Nuffield Modern Languages

In 1963 Sir Edward Boyle, Minister of Education, announced to Parliament his intention to launch a pilot scheme ‘to test the feasibility of starting French from the age of eight in state primary schools’. He did this with the enthusiastic support of Dr Leslie Farrer-Brown, Director of the Nuffield Foundation, who had for some years been advocating reform of foreign language teaching at every level.

With funding from the Nuffield Foundation, a major and highly innovative programme was launched to produce teaching materials for French from eight, and for Russian, German and Spanish for secondary school beginners. This was so that a second foreign language could be added from age eleven.

In 1967 the Schools Council joined the Nuffield Foundation as sponsor of the languages project. Work on all four languages was located in the Language Centre of the University of York, whose Director, Professor Eric Hawkins, was to become the greatest and most revered figure in languages education in the UK.

The courses were En Avant ! (French), Vorwarts! (German), Adelante! (Spanish) and Yvperyod!, later Iskra (Russian).

A communicative approach

Communication – reading, writing and speaking – was the first and most important aim of these projects. Teaching was based on the voices and writing of living native language speakers. The courses enabled pupils to discover and develop their aptitude for learning languages.

Pupils were given a thorough grounding in the four language skills of listening comprehension, reading comprehension, speaking and writing. They learnt vocabulary and were introduced to the grammatical rules of the language. In each unit, receptive skills (reading and listening) were introduced first, followed by active skills (speaking and writing).

Pupils were also introduced to aspects of everyday life of people speaking the language. 

Resources included tape recordings, films, contemporary texts, role plays (‘What do I say now?’), and teachers’ notes.

Impact and influence

The Nuffield/Schools Council teaching materials development programme had a profound impact on approaches to teaching in schools, the design and content of foreign language courses, and also on the work of examination boards, which increasingly accepted the notion of a defined content syllabus for language testing.

Commercial success

The resources were commercially successful, and in the long term were taken over by publishers who took responsibility for revisions and new editions. The secondary French course lives on with Nelson Thornes as Tricolore.

Further Nuffield interest in languages

The continuing Nuffield Foundation interest in Britain's need for high-quality language education led to the Nuffield Languages Inquiry (1998–2000).