Arousing an interest in school students for the take up of "new" languages at university: the ATLAS project

Authors: Jane Hughes, Terry King and Claire McAvinia


This presentation will report on the experience of designing and piloting a website which offers an introduction to the culture and language of five less taught languages to 14-19 year olds in nine partner schools in London and the South East. It is part of the work of the ATLAS project (A Taste of Languages in School), jointly funded by the Nuffield Foundation, CfBT and UCL, addressing the decline in numbers of students taking languages at university. The project aims to arouse an interest in language study and to spur consideration of study opportunities at university, especially ab initio courses in languages not studied at school. A survey of students' attitudes towards learning languages explored the reasons for discontinuing the study of languages after the compulsory stage and also investigated students' tastes in websites. It revealed there is much interest in learning 'new' languages.

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Table of contents

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

1. Context

The project began in October 2002 in the context of the dramatic decline in numbers studying languages at A level and proceeding to university, particularly in the less widely taught (LWT) languages. In 2001, accepted applicants for Modern Foreign Language (MFL) degrees was 2.4% of university applicants, for LWT languages 1.1% (Kelly & Jones, 2003). Applications for Russian had fallen by 62% since 1994 (Robey, 2002). Yet, where "ab initio" courses were running in universities, they were successful (Bowker, 2003).

2. Methodology

The project aimed to engage students in considering studying languages not previously available for study. The project would use questionnaires and focus groups to explore students' attitudes and experiences of language learning, and use the results to design web tasters for five LWT languages promoted in nine state partner schools.

The survey covered students' language backgrounds, past history of language study, attitudes towards, and experience of, language learning, tastes in web sites, knowledge of employability and of courses in LWT languages at university.

3. Survey results

687 students, aged 14 19, responded, creating a rich data set, (King 2003). Here is a selection.

Intention to continue language study from GCS to AS level



Don't know

Year 10




Year 11




The survey was conducted early in the academic year (November). Experience in the GCSE year 10 appears to be critical.

Factors influencing choice about continuing to study a language post GCSE


% of references

Relevance, or lack of relevance, to future career plans


Success/failure in study


Lack of enjoyment


Lack of interest




Comparison with other subjects


Other reasons


Since most students in years 10 and 11 will not have decided on their career, there is a rationalisation here. Languages will not form part of their thinking in choosing a career, having been eliminated because of some of the other factors.

Only 23% agreed that "As English is a world language, there is little point in learning another", made up mostly of pupils who saw themselves as not good at learning languages. The attitude may be a rationalization for failure, the causes of which lie elsewhere.

Reasons for disaffection lie in the process of learning (only 40% liked the teaching methods in the GCSE years) and the students' poor self-esteem as regards learning of languages. While some of the concerns are to do with policy and provision, most relate to pedagogy e.g.

  • Low self esteem as regards achieved competence in languages,
  • The difficulty of language learning compared to other subjects,
  • The "jump" between GCSE and A level,
  • Fear of a similar "jump" deterring language study take-up at university,
  • Lack of enjoyment,
  • Teaching methods (too little oral, too little contact with real speakers, too little use of IT, too many photocopied worksheets),
  • Too much testing,

However there were positive attitudes towards the idea of language learning. Learning languages "widens your horizons" (81%) and is "important" (75%). Pupils would like to "meet people in another country through learning a language" (73%) and "want to do well in learning languages" (72%). 40% said they would be interested in studying a new language at university.

4. Development of the web tasters

The survey gave useful information on how to design the tasters. (For details see Hughes, King and McAvinia, 2004). The main conclusions were

  • visuals aspects of web pages carry important subliminal messages
  • pupils are sensitive to being patronised by content (e.g. childish cartoons) and design (e.g. garish colours)
  • they are developing web literacy skills also important (e.g. as they tend to scan pages for information, small blocks of text, clearly headlined are successful.

Teachers, the project team and students, collaborated in the creation of web-based tasters in five language, Czech, Danish, Portuguese, Polish and Russian (see ATLAS 2004). Feedback on the impact of the site was encouraging.

Asked if, after exploring the ATLAS site, they were more likely to consider learning a new language in the future, 36% agreed that they were and 41% said they were now more interested in the countries concerned.

The responses to the question "What did you get out of using the ATLAS site?" are generalised below:

As % of references

A desire to learn more about languages


A desire for more cultural knowledge


Preparation for future career


Desire to travel


Help with language learning




Language and cultural awareness are appreciated by students, in contrast to the largely transactional content of GCSE courses, which most students find unsatisfactory.

5. Conclusions

Interest in learning languages, especially fresh start ones, can be aroused if the content and delivery take into account the enthusiasms of the users. LWT languages departments need to collaborate with schools, particularly language colleges.

There is encouragement for all language teachers. Secondary school students show an underlying goodwill towards language learning in principle. What needs to be urgently reviewed is the practice. If we can get that right then maybe the "new landscape" will provide the longed-for wider horizons.

The ATLAS project is funded by the CfBT Research and Development, the Nuffield Foundation and UCL.


Bowker, D. (2003). Interim report on a research project on ab initio degrees in Scotland. (

Hughes, J., King, J.T. and McAvinia, C. (2004) What Really Makes Students Like a Web Site? What are the Implications for Designing Web-based Language Learning Sites? ReCALL Vol 16 Part 1 , Cambridge University

Kelly, M. & Jones, D. (2003). A New Landscape for Languages . London : The Nuffield Foundation.

King, J.T. (2003). Interim report on the ATLAS survey, (

Robey, D. (2002). Report based on UCAS statistics. (

Related links

ATLAS 2004