Research Case Study

Impact: Shaping foreign language learning and teaching in primary schools

image of children in classroom with hands up

Professor Florence Myles has created and led a network of researchers and teachers to help implement the UK Government’s ambitious plan to introduce compulsory foreign language teaching in primary schools in England.


The Research in Primary Languages (RiPL) network is providing support for teachers, teacher educators, policy makers and researchers to work together towards a national strategy for language teaching in primary schools which is research-informed and meets the needs of both pupils and teachers.

What was the challenge?

The teaching and learning of foreign languages in English primary schools became a compulsory part of the curriculum for all children at Key Stage 2 in 2014. But the lack of guidelines for the new policy, as well as the lack of training/upskilling provision for primary teachers with no experience of language teaching, created many challenges for schools. Additionally, the lack of understanding of how children of primary school age learn languages and what motivates them, made for a sector ill-prepared to deliver the new national policy, and it also led to patchy and non-inclusive implementation in schools across the country.

What did we do?

Professor Florence Myles in the Department of Language and Linguistics has been investigating how children of different ages learn foreign languages. She found that younger children were highly motivated but made slower progress in terms of language learning, especially grammar, and that their cognitive and emotional development during middle childhood affected their motivational profile and their learning behaviour. Professor Myles’ research also showed that adequate and age-appropriate classroom time and activities were crucial to foster children’s language development.

In order to develop a strategy for the implementation of the new policy, Professor Myles invited all major stakeholders to a Primary Languages Policy Summit to discuss research findings. This led to a White Paper for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Modern Languages evaluating the current state of primary languages education, outlining challenges faced by the profession, and proposing 10 research-informed recommendations to policy makers and practitioners. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Modern Languages have used this paper as a resource in its National Recovery Programme for Languages.

Professor Myles, together with colleagues from the Universities of Southampton and Reading (Dr Allison Porter, Professor Suzanne Graham), produced a three-week interactive Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Teaching Languages in Primary Schools: Putting Research into Practice. This course is based on their research, for example Professor Myles’ research on how young children learn languages, and what activities motivate this age group, what progression can be achieved at this age, or how to introduce increasingly complex language. The first MOOC run in July 2020 and attracted almost 5,000 participants from 140 countries with excellent feedback showing the course had changed the thinking and practice of many participants.

As Chair of the RiPL network, Professor Myles was appointed by the Oak National Academy to help with the development of online lessons for French and Spanish as part of a national response to COVID 19. This involvement brought evidence-led modern foreign language teaching to a wide audience of pupils and primary school teachers.

What have we changed?

Through the activities mentioned above and its website, the RiPL network has changed the practice of teachers and teacher educators. It is central to foreign language learning in primary schools, unique in championing combined stakeholder support for researchers, practitioners, policy makers and teacher educators and acts as a conduit for policy and practice debate and change, challenging and contributing to debates on government policy. The events and the website are key to joining up support for primary languages practitioners in England.

The summaries of research and reviews of sub-fields written by Professor Myles and her team are used by teachers, teacher trainers, journalists, policy makers and are reshaping thinking and training by making research evidence readily available to practitioners.

The range of resources it provides is being used extensively by both primary teachers and teacher-educators.

Research Team