Skip to main content

Dangers of rubrics and questions in the target language

I've just been looking at the Cambridge IGCSE French writing paper (2015 specimen paper 4).*  Have a glance at questions 2 and 3. It is a reminder of the dangers of writing task questions in the target language. Good candidates will understand what they have to write, weaker students will be confused, not recognise tense cues or may just carelessly misinterpret the question. The result in both cases will be that they write irrelevant material which will produce a low mark unrepresentative of their writing skill.

Now, in general, if you are going to assess each skill separately (listening, reading, speaking and writing) I tend to favour the use of target language where possible. I know this may not be a majority view! My reasoning is that if you set questions in English, the backwash effect (test dictating teaching) will mean that textbooks and teachers will inevitably overuse English in lessons as they do their best to prepare ther students for the exam. Pedagogy will suffer and students will hear and read less target language. Put another way, there will be less comprehensible input.

However, with written papers it is particularly important that there be no confusion in students' minds. In this case, if we wish to assess a candidate's ability to write connected French in a semi-authentic way (email, letter, social media message) we do need the bullet points or title to be written in English. In terms of comprehensible input little is lost in this case.

But what about the risk of uncertainty in listening and reading papers if target language is used exclusively? I understand the argument: teachers say it is fairer and more reliable to just ask questions in English. But I woudl argue that in this case any confusion should be much more limited and should not destroy a candidate's performance. Using pictures, matching, gap fill and so on helps a good deal in terms of staying in the TL. I acknowledge that students' comprehension may not be assessed absolutely perfectly, but it is worth paying this small price for the huge gains which would be made in the classroom.

Some might argue that teachers are smart enough to maintain a solid TL approach, even if the exam features a good deal of English. Well, firstly I would say that we know from experience what text book writers and teachers do in reality. Textbooks give exam practice and teachers do past papers - lots of them! Secondly, maybe more importantly, a good test should, as far as possible, reflect good practice and be an extension of normal classroom teaching.

I doubt if we shall ever square this circle, but when we eventually see what the next generation of GCSE papers looks like, I hope common sense wins the day in writing assessments.

* If you are not used to the system in England and Wales, the same principles may apply to exam papers you are familiar with.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Preparing for GCSE speaking: building a repertoire

As your Y11 classes start their final year of GCSE, one potential danger of moving from Controlled Assessment to terminal assessment of speaking is to believe that in this new regime there will be little place for the rote learning or memorisation of language. While it is true that the amount of learning by heart is likely to go down and that greater use of unrehearsed (spontaneous) should be encouraged, there are undoubtedly some good techniques to help your pupils perform well on the day.

I clearly recall, when I marked speaking tests for AQA 15-20 years ago, that schools whose candidates performed the best were often those who had prepared their students with ready-made short paragraphs of language. Candidates who didn't sound particularly like "natural linguists" (e.g. displaying poor accents) nevertheless got high marks. As far as an examiner is concerned is doesn't matter if every single candidate says that last weekend they went to the cinema, saw a James Bond…

Worried about the new GCSEs?

Twitter and MFL Facebook groups are replete with posts expressing concerns about the new GCSEs and, in particular, the difficulty of the exam, grades and tiers. I can only comment from a distance since I am no longer in the classroom, but I have been through a number of sea changes in assessment over the years so may have something useful to say.

Firstly, as far as general difficulty of papers is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the new assessment is harder (not necessarily in terms of grades though). This is particularly evident in the writing tasks and speaking test. Although it will still be possible to work in some memorised material in these parts of the exam, there is no doubt that weaker candidates will have more problems coping with the greater requirement for unrehearsed language. Past experience working with average to very able students tells me some, even those with reasonable attainment, will flounder on the written questions in the heat of the moment. Others will…