An alternative, multilingual approach for modern foreign languages (MFLs) in primary education

Discovering Language (DL) is a multi-language progression model which has been developed by ASCL with support from the Esmee Fairburn Association.  

The programme offers: 
•    a well-sequenced, well-constructed alternative approach to Key Stage 2 Languages
•    the development of knowledge and understanding of how ‘language’ works, preparing pupils for learning different
      languages in Key Stage 3
•    each language introduced builds sequentially on pupils’ knowledge of grammar, patterns and language learning strategies 
•    the opportunity to  be delivered flexibly in schools, integrated within a well-planned, ambitious primary curriculum
•    an adaptable, multilingual model which can be delivered by non-specialists
•    strengthened  transition to secondary school through a DL transition portfolio/e-portfolio
•    an opportunity to celebrate and admire the linguistic footprint of your school community and ensure the curriculum
     reflects the local context
•    valuable experience of language learning whilst developing strategies to decode meanings of new languages 
•    clearly identified outcomes for the 4 year broad, rich curriculum

Supporting primary generalists and the wider curriculum
•    The class teacher can teach in Years 3, 4 and 5 as no language will  be taken to too high a level. 
•    Multi-media and community resources can support  the  teaching of new languages.
•    Mixed-age rolling programme planning will be facilitated by language change.
•    All KS2 teachers are literacy trained and can utilise their grammatical knowledge to make links between languages and 
     enhance vocabulary acquisition. 
•    A broad and rich curriculum experience given to pupils through learning several languages and cultures. 
•    Substantial progress in one language can be reached over five terms in Years 5 and 6, using specialist input, if necessary. 
•    Language changes, when pupils move between schools and teachers move between year groups, will be less of an issue.

How does the model work?
•  The standard broad  four language model is a different language in Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 although this can be adapted to suit a
    school’s particular needs (see the Overview of Multilingual Model tab).
•   Languages are chosen according to staff expertise, community needs, curriculum links, available resources and KS3

Further information
Please see our FAQs if you have any queries regarding these resources, or about teaching MFL in primary schools. 

See also our paper Supporting Foreign Languages in your School: A guide for governors in primary schools, and produced in association with the British Council and the National Governance Association. 

If you would like more information about these resources, or to book a presentation at your school, please contact ASCL MFL Consultant Suzanne O'Farrell at Suzanne.O' 

A 'one language' versus a multilingual model

Ofsted Education Inspection Framework 2019 guidelines

Key phrases: 

  • Progression is an alteration in long term memory: knowing more and remembering more.
  • Progress should not be defined by meeting standards or hitting the next data point. 
  • If pupils learn within a well-sequenced, well- constructed curriculum, they are making progress.
  • When new knowledge and existing knowledge connect in pupils’ minds, this gives rise to understanding.
Progression concepts in language learning 
Complexity: Looking back at the excellent 2005 Primary Languages Framework coupled with the ‘levels’ of the Asset Languages Ladder,  linked to the Common European Framework levels, still used in the EU, progression in early language learning was chiefly expressed  as moving from sound to word, to phrase, to sentence and then to increasingly longer texts.

Such progression could be assessed in four areas: Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing and could be summarised under the title of Complexity.

Increasing complexity remains a very valid aspect of language learning progression and fulfils several of Ofsted’s criteria (above), requiring alteration in long term memory and the connection of past and new knowledge. The programmes mentioned above were/are also well constructed and sequenced and thus good progress could be made working within their frameworks. Such programmes continue to influence many of the published resources for primary languages

Understanding: As Ofsted describes, understanding arises from making connections between existing and new knowledge and this skill is widely required to make progress in languages (few connections = frequent forgetting!) Connections can be linked back to English or other mother tongue languages both in vocabulary and grammar.

Connections can be within language families, for example, French and Spanish : blanc/blanco English/German: house/haus.

Understanding is also important in recognising memory strategies to support ‘alterations in long term memory’: frequent repetition, mnemonics, word lists, rhyming words, cognates, dictionary use.  Understanding (empathy) is also crucial for appropriate language use in culturally specific contexts.

Confidence: Successful language learning relies on more than mastering and understanding a complex code. Language is a communication tool and, in order to communicate successfully, the language learner must demonstrate increasing confidence in their memory, their vocabulary and their capacity to communicate either orally or through script.

A traditional one language for four years approach prioritises the Complexity aspect of progression working towards increased chunks of language. This approach would be at home in a knowledge-rich curriculum delivered by skilled linguists in this one language. Often there is less emphasis on comparison back to English with fewer opportunities to make connections and use knowledge and strategies across wider languages. 

A multilingual model, with strong links back to English (maximising non-specialist teacher skills),  gives greater opportunities to show progressive Understanding and Confidence, as languages change, requiring multiple transferable skills and strategies. A multilingual model will provide fewer (but not insignificant) opportunities for longer, more complex utterances in a single language. This model would seem to fit within a knowledge-engaged or skills-led curriculum.

Which model? In deciding which model to follow, KS2 management teams will need to look at curriculum and community priorities as well as staff skills.  KS3 transition is also of high priority. If a high school can guarantee to build on the high level of progression made in one language then that can be an excellent approach. However if a high school is receiving a great variety of language models, a primary school will be serving pupils very well by following a rigorous, well sequenced and progressive multilingual programme, laying strong foundations for KS3-5. The way the curriculum is structured and the sequenced in a multilingual approach is in fact the progression model.

Download this information as a PDF

A multilingual approach offers a solution to transition issues

The desired outcomes of your primary languages curriculum model should form the basis of what you can share with secondary colleagues to support effective transition.

A Discovering Language curriculum model enables pupils to gain a rich and broad experience of language learning strategies to ensure they are ready for the challenges of language learning in a secondary setting, whatever the language.

Principal outcomes of Discovering Language’s multilingual progression model
Pupils are engaged with language learning and are enjoy learning new languages.

In a four-language model (although this can be adapted for fewer languages), pupils have experience of transferring their knowledge about simple grammar concepts to different languages.

Pupils are able to apply their understanding of using phonics to other languages rather than just one foreign language.

Pupils develop skills in using a bilingual dictionary for a range of languages.

Pupils are armed with strategies to read and decode meanings in a range of languages.

Through making links across languages pupils’ can increase their vocabulary in their home language as well as new languages.

Pupils display a curiosity about words so that they can ask the right questions about any language they may meet in the future:
Is there masculine/feminine?
Are there cognates?
Is it phonically regular?
Does it have the same alphabet?
Are there silent letters? Is the word order what we would expect?
Is there a pattern in numbers? Are there borrowed words? Are there new sounds?

Pupils have a clearer idea of the range of languages in the multilingual and multi-cultural world in which they will be living.

By the end of four years, pupils have experienced and have a developing understanding of the following grammatical features in several languages:
Articles (and gender), nouns, singular and plural, verbs and simple tenses, connectives, prepositions, word order, cognates, patterns (especially in number systems) punctuation, phonics and alphabet similarities and differences.

Where a ‘community’ or ‘home’ language is introduced to all pupils,  pupils have the opportunity to celebrate the school’s context and cultural references. 

Through a well-planned whole school curriculum, pupils have the opportunity to link their learning of new languages, cultures and traditions to other curriculum areas, eg. music, history, geography, English, art and drama.

A school following DL would have access to a transition portfolio with evidence.

Download this information as a PDF.

Related Pages

Supporting Pupils with Home, Heritage and Community Languages (primary)

  • Inclusion
  • Curriculum
  • Primary
  • MFL
  • Key Stage 1
  • Key Stage 2
  • Parents
  • Guidance

Supporting Pupils with Home, Heritage and Community Languages (primary)

  • Inclusion
  • Curriculum
  • Primary
  • MFL
  • Key Stage 1
  • Key Stage 2
  • Parents
  • Guidance

Curriculum and Assessment Committee

  • Council
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  • Learning
  • Curriculum
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  • Teaching
  • Learning
  • Curriculum
  • Primary
  • MFL
  • Key Stage 1
  • Key Stage 2