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The problem with specs

In the days of Zeppelin and Floyd we didn't have specifications or syllabuses for modern languages. Like the British constitution, we relied on tradition. We also looked carefully at past papers and made sure our students were prepared for what they would encounter in the prose, unseen translation, comprehension and essays. The nearest we came to a syllabus was the sometimes unappealing list of prescribed literary texts from which we could select. We were effectively preparing students for a French degree at university.

We are probably in a better place now. We test listening skills, use more authentic texts and rely less on translation at A-Level. We also have a clearly explained specification which lists topics, structures, skills and which tells us what will be in the exams and how the mark schemes work. All this enables us to be far more explicit with students about how they will be assessed. We also know that most of our students will not continue with French in higher education and we want them to use their language as a practical tool.

But with modern specs come a number of issues. Whenever you tell teachers what will be taught and assessed, they nearly always do their best to follow instructions to the letter. They follow the spec faithfully, making sure they stick to the topics: media, cinema, new technology, sport etc. There is some sense in this too, because the topics have been chosen by exam boards to supposedly match with students' interests. Indeed students and teachers are consulted carefully when the spec is drawn up. The problem, however, is that in this desire to prepare students effectively, teachers may avoid doing other topics, going off the syllabus, taking risks. If writing is assessed by essay, teachers set lots of essays instead of summary, translation, question and answer. Teachers are encouraged to play safe by text books designed to fit the spec closely and which are sponsored by exam boards. (Have you noticed how dull and uncreative these books and their associated online tasks are?)

Furthermore, when mark schemes are spelled out in detail, teachers spend an inordinate amount of time preparing students to attain the highest grades. I inwardly groan when I display a mark scheme and explain carefully what hoops to have to jump through to make sure you get the highest mark. (Marks which, by the way, as I have commented on previously, often depend as much upon ideas and structure as on linguistic skill.)

I would not argue that we should turn to the 1970s way of doing things, but I do suggest that we should be less slavish to the specs, keeping in mind that the structures and vocabulary we teach are often transferable to all kinds of topics. We should be creative, not use resources because they happen to be in the text book, do other topics beyond the specs, see A-Level as general studies through the medium of French, whilst making sure we do what we must to ensure students are well prepared for their exam.


  1. music (and art, and drama, and cultural awareness, and maths, and geography, and grammatical understanding, and a little dash of this and that, here and there!) to my ears!


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