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Comprehension and how to improve GCSE

In my last post I reflected on how, because teachers love to teach to the test, the test has to be good and has to encourage the right methodology. What is wrong with the current GCSE exam and how could we go some way to fixing it so that it reflects sound teaching methodology?

Currently 30% of marks are awarded for speaking and 30% for writing. In addition, these skills are tested by controlled assessment which, notwithstanding its benefits, encourages the rote learning of chunks of language, focus on technique and takes time away from enjoyable, communicative lessons, filled with target language.

Only 40% of marks, therefore, are awarded for comprehension of the language.

Now, I have previously written about how I have some admiration for the Comprehension Hypothesis advanced by Stephen Krashen. Without getting too airy-fairy about this, he claims, somewhat uncontroversially in fact, that acquisition occurs when learners are given access to "comprehensible input". If a student hears and reads language he or she understands, acquisition will take place at a subconscious level. Even traditional supporters of the oral approach, with its insistence on structured practice alongside authentic communication, most probably assume that long term acquisition occurs because of lots of contact with meaningful target language. (I used to say to classes that if they listened carefully, nature would take its course.)

If we are to encourage the use of comprehension-based activities in the classroom, then the final exam should reflect this by rewarding comprehension more and accurate writing and speaking less. Therefore, the current allocation of marks is the wrong way round and we should be rewarding listening and reading to a greater degree. If we did so, teachers would inevitably spend more time on target language comprehension and the horse would now drag the cart.

I would go further: if we spent less time on grammar drilling, learning oral and written chunks by heart, vocabulary learning and more time on communicative tasks with the focus on comprehension of interesting topics, students might feel less threatened and enjoy languages more.

So, when the GCSE is revised, I hope that we allocate no more than 20% of marks to writing and at least 60% of marks to comprehension. I have wondered if we should still award as much as 30% to speaking, since speaking is a highly valued and clearly important skill, but if we believe that the key to good practice and effective acquisition is comprehension, then I would be happy to see it devalued a bit.

If you like the theory stuff, here is a link to an article which summarises the case for comprehension:

http://sdkrashen.com/articles/Comprehension_Hypothesis_Extended.pdf

It isn't long.

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