Engaging, Enriching, Inclusive.

Ensuring a primary MFL curriculum which delivers for SEND pupils

This weekend, I had the great pleasure of presenting a session at the Association for Language Learning‘s annual Language World conference. Things were a little different this year in that we were all meeting virtually but there were, as always, so many inspiring presentations by incredible MFL practitioners from all sectors. Here’s a run-down of my workshop on ensuring an inclusive primary MFL curriculum, along with a link to the accompanying slides.

“Starting again” on a level playing field:

We know that we have a statutory duty to modify our programmes of study to ensure that all children can access a broad and balanced curriculum. However, this can sometimes feel easier said than done, especially for primary MFL specialists teaching several classes, perhaps in more than one school, for a relatively short time over the course of a working week. And, of course, the needs of SEND pupils are as diverse and complex as the children themselves and two learners with the same diagnosis will still have different strengths and weaknesses. However, one of the fantastic things about introducing another language to SEND pupils at KS2 is that it is an opportunity for them to experience a subject in which there is no history of “failure”. I use this word not in a derogatory sense, but because a lot of children with SEND, especially as they get higher up the school, will be very aware that they are not “top of the class” or may feel that they are not “clever” like some other pupils. Rather, the word failure is used to represent the narrative that, sadly, a lot of SEND pupils may have internalised over the course of their time in education. So, for many, MFL lessons in Year 3 are a chance to “start again” on a level playing field: a big confidence booster. And, of course, just because a child has a specific learning need does not mean that they cannot find great enjoyment and success when learning another language, given the right support.

Getting the basics right:

  • Make sure all pupils feel relaxed and safe. Language-learning involves taking risks so pupils need to feel confident to make mistakes without being judged. Expecting pupils to be supportive of each other means that all learners can express themselves without the fear of being laughed at. This is really important, especially as pupils get older and may start to feel more self-conscious and place greater significance on the opinions of their peers.
  • Greet the class in the target language and finish sessions with a goodbye. This signals the start and end of the lesson for all children, particularly important for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
  • Monitor noise levels to ensure a calm atmosphere for pupils with ASD, who may become overwhelmed by an excess of sound (admittedly very tricky during games and paired or group activities). This helpful little noise monitor from ClassrooomScreen.com, can help the class to keep an eye on their noise levels and there are lots of other great tools there as well, which you may want to explore.
  • This may sound very obvious, but make sure that pupils have all the equipment that they need ready at the start of the lesson, with an equipment list if necessary. This can help those with Attention Deficit Disorders, who may find organisation a challenge.
  • Ensure that the interactive whiteboard background (and, if necessary, print-outs) are an off-white colour for those with dyslexia.
  • Enlarge resources for those with visual impairments, if needed.
A noise-level monitor is very useful for creating a calm environment for all pupils, but especially those with ASD.

Differentiation is responsive teaching:

When we are talking about enabling children with SEND to access learning during lessons, we are actually talking largely about differentiation.

Differentiation is responsive teaching.

Carol Ann Tomlinson

We all know that differentiation is key to ensuring all children make progress during lessons, but what does this actually look like? Differentiation is a huge term which encompasses so much of what we do as practitioners but I think it is really helpful to break down the concept into three areas – differentiation by content, differentiation by process and differentiation by output – and explore what each of these might look like in context.

Differentiation by content:

Content is the knowledge, concepts and skills that students need to learn, based on the curriculum. However, the way that children gain access to that content is necessarily very different and in the case of SEND learners there will need to be a range of support in place to allow them to engage with, and ultimately retain, that content. So, what might this look like in practice?

Visual supports and multisensory approaches:

The great news is that many of the practices that we automatically adopt as teachers of MFL naturally support SEND pupils to access the linguistic content of lessons and the use of visual clues is just one example of this. Using gestures, mime, or even a signing system such as Makaton to support understanding of key vocabulary in the target language is particularly useful for SEND children.

The same can be said for the use of images to support vocabulary learning. This might take the form of flashcards; mini cards for games like pairs; or pictures next to key words on wall displays. The use of visual stimuli to embed new vocabulary and aid recall is helpful for all children but particularly those with SEND – and let’s not forget children new to English, for whom it removes the process of translation. One important point to remember when using visuals to support learning is to make sure that images are simple and can be clearly understood by SEND pupils (no distractions or chances to misinterpret meaning) and to keep the images consistent across all support materials. Try not to show one image to represent ‘a hat’ on your board slides and then another on your flashcards, for example.

Sue Cave and Jean Haig’s brilliant Physical French Phonics, along with Physical Spanish Phonics created with Jenny Bell, attaches an image and action to each phoneme and also introduces the matching graphemes. It’s a multimodal approach for learning phonics, particularly useful for some children with SEND. Often, if a child is struggling with segmenting a particular word, I find it is only necessary to make the action to give them the clue that they need to correctly pronounce the phoneme or read the grapheme.

Multisensory approaches are very important for many children, including some with SEND, and lots of pupils learn best by doing. Bringing a multisensory element to learning can help embed key language by acting as a ‘hook’ on which to hang new vocabulary and constructions. Children expressing opinions on different fruits from the book La surprise de Handa can do this more effectively if they have actually tasted the foods that they are talking about, for example.

Supporting listening:

I’m going to focus now on some of the areas of language learning that I have found SEND learners to struggle with and introduce some simple ideas for how to support that content, starting with listening. Listening activities can be tricky for SEND pupils for a number of reasons, including processing speed or difficulty processing auditory information. Many of my classes love the challenge of filling in the gaps during a cloze listening activity, but for my SEND pupils I would always try to scaffold them by providing a list of possible words along with image supports. My rapid graspers would, of course, just fill in the words as they heard them.

A year 4 cloze activity on the weather.
A key, including images, to support SEND learners to fill in the correct missing words.

Getting to grips with reading:

Decoding unfamiliar texts with the use of a bilingual dictionary is another area where I find some SEND learners really struggle. This may have multiple root causes, one of the main ones being that the concept of alphabetical order is not sufficiently embedded, so working with a full bilingual dictionary is, at least initially, very tricky. This can also be a real issue for new arrivals in the English-speaking classroom whose first language does not use the Latin alphabet. For these pupils, I prefer to use a glossary sheet, including images where appropriate, which allows children to work on translating a text in a much less intimidating manner. I often also provide simplified texts for SEND learners.   

Glossaries are less threatening than bilingual dictionaries for some SEND learners.

Scaffolding speaking and listening:

Let’s now have a little think about speaking and how that moves our children on towards writing. As in English lessons, children should be exposed to lots of ‘Talk for Writing’ before actually putting pen to paper.

Games like Trapdoor, the idea for which I got many years ago from Clare Seccombe’s fabulous Lightbulb Languages website, gives children a chance to rehearse the same phrases again and again and can be recycled as a writing frame later on. Below is an example from a Year 4 unit of work. The content focus here for everyone is noun and adjective order, along with expressing opinions. As a rule, I tend to favour supporting activities with speaking or writing frames which don’t impose limits on any pupils. Here I’ve colour-coded the game so pupils can then build their sentences to be as simple or as complex as they wish, red being the simplest sentence construction, moving on to orange and then green. This often means that SEND pupils, who may be used to being assigned separate tasks, have the freedom to create sentences which are as complex as those children who are perceived as more able, hopefully boosting their confidence in the process.  

This speaking frame, which allows all children to access the content in the form of noun/adjective order and expressing opinions, is colour-coded so that pupils can build sentences that are a simple or complex as they feel confident to create.

Here’s another example of a speaking/writing frame for Year 5 on family, following a slightly different model (this one was, again, inspired by suggestions made by Clare Seccombe at the ALL Primary Languages Conference back in October 2020). All pupils are accessing the content, which is the use of singular and plural, but they can choose how far they want to extend their sentences, from talking about the number of brothers and sisters they have, to moving on to names and even ages, which are not part of the frame and would be added independently.

Support frames which use arrows can be helpful in directing pupils when building sentences verbally and in writing.

Supporting grammar concepts for SEND learners:

Grammar is now a major focus of the National Curriculum for English in primary schools, which is very helpful when it comes to MFL lessons. That said, some SEND pupils may still struggle with the differences in grammatical structures between English and the target language. The concept of masculine and feminine nouns can be tricky for many pupils, particularly those who are monolingual English-speakers (although some EAL pupils may have an advantage here). Colour-coding masculine and feminine nouns so that children can differentiate them at a glance, for example, can be very helpful.  

Word-order is another tricky area and children should be given opportunities to physically manipulate sentences where word orders are different from English, for example when considering adjective/noun order. Colour-coding word cards according to their function in the sentence (nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) helps pupils to recognise the role of an individual word within a sentence and being able to move them from one place to another allows for a low-stakes approach to sentence-building. Word cards give pupils more freedom than, say, a speaking or frame and this also means that they are more likely to make mistakes, which can then be identified and discussed, ultimately leading to deeper learning.

These colour-coded word cards can be arranged and rearranged to create sentences.

Knowledge Organisers:

The term Knowledge Organiser seems to be one the buzz phrases in education at the moment but, from my experience, teachers have been using some form of these for years. Knowledge organisers can be a good reference point for children struggling to recall key vocabulary or structures in that they hold all the language from a particular unit on one side of A4. They are especially useful for retrieval practice, which will be mentioned a bit later, or during lessons as a memory prompt.  The key is training learners to use them effectively in order to ensure they don’t just become pretty sheets in their books with no practical function.

A Knowledge Organiser for a Year 5 unit on family and where we live.

Differentiation by Process:

So, we’ve thought about how we might scaffold the content for SEND learners, but how can we ensure that they process the content as effectively as possible to ensure that it sticks? This is where differentiation by process comes in.

Helping SEND pupils to process learning:

  • The way in which we group pupils can have a big impact on the extent to which they are able to process new content. Mixed-ability pairings have been proven to have a powerful and positive effect on the learning of SEND pupils. That is not to say that the children have to be working in mixed-ability pairs all the time but it is certainly something to keep in mind.
  • We all know that songs and rhymes can be powerful tools for enabling all children, particularly SEND learners, to process and retain key vocabulary. How many of us have introduced a song in a lesson and had a pupil tell us that they already know it because they’ve been taught it by an older sibling at the school? Those earworms really work!
  • Often, children with SEND process information at slightly slower speeds. Therefore, it’s important to give children sufficient thinking time when we ask questions. To try and alleviate the stress that targeted questioning might create for SEND pupils, pre-asking a question can be really helpful. This essentially involves prepping a child for the question you are going to ask them at a later point in the lesson. You can then help them construct the answer or leave them to work on it alone or with a partner, depending on their needs.
  • Linked to this (and this can be tricky if you don’t have a class of your own, but there are ways around it) pre-teaching vocabulary can help SEND learners get a head-start on a lesson or topic. This could be in the form of interactive flashcards like these, created using Flippity, which children might work on independently during morning registration or ‘settling time’ straight after lunch. Being exposed to new concepts prior to the lesson can give SEND learners a sense of increased confidence going into a session.
  • Allow children plenty of partner talk time during lessons after asking a question. I like to set more open-ended discussion activities, like working out a grammatical rule from a set of example sentences or finding the correct and incorrect sentences from a group of examples and giving reasons for these choices. This gives children a chance to discuss together and process learning on a much deeper level.  
Giving time for paired talk plays an essential role in allowing all learners to process learning.

Differentiation by Product:

So, we have supported the content delivery for our SEND learners and made sure that they have been given opportunities to process their learning through the effective use of questioning, groupings and paired talk time. Now we need to think about what the output is going to be, both in terms of individual activities and also at the end of a unit.

Retrieval Grids:

As I’ve already mentioned, I like to try and keep activities open-ended so that children can extend themselves as they feel confident. This is an example of a retrieval grid, the idea for which I got from Catriona Egan in a recent addition of Languages Today magazine. The aim of the activity is for children to translate as many boxes as they can within a given time period. The boxes are colour-coded depending on their difficulty and points awarded accordingly for correct translations. All children are enabled to produce something from the activity but the output will vary from pupil to pupil. Again, SEND pupils do not just have to stick to the simpler, red, translations but can push themselves to have a go at more complex phrases.

Retrieval Grids are great for recapping prior learning at the start of a session and can be colour-coded according to the difficulty of the translation/questions within them.


This idea was inspired by Miss Mey MFL, and simplified for primary language learners. Pupils work in pairs, placing a counter each at the bottom of the ladder. Pupil A then uses their sheet to read the first, and easiest, sentence aloud for Pupil B to translate. A can then check the translation carefully using the answer on their sheet. If B is correct, then they can move their counter up one rung of the ladder. Pupils then swap and it’s B’s turn to quiz A. For each correct answer, the player can move their counter one space up the ladder. If incorrect, they drop back down to the bottom. What works well here is that the activity is essentially self-differentiating, as children may reach a point at which the content is too complex and then drop back down to recap the language and structures at their level. Again, all pupils are engaged in the same activity.

Sentences build in complexity as pupils move further up the ladder.

Translation and Dictée Pyramids:

As you’ve probably realised by now, I prefer to have one resource which works for all learners and this Translation Pyramid activity, based on an original idea by Gianfranco Conti and for which credit must go to @simograv, is no exception. This can be adapted in various different ways but here we start at the top, translating the phrases as they advance in difficulty. This one is French to English but it could be the other way around. The final outcome will be different depending on ability level but all children will be engaged in the same activity.

Sentences build in complexity, allowing all children to translate sentences to different levels of complexity

This could also be turned into a listening activity, where pupils note down the phrases that they hear, gradually becoming more complex as they work down the pyramid. The great thing about these activities is that they don’t impose limits on SEND pupils and allow them to ‘have a go’ at even quite complex language structures.

Adding sound files turns the activity in a dictation.

Building independence in writing:

As I’ve already shown, before we start writing I always make sure there are plenty of opportunities to practice vocabulary and structures many times orally in a variety of ways. However, even with extensive preparation, for some SEND learners putting pen to paper can be daunting in English, let alone another language. Of course, we can support the process with knowledge organisers and writing frames, as previously discussed, but I also want my learners to be able to assess their own work and evaluate the complexity of language that they have managed to produce. Using attainment statements from the Cave Languages website, I create little self-assessment tickets, which the children can annotate with ticks or smiley faces once they have managed to include a particular element. I always try to include elements of the previous year (or years’) learning so children can create output at their level, but it also shows SEND children how to up-level their writing, if they want to have a go at doing so.

Self-assessment tickets allow the children to evaluate their own work in relation to their targets. These can be differentiated for the various abilities within the classroom.

Revisit, revisit, revisit:

A very wise colleague once told me that children are not slow learners but quick forgetters. For some SEND pupils in particular, making knowledge stick can seem like an uphill battle. The key is to revisit prior learning as much as possible, in small chunks. Starter activities work well for this but may need to be adapted depending on the needs of the SEND pupils in your classes, who might favour small group or paired work over whole-class revision sessions where they speak in front of a large group. Revision grids, spinner or dice games as well as a new favourite ‘l’élimination’ (where children compete to answer questions correctly and knock competitors off one of four spaces on the board before the timer runs out) are fun but also keep key language coming back round again and again, ensuring retention over time.

Ultimately though, developing an MFL classroom which supports SEND children and allows them to flourish is all about knowing your pupils and their needs. What works for one won’t work for everyone but it is essential that we take the time to find out how best to support individual pupils, liaising with class teachers and SEND Coordinators as necessary. And, of course, anything which we do in the classroom to support SEND learners will also have a positive impact on the learning of the whole class.  

How do you engage your SEND learners during MFL lessons? If you’ve been inspired by any of these ideas, or have some great ones of your own, feel free to share in the comments.

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