Some research background to the Language Magician

19. October 2017

By Suzanne Graham, University of Reading

The LANGUAGE MAGICIAN project takes forward many of the principles that emerged from a study recently conducted at the University of Reading, Institute of Education. In our study ‘Primary Modern Languages: the impact of teaching approaches’, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we explored not only whether an ‘oracy-based approach’ or a ‘literacy-based approach’  to teaching French leads to better linguistic outcomes for learners as they move from primary to secondary school, but also how their motivation developed and what impact other teacher and teaching factors had.  The study followed around 250 English learners of French from Year 5 in primary school (aged 9–10) to the first year in secondary school (Year 7; aged 11–12). Karl Pfeiffer from the Goethe Institute attended our end of project conference, where our findings led him to invite us to be part of the LANGUAGE MAGICIAN project.

A number of our findings are very relevant to the LANGUAGE MAGICIAN and have influenced aspects of the game development.  First, the relationship between learners’ motivation for language learning and their attainment in language learning. In our 2015 article, Individual differences in early language learning: A study of English learners of French, we examined the interaction of learner variables (gender, motivation, self-efficacy, and first language literacy) and their relationship with second language learning outcomes. We found much variation in learner attitudes and outcomes and a complex but important relationship between first language literacy, self-efficacy, gender, and attainment. For example, although girls held more positive attitudes to boys and reached higher levels of attainment, once we had controlled for first language literacy levels, gender differences in attitudes and outcomes disappeared.  This means that boys’ widely-reported lower motivation and success in language learning might be mitigated if we adopted teaching approaches that take account of any problems they have with first-language literacy.

Second, we looked at the development of motivation over time and especially across the transition between primary and secondary school in our 2016 article   Motivational trajectories for early language learning across the primary-secondary transition.. Central findings are that learners showed increasing levels of motivation as they moved into secondary school, and in particular saw language learning as important for travel. Whether their  primary school teacher took an oracy or a literacy-focused approach had much less impact on their motivation than broader classroom experiences. Giving learners a sense of progress and feeling that instruction met their learning needs was especially important.  Motivation levels began to decline towards the end of Year 7, which we attribute to a growing gap between learners valuing the learning of French for travel/communication and their low levels of self-efficacy for communication with native speakers. They also expressed a dislike of the tests they experienced at secondary school alongside  a desire for more communication and game-based activities. By the end of the first year of secondary school  learners also started to show less optimism about the possibility of future progress.  These findings strongly link with the underpinning approach of the LANGUAGE MAGICIAN, which gives learners a clear sense of making progress within a communicative, game-based context.  In our pilot study for the LANGUAGE MAGICIAN we have been using an adapted version of the questionnaire we designed for the Nuffield project, to explore how learners in all the countries involved feel about language learning as well about the game itself, with very positive findings to date.

Third, we also explored the impact on learning outcomes of factors such as amount of teaching time in school and teachers’  qualifications in French and language pedagogy in our 2017 article, Early language learning: the impact of teaching and teacher factors.  As for motivation, whether the  primary school teacher took an oracy or a literacy-focused approach had much less impact on learners’ progress in vocabulary and grammar than did the French proficiency level of the primary school teacher and the amount of teaching time devoted to French at primary school.  The impact of these factors carried over into secondary school. So far in the LANGUAGE MAGICIAN we are also finding that amount of teaching time, which varies across the different countries involved, has an impact on how well learners score on the game.  It’s important to remember that early language learning needs the right classroom conditions (i.e. sufficient teaching time, teachers supported in the development of their language skills and pedagogy) in order for positive outcomes to be possible.  Being a young learner is not enough to guarantee success!


Courtney, L., Graham, S., Tonkyn, A., & Marinis, T. (2015). Individual differences in early language learning: A study of English learners of French.  Applied Linguistics. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amv071

Graham, S., Courtney, L., Tonkyn, A., & Marinis, T. (2016). Motivational trajectories for early language learning across the primary-secondary school transition. British Educational Research Journal, 42/4, 682–702.  doi: 10.1002/berj.3230

Graham, S.Courtney, L.Marinis, T., & Tonkyn, A. (2017). Early language learning: The impact of teaching and teacher factors. Language Learning. doi: 10.1111/lang.12251


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