“I make it work”: Access to language study in primary schools

Year: 2019

Author: Chen, Honglin

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The uptake of languages studies in Australia is in decline. Differences in access to languages play out the most in primary schools as studying a language in primary school is not mandated in most Australian states. While only 18% of primary school students in NSW study a language other than English, some programs thrive and many struggle to retain students (Chen & Nordstrom, 2018; Cruickshank & Wright, 2016). Many language programs in primary schools are largely delivered as language and cultural awareness classes with exposure only to basic vocabulary and aspects of the target culture (Slaughter and Hajek (2007). Primary languages programs in our study vary in nature with many focusing on counting 1 to 10 and teaching a few songs. To a certain extent, the range of programs available in primary schools are opportunistic and ebb and flow with what available (often unpaid) personnel or additional payments from students.

In this paper we examine five examples of primary languages programs in schools where language study was taken seriously and illustrate the relationship between context, including social and cultural demographics of the student population and school leadership, and the way in which the language programs were structured and taught. Data informing this paper include lesson observation field notes and interviews with principals and teachers drawn from the five primary schools. Our analysis shows that all our case study schools have achieved some success in sustaining languages provision. The findings demonstrate that access to language provision differs between the regions and schools in ways that languages programs are provided and enacted pedagogically. Significantly, social class, the socioeconomic and cultural nature of the context is a strong determinant influencing provision of hours, resources, the quality of learning opportunities and language learning experiences.