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MFL GCSE Subject Content April 2014

So, let's have a look at the final subject content for MFL as published by the DfE this month. This is what exam boards will use to guide their specifications for teaching from September 2016. There is a consultation on the document, but I've done it and it only relates to chosen aspects, not the details of the document.

Here is the link to the document:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/302152/GCSE_modern_languages.pdf

Firstly, it's only five pages long. For the flesh on these bones wait for exam board specs. As they say in the introduction:

Together with the assessment objectives it provides the framework within which the awarding organisations create the detail of their specifications, so ensuring progression from key stage 3 national curriculum requirements and the possibilities for development into A Level.

In passing it is worth mentioning that academies, independents and free schools could ignore all this, but they would be unwise to do so since they will be teaching to exams based on the DfE's content.

The "subject aims and learning outcomes section" is pretty uncontroversial, although I would just pick up on the phrase "standard speech at near normal speed". In reality it is unlikely exams will feature anything like this, depending on what you understand by near normal speed. Currently, even at A-level we do not get that close to near normal speed. The following sentence is also a change of emphasis, I believe:

Specifications should enable to students to:  be encouraged to make appropriate links to other areas of the curriculum to enable bilingual and deeper learning, where the language may become a medium for constructing and applying knowledge.
This is a nod to CLIL (teaching other subjects through the target language), which is laudable, although in practice I think this will remain a marginal area.

Now, to the meat of the document: the subject content.....

We see the reference to "literary texts" (appropriate to this level) - don't worry, colleagues, you won't be teaching novels to reluctant 15 year-olds. I imagine we can expect a greater emphasis on short highly adapted literary extracts a bit more poetry and narrative language in general. This is what they say:

Literary texts can include extracts and excerpts, adapted and abridged as appropriate, from poems, letters, short stories, essays, novels or plays from contemporary and historical sources, subject to copyright 
This is probably a good thing if the content is interesting. My view on this is that it is not the style of language (fact or fiction) which counts here, but how compelling any reading or listening material is. This is down to text book writers and exam setters. Narrative prose may offer more scope for creative language use and is often easier to exploit orally. The general contexts from which language will be taken are listed as: (1) identity (2) culture, local, national, international and global areas of interest and (3) current and future study and employment. That's all we learn about subject matter - the exam boards will interpret what this means.

In the "scope of study" section which follows we get a breakdown by skill of the type of activity students will be expected to do. The Listening section contains nothing I can see which is particularly controversial. there is a reference to "standard speech"; I am not entirely sure what this means, but I daresay we will not expect to hear strong accents, dialect or much in the way of slang.

In the Speaking section one can detect an emphasis on spontaneity and extended speech. What this will mean in practice is hard to say. Oqual and the awarding bodies will be aware of what has gone wrong with Controlled Assessments in terms of rote memorisation of chunks of language, so maybe we shall see (as with the current AQA IGCSE) a greater use of picture to stimulate spontaneous speech. But beware, if you take away the learned speech from weak candidates they will flounder. I know this as a former examiner. The new specs in all subjects are meant to be more challenging, but with current timetable constraints and for many other reasons we are not going to see a transformation in performance from students, so expect generous mark schemes and easy sections for weak students.

In the Reading section we see one highly controversial inclusion:

translate a short passage from the assessed language into English

Welcome back to the 1950s! I have blogged on this before, but suffice it to say that translating into the mother tongue can be enjoyable, challenging and useful, but if you put it is an exam teachers will spend too much time on this skill and thus neglect using the target language in the classroom. Translating into English should have no place in a GCSE exam. This is an error. There are better ways to test comprehension of detail which do not involve using English as much.

In the Writing section we read that students will:

translate sentences and short texts from English into the assessed language to convey key messages accurately and to apply grammatical knowledge of language and structures in context

I believe this is also a retrograde and mistaken inclusion. It is there because someone thinks we will teach grammar more rigorously by using translation. I have no problem with occasional translation into the target language as an alternative exercise type: some students like it, it probably fixes grammar and it appeals to the puzzle-solver. Once again, however, the backwash effect will take over and it will lead to bad classroom practice as teachers desperately prepare students to get the best exam grade. Target language will suffer, authentic communication will go out the window.

One final point which concerns teachers. Will questions be in the target language or is English allowed. the answer?


The overall rubrics containing instructions to candidates may continue to be in English, as at present. Questions for the majority of modern languages may be set in the assessed language or English, as appropriate to the task. They should be set in the language in which the candidate is expected to respond. 
This may please most teachers, although I have my reservations since, again, there will be a temptation for teachers to use too much English in the classroom. They already do.

So, make of it what you will. I just hope that common sense will prevail on the translation issue and that we see the minimum amount on exam papers. If that is the case teachers will not feel the need to do too much of it in class.



 


Comments

  1. Great post Steve. Totally agree with your concerns re potential backwash effect on classroom practice of translation. The boards really have to pay lip service to this aspect and award it minimal marks. When I did my O Level the oral was worth 5%. Guess what we never did in class!

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  2. Thanks for commenting. I wonder how much leeway the boards will have with Ofqual breathing down their necks. By then Monsieur Gove might be gone. This has his fingerprints over it.

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