Barrier cartoon

We must be prepared to start from where learners actually are, not from where we would like them to be.


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Understanding barriers

Some common barriers

The importance of phonics

Motivation, behaviour & learning

Workshops 2-6
(responding to barriers faced by learners with various special needs)

Some barriers arise because students lack basic skills that MFL teachers tend to take for granted, assuming that students have already acquired them. If teachers then fail to identify and remedy such deficiencies, new learning is likely to be ineffective. Two examples:

1. In a school in where the MFL department was keen to improve reading skills in French with S4 learners (15/16 yrs) learners, a teacher from the pupil support department was brought in to work with a small number of pupils who were struggling. After a term working on reading skills, the pupils in the small group were still displaying reluctance to use a dictionary to help them interpret the text. The teachers decided to look specifically at dictionary skills, beginning with familiarity with the alphabet, alphabetic sequencing, use of headwords, etc. These proved to be problematical for most in the group, so the second term was spent on exercises to strengthen these skills. As a result, the pupils' scores for in reading improved and their results in the Reading paper at the end of the session exceeded all expectations. The MFL department is currently engaged in embedding dictionary skills in all language programmes.

The teacher has since written up this experience as a case study for publication, and the story was picked up by the Times Educational Supplement. Links to these are given below.

2. In an S1 class (12/13 yrs) learning to tell the time in French, one girl stood out from the rest. Her hand was always up, her answers were confident and her accent impeccable. Unfortunately the answers she gave bore no relation to the time shown on the clock face the teacher was using for practice. The teacher subsequently discovered that the girl had been very ill when she was younger and had missed the lessons when the rest of the class learned to tell the time. As a result, she was unable to tell the time in English. A few sessions with the learning support teacher remedied the situation, enabling the girl to acquire an important life skill, as well as to improve her performance in French.

The discovery that students lack basic skills can be frustrating; bemoaning their lack is understandable, but professionalism requires that teachers initiate action to recover the situation. Sometimes, as in the above examples, deficiencies can be relatively quickly remedied. Others, such as a general lack of language awareness, may require more long-term support.

Some deficiencies in prior learning occur quite frequently and can present formidable obstacles. Prerequisite skills or knowledge may need to be taught explicitly, in the mother tongue, so that learners can master the skills and then make progress in the foreign language.

Common deficiencies

• Insecure understanding of analogue and/or digital time formats.
• Only a vague understanding of sound-symbol correspondence.
• Lack of familiarity with alphabetic order beyond the ability to 'rattle off' the alphabet.
• No knowledge of dictionary conventions.
• Lack of social skills needed to work effectively alone or in a group.
• No experience of learning 'by heart', or other learning strategies.

Where such deficiencies are common, the missing skills need to be taught in class. Support staff may be able to help, but the responsibility lies with the class teacher. Either way, the advantage of teaching these skills in the foreign language class is that they will be taught in a context that can be immediately practised, and progress can be evaluated alongside progress in target language skills.

Related link: The importance of teaching phonics

Please see note on copyright

A copy of the above in pdf format
Download Prerequisite skills

See Lynn Erler's article: 'Near-beginner learners of French are reading at a disability level' in the ALL Journal Francophonie (No. 30, Autumn 2004, pp9-15). Reproduced here with permission. And look out for Sounds and Words - Supporting language learning through phonics by Julie Prince and Lynn Erler, to be published by CILT autumn 2010 (ISBN 978 1 904243 92 2)
Download article

Thanks to ALL and Llewelin Siddons for permission to make available here some extracts from the author's article 'Practical reflections on the sound/spelling link'. The complete article was published in Francophonie, Spring 2001, No 23, pages 10-14. Download article



[Links were last checked on 11.3.11 unless otherwise indicated.]


Working together for inclusion. Claire Bleasdale. Scottish Languages Review, ISSUE 14, 1.8.06

Learn to love languages. Times Educational Supplement. Issue 5.1.07

Dictionary skills A very helpful download from the Easy Learning Resources section of Collins website. Intended as a guide to using their Easy Learning French Dictionary, it contains lots of useful advice.

[7.8.11] Basic dictionary skills
Oxford University Press also offers downloadable materials to support their First Learners' French Dictionary

Telling the time An annotated lists of websites for learning how to and practising telling time (in English, mainly – but that's a start)

Progression through high frequency words. Valerie Thornber. Scottish Languages Review, ISSUE 14, 1.8.06
The author talks about the need to explicitly teach the small high-frequency words that we assume learners will pick up – but often don't.

[23.9.11] Dictionary skills
The Times Educational Secondary MFL Dictionary and Reference Skills collection covers French, German and Spanish, and includes some of the best resources for developing dictionary skills with S1-3 learners.


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