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Modern languages
This page contains the findings of systematic reviews undertaken by review groups linked to the EPPI Centre

Characteristics of effective teaching
Strategy training
Role of prior knowledge

Characteristics of effective teaching

One review investigated the characteristics of effective teaching in primary schools:[1]

  • Teachers' knowledge is important.  It encompasses knowledge about the language; subject- and age-specific teaching methods; resources; the curriculum; the children as individuals and their learning needs.  These aspects need to be included in initial teacher training.
  • Specialist teachers may be more fluent, but they may use methods more appropriate for secondary schools.  Primary teachers have the advantage of knowing the school and pupils better, and of being able to introduce the language throughout the day.
  • Games, songs and audiovisual resources are useful aids, but teachers must use them selectively as part of a planned sequence of learning.
  • Key issues in effective teaching are: teachers' depth of knowledge of the language and culture; their fluency within the parameters of the programme taught; their ability to answer pupils' questions; and their ability to identify and correct errors.
  • Primary school language teachers need to become part of the community of MFL specialist practitioners.
  • Transition arrangements need to be in place for continuity across year groups and across Key Stages.
  • Active school leadership support is essential.

Strategy training

One review [2] investigated the impact of strategy training; it found sufficient evidence that training language learners to use strategies is effective, but it was not possible to determine whether the effect was long-lasting. For speaking ability, training learners to use certain strategies appears successful but the evidence is not compelling; however, training in semantic and structural mapping to improve reading comprehension is supported by more robust evidence. There is relatively strong evidence for strategies to improve writing ability, but interventions to improve overall language ability gave mixed results. Most of the studies in this review related to non-school populations.

Role of prior knowledge

  • There appears to be a positive association between prior knowledge and listening comprehension; however, most studies only measured short-term listening comprehension.
  • Studies where prior knowledge was deliberately incorporated into the strategy for teaching and/or assessment (i.e. advanced organiser type studies) found that students’ short-term listening comprehension performance was greater when such strategies were used.
  • However, the finding that prior knowledge facilitates comprehension in general should not be interpreted as meaning that any prior knowledge used in any way will facilitate comprehension. A number of studies suggest that prior knowledge can lead to inaccurate comprehension if it is not supported by later in-text information or if the listener does not listen for possible contradicting information.
  • It would appear that students perceive that they use top-down processing strategies, including prior knowledge, as aids to listening comprehension. However, the terminology used to describe and classify listening comprehension strategies is inconsistent across the field.
  • It is suggested in some studies that the way in which prior knowledge is used as a comprehension strategy may vary depending on the learners’ L2 language proficiency.


1. A systematic review of the characteristics of effective foreign language teaching to pupils between the ages 7 and 11 (2004)

2. Strategy training in language learning - a systematic review of available research (2005)

3. A systematic review of the role of prior knowledge in unidirectional listening comprehension  (2005)

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