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Cart before horse

British teachers, like most others, teach to tests. It is vital, therefore, that the test be a good one. If the test is good, it will reflect good classroom practice.

So let's look at A-level and GCSE for a moment.

At A-level in MFL I would contend that there are major elements in those papers which do not necessarily reflect good classroom practice and which are the remnants of tradition and the influence of universities. I am talking principally about translation, especially translation into the target language. You see, once you include a significant number of marks for translation sentences or passages, teachers will spend a good deal of time working over practice sentences. They would be foolish not to if they want their students to get the best results. Now, time spent on going through English sentences and grammatical analysis is time taken away from high quality immersion or "comprehensible input". This means that progress in comprehension and oral fluency will be compromised.

The solution is to remove translation into the target language papers from the exam and to replace it with other tests of grammar and vocabulary set in the target language.

Why has this not already happened?

My guess is that tradition plays a major role, along with the view that translation is somehow more intellectually taxing and serious than other forms of assessment. It may also be felt that it is a concise way of assessing a range of syntax and vocabulary. I would not argue that there there is no place for translation, but if you put it in the exam, teachers will spend too long on it in the classroom.

The same backwash effect is apparent at GCSE, where the insistence on discrete skill testing of speaking, listening, reading and writing has led to forms of assessment using too much English. (Curiously, this insistence does not apply at A-level - logical?) If you set listening and reading tests with questions in English, then teachers will use English in lessons and text book writers (who are in league with the exam boards anyway)will publish books littered with English. (Just take a look at the AQA/Nelson offering, for example.)

So, if the cart is to come before the horse, it has to be a well-designed cart which works in harness with the horse.

Was harness too much there?

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