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ISMLA Bulletin — February 2022

Long Read: The World of Languages and the Languages of the World


The World of Languages and the Languages of the World’


‘WoLLoW’ is an acronym (Greek) for ‘The World of Languages and Languages of the World’. And it’s a palindrome (Greek), and it has an Egyptian blue faience hippopotamus (Greek) from early in the second millennium BCE as a symbol to remind us of those ancient days of Flanders and Swann: 

‘Mud, mud, glorious mud,

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.’ 

However, ‘WoLLoW’ is also intended as a serious solution to some problems in language teaching at KS2 and KS3 which seem very common and somewhat intractable: 

  • the teaching of languages in primary schools varies enormously in subject matter, method, quality, quantity and value.
  • since this is so, every secondary school, state or independent, has little alternative but to go back to Square 1/Old Kent Road and start again.
  • since this is so, a year 7 pupil who has studied French at primary school and starts French again at secondary school might wonder why he/she did French at primary school – and a year 7 pupil who has studied French at primary school and starts to study Spanish why wonder why I did French at primary school.  

This problem is perhaps compounded for independent schools which are taking pupils both from the state sector and from the independent sector, very often from their own junior schools. On the one hand, pupils from the independent junior schools are more likely to be more advanced than their state-school peers, but schools don’t want the pupils who arrive from elsewhere to feel at a disadvantage. And, finally, the current teaching of languages in KS2 or KS3 doesn’t take any interest in the multiple languages which our increasingly diverse pupils speak: why are we teaching them Spanish or French whilst ignoring the fact that they already speak Urdu or Arabic or Chinese or Tagalog?

If we’d all recognise those problems, what kind of a solution is ‘WoLLoW’? Well, its fundamental purpose is not to teach a single language, or to offer a taster session whilst riding on a carousel, but to:

  • encourage pupils to be curious about languages, to see patterns, links and similarities within and between languages;
  • help pupils to understand the structure of languages, how they convey sense and meaning;
  • enable them to share, make use and value their already existing knowledge of other languages and to see the importance of language in their own and different cultures;
  • link the study of languages to other subjects, not only English, but also history and geography, science and mathematics, myth and religion, empire and migration;
  • enjoy the puzzle/code-breaking nature of languages.

We believe that this fundamental purpose can be enacted to different effect at KS2 and KS3. In KS2, we reckon that ‘WoLLoW’ will enable pupils to arrive in secondary school ready and eager for the fray of learning a language – or two. or more. In KS3, it can be taught alongside English and other languages, whether classical or modern, as a means of making pupils – and even teachers – think and talk, perhaps for the first time since the 16th century, about the relationship between the different languages they study/teach. And, finally, we have good evidence to believe that it is an excellent vehicle for partnership work: what could be more fun for language teachers and pupil linguists to take the blue hippopotamus on an outing to a state primary school?

Of course, a fundamental purpose is one thing and a lesson plan is another, so in the last two years, we have built a set of online resources, and you don’t even need to be a languages specialist to teach them: anyone who has an interest and enthusiasm in language and a willingness to let then pupils have their say can make it work. These resources can be taught as a continuous syllabus, or they can be used selectively to enrich or enhance an existing curriculum.

So, let’s get down to some of the minute particulars of how it works. One of the first lessons is called ‘Multilingual Me’ and it encourages pupils to think about, and talk to their families about their own linguistic histories and, perhaps, thereby the impact of migration and colonisation. Why did I never do this when I was in charge? Attached to this article is but one example of one boy’s story, now proudly on a classroom wall, whereas all I had to offer that my family had been from Yorkshire – and spoke ‘Yorkshire’ since time began, or the Vikings came.

Another lesson dear to my heart starts with a photograph of my Kryptonite cycle lock and then travels in time and space to Superman and his planet, to crypts and cryptocurrency, to cryptic crosswords and encrypted messages and ends up at the inert end of the periodic table, just in time for xenon to be a vital diagnostic tool for Long Covid. Thereby we can see the impact of the Greek language on scientific/technological English, have a go at the Greek alphabet and wonder at the inconsistency of English spelling. Which of course, could lead me into a lesson on the madness of pronouncing Loughborough – but I hear the winged chariot of my word count hastening closer. 

So, I should give the words that remain to three teachers who have been teaching ‘WoLLoW’ in different schools, to different ages from Year 4 to Year 7. Georgina White is a class teacher at West House School in Birmingham:

‘I am not a linguist by training, but by teaching ‘WoLLoW’ I have been able to awaken in the boys a real interest in two different, but related issues. The first is an understanding of how languages work. We’ve looked at a wide range of languages, from Greek to Punjabi, and seen fundamental similarities. We’ve talked about and deciphered different alphabets. We’ve thought about etymology, spelling, grammar and scientific/mathematical terminology. And all of this has led to the code-breaking world of the UK Linguistic Olympiad. The second is an interest in the relation between language and history and their own histories. ‘WoLLoW’ has encouraged the pupils to talk to the different generations in their families about their linguistic stories and to see how languages help us to understand the role of empires and migration. Thereby the pupils have actually engaged with what we might call ‘geopolitics’, an excellent polysyllabic Greek word. All we need to do know is work out how to embed such a diverse programme into the rest of the curriculum. 

Abbie Dean may be a slightly unreliable witness in that she is the person at Norwich School who has turned the idea of ‘WoLLoW’ into the reality of the resources, but this is her account of the story so far. 

‘Teaching ‘WoLLoW’ at KS2 and KS3 has made me realise just how curious my pupils are about language and etymology. They are fascinated to learn about the languages spoken by their friends in class. And those that are lucky enough to speak more than one language, have grown in pride and confidence as they become the expert and teach some words to their friends. I see pupils come alive as they are given a chance to play around with words and sentences, to search for similarities and differences between languages and to explore languages and scripts from beyond Europe. 

And each week I discover a new dimension to the relevance of ‘WoLLoW’: for example, I have come to see how it links to the push on the explicit teaching of more complex tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary and the whole issue of literacy, thus linking what we are doing with key issues faced by the English department.’

And, the last word should go to John Wilson, Director of MFL at Cheadle Hulme and, most importantly, Director of Partnerships at ISMLA. He has taught ‘WoLLoW’ both within his own junior school and as part of partnership work with local primaries:

‘‘WoLLoW’ has enabled me to share my passion for language with younger learners and enabled the class teachers with whom I have worked to see how relevant language is across the curriculum. Learners have been active in shaping lessons and we have allowed their curiosity, and knowledge, to determine the directions we take. 

I am confident that ‘WoLLoW’ will make those who join a Year 7 beginners’ language course better equipped for the challenges of language learning, and will be ready to enjoy the practice of language learning. 

As for me, ‘WoLLoW’ has made me see beyond my beloved Spanish and realise that our role is to prepare adaptable and open-minded linguists, regardless of the language they end up studying – modern or classical. I am more comfortable than I have ever been when faced with not knowing an answer – this happens to me in every lesson these days. In the end, seeing things through this new lens has made me a better language teacher.’

The rest is silence.


John Claughton

Co-founder WoLLoW

former Chief Master, King Edward’s School, Birmingham