Monday, 6 July 2015

Opinions

Since GCSE began mark schemes have always rewarded pupils' ability to express opinions. I never really got this.

It is easy to teach pupils a set of phrases to include in their speech and writing - "je pense que, je crois que, à mon avis, à mon sens" etc - but why would we want to particularly reward the learning of a narrow range of set phrases?

When students wrote GCSE coursework essays in the pre controlled assessment era, they could ensure they gained a significantly higher mark by including opinion phrases. If they wrote "je pense que" this was even better because it meant they were creating a subordinate clause and complex sentences were needed to gain the highest marks. The current regime of written controlled assessment awards highest marks for "explaining ideas and points of view" (AQA). The Speaking CA mark scheme descriptors for Communication refer to "points of view" and "opinions" (AQA).

The draft AQA GCSE Speaking mark schemes for first teaching from September 2016 continue to award the highest marks to candidates who offer and explain opinions. A proficient speaker who does not express opinions cannot get a high mark. This seems silly to me.

Now, opinion giving is one function of language among many. Others include expressing agreement, apology, intention, sympathy, blame, desire, persuasion, obligation. Why do we place opinion giving on a pedestal? Why do GCSE mark schemes not reward students who express other functions of language (asking questions springs to mind - a more important function than offering opinion).

My hypothesis on this is that when the communicative approach to language teaching became fashionable, along with some acceptance that language functions were as important as grammar in communicating messages, then syllabuses tried to acknowledge this. Mark schemes, for some reason, found a special place for opinion giving ahead of other functions. Since then tradition has taken over and we continue to see opinions given pride of place because they are there already.

If we really value the functional nature of language we should include reference in mark schemes to a wider range of functions. However, this would become unwieldy, so I would rather we adopted a "cleaner" approach and valued range of grammar and vocabulary and not tie pupils down to churning out pre-learned opinion phrases.

When we assess a linguist we need to know how much of the spoken and written word they understand. In assessing their speaking and writing we should value, above all, their ability to manipulate creatively grammar and vocabulary. We can also reward memorised language, but we should not be placing a high value on the rote learning of a particular set of phrases, taken from one function of language among many.






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2 comments:

  1. Hi Steve - I might be way out on this one, but I suspect that we have the opinions because in most other subject areas you have to express a point of view and support it with evidence from a text or data, so perhaps this is the powers-that-be's way of doing it in MFL? Of course, as we all know, MFL is quite different to other subjects!

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  2. I had not thought of it that way, but it seems unlikely to me that that would be the reason. Thanks for leaving a comment. Reflecting on this further, I suppose there is not a clear distinction between an opinion and a statement. If you say "My town is superb" - it is a statement but also an opinion.

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