through teachers’ guidance, supervision and scaffolding.
Dialogic teaching (see Alexander) propels scaffolding. Teachers routinely use classroom talk (such as paraphrasing strategies to extend students’ vocabulary). Alexander places emphasis on rethinking and adjusting the balance of writing and talk in the curriculum; redressing the balance of written and oral tasks and activities; and shifting from random, brief interactions to sustained and longer ones. Dialogic teaching serves to deepen student understanding and mainstream student voice. Challenges include using talk in a consistently sustained, structured, profound, conceptually rich and collaborative way, and how best to assess understanding from what students say as well as from what they write.
Classroom practice and research are strengthening the relationship between autonomy in languages teaching and learning, socio-cultural approaches to learning, distance learning, technology use, and strategies to enhance students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and master a second language.
Interesting examples in the research literature include studies of how best to develop the interaction between learner autonomy and sociocultural theory (Benson, 2011) and between learner autonomy and the imperative of students’ intrinsic motivation to learn (Dörnyei, 2001; Ushioda, 2006).
Personalisation is not new but the opportunities to advance it are. These include new partnerships in learning communities and new technologies to bring personalised learning to scale and expand learning choices for students. Personalisation in students’ learning is the process by which teachers, students, parents, mentors, community members and others all help to strengthen the match between:
Personalisation requires culturally and socially inclusive teaching and learning practices in schools and school-family-community partnerships on an unprecedented scale. By identifying the different socially and culturally embedded learning preferences (e.g., contextual learning) among students, schools personalise teaching and assessment practices to match these preferences. In this way languages learning provides for students the opportunity to develop their own very personal blend of both:
Personalised learning plans, as a record of the goals, needs and progress of individual students, support students to specify life and learning goals and the activities that may enable the attainment of these goals. They can also assist students to link learning in school, at home, and in the community such as linking formal language learning, with an emphasis on accuracy, and the practical use of language at home and in the community, with an emphasis on fluency (Lo Bianco). Personalisation also includes tools that assess the progress of the whole student, not only in specific subjects.
The use of personalised plans works best if separated both from a school setting and a proprietary platform, so that the plans and accompanying materials such as digital portfolios are regarded by students as personal documents that can be used in school, family and community learning settings.
Personalisation requires the extensive use of new and emerging technologies (data systems, digital content, online and blended learning, online learning plans, Web 2.0 resources, etc.) so as to:
Community partnerships and networks - comprising students’, parents' and educators’ networks of relationships that provide knowledge, information, learning, sociability, support, and opportunities for participation in community initiatives and community-based learning - include:
Through PLNs, students can link multiple opportunities to learn and develop in school, at home, in workplaces, in the community, and with community organisations. The Harvard Family Research Project uses the term ‘complementary learning’ for integrating school and non-school learning. All of this involves how to make the most productive, personalised use of f2f and on-line communities in teaching programs (together with developing complementarities between mainstream and community languages schools) in order to accelerate the pace of languages learning and proficiency.
Learning communities include developing small clusters of primary and secondary schools (creating P-12 continuity across the levels of schooling as well as a shared P-12 languages pedagogy), sister school relationships, and collaborations in which educators across schools, the Victorian School of Languages, and community languages schools work together in curriculum development and to support students’ personal learning plans and networks. It also includes partnering with bilingual community members and sister schools (via video-conferencing) to support real world language use in schools.
Greater use needs to be made of school community partnership agreements involving schools, community organisations and community languages schools. Such agreements can facilitate:
Partnership agreements can also provide a framework for languages education. The very best teaching practices are most likely to evolve in tandem with the work of a school's leaders, teachers, parents and students together with community organisations to develop a shared vision, policy and action plan.
The nature of community is obviously changing. Associated with the shift to an on-line world is the emergence of personalised communities, prompting new thinking about how best to build strong language learning communities. Virtual communities promoting social networking, such as Facebook and Twitter, are, of course, becoming increasingly socially, culturally and pedagogically significant.
A fourth dimension - time - cuts across the other three factors. Indeed, as educators emphasise, the creative reworking and resourcing of time in education and schooling is one of the single most important enablers for personalised learning including in languages learning. Time refers to:
The work of educators and others continues to challenge, and move beyond, the traditional model of education in which time (e.g., historically the timetable) is the constant and achievement the variable. Languages education provides powerful examples. Schools work toward the more effective use of time via:
Challenges include providing more time for all school stakeholders to work together in order to further personalise languages learning, guide students through the maze of life and learning opportunities to find a unique pathway for each student, and create new kinds of schooling such as P-12 clusters.
It is important that educators have access to materials that are useable and practical, and minimise additional preparation time. Initiatives that support continuity of learning over time, including across pre-school, primary, secondary and post-compulsory settings, will also become more important.
Significant improvements in languages learning are obviously made through developing links across all four practices. Together they increasingly define the quality of a student’s educational experience.
All four are embedded in the very best educational research and resonate strongly with the work of educators and schools. Each is also best understood, influenced and acted on at three levels:
Promoting interaction within and across these three levels may obviously deliver the best results.
Following further feedback and amendments from many people, this earlier paper was updated on 10 May 2012. We also invite you to provide your feedback about this latest draft. We wish to thank the principals, teachers, parents, students, researchers and personnel in the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development who commented on previous drafts of this paper.
One of the great achievements in education in Australia is the accreditation of so many languages as Year 12 subjects. Besides being important in its own right, languages learning is at the leading edge of the education revolution. If mainstreamed over time, it has the potential to improve, if not transform, learning experiences and outcomes for all students.
Despite the imperative of mainstreaming languages education, Australian students spend less time learning a second language than their counterparts in other OECD countries. Likewise, most students do not study a language through to Years 11 and 12. In Victoria's public schools, for example, although 92% of students study a language in Year 7, only 17% are still doing so in Year 10 and only 8% in both Years 11 and 12.
Toward quality languages learning for all
To work in a practical way toward realising the vision of quality languages education for all students and in all schools (at a time, however, when the decades-old impetus behind mainstreaming languages learning has lost its momentum), what is to be done? There are four key challenges:
Each of these big-picture challenges can be converted into manageable, 'bite-size' pieces.
Factors favouring a strategic approach
Factors in favour of a more strategic approach to languages education include globalisation, increased international mobility, and the cross-cultural impact of ever-evolving communications technology, all of which compel governments and communities to make language education a core part of a world-class curriculum.
In this respect, the Victorian Government is developing a new languages education strategy. It has created a Ministerial Advisory Council for a Multilingual and Multicultural Victoria, chaired by the Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship, Nicholas Kotsiras.
As well, given that Victorians originate from over 230 nations, speak approximately 180 different languages and follow at least 116 different religions, there is obviously a broad grass-roots basis for the development of a new languages strategy.
Bold educational and political leadership to support quality language programs is obviously needed. Governments need to exercise this leadership through:
Stakeholder organisations may need to develop a new kind of coalition for cultural and linguistic diversity in education. Central to this are partnerships between schools, the Victorian School of Languages, and community groups and organisations, including community languages schools, to promote and enrich language learning in schools. Stronger partnerships and coalitions at the local, regional and state-wide levels can enable people at the grass-roots level to better engage governments to develop and fund a framework for a 21st century languages strategy.
As well, there needs to be better support for the efforts of language educators and others (including school principals and school councils and boards) in developing a whole school (and, increasingly, a more strategic school cluster and regional network) commitment and approach to languages education.
How to build grass-roots momentum
In this regard, as vehicles for building broad partnerships between principals, teachers, parents, students and community groups and organisations, school governing bodies (school councils and boards and their sub-committees) can be pivotal.
School councils can develop strategic plans - as the basis for parents, teachers and students - and community and cultural groups - really working together! Plans may include shared school-family-community goals such as the goal that all students become bilingual. In preparing a strategic plan that is made up of truly shared goals, good practices in schools include:
School councils and boards - and, of tremendous importance for the future, clusters of schools - may also develop their own Cultural and Social Inclusion Policy and Plan. Such a policy and plan is discussed on this website. Such policies can provide a broader, holistic framework for languages education - which is required to realise the vision of quality languages education for all students and in all schools. Their focus can be on local and global citizenship learning (as per the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians) and cultural inclusion and languages education.
Eventually, such partnerships, policies and plans may be a way to further build grass-roots momentum for languages education. A bottom-up campaign may also mean building greater awareness of the benefits of language learning as well as how cultural rights are an integral part of human rights and the right to education. Much more can also be made of a rights-based approach to education such as a Charter of Education Rights which included the powerful idea of culturally and linguistically inclusive education.
Capitalising on the interplay of its diverse linguistic and cultural environment and rich educational experiences, Australia has the potential to be a world leader in culturally inclusive pedagogy.
Language teachers covering scores of languages up to Year 12 level are at the forefront of a nation’s educational and cultural development. This is the case for two reasons:
A monolingual mindset along with a monocultural mindset obviously holds back the development of good pedagogy, which is, ultimately, an international cross-cultural synthesis. Such a synthesis may well emerge in Australia due to its deep tradition of multiculturalism. In turn, language educators can be among the architects of this pedagogical renewal.
Broad agreement about pedagogy
Many schools have tremendous skills in developing staff and whole school community agreement about pedagogy (even if the word ‘pedagogy’ is not always used to describe this work). Agreement around pedagogy emerges when staff and school community members jointly consider and develop things such as:
The power of talk
What Robin Alexander terms the 'pedagogy of the spoken word' and 'structured talk', which have a strong background in many European countries and which underpin good practice in languages education, provide possibilities for:
As all good language teachers know and have long been leaders of, Alexander notes that a student’s oral intervention (clearly audible, well-articulated and grammatically correct) together with intonation, changes of speed and facial expression are as important as the substance of learning. When this structured talk is working well and consistently in a classroom, students routinely talk to the class as a whole, read aloud, come out to the whiteboard, write on it and explain in detail and in depth what they are doing. Alexander thus suggests:
We need to “rethink and adjust the balance of writing and talk in the language curriculum; redress the balance of written and oral tasks and activities; and shift from random, brief interactions to sustained and longer ones” (2001).
A key challenge, therefore, is to better exploit the power of talk (as can be used well in language education) to improve learning outcomes for all students in all learning areas and to reinforce the strong correlation between oracy, literacy and numeracy. Such talk is not simply a matter of acquiring ‘communication skills’, as a subset of interpersonal or social skills, but rather embraces both deep knowledge and generic skills (skills that apply across a variety of jobs and life contexts).
Recognising the relevance of languages education to all learning areas and to all efforts to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes can help to move languages learning beyond its ‘add-on’ status in many educational settings. There is also the untapped potential of talk in computer-mediated communication: what some call a new form of oracy, one that is not speech and not writing but a hybrid fusion. Consider students’ text messages, wikis and e-mails; they can be closer to spoken language in real time than to standard written communication.
A catalyst for educational renewal
There needs to be more discussion and quality research about how languages learning can drive educational renewal across all learning areas, schools and even education systems. Indeed, languages learning is a powerful catalyst for educational change and improvement.
Culturally inclusive pedagogy also extends to the recognition that all languages are equally valid. It is thus important to counter wedge linguistics such as posing Asian against European languages. A modern, democratic, culturally and socially inclusive nation obviously values - and makes productive use of - all of its diversity.
Culturally - and socially - inclusive curricula
One other pedagogical issue will, no doubt, come to the fore. An inclusive curriculum and new, more unified student learning pathways challenge the old separation of students into academic and vocational, practical and technical tracks. But the study of language is still perceived by many students (and some teachers) as something solely for the academically ‘able’. This partly accounts for the paradox of many students of culturally and linguistically diverse background in socially and economically ‘disadvantaged’ areas not studying a language in the later years.
A culturally - and socially - inclusive language curriculum over time seamlessly combines deep academic knowledge and concepts with technical skills and applied learning. This is not just a matter of, for example, incorporating languages into vocational training programs. Rather, the curriculum is opened up to a wider range of students who may be streamed into narrowly academic and vocational and technical learning pathways, with deleterious consequences for the numbers of students choosing to study a language.
The very best language learning has always had both academic and practical, technical and applied components, including the use of a language in real contexts (e.g., community groups and organisations have often assisted in supporting real-world language experiences and interactions).
Moreover, across education, students increasingly favour their own personal blend of both deep academic knowledge and applied learning - challenging the old vocational, occupational and academic study pathways. Students also create their own pathways into and out of education and work. Some may begin with university and then attend a TAFE college, and vice versa.
Many teachers, reflecting on their own backgrounds as academic subject specialists disconnected from more applied learning, have led the way in developing an optimum mix of academic and applied learning and of deep knowledge and practical skills. This mix is readily embraced by many young people and is at the core of a 21st century curriculum. And language educators may well emerge as key leaders of this curriculum shift. Besides changes in content and pedagogy, this may also necessitate a campaign to better promote the combined academic and practical and vocational value of languages education.
The disconnect between universities, schools and school levels and systems obviously works against larger numbers of students undertaking certain languages by the time they reach Year 12. Likewise, students are often not able to continue the language they previously studied at primary school in their secondary school. These problems need to be addressed as a strategic priority. But there are no easy solutions with these challenges (given, in part, the paucity of resources and shortage of language teachers). Nonetheless, there are many allies (in schools and education departments and among stakeholder organisations including the Victorian School of Languages and community languages schools) who share the passion for a more coherent P-12 education.
Steps toward a unified P-12 approach
Research and practice in Victoria support the idea of a unified P-12 approach to curricula, with teams of teachers (including, over time, more language teachers) planning and integrating the curriculum from a P-12 perspective. Indeed, the very future of languages education and education broadly pivots on the gradual development of a coherent P-12 approach! A P-12 approach takes shape when primary and secondary schools work in clusters and networks toward a shared pedagogy and seamless curriculum. As Bill Stringer puts it:
“Two cultures dominate schooling: a primary culture and a secondary culture. Both have sound ideas about the ways for thinking about curriculum and learning in their schools but, when placed together, they make nonsense of the learning continuum with which each of their students is involved.”
While this is not true with many schools (that have long worked to blend primary and secondary school cultures and teaching methods), a continuum of learning and development (including from kindergarten through to university and college) is the next big thing. (For more information, see the P-12 education partnerships section on the website. This section distils the lessons from fifty schools).
A key indicator of P-12 curriculum planning is how well each year level builds on the learning of the previous level without major gaps in learning and without duplication. The use of ‘throughlines’ is an approach that can support the development of a curriculum across the P-12 spectrum. Gardner and others at Project Zero emphasise the importance of throughlines as a strategy to ensure that essential ideas, learnings and conceptual understandings are developed consistently.
High quality P-12 professional development programs will need to be created and implemented (and adequately resourced) to nurture a common P-12 languages education pedagogy and curriculum. As well, the better use of technology and distance learning can be a way to not only overcome the major problem of small numbers of students enrolled in certain languages but can also be a means for primary and secondary schools to collaboratively ‘pool’ students across the primary-secondary divide.
With the requisite resources, much more use can be made of video-conferencing technologies and online content. Through the optimum use of technology, schools that are unable to employ qualified teachers will be able to provide language education. All of these things are easier said than done, of course, but many structures to encourage shared curriculum planning between primary and secondary schools do already exist.
Collaborative and whole-of-community models
With adequate resources and support, clusters of schools provide powerful opportunities to coordinate languages education better across schools and other providers. It is useful to map this – to look at what is already in place and what else can be done to build a coherent P-12 approach to languages education and increase the effectiveness of the primary to secondary transition in clusters of schools.
Such mapping can assess what is 'do-able' in the shorter-term as well as what may be worked toward more strategically. This informs school clusters and networks as to which languages may be best organised collaboratively across a number of schools. Managing smaller clusters and the larger networks will become paramount. Clusters and networks can complement each other.
Clusters can be readily managed (with several primary schools and one or two secondary schools creating a language education alliance) and community-based. Being smaller than networks, clusters can help to maintain a diverse range of languages. Networks can create uniformity of language education. Positively, however, they can enable economies of scale across twenty or more schools, support the sharing of language teachers and build partnerships with agencies such as local government.
Indeed, with practical steps toward a whole-of-government and whole-of-community approach to cultural diversity and language education, over time local government and other agencies could play a pivotal role within the regional networks. This will be important - as schools and education systems alone cannot be expected to tackle all of the challenges of language education. With schools, regions and other agencies sharing a leadership role, there will be enhanced opportunities to:
In large part, this is obviously a matter of a smart, evidence-based policy framework and fully funded plans for languages education and increasing the number of language educators.
Adequate time for languages education in schools is obviously important. Students spending one or two hours per week learning a language can be insufficient and superficial. It is also a matter of new school building designs and infrastructure (including specialist language areas, hardware and high speed broadband) supporting language learning.
In some new school building designs, language learning and the culturally and socially inclusive pedagogy of the spoken word are not necessarily key considerations. This can reflect an old, culturally exclusive bias in school building design.
Language teachers have found that some ‘new’ facilities privilege private learning in front of a PC rather than enabling collaborative, ‘noisy’ learning that revolves around intense, structured talk that engages all students and scaffolds their learning.