In this article, Vincent Everett, Head of Languages at Northgate High School and Dereham Sixth Form College, shares his reflections on the proposed changes to the GCSE MFL qualifications in England. He welcomes the emphasis on phonics but raises questions about the set vocabulary lists and is concerned about how these proposals will function in classrooms, and the impact on language learners.
The DfE is consulting on proposals for a controversial new GCSE in Modern Languages. We are at the stage of the debate where I can agree with many of the good intentions. I would also like to ask some questions, point out some possible unintended consequences, and scream from the roof tops about one impending disaster.
The new GCSE proposals are being put forward by a panel closely linked to the 2016 Teaching Schools Curriculum Review and to NCELP (National Centre for Excellence in Languages Pedagogy). I am very much in agreement with some of the issues they want to tackle. I am fully behind their emphasis on the importance of phonics. The sound-spelling link is fundamental to success in all areas of language-learning, not just spelling and pronunciation, but also reading, listening, and in learning new words independently. I like their idea that grammar points don’t work in isolation, but need to be contrasted so pupils have to select and combine structures. And everyone wants to see improvements to the Listening and Reading exams. And no-one wants to see a return to the delivery of rote learned fancy answers in the Speaking exam. But I do have some questions.
One of the main features of the proposals is for set vocabulary lists. And for the majority of the vocabulary to be from corpora of the most commonly used words in native speech and writing. The consultation says that this list will be for productive skills as well as receptive, so the exam board will have to come up with tasks and topics which don’t require words beyond those on the list. This sounds pupil-friendly, until you start to look at the actual list. People have highlighted absurdities such as a requirement to teach jouer à for sport and jouer de for musical instruments, when there are very few sports or musical instruments on the list of most frequent words.
This leads on to a bigger issue. The consultation says it would be “unhelpful” for pupils to have to learn to use words beyond those on the list. So pupils would not be able to talk about things that interest or are important to them. Whether it be musical instruments or sports, but also their nationality, family members, personal circumstances. And some of these will impinge on protected equality rights. I have pupils who will be a bit disappointed they can’t learn the word “dragon” or “ice skating”, but it’s quite another matter to say it would be “unhelpful” to learn “Portuguese”, “step mum” or “wheel chair” or “non-binary sibling”. I am sure these questions will be resolved or any misunderstanding corrected. Which is exactly why we are having the consultation.
Possible Unintended Consequences
There are some aspects of the proposals and their good intentions which seem somewhat naïve. The use of defined vocabulary lists to make Listening and Reading more “accessible” may turn out to have exactly the opposite consequences. The same number of pupils will still have to get questions wrong, in order to give the spread of grades from 1 to 9. If the vocabulary is either known or glossed, then this throws us back on precisely the kind of tricky questions based on traps that we currently suffer from. In fact it seems to embrace the idea that the exams don’t test listening and reading strategies or understanding of the message, but rather act as a grammar and vocabulary test.
While I fully agree with the importance of phonics, I am worried that having reading aloud and dictation in the exam misunderstands how exams work. It is fundamental to exams, that pupils get questions wrong. A grade 6 pupil on the Higher Tier has to get about half the questions wrong. A reading aloud test or a dictation where most pupils have to get most of it wrong is not a friendly check that the sound-spelling link is secure. I assume it is intended to ensure schools are explicitly teaching phonics. But the teaching of phonics is so beneficial to all areas of language learning, I don’t think these strong-arm tactics are required.
The most controversial element of the proposals is the focus on testing memorisation of vocabulary and understanding of grammar, without mentioning communication. This is most apparent in the removal of the Conversation part of the speaking exam. It seems to be a result of a determination to end the delivery of long rote-learned fancy answers that was encouraged by the previous Controlled Assessment GCSE. It is a reminder that this proposed new GCSE is based on the Review of the MFL landscape in the years up to 2016.
Since then, we have started to see a welcome return to teaching pupils to communicate spontaneously. For example, many teachers have started using sentence builders as scaffolding for speaking and writing, to teach pupils to use a core repertoire that they can apply to any topic. This widespread development has been completely missed by the DfE panel. Both in terms of a transformation in what pupils are now expected to say and write, and also in the use of “chunking” of language to develop automaticity before leading on to manipulation of grammatical forms.
The DfE must consider the effect on teachers who are fine-tuning their curriculum from KS2 – KS3 transition, through to GCSE. A curriculum based on pupils acquiring a growing repertoire of language that they can deploy with increasing independence and creativity. These proposals represent a deliberate change of direction, requiring the sweeping away of schemes of work, resources, progression models, assessments, and exemplars. In the middle of a pandemic, and for the cohort of pupils who will shortly be going into Year 8.
More importantly, spontaneous communication is not just a valuable objective and self-expression is not just what pupils want to learn to do. They are vital in the language-learning process. Learning to use the language cannot be postponed until all the grammar and all the vocabulary have been learned. It is by using the language from the start that the pupil develops the conscious and unconscious schemata that make learning happen. Being allowed to communicate requires the pupil to draw on their entire developing repertoire. Making the links, seeing how it works, and exploring its limits. It gathers their knowledge into a snowball, stopping their language from melting away, and means more and more language will stick to the snowball they already have. Learning to use the language has to keep pace with learning more language. In fact, I would reverse that and say that learning more language has to keep pace with the pupil’s ability to use what they are learning. Without the aim of self-expression, creativity, and increasing spontaneity, there is no language-learning.
Cite this article
Everett, Vincent. 2021. 'The proposed changes to GCSE in Modern Languages: a teacher's view'. Languages, Society and Policy.