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Languages at primary school

Learning a foreign language at school

Children tend to really enjoy learning a new language at primary school. Most language-learning techniques are great fun, and children get a real sense of achievement from mastering and using new key phrases!

The 2014 Primary National Curriculum once again made learning a foreign language compulsory at Key Stage 2 (Years 3 to 6). Schools are free to choose whether to teach an ancient or a modern language; it is much more about language learning skills than the particular language on offer. Your child could therefore learn French, Spanish, Mandarin, German, Arabic or even Latin — the choices are endless! However, once your child begins secondary school the teaching of a modern foreign language is compulsory.

By studying a foreign language, children are given the opportunity not only to learn about other cultures but, more importantly, to communicate with others too. It is also a thoroughly enjoyable subject to learn, with less emphasis on the written word and more on practical tasks, such as drama, story-telling, role-play, speaking and listening.

The languages curriculum in primary schools in England

Key Stage 1

Even though learning a language is only compulsory from Year 3 upwards, there is no reason why a school may not choose to introduce some informal learning in the years before this. Some schools use singing or simple story-telling, and there are even nurseries who teach counting, colours and greetings in a foreign language.

Key Stage 2

All children in Key Stage 2 are expected to be given opportunities to learn how to:

  • communicate orally
  • share their ideas and feelings using speech
  • compare their use of English grammar and spelling to another language
  • express some ideas in writing

The curriculum no longer sets out topics or units of work to cover; instead it outlines what children should be taught under more general headings. Some of these include:

  • Listening to a language and joining in to learn everyday words and phrases
  • Learning how to have conversations in another language to share ideas and opinions as well as being able to ask and answer questions
  • Reading texts and stories in another language, carrying out basic comprehension tasks
  • Learning songs, poems, rhymes and stories in another language to help with vocabulary but also with cultural understanding
  • Writing some words and phrases from memory as well as describing people and places with basic sentences

Each school is free to teach this content however it chooses but most will choose a range of everyday and routine topics such as numbers, colours, greetings, family, animals, school, travel, or other similar subjects that seem appropriate. Year 3 can often be the first time a child will learn a foreign language and in this year group they might just use speech and limited written tasks to learn the basics. As they move up from Year 3 children will see much more of the written language and build on their early skills, allowing them to speak, write and listen with much more skill.

The languages curriculum in primary schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

  • For the Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes for languages, including literacy and Gàidhlig, Gaelic (learners), modern languages and classical languages in Scotland visit Education Scotland.
  • Details about languages in the national curriculum for Wales can be found on the Learning Wales website.
  • In Northern Ireland, languages are included within the Language and Literacy area of learning. Visit CCEA for more details.

How can I support my child with languages?

The foreign language learning your child experiences at school should be more than enough to set them on their way. However, you might like to support their learning at home by trying some of the following:

1. Take an interest, and learn with your child

Learn alongside them: find out the language they are learning and get them to teach you some key words and phrases. They might like to make a simple poster illustrating key words and phrases, or use sticky notes to label everyday objects in a foreign language. Another good idea is to create a ‘new words’ dictionary for them to record all the new things that they have been learning. You may want to invest in a bilingual dictionary for them to look up further words — there are a great many ‘child-friendly’ versions of these available.

2. Make it multimedia

Why not find books, films or songs in the language they’re learning? These can be a wonderful way to learn a language without even realising it. Early-readers or lift-the-flap books are brilliant for learning a new language. The Internet is perfect for bringing some cultural learning into your home, allowing as it does access to videos, radio/audio and images from all around the globe. It has never been easier to expand your child’s horizons. There are also many games accessible on line (many of which are free) to help engage your child at home as well as websites (listed below) that include games, eBooks and links to other foreign language sites too.

3. Take a trip

If you are lucky enough, perhaps you might like to plan a family holiday to a country where the language is spoken. This is not always possible for many families, but any way for your child to meet native speakers can be a wonderful experience. Alternatively, there’s always the good old-fashioned pen-friend option!

4. Make it fun

Above all, make any additional language learning you do at home fun, practical and supportive. Learning a new language can be a little daunting at first but with the help of parents and schools, it needn’t be the case. Even playing simple games (such as 'Snap', 'Guess Who', 'Snakes and Ladders') and adding an element of a foreign language (such as counting, colours or even just answering yes and no) could be a wonderful aid.

Further support and useful weblinks

A good way to help your child is to use some of the online resources that are available. Your school may have access to some of those that require payment (e.g Linguascope) so do ask for login details if you haven’t already been given them. Other ‘free’ places to look include:




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