Skip to main content

Draft content for new MFL A-levels

The key documents from Ofqual, which I recommend you read, are here:

Subject content:


 The documents are short but there is a fair bit to take in, including quite significant changes from what we have now. Ofqual are under some time pressure with this, no doubt, but what a shame the consultations end in mid to late September. Many teachers may not be switched on to these things over the summer break.

The draft content draws strongly on the recommendations of the A-level Advisory Panel which consists entirely of university academics, with little input from the secondary school sector. Teachers may feel concerned, even angry, that they have had so much influence over the new content. I do not believe university lecturers know a great deal about A-level and would be overly concerned with that declining minority of A-level linguists who go on to study languages in higher education.

In this blogpost I am going to look at the subject content. I'll write separately on the assessment. Here is my take so far.

Headlines: new focus, explicitly assessed, on cultural content with a return to prescribed lists of texts (only literature and film), a new emphasis on personal research, a retreat from target language use, more "academic" topics and a reaffirmation of the place of translation to and from the target language.

The draft aims and objectives lay a greater stress on critical thinking and culture and society, as well as language. Students should "engage critically with intellectually stimulating texts, films and other materials in the
original language, developing an appreciation of sophisticated and creative uses of the language and understanding them within their cultural and social context". Students should "develop their capacity for critical and analytical thinking both through the language of study and in English" (my italics).

The section on subject content reaffirms clearly the importance of culture: "The content for AS and A level is conceived as an integrated study with a focus on language and culture and society." It goes on:

The specifications must require students to develop knowledge and understanding, through the language of study, of aspects of the society, culture and history of the country or countries where the language is spoken, studying one theme at AS and two themes at A-level from each of the following areas of interest (i.e. 3 themes at AS; 6 themes at A level):
• social issues and phenomena
• politics, current affairs and history
intellectual culture, past and present (my italics)

The Ofqual report does not elaborate on these themes,but the ALCAB report, from which they emerged, lists topics such as the Algerian war, surrealism, the New Wave, existentialism French mathematics, laïcité and school. I note in passing that quite a few of these do not lend themselves to very communicative lessons (I develop this in later blogs).
Further down: students will have to "translate an unseen passage or passages from the language of study into English and unseen sentences or short texts at AS and an unseen passage or passages at A level from English into the language of study." 

At AS level students will have to study a literary work or film. At A-level they must study two works, at least one of which must be literature. Students will have to write about either a book or film in English.

Finally, students will have to carry out a personal research study on a topic they choose, writing about it and giving an oral presentation.

I have a few observations so far. It may be worth mentioning that I taught A-level French for 35 years, so have seen a few changes in emphasis over the years.
1.  Many teachers will regret the return of prescribed lists of texts and films, even if, as most do, they want to see a strong cultural content element at A-level. I imagine this was seen as a necessity for two reasons. Firstly, examiners will need to know texts or films well to apply a given mark scheme. Currently there are no marks as such for cultural content - a somewhat anomalous situation to say the least. 
Secondly, a prescribed list ensures "rigour" and consistency across schools. The chosen texts or films will be chosen to be equally challenging in terms of language and content. Teachers will not be able to opt for anything shallow or too short. I understand those arguments, but the problem with prescribed lists is that sometimes that they do not always allow teachers to play to their own strengths and those of their students. You can end up (I know from experience) teaching something you do not have your heart in. 
Whilst free choice causes difficulties for assessment (the examiner may not know the text or film), we have muddled through with the current assessment based on language, structure and relevance to the title. In addition, experience suggests prescribed lists will include familiar, arguably unexciting and unoriginal works from the canon: what Michael Gove might have described as a selection of the best of the literary and cinematic culture. Fans of art, music, literature and geography will regret the downgrading of these from the prescribed list. It would be possible, of course, for students to do personal study on these.
So, on balance, just, I regret the return to prescribed lists. At least we have kept cinema, the bias towards literature displayed in the GCSE content is only partially maintained.

2.  I welcome he emphasis on personal research. It is not new, of course. In the days of coursework it was a part of the course many students valued and I marked some superb long essays over the years. I believe that the Edexcel board currently offers something along these lines at present.  It will be interesting to see how this is assessed in writing and during the oral. I welcome the fact that students will have the opportunity to research a topic of their own. Some find this quite daunting, take a while to settle on a theme and need a good deal of nursing through the process, but the results are often superb.

3.  At first view it looks like the quantity of work has risen. At A-level two works plus a personal research project looks like more than what most schools do now. Given that there are only so many hours in the week and that most students already work very hard, something else would have to give. That something would presumably be routine topic work from texts, audio, video and so on. If students are heavily focused on two texts/films and a personal study, this limits the time for other work.

4.  The insistence on using English for writing about one of the books/films is a seriously retrograde step. It's a mistake. It comes from the Russell Group universities who do more of thsi type of activity. The feeling is no doubt that students need to write in English to be able to express more profound ideas and to show a high level of critical analysis, but the backwash effect from the exam will lead to more use of English in the classroom, more practice essays in English and less use of the target language. Acquisition will inevitably take a hit. We know that students are capable of writing at quite a high level in the target language and Ofqual should have stuck with target language as a priority. A-level is not university and we should  be wary of returning to the days when universities set the agenda.

5.  The reaffirmation of translation at AS and A-level is also, in my view, a mistake. It is consistent with the subject content for GCSE, but once again, the cart will lead the horse, and teachers and students will use too much English in classrooms. I strongly stress that grammatical rigour can be had without recourse to translation. Similarly, detailed comprehension of texts does not require testing through translation. Again, I wonder whether universities had their say here. Translation is a specialised skill, not the best way to develop long term acquisition.

I have always been clear about this: translation can have a place, but if you put it in an exam it ends up occupying too much time in class.

Teachers who want to take part in the DfE consultation should look here:

You can fill in an Ofqual consultaion form here (scroll down):


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.


_____. 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…