LATCOF: Lessons from a secondary/sixth-form - HE consultative forum for language teachers

Authors: Jocelyn Wyburd, Elinor Chicken and John Doherty


The University of Manchester has hosted a forum for dialogue between tertiary and secondary language teachers to share pedagogic and curricular experiences and realities with the aim of facilitating student progression and bridging the secondary-tertiary 'gaps'. Participants have been surveyed to assess the impact of the dialogue process on them and their practice and to start to identify issues of broader relevance to the sector as a whole. This paper reports the experience of participants and responses to the survey.

This article was added to our website on 11/01/05 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. LATCOF: an introduction

The Language Teachers' Consultative Forum (LATCOF) is a monthly meeting point at the University of Manchester, for HE and secondary/Sixth-Form language teachers. Through dialogue on primarily pedagogic issues, participants have sought to gain greater understanding of each others' contexts and practices, identifying the 'gap' between the secondary and tertiary student experiences and seeking to bridge it.

Secondary participants represent both state and independent 11-16 and 11-18 schools and sixth-form colleges. HE participants include academics in language-related disciplines interested in language teaching and dedicated language teachers delivering courses within language degrees or the Institution-Wide Language Programme. Information about all participants, meetings and activities are on the LATCOF website.

The first agenda of discussion themes was generated from an initial brainstorm of beliefs about practice in each others' sectors at the inaugural LATCOF meeting. The ensuing discussion demonstrated both gulfs of understanding and shared concerns (eg grammar-teaching and target language use). In March 2004 participants were surveyed formally to identify benefits derived from the initiative, the extent of resultant impact on practice and participants' views about the secondary-tertiary gap(s) for learners. The following summary is derived from the 13 responses received, of which 5 were from the secondary sector.

2. Impact on cross-sectoral awareness

Secondary participants, whose preconceptions were based on their own student experience, were struck by the current realities in HE, particularly large group sizes and levels of absenteeism which disrupt continuity. They were also familiar with challenges in HE in terms of the ranges of student language competence and study skills. One secondary respondent said: "lecturers have low opinions of their students' ability, but they only get our best - who is failing? and why?". Yet responses also indicated high respect for the pedagogic drive of HE colleagues, with a realisation that much "real teaching" takes place to inculcate high academic standards. Secondary respondents were also impressed by the wide variety of stimulating, motivational and intellectually tempting courses now offered at University.

Similarly, HE colleagues reported raised awareness of the challenges faced by secondary language teachers and their professionalism but were particularly struck by the perceived straightjacket of exam requirements. This they now hold responsible for the utilitarian, assessment-driven attitudes of students, and the constraints on creative sixth-form teachers no longer enabled to inspire beyond the syllabus or to develop their students as independent learners. The result is understanding replacing criticism of secondary teachers for being increasingly compelled to 'spoonfeed' in order to deliver results. HE respondents also reported new awareness of secondary pupils' workload due to the constant round of examinations while a better understanding of exam requirements had led to a re-evaluation of skills that can be expected of post A level HE entrant.

Some myths had evidently been dispelled, while levels of mutual respect for practice and professionalism had been raised by the process. It was also fundamentally the same issues which exercised participants in both sectors: grammar teaching, the use of the target language, how to integrate language learning activities, optimal use of ICT and independent learning.

3. Impact on behaviours

Cross-fertilisation of teaching techniques both within and across sectors was reported, including secondary teachers experimenting with peer assessment, IT-assisted vocabulary learning tools, websites and software recommendations. Respondents reported new approaches to target language use and grammar teaching. Some secondary teachers had stressed to their pupils the importance of independent learning and research methods to prepare for university study, while some in HE reported adapting their communication with and expectations of students in light of greater understanding of prior learning experiences and contexts. Refreshed enthusiasm engendered by meetings and material and ideas disseminated to colleagues were widely reported.

The impact of LATCOF after only 18 months is understandably greater in terms of consciousness-raising than in terms of changed behaviours. It is clear the next phase will need to include discussion of implementation of measures informed by insights thus gained.

4. Gaps to be bridged

In terms of the secondary-tertiary gaps LATCOF respondents felt that students find HE language learning difficult for reasons including the move from small to large teaching groups. AS/A2 courses were identified as content- and assessment-driven, resulting in strong direction by teachers, with little time for real intellectual or cultural development. They note how students develop an approach informed by "how to gain max marks" rather than the independent learning skills required in the HE context. Their inability to cope with the unexpected in HE was blamed on a lack of problem-solving and intellectually challenging activities incorporated into language teaching at all levels. One HE respondent noted that students "no longer . seem to have the habit of learning (eg vocab)". Respondents from both sides noted that much grammatical knowledge, while ostensibly covered in AS/A2 is not well rooted or equipping students to move to higher levels of subtlety. They highlighted the need for coherent approaches ("singing from the same hymn sheet") across the sectors to the teaching of grammar - including use of meta-language. Problems were seen as rooted also in the transactional, topic-based but culturally deficient GCSE syllabus based on successful communication to the detriment of accuracy and grammar.

Developments in terms of the National Literacy Strategy, Key Stage (KS)2 Framework for Modern Languages and national KS3 Strategy were welcomed for introducing approaches designed to develop thinking skills and independent learning and for putting grammar back on the menu.

Respondents' suggestions to help bridge these gaps included identifying the need for a common strategy e.g. in terms of grammar teaching, from KS2 to University level. They also recommended that language curricula be made more relevant to students' own life experiences, more intellectually challenging (in line with other curriculum areas), and incroporating problem solving and independent learning skills.

5. Conclusions

Initial conclusions are that participants recommend and value the experience highly, particularly the time afforded for reflection on their practice. It has highlighted frustrations about the constraints of curricula and assessment methods, particularly in the secondary sector, and the negative impact of these on the motivation, language awareness and learning skills of students. Real challenges for the sector include the achievement of 'joined-up' thinking, based on research, applied to national strategies for curriculum progression from primary through to tertiary levels. This needs to be reflected particularly in how grammar is taught in all sectors, requiring degrees of consistency and the exploration of innovative approaches.


Armstrong, A. and Wyburd, J. (2004). HE initiatives with secondary school partners: Multiple strands of activity to benefit us all? CiLT Higher 9 (in press).

Related links

The LATCOF website, containing notes of meetings and programmes

The National Literacy Strategy

Key Stage 2 Framework for Modern Languages

Key Stage 3 National Strategy

The DfES Working Group on 14-19 Reform