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Language learning strategies across the curriculum: government policy and school practice

Vee Harris

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 6-9 September 2006

Address for Correspondence:
Vee Harris
Department for Educational Studies
Goldsmiths College
Lewisham Way
London SE14 6NW



This paper reports on one aspect of a project funded under the auspices of the Denis Lawton award by the Society for Educational Studies. Recent government concerns to raise pupils' academic achievement have resulted in a plethora of publications for Key Stage 3. These initiatives offer an opportunity to address the balkanised departmental structure typical of secondary schools. One of the aims of the project, carried out with students aged 12-13 years in two London schools, was to explore the impact on ML performance and motivation of encouraging students to transfer language learning strategies across English and ML. A further aim was to investigate the issues raised in the necessary cross-curricular collaboration. Whilst the quantitative data suggests that the project had a positive impact on pupils’ ML performance and motivation, its success in encouraging the transferability of strategies across English and Modern Languages was more limited. Field notes and interviews with teachers and students provide one possible explanation, highlighting the gap between the government’s ‘learning to learn’ agenda and the realities of implementing it. A bewildering array of recommendations hides genuine differences in the aims and objectives in the teaching of the two languages. These can only be resolved by providing teachers with the time to work through them together and by trusting their professional judgement to make the necessary adjustments to the curriculum: both are in short supply in the current educational climate.


Since it came to office in 1997, a keystone to New Labour education policy in England has been a determination to raise students' academic achievement with

improved literacy seen as the lynchpin to success. A year later, the National Literacy Strategy in primary schools was introduced (DfEE 1998). In spite of considerable debate (Bousted 2001, Hilton 2001) it was extended into Key Stage 3 (the 11-14 age group) through the Key Stage 3 Framework for Teaching English (DfES 2001a) and the Language Across the Curriculum (DfES 2001b) initiative. The Key Stage 3 National Strategy now includes similar frameworks of guidance for other curriculum subjects, setting out the skills and understandings to be taught to pupils over the three year period.

Recalling the Bullock report (1975), Literacy across the Curriculum (2003a) stresses that any literacy learning pupils undertake in their English lessons should be consolidated in other subject lessons and that there should be a common terminology as well as a common pedagogical approach across the curriculum. Following an Ofsted report (2004) that progress in some schools towards developing literacy across the curriculum remained slow and limited, a further publication, Literacy and Learning(2004) was issued, allocating particular priorities to be addressed by each subject.

A common theme underlying the various publications is that the teaching of grammar is a key element of success, with lists of grammatical objectives being a major feature of both the Framework for Teaching English (DfES 2001a) and the Framework for Teaching ML (DfES 2003b). The heightened emphasis on explicit grammar teaching is likely to increase the distrust between English and ML teachers, since previous studies (Mitchell, Hooper and Brumfit 1994; Pomphrey and Moger 1999) already indicate that one of the factors impeding cross-curricular collaboration is the divergent views they hold on the role of knowledge about grammar.

Alongside the grammatical objectives common to both KS3 Frameworks, there is an alternative context for cross-subject dialogue; one which is not reliant on rote learning of the rules governing a particular language but rather directed towards teaching students how to learn any language; on the process rather than the product. Table 1 provides two examples of basic language learning strategies common to the two Frameworks (Harris and Grenfell 2004).

Table 1: Common language learning strategies

English Framework

Pupils should be taught to:

ML Framework

Pupils should be taught to:



Identify words which pose a particular challenge and learn them by using mnemonics, multi-sensory

re-inforcement and by memorising critical features (p.23)

How to find and memorise the spelling, sound, meaning and main attributes of words (p.45)



Work out the meaning of unknown words using context, etymology, morphology, compound patterns and other qualities such as onomatopoeia


How to read and understand simple texts using cues in language, layout and context to aid understanding (p.51)

As yet, however, it is not clear if students or even their teachers understand this common ground. Nor is it clear what factors would facilitate or impede the necessary cross-curricular collaboration.

As early as 1994, Whitty et al warned that given prescribed subject-based objectives, teachers may be reluctant to find the time to address additional cross-curricular aims. The plethora of government policies in the last decade is only likely to have exacerbated the situation. Gereluk (2005, p. 8) notes that:

Collaboration requires time and effort amongst staff and a demanding curricular framework may overwhelm an already overworked teacher… The inflexibility of the curriculum may create a situation whereby teachers do not have time to collaborate or see the need to collaborate when every detail has been laid out.

The increasing importance attached to performance measures is a further constraint, teachers feeling a: ‘narrowing of focus in their work’ (Gewirtz 2002, p.80) and obliged to 'teach to the tests', skewing pupils' integrated knowledge about language (Frater 2000). Finally, the emphasis in many secondary schools on individual teaching in closed classrooms limits the opportunities for teachers to work with others outside

their subject departments (Hodkinson and Hodkinson 2005).

This paper explores the issues in relation to collaboration between ML and English teachers in the context of a project designed to investigate the impact of strategy instruction (SI) directed towards the transferability of learning strategies across the two languages. It does not discuss the findings from the perspective of cognitive psychology- this will be the subject of a separate paper. Rather the intention is that, although only dealing with two subjects in the curriculum, the lessons learned may be of value in revealing the complexity of collaboration across other subject areas.

Language Learning Strategies

The last three decades have seen a considerable growth of interest into how learners process the information and skills involved in learning language. Learning strategies are commonly defined as the skills, tactics and approaches which learners adopt in tackling their language learning. This research has taken place into both L1 learning (mother tongue) and L2 learning (second learning learning; either where the learners are living in the host country or where learners' exposure to the new language is in the classroom).

For L1 learning, the roots of strategy research lay in the 1960s and 70s in the development of cognitive psychology through the work of Bruner and others (Bruner et al. 1966; Flavell 1976). This perspective provoked a number of studies contrasting the learning strategies used by 'experts' with those used by 'novices' (see for example Palinscar and Brown's 1984 study on reading). Research into L2 learning also used as its starting point the notion of the so-called ‘Good Language Learner’ (Naiman et al 1978; Stern 1975) and listed the strategies which successful learners adopt. Subsequent studies consistently found that high attaining language learners have a wider repertoire of language learning strategies and use them more frequently than their less successful peers (O'Malley and Chamot 1990). Although the focus of much of the early L2 strategy research was on adult learners of English, more recent studies (Harris et al 2001; Macaro 2001; Grenfell and Harris 1999), have explored the strategies used by UK secondary school pupils to learn a modern language, revealing similar findings.

A major outcome of the research has been the debate over whether learners should be explicitly taught ‘how to learn’. Within L1 contexts, studies suggest that SI results in more effective learning and school achievement (Pressley et al 1995; Adey and Shayer 1994). In L2 learning contexts, McDonough’s review (1999) suggests similarly promising results, although the studies are mainly concerned with older learners learning English in the USA.

Harris and Grenfell (2004) highlight the similarities of L2 SI to the pedagogical principles underlying the Key Stage 3 Strategy outlined by Harrison (2002); for example both encourage pupils to 'activate their prior knowledge' and to 'reflect' on the learning process. Both also highlight the importance of extensive practice through collaborative pair and group work so that students learn to apply their knowledge to new learning contexts.

Since the Key Stage 3 National Strategy encourages students to reflect on their language learning in both English and ML classes, and there are learning strategies common to both, then it would be a wasted opportunity not to facilitate the transference of new understandings across the two arenas. Furthermore if it is essential to provide extensive practice in the deployment of strategies, it seems probable that having two contexts rather than one in which to use these approaches can only be beneficial.

No studies have been undertaken with British secondary school students learning a ML to examine the impact of SI directed towards the transferability of learning strategies. Similarly, whilst a number of L2 studies have suggested the difficulties ML teachers face in implementing learning strategy instruction (Chamot and Keatley 2003; Macaro 2001; Grenfell and Harris 1999; O’Malley and Chamot 1990) none have charted the issues raised when English and ML teachers embark collaboratively on the SI enterprise.


Project participants and school context

The investigation was quasi experimental in design using intact class groups. Two schools were involved, referred to as school A and school B. School A is a large, multi-ethnic, mixed, 11-18 comprehensive school in a working class area of South East London. School B is a small, mixed, 11-16 school, serving a population of mixed socio-economic status in a London suburb. In each school, two parallel Year 8 classes of 30 students learning French (a control and an experimental class) were selected, yielding a total sample of 120 students. Although there was a risk of contamination by having the control and experimental class in the same school, it had the advantage of maximising parity of socio-economic background. The experimental classes were taught by the two ML teachers working on the project. The control classes were taught by another experienced teacher in each ML department. Both the control and the experimental classes followed the ML scheme of work in each school but whereas the experimental class was exposed to explicit SI during their French lessons, the control class was not. For reasons outlined in Harris (forthcoming) and Harris and Prescott (2005), the skill areas selected for the SI were reading and listening strategies. Initial lessons focused on familiarising students with the strategies within the ML context. Ten of the subsequent ML lessons were specifically designed to encourage students to make the links to strategies they used or could use in English.

A major constraint of the project was that funding did not allow for the English teachers to be released from their timetables to work alongside their ML colleagues, who were released for between 3-6 hours a week. Hence although explicit reference to the transferability of the strategies was included in some English lessons, this was done on ad hoc basis. Time did not permit the necessary discussion and joint planning that would have allowed the lessons to run concurrently, mutually reinforcing each strategy taught. However, following the success of the main phase of the project, School A agreed to fund the English teacher to be released for one hour a week over the course of the following year. The intention was to improve the opportunities for cross-curricular collaboration. Unfortunately the English teacher secured a new post after one term and there was no suitable replacement. Although brief, the opportunity in the final phase for a more focused, systematic and complementary implementation of the SI provides a clearer understanding of the factors helping or hindering cross-curricular collaboration.

Research methods

A range of quantitative and qualitative research methods were used; those relevant to this paper are described below.


  • Pre and post intervention reading and listening tests in French were conducted to examine the impact of SI on ML performance.
  • A pre and post intervention attitude questionnaire was completed by both the experimental and the control classes. Scored on a 5 point Likert scale from 1 (‘strongly disagree’) to 5 (‘strongly agree’), it included two questions designed to investigate students’ perceptions of the transferability of strategies across ML and English: ‘learning French is different from all the other subjects in school’ and ‘I learned English OK so there is no reason why I should not learn another language’. Although open to interpretation, the intention was that by the end of the project, students in the experimental classes would be more likely than those in the control classes to see the similarities between learning ML and learning other subjects in the curriculum and to feel confident in their ability to acquire a new language.

  • A short ‘extra’ attitude post-intervention questionnaire was completed by the experimental classes. This asked, for example, whether the SI had helped them to see the links between the two languages and if they preferred ML activities which made the links to English or those focusing just on French.

  • Results from the questionnaires were subjected to statistical analysis using SPSS version 12XX.


    24 students of varying attainment levels in the experimental and control classes were selected as case studies. The selection was based on a combination of their ML test score the preceding year and their Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) verbal score, since the latter is considered the most reliable predictor of ML GCSE performance (NferNelson 2003). Pre and post intervention semi-structured interviews were conducted based on a card prompted task devised for the pilot study (Harris 2004) to discover the extent to which students transferred strategies across English and ML. Students were presented with 16 cards, each of which had a learning strategy written on it and a picture indicating the skill area. Their task was to assign each card to one of four brightly coloured plastic containers labelled:

  • I only use it for learning English;
  • I only use it for learning ML;
  • I use it for learning any language (whether English or ML);
  • I do not use it.
  • The interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed. Analysis employed a ‘grounded theory’ approach; extensive re-reading of the transcripts of both experimental and control classes; categorization; identification of significant similarities or differences in shifts in students’ perception of the transferability of strategies and of underlying themes.

    Prior to the start of the project, semi-structured interviews with two English teachers were conducted in School A (the larger school) and with the English teacher, who is also the KS3 co-ordinator, in school B. The card prompted task used with the students served the same purpose with the teachers. Additional questions were designed to explore possible issues raised in the implementation of the strategy instruction. Field notes recorded further informal conversations with the English teachers that took place over the course of the project. Semi-structured interviews with two English PGCE tutors at my own institution were conducted, again using the card format, at the start of the year along with informal discussions subsequently. A semi-structured interview took place with the English teacher involved in the final phase of the project just before she left the school, with a view to sharing her perceptions of the difficulties and benefits of the more systematic approach to cross-curricular SI. Interviews with the teachers and tutors were tape-recorded, transcribed and analysed with a view to identifying the most salient points.

    Although a review of government documentation was carried out at the beginning of the project, the final phase, where the ML and English teacher were both released, led to further scrutiny. Detailed field notes of half of the lessons in the two schools were completed either by myself or the teachers involved in the project. 7 ML and two English lessons were video-recorded.


    The main phase of the project

    Both the quantitative and the qualitative data suggest that whilst the project had a positive impact on pupils’ ML performance and motivation (Harris forthcoming; Harris 2006), its success was more limited in terms of encouraging the transferability of strategies across English and Modern Languages. One possible explanation appears to lie in the divergence of aims and objectives between the teaching of the two languages; a gap exacerbated by government policies and the lack of adequate release time for the necessary cross-curricular dialogue between the teachers.

    Government policy

    It had been hoped that a study of government guidelines would facilitate the task of the cross-curricular planning, necessary for the project. However it revealed not only a bewildering array of seemingly conflicting recommendations but also a failure to acknowledge both similarities and genuine differences between the two subject areas:

  • Although the KS3 Frameworks for the teaching of English and for ML each indicate when grammatical objectives and learning strategies are to be covered in terms of year and term, there is no overview of the common ground;
  • Whilst both Frameworks are divided into sections on Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, in the format of the Framework for Teaching English, Speaking and Listening appear to take a subordinate position to Reading and Writing and disappear altogether in the SATs tests themselves. The English Year 8 Speaking and Listening Bank provides some exemplification of teaching materials to support Listening. However the majority of objectives in the Framework suggest that, unlike in ML, it is viewed as one of the skills necessary for effective participation in group work rather than as a discrete skill requiring sustained listening to a continuous text, such as a radio broadcast;
  • The Government has published Literacy in Modern Foreign Languages (DfES 2002).There are no similar guidelines encouraging English teachers to explore the connections to ML;
  • Literacy across the Curriculum (DfES 2003a, p.5) exhorts schools to: ‘focus their energies on a small and memorable number of cross-curricular priorities in each year’. Although the suggested priorities for each year group include learning strategies, they also reveal the Government’s preoccupation with explicit knowledge of grammar. As a result, the priorities are both unconnected to each other and of a very different order. For example: Year 7 (p.6) includes: ‘use appropriate reading strategies to extract particular information’ alongside ‘recognise the cues to start a new paragraph’. How the senior management team are to: ‘identify which departments will be responsible for which objectives’ is unclear;
  • Literacy and Learning (DfES 2004) attempts to address the issue by allocating specific subjects to address particular priorities. However the proposals suggest a lack of detailed knowledge of the skills within the subjects. For example, Listening is not designated as a cross-curricular focus for ML. Yet it is a key source of input in the acquisition of any new language;
  • Although the KS3 Strategy advocates the use of pair and group work, the emphasis on whole class interaction in the KS3 English training materials may have led to a neglect of vital collaborative practice opportunities in the classroom. Edwards (2003, p.39) notes that:
  • The national curriculum, literacy and numeracy programmes and the high-stakes testing of their outcomes have tended to strengthen the framing of classroom discourse communication. With a great deal to get through, the pace of transmission is fast. This privileges the teacher’s talk.

    Small wonder then that the Ofsted review of the Secondary National Strategy (2005, p.1) suggests that:

    The quantity of information and guidance provided by the Strategy is now quite daunting and many schools would welcome a coherent re-statement of how the various parts fit together.

    The next section discusses teacher and student responses to the main and final phases of the project. It illuminates the complexities of creating an integrated experience of language learning, where ML and English teachers can share:

    some understanding of the approach taken by colleagues in the other language areas and have some vision of how the different aspects can come together to offer a coherent framework for learning (Turner and Turvey 2002, p.110)

    School practice: the potential value of collaboration

    At the start of the year, the English teachers responded enthusiastically to the aims of the project. They readily made the connections across languages when presented with the prompt cards, welcomed the potential for focussing on learning and found the discussions thought provoking. The teacher in school B, also the KS3 Strategy co-ordinator, comments in relation to strategies for supporting students in their speaking skills:

    That would be brilliant. That’s a fantastic one for English. Some kids they just clam up. We don’t teach them those speaking strategies but we should.

    The benefits appear mutual with the ML teacher concluding at the end of the discussion: ‘I find myself saying: "why haven’t we had this conversation before?"’. The potential of cross-curricular collaboration not only to foster a common approach to SI but also to improve pedagogic practice emerges from her field notes. One lesson, for example, required students to read a letter written in French by a World War One soldier and to identify particularly powerful expressions. The focus on relevant, meaningful content and on tasks such as those offered by English colleagues was clearly of value both to her and the students:

    It was really novel for me to actually talk about the mood of the author

    I guess the students are so used to Oui/ non, tick-box formats that they were at first a bit stunned by this one but then quickly got the idea and enjoyed it. Maybe we should try it again, as it required them to think beyond the language, itself unusual in ML.

    The responses of the students in the experimental classes to the ‘extra’ questionnaire suggest were also positive:

  • 76% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement : ‘learning new strategies has helped me see the links between English and French’, 15% were not sure and 9% either disagreed or strongly disagreed

  • 63% of students preferred: ‘doing activities which showed you the links to English’, as against 13% who preferred: ‘doing activities which just concentrated on French strategies’ and 24% who had no strong preference.
  • School practice: limited impact

    Although there is some indication of the potential value of the cross-curricular collaboration, its limited impact emerges from lesson field notes, responses to the attitude questionnaire and during the interviews. Field notes from one lesson suggest that students were unable to make the connections during their English lessons, unless the ML teacher was present. For example, the ML teacher in school A observed an English lesson, where students had to work out the meanings of words such as Aquamarine and Aquarius from their Latin and Greek roots and list other similar words. A previous ML lesson had also focused on the strategy of ‘looking out for the roots of words’. She comments:

    Students were quickly engaged and focussed. When I asked if they thought that they had done anything similar before Catherine initially said "no" but then said "yes" but was unsure where she had done the work. It was only when I produced the "Roots" worksheet that they remembered. Once the English teacher had explored the answers, she asked if they had ever done anything similar in other lessons. Linda immediately piped up: "yes Miss, in French!" She then asked why this might be a useful exercise to do and Kurtis answered: "If you don’t understand the meaning of a word, you can break it down and may be by understanding the root you will be able to work out the meaning of the word". All of a sudden connections were made!!!

    Whilst Kurtis’ answer is encouraging, it seems unlikely that he would have reached that point without a concrete reminder of the ML lesson.

    Results from the questions in the attitude questionnaire ( ‘Learning French is different from all the other subjects in school’ and ‘I learned English OK so there is no reason why I should not learn another language’) also suggest the limited impact on students’ ability to make connections across the languages. An independent samples t-test was conducted to compare differences between the scores for the control classes pre and post intervention to differences in the pre and post intervention scores of the experimental classes. There was no significant difference in the responses to either question. Similarly, analysis of the post intervention interviews revealed that any shifts in the perception of the transferability of strategies by students in the experimental classes were less marked than anticipated.

    Divergence in aims

    Both the interviews with the students and with the teachers suggest similar explanations for the limited impact of the project, highlighting the divergence in curricular aims and objectives between the two languages. In the pre and post intervention interviews, students in both the control and the experimental classes consistently claimed that: ‘we already know English’. Unlike their bilingual peers, the gap between their level of language and their parents’ has dwindled by Year 8, so that they are no longer faced with extensive exposure to unfamiliar language (Grenfell and Harris 2006). There was little sense of them perceiving a need to develop their command of the language. Christine, a high attainer in the experimental class, insists for example that: ‘we don’t do speaking in English’ and this in a school with a well established Language and Learning policy. Their experience of learning to read and write English in primary school seems to be too far removed for them to link it to their struggles as beginner learners of French. As Grant’s comment suggests, the gap widens as they move into secondary school: ‘when you first go to primary school, you learn about English and secondary’s school’s French’.

    The discussions with the English teachers and tutors suggest that government policies have done little to create a climate in which the divergence in curricular aims can be explored and resolved. Since only four teachers and two PGCE tutors were involved, clearly any conclusions must be very tentative. Furthermore, as an ML specialist, inevitably, my perceptions colour the discussion.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, students can neither understand nor speak French whereas they can do both in English (apart from students with English as an Additional Language). Thus, the main aim for ML teachers is to develop students’ ability to communicate in the language along with their cultural awareness. English teachers are not only concerned with the language but also socio-linguistics and language variation, literary analysis and linguistic effects in texts, media concepts and Drama. The gap between the two subjects widens as the English curriculum moves increasingly away from basic literacy and towards a more complex understanding of literature, style and the media. All of the English teachers stressed that one of their key aims was to develop students’ speaking skills. One teacher in school A notes for example that:

    they actually struggle to speak and write in different styles: for example year 10 for an advertising presentation may say "this target audience will really like this" rather than using "appeal to".

    This is a very different order of thinking however from ML where they simply struggle to express their meanings. Divergence in aims leads to pedagogical differences. Facilitating comprehension, for example, is an essential component in ML lessons if students are to acquire new vocabulary whether from spoken or written texts. It gets in the way, however, of the main purpose of English lessons, which may be for students to analyse the way a text is constructed, or to infer the feelings of the characters, or to formulate their own personal responses. Field notes of an English lesson in school B, based on reading a nineteenth century poem, indicate that faced with an unfamiliar word, students either ask their friend or the teacher or ignore it. Their strategies are thus very limited but do not appear to be explicitly extended by the teachers, who tend to provide explanations when asked. As the English teacher in the final phase of the project remarked, her role is: ‘a walking dictionary’. Although a well established approach to teaching Shakespeare is to focus not on areas of difficulty but on what can be inferred from the context (Gibson 1998) and Lewis and Wray (2000) also advocate the explicit teaching of inferring strategies, this may not always be possible given the pressures of covering prescribed curriculum objectives.

    The pressures are particularly apparent in relation to Listening. In ML, the emphasis is on Listening as a skill in its own right and on strategies to infer the meaning of new words from the context. For English teachers, however, the format of the Key Stage 3 English Framework encourages them to perceive listening skills primarily in terms of effective participation in group discussions. None of them had asked students to listen to a recording of the news and they only occasionally used video recordings. Stories or poems read in class were almost always supported by the written text. One of the English teachers in school A explained: ‘we may teach reading and writing strategies, but listening is at the bottom of our priorities’. Coles’ observations (2005, p.118) during an earlier research project conducted in the same school offer a possible explanation:

    Nearly every explicit reference to listening in the classroom was negative: for instance reprimands for being too noisy, or demands for silence, often followed closely by threats of detention. Teachers’ later comments to me suggested that they clearly felt pressurised by the weight of the curriculum material to get through and that the pursuit of ‘pace’ in individual lessons (a constant theme of the Literacy Strategy and of Ofsted) was a factor in this.

    The pressure to cover the objectives in the Framework may also result in the decontextualisation of SI. The English teacher in School B explained that strategies such as for spelling not covered in the Primary curriculum were built into the scheme of work as ‘starter’ activities:

    the starters are mapped out over every lesson and they are out of context but they are in order, basically you start at number one and end at number four. They’re not taught as and when it comes up, they’re taught only term one, term two, term three.

    Given that research indicates that strategies should be integrated into the scheme of work and need extensive practice, it appears unlikely that this approach will lead to their successful internalisation. As one of the English tutors pointed out, however, it may be that for some English teachers their perceptions of such practice are coloured by the type of mindless and mechanical drilling and chanting they associate with ML lessons. Such perceptions are likely to remain unchallenged without extensive dialogue.

    Finally, it appears that the preoccupation with grammar teaching evident in the Key Stage 3 English Framework, coupled with, in the words of one PGCE English tutor: ‘the strangling effect of the SATS’, may have had a number of unhelpful consequences in terms of potential collaboration. First it has required considerable revision to English schemes of work. As anticipated, this has limited the time available for cross-curricular collaboration. Second, it may encourage English teachers to perceive strategies for memorising spellings and checking written work as the greatest areas of commonality between English and ML, resulting in a possible mismatch between the skill areas identified by English teachers and ML teachers as the most appropriate for transfer. As one English teacher in school A commented when the aims of the project were explained to her:

    Anything, anything that can help the students have more of a detailed focus if you like on how languages work and use some of their strategies to improve their spelling, to improve their ability to write in Standard English and the way that they approach reading unseen texts, I think it would be very helpful.

    Memorisation strategies and strategies for checking written work do have the value of being more under conscious control than speaking and listening strategies, since students have time to reflect and are not faced with the demands of ‘on line’ processing. Within ML however, learning to make sense of the ‘input’ whether from reading or listening texts is indispensable for successful language acquisition. Thus discussion is essential to identify possible skill areas that both English and ML teachers can agree on.

    The final phase of the project, although brief, provided some limited opportunities for such a dialogue and revealed the processes teachers have to work their way through in order to arrive at a shared, complementary approach to SI directed towards the transferability of strategies.

    Final phase of the project

    Although it was not possible to collect extensive data from this phase, field notes and the interview with the English teacher suggest that it was more successful than the SI delivered uniquely through ML lessons. The English teacher notes how her approach has changed from being: ‘a walking dictionary’. Now:

    I help the kids work it out for themselves using the strategies, I mean making it explicit. And thinking about that, you know, once you’re used to that, that method of doing it, it definitely changes your methodology.

    She felt that she had gained much from the ML teacher’s ability to understand and predict students’ likely difficulties and to simplify her approach accordingly. She also noted that students:

    were much much more receptive to taped conversation. Um I think that works really well, that almost puts them in the right mood for listening. And they seemed to make the links to what they had been doing in French really well.

    However a note of caution has to be sounded since because of the ML teacher’s greater experience in SI and the fact that she had more release time, the planning was ‘ML led’. Indeed the English teacher notes that it was: ‘like going back to being a trainee teacher’, particularly since her PGCE training had not included training in listening skills, other than as part of participation in group work. The extent to which the dialogue between the two teachers truly reflects the kind of equal relationship involved in cross-curricular collaboration is therefore questionable. Nevertheless it highlights the complexity of issues raised in cross-curricular planning; issues that can only be resolved by acknowledging them openly and working together to reach a solution. The steps in the planning process are summarised below in relation to the listening SI undertaken in the final phase of the project. Recognising students’ limited skills in this area, the English teacher in school A was keen that this should be the focus of the SI.

    1. Shared scrutiny of the frameworks. This was necessary to uncover differences that underlie what initially appear to be common listening strategies. The English objective: ‘listen for and recall main points of a talk, programme’ (2001a,p.24) provides an example. Whereas in ML, a possible activity might be to listen to a tape of French students talking about their pets and pick out the main facts, in English, when listening to poems about animals, the aim might be to comment on the effectiveness of the adjectives used;

    2. Sharing their understandings of the difficulties students encounter with such listening activities in each of the languages. In her field notes, the ML teacher comments that:

    ML teachers are aware of what kids won’t understand in listening but my English colleague seems to be more aware of reading problems, possibly because English teachers are so used to working with dyslexic students.

    3. Reaching a common terminology. In spite of government exhortations, ML teachers continue to refer to ‘brain storming’ and ‘checking written work’, for example, whereas English teachers use ‘mind mapping’ and ‘redrafting’;

    4. Discussing each others’ schemes of work. Although the scheme of work provides an overall indication of what is being covered, the detail of how it is covered involves extensive discussion about pedagogical approaches;

    5. Identifying the order in which they will approach the strategies, so that the lessons can run concurrently, mutually reinforcing each strategy taught. This may raise tensions since the most logical order in each language might be different. For example, ‘identifying cognates and the main ideas’ may render the ML listening text more comprehensible, but may be unnecessary in English. A further complication is that some topics and texts in each scheme of work lend themselves better to certain strategies than others;

    6. etailed planning of each lesson. Having reached an overview of when the strategies can be taught, the sixth step involves the detailed planning of each lesson. This required the ML teacher to share her understanding of the steps of SI so that they could be built into the planning process. Even so whilst the more experienced ML teacher was readily able to integrate the SI into her lessons, the English teacher understandably initially struggled to do so. She chose to begin the SI with ‘stand alone’ lessons using material unrelated to the scheme of work but she observed that:

    once the novelty had worn off, they switched off a bit. I think it was because they couldn’t see why they were doing it. But it worked much better when I linked it in to the book we were covering and they could see the direct relevance of the strategies to the topic.

    Such integration into schemes of work presents potential difficulties for the Senior Management Team. Although ‘generic’, ‘stand alone’ lessons seem less relevant to students, they are easier to build in and do not disrupt the scheme of work. Thus the tight departmental consistency necessary to ‘deliver’ government policies can be adhered to. Conversely, full integration into the scheme of work whilst likely to be more motivating, may entail altering the order in which topics are covered, so that the SI can be matched across the two languages. The current educational climate is unlikely to foster a sense in which teachers feel free to exert their judgement autonomously (Biesta 2005).

    Detailed planning of this nature cannot be successfully accomplished without providing teachers with adequate release time from their timetable. Whilst both schools in the study have well-established cross-curricular language policies, regular, timetabled opportunities for dialogue are rarely made available.As one of the teachers in school A expressed it:

    the Senior Management Team are not really interested in cross-curricular collaboration for educational reasons but because it ‘ticks the right boxes’ for DfES and Training School funding. We need proper SMT support, not just lip service, in order to give proper release time.

    Her observation may relate to Hodkinson and Hodkinson’s study (2005). This suggests that where resources for professional development activities are available, they usually have to be tied to government or institutional priorities or demonstrate that they will contribute directly and immediately to improvement in students’ learning as measured by test scores.


    Mitchell et al’s study (1994) discovered widely differing views, objectives and practices embedded in ML and English teachers` understandings of knowledge about language and related pedagogical practice. A decade and a plethora of government initiatives later, the isolation of subject areas persists with a noticeable lack of dialogue and common theoretical framework. The Key Stage 3 Strategy coupled with the increasing emphasis on performance measures appears to have exacerbated the problem, providing little flexibility in the curriculum and little time for cross-curricular collaboration. There is certainly room for improvement in terms of government guidelines across the various publications so that the divergence in curricular aims and pedagogical practice is acknowledged rather than masked. However, this alone is unlikely to bring about any radical change unless the Government also recognises the time and work involved in revising schemes of work and creating appropriate teaching materials. The context in which each school and its teachers are working is unique. Measures that are imposed ‘top down’ cannot by-pass the need for adequate release time to allow teachers to work together to find the common ground and to devise teaching approaches and materials that are appropriate for their students in their school. Just as students need time to learn how to learn, teachers need time to learn how to help them. Only by uncovering and working through the differences are ML and English teachers likely to present a coherent and complementary view of the language learning process .Such collaboration requires a willingness to trust teachers to work together constructively and to reach professional judgements.


    This project would not have been possible without the dedication, commitment and imagination of the two teachers involved: Jennie Prescott (Deptford Green School) and Kate Scappaticci (St. Thomas More School). I would also like to thank Sue Pritchard, John Jessel, Margaret Hancock and Michael Babula for their help with the statistical analyses.


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    This document was added to the Education-Line database on 07 February 2007