Expanding the range of languages taught at primary and secondary level

Many language departments would like to be able to offer teaching in minority languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Hebrew or Polish, but resources are not available to provide specialized staff.  Here, we present the case for high quality tuition for schools, colleges and individuals.

Current Trends: Language Teaching Outsourcing

Although they cannot replace him, external services can support and empower the teacher.  They can increase a teacher’s effectiveness by lightening his administrative burden and providing specialist resources which enhance the cognitive and affective aspects of his work.

Globalization has recently led to outsourcing in many industries and this concept has begun to be applied to language teaching. It is logical for the ultimate experts in any language, the native speakers, to deliver their own language from their home countries.

In 2001, Drake University dismissed replaced its language faculty with the Drake University Language Acquisition Program.  Students meet native speakers online or on campus in small groups three times a week, and have one hour per week meetings with a professor in that language on or off campus.  The language course is preceded by a Language Learning Strategies course.

Since then, many universities in the US and elsewhere have followed Drake’s lead in outsourcing part of their language teaching.  For example, the Sage group of universities last year introduced the Sage Language Acquisition Program.  UCLA offers Czech, Zulu, Danish and Hungarian via its distance learning program. The University of Tennessee has launched an entirely separate campus where educational content is delivered by synchronous distance learning technology.

How effective is language outsourcing and distance learning?  Is it watering down the quality of students’ education?  Marc Cadd, who directs Drake’s World Languages and Cultures program, said students are generally placed two semesters ahead of where they would be on other courses[ref]. In a separate study, researchers have also shown better results from distance language learning than straightforward classroom instruction.

Distance learning is clearly an effective solution for well-funded US universities. Is it a viable solution for primary and secondary schools facing tight budgetary restrictions?  Would younger students not benefit even more from a more interactive style of learning?  Could a small primary school really offer many languages taught by specialist tutors without great expense?

Challenges for Language Outsourcing

Drake’s introductory video states:

“It is a model which works very well for students who are self-motivated and able to take charge of the learning experience”. 

This implies that it is less suitable for other students.  In fact, each year many Drake students take traditional language courses from neighbouring universities rather than enrol in DULAP.  Other universities emulating the Drake model have tended to do so in addition to their existing language departments, to extend the range of languages taught rather than replace existing teachers.   Though the reasons for this are partly academic – some students may be more interested in literature than practical conversation – they are more likely affective.  Students incapable of taking responsibility for their own learning and proactively talking with native speakers will not get the most out of such programs.  The same is likely to be the same for primary and secondary environments, where guidance and discipline is such an important part of school life.

The other drawback is that both students and teachers must take a training course in using the necessary software before they can start.  Making distance education fully effective involves an acronym soup of different technologies: VoIP (Skype / Google talk / Adobe connect), e-mail, forums, chat (MSN / AOL etc), streaming media servers, VLEs, blogs, Pdfs, Ppts, CMSs, different audio and video formats, e-portfolios, etc.  For small schools with limited IT resources, this rules out advanced distance learning methodologies.

The Online Language Lab

The twin problems of  (i) disciplinary structure and (ii) IT complexity may explain why distance learning and language outsourcing have been mainly limited to university level.

With our Online Language Lab software, we aim to solve these two issues.

(i) The disciplinary structure required for classroom tasks and homework is provided by cyclical assessment, planning, supervisory, teaching and learning functions.

(ii) The complex IT procedures, including automated marking and video encryption, are vastly simplified by a fully integrated approach, ensuring the teacher deals only with pedagogical questions, not technical issues.

(i) Disciplinary structure: Differentiation, Motivation and Live Overview

The flexible course building structure of the Language Lab allows the remote native speaker/tutor to set and adapt a series of tasks and targets in accordance with the expectations of the non-specialist class teacher and learner.


To ensure the correct level of work is set for each learner, teachers can use one of two differentiation functions. The flexible &;group&; function allows the teacher to enter or move each pupil into an appropriate group, for which the work set is approriate for his/her style of learning, whilst the adaptability of the resources bank allows the teacher or tutor to make appropriate amendments to tasks set.


The pupil&;s control panel and &;To Do&; List empower and support him in a learning cycle of appropriate stimuli, engaging tasks, feedback, reward and progression. Synchronous and asynchronous interaction with the remote native speakers/tutors, easy submission of everyday media, (jpegs, mp3s, mp4s etc.) and the awareness of a discerning audience for his achievements are likely to motivate even the most reluctant of learners.


The supervisory functions of the Language Lab allow the remote native speaker/tutor, the non-specialist class teacher or other supervisor to monitor the progress of pupils&;  written or oral tasks in real time.

(ii) The complex IT procedures 

The Language Lab is a highly sophisticated online teaching and learning platform, yet is simple to use.   No teacher or student training is needed. Furthermore, it is a hosted service, requiring virtually no support from your school’s IT department – they simply provide a computer with a headset connected to the internet.  We take care of all maintenance, backups, upgrades and other work in our professional, secure data centre.


In line with the best practices from Drake and other universities’ language programs, we balance synchronous and asynchronous elements.  A typical 45 minute lesson outline is laid out below:

Mandarin : Example Lesson with Timings

5 minutes
Students watch narrated video of Chinese student who can’t sleep because of the noise next door, and then can’t get up in time to arrive promptly at school the next morning.

5 minutes
Teacher drills students on key phrases to ensure correct pronunciation:
听得到/听不到- to be able / unable to hear
睡得着/睡不着- to be able / unable to sleep
起得来/起不来- to be able / unable to get up
想得出/想不出- to be able / unable to work out why

30 minutes
Students go through exercises based on the video.  They start with a game exercising the new vocabulary, and then compose short sentences.  Finally, they arrange them into a short monologue describing a time when they couldn’t sleep.  They record the monologue, and it is stored into their evidence portfolio.  During this time, each student takes 5 minutes to do one-on-one practice with the remote native speaker/teacher.  The remote native speaker/teacher and class teacher can also see the students’ work as they go along, and can interrupt them if, for example, they answer a question incorrectly.  If a student finishes early, there is additional work ready prepared for him.

5 minutes

The teacher summarizes the grammar points, answers any further questions the students have, and sets homework.


Homework involves word matching exercises as well as introducing and drilling some new vocabulary.  The Mandarin teacher will log on occasionally to check the students’ homework progress (which he can see live) and assess completed homework.  If teacher and student happen to be online simultaneously, the teacher can initiate a conversation with the student to emphasize any points he has not grasped (as evidenced by his semi-completed homework).

From this, you can see why quality distance language programs can actually provide better results than straightforward classroom teaching:

  • Greater degree of individual attention for students

    Lower admin burden for teachers and better use of pre-recorded material frees up teacher time for one-on-one work.

  •  Faster feedback for students
    Teachers can see all students’ work as they do it, meaning that misunderstandings are caught very early.
  • More engaging and interactive lessons

    Greater use of video and audio, more visually appealing and fun exercises.


Supply Teachers and Course Materials

To use this methodology, you can simply purchase a subscription to the Language Lab for your school and make your own arrangements for teachers and course materials.   However, Schoolshape also provides online native speaker/teachers and course materials as an additional service. Introductory Mandarin Chinese tuition in the autumn terms 2010 are now available.  All teachers are highly qualified and motivated and have more than 10 years experience teaching Mandarin as a foreign language. For further details, please contact us.