Transition from school/college to university in modern languages: key problems, issues and resources

There is a significant generic literature on transition to university relating to issues of widening participation, retention and the student experience but there is rather less subject-specific information. In modern languages there is a small and growing body of research, study skills programmes and resources which are concerned specifically with problems of student learning in the subject discipline. What follows is a snapshot of three key issues, which I consider to be important based on my own experience and my reading of others’ research. Of course, there are many other factors that could be mentioned but for me these are critical.

1                  Grammar (i.e. lack of grammatical knowledge)

 This is very specific to the modern languages context and has been found in several research studies, which have confirmed that it is a particular worry to first year undergraduates.[1] Students in year 13 have also reported that a greater focus on grammar (among their other suggestions) would ease the transition to university.[2] In my own research I have found that students’ concerns in this area are backed up by teachers.[3] It should not be overlooked that teachers at A-level are dealing with the difficult transition from GCSE which also involves a significant grammatical leap.[4] At university-level, first-year undergraduates are often supported by approaches which focus on enquiry-based learning.[5]

2                  Increase in independent learning

 This has been reported in other subjects too and is not just an issue in languages but it is a problem for us. Bavendiek[6] investigated the motivational challenges involved in transition and reported that the increase in independent learning is the most significant change experienced by first year languages students. I also found that students in years 12 and 13 anticipate that this will be the biggest change when they go to university – they look forward to the greater independence of university while simultaneously worrying about it.

3                  Increase in range and quantity of reading

 Longer texts and literature have been reported to be problematic and unsettling for first year languages undergraduates who are not used to the sheer quantity of reading in higher education.[7] Many universities have developed study skills programmes and also student-facing website content to address this issue. Innovative efforts to introduce students to French literature at the University of Leeds have been described by Holmes and Platten.[8] There are also some good resources for international students. Although not addressed at modern languages students, I particularly like the Prepare for Success[9] materials developed by Julie Watson and colleagues at Southampton, which are aimed at international students whose first language is not English but who are coming to the UK to study. Some of the research from English literature is also helpful because this problem is common to both disciplines.[10] On a more positive note, findings from our LLAS survey on undergraduates’ attitudes to reading a few years ago inferred that students become more confident as they progress through their degree.[11]

We continue to need more research in this area, more resources and increased dialogue between schools/colleges and universities.

[1] Claussen, I. (2004) Widening participation and ensuring success. Transition from A-level to university: A report based on the experiences of students and staff in the School of Modern Languages at Queen Mary, University of London. London: Queen Mary.

Macaro, E & Wingate, U. (2004) From sixth form to university: motivation and transition among high-achieving state school language students, Oxford Review of Education, 30 (4), 467-488.

[2] Harnisch, H., Sargeant, H. & Winter, N. (2011) Lost in transition: languages transition from post-16 schooling to higher education, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 10 (2), 157-170.

[4] Klapper, J. (2006) Understanding and Developing Good Practice: Language Teaching in Higher Education. London: CILT.

[5] Enquiry-based learning. Event report and presentations

[6] Bavendiek. U. (2008) Keeping up the good work: the motivational profiles of students in secondary and higher education, Paper presented at the Languages in Higher Education Conference: Transitions and Connections, University of York

[7] Claussen (2004) as above.

[8] Holmes, D. & Platten, D. (2005) Literary Studies, in Coleman, J. & Klapper, J., eds, Effective Learning and Teaching in Modern Languages. London: Routledge, 207-214.

 See my list of resources on Humbox- Transition from school to university in modern languages useful reading