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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.

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