Monday, 4 May 2009

Reflections on the new GCSEs in England and Wales (1)

One thing they got wrong with the design of the new GCSE exam which our 14 year year-olds will start in September was the mark weightings. Thet are as follows:

Listening 20%
Reading 20%
Speaking 30%
Writing 30%

I have come to believe that the primary skill to we should develop is listening. In child language acquisition it is the key to everything and second language learning learning should reflect this. Spoken fluency is dependent on listening. Our competence with grammar (our internalised rule system) is partly dependent on listening. It is the very way we learn languages. In the everyday use of a foreign language the skill most of us require is listening. We can only converse with people if we can understand what they are saying. Listening is the skill which should predominate in our classrooms.

The second most useful skill we need is probably speaking. Most people judge someone's ability with a language as their ability to speak it. In human language listening and speaking are primary, reading and writing were secondary developments. A case could be made for reading, since, like listening, it is a major source of input and in many jobs where language skills are needed, it is reading which is a key necessity.

Writing is the least important skill even though it has traditionally been highly valued in education.

The weightings we have for the new GCSE were forced upon us by the need for 60% of marks to be based on "controlled assessment" (i.e. a non-external test). If linguists could have chosen their own weightings, they may have gone for something like this:

Listening 30%
Speaking 30%
Reading 20%
Writing 20%

For a number of years we have allotted 25% to each of the four skills, which, although neat and tidy, gave too much weight to writing. Further back in time, when grammar-translation predominated, writing was accorded even greater importance.

I think we have once again been the victims of a need to comply with a system designed for all subjects. The same happened with modular A-levels which did not suit us and the same happens with school timetables where one hour lessons do not suit us. But the people who design, with the best of intentions, new systems enjoy rigidity, conformity and consistency. I dare say our colleagues in other subject areas could find their own issues which stem from rigid systems of this type.

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