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The ALCAB report on A-level modern languages

ALCAB stands for A-Level Content Advisory Board. It is a panel of university academics who took advice from a range of stakeholders, including the ALL, subject associations, with a little input from schools (notably independent ones) and other bodies.

Here is their report:
https://alevelcontent.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/alcab-report-of-panel-on-modern-foreign-and-classical-languages-july-2014.pdf

The panel identified five weaknesses in the current AS and A level. I shall add my own gloss to each criticism in turn.

(a) The regulatory requirements are of such a general nature that they do not require awarding organisations to prescribe topics which require students’ direct engagement with material relating to the society of the countries where the language of study is spoken.

On the one hand, this appears to be a criticism of the lack of prescribed texts we now see (with the exception of the WJEC). The panel believe that teachers cannot be trusted to select material, whether it be from literature, film, history or elsewhere. On the other, it also suggests that there is not enough reading and listening material which relates to the culture of the target language.

There may be some truth in the fact that teachers' choices of texts, films and so on are inconsistent across schools, but I do not believe that students are getting an inadequate diet of material relating to the societies of the languages being studied.

 (b) The study of cultural topics is only an A2 option and general topics predominate, some of which are studied and restudied at GCSE, AS and A level. Despite examples of good practice by awarding organisations and inspiring teaching, this can make the current syllabus rather dull and uninspiring, particularly at AS level. 

I reject the claim that material being studied at A-level is a rehash of GCSE style subject matter. A2 material is fundamentally different and more challenging. At AS level, there are GCSE-style topics and for good reason. AS level needs to have a link with GCSE in terms of progression and it is already the case that some students find the leap from GCSE to A-level difficult. The future AS level is, of course, supposed to be "decoupled" from A-level and pitched at the same level, so we are not comparing like with like in relation to the existing AS level and any new one. If AS level is decoupled (a future Labour government may undo this) then Y11 students will be discouraged even more from starting an AS in MFL if it is harder.

What students and teachers find dull is a matter of taste, but I would note that the AQA did a lot of focus group work on this around 2000 before designing their specifications. As a result they chose topics which they thought would be of interest to students. My experience was that students rarely found the topics dull and usually had plenty to talk about in the target language. In addition, we must make sure that future exams cater for all abilities, not just an academic elite.

(c) The language of study tends to be conceived principally in terms of its immediate practical use and in isolation from the student’s competence in other languages. There is therefore no encouragement to develop a more searching understanding of linguistic systems. 

I don't really get this criticism. In my view "immediate practical use" should remain the fundamental aim. Topics are a vehicle for us to get students listening, speaking, reading and writing. I do not believe we need to focus particularly on "developing a more searching understanding of linguistic systems". What does this mean? There is an overlap in topics currently across different modern languages, but little I have seen in the new subject content will change this.

(d) The intention to promote accuracy in language use is not carried through in practice and some awarding organisations advise examiners not to penalise grammatical mistakes in some parts of the written examination. There is a need for balance between fluency and accuracy. 

This is the classic plea from universities to schools to produce more accurate linguists. "We have to teach them grammar when they arrive at university." We already have a balance between fluency and accuracy. There is a strong traditional bias towards accuracy and I would argue that we still lean a fraction too far towards accuracy. University lecturers are academics whose prime interest is not practical use of the language. In schools we should continue to focus on fluency, comprehension and general proficiency, with proper regard to accuracy.

No doubt some teachers and schools are better than others at promoting grammatical rigour, but we do not need to fundamentally alter our specifications to account for this.


(e) The existing requirements do not promote the development of transferable critical skills. Such development is an important part of language learning. 

I am not sure it should be a major focus. Yes, A-level MFL is rather like teaching general studies through he medium of a foreign language, but, I repeat, the stress should  be on language. The above argument about critical skills ends up with students writing essays in English as part of an MFL course. This is wrong.


It is regrettable that universities are being allowed to dictate the nature A-level modern language courses as they did many years ago. We need to attract as many students as possible. The panel acknowledges as much in its statement of context. I do not think we will do so by a return to a more traditional curriculum. I must be part of the Blob.

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