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Implications of topics to be covered in the new MFL A-levels

The Ofqual draft content of the proposed new A-Levels refers to three thematic strands which would form the basis of the subject matter studied. These themes were chosen by the ALCAB (Russell Group) advisory group to encourage students to engage with topics relating more directly to the culture of the target language. They feel that students arriving at university have too little knowledge of the literature, history and intellectual culture of the target language cultures.

Although the Ofqual document does not list in detail what might be studied, they have kept the three strands put forward by the Russell Group.

These are:
  • Social issues and phenomena
  • Politics, current affairs and history
  • Intellectual culture, past and present
The ALCAB report went into greater detail with an "indicative list" of topics which we may assume would be picked up by the examination boards. For example, under "social issues and phenomena" for French they suggest:

Les valeurs républicaines
Les provinces et les régions
La culture québecoise
Les Grands Projets
La laïcité
La liberté d'expression

Now, all of these are interesting subjects which would certainly increase a student's knowledge and understanding of the culture of the target language, but in terms of developing language skills, how would these be turned into lesson plans which would generate communication in the classroom?

From the list above, the only overlap with the current specifications would be valeurs républicaines, l'école, la liberté d'expression and laïcité which can form the basis of good discussion. Resources can be found for these topics and discussion, the lifeblood of A-level lessons, can be generated. Could a teacher get much communication out of les DOM-TOM, les Grands Projets or les provinces et les régions?

I know that as a teacher I would have avoided topics like these because they just don't generate conversations. The other two strands are even worse in this regard. How many A-Level teachers would want to plan exciting, communicative lessons on topics such as existentialism, French mathematics, surrealism, the French empire and decolonisation, the Algerian war and the Dreyfus case (these are all on the indicative list)?

You see, I think this gets to the heart of the matter. The Russell Group panel look at A-Level from the perspective of university academics whose focus is not the same as that of a school teacher. They value knowledge of culture and written accuracy more highly than teachers. They feel frustrated when freshers arrive with suspect written accuracy and a limited knowledge of literature, history and film. School teachers, on the other hand, rightly, want to motivate their classes with topics which will engage and even excite them and generate all kinds of communicative activities. They see topics as a means to get students using the language communicatively. They do not want to be talking and writing about literature history in English. In addition, many A-level students, particularly those who struggle a bit more, would find the ALCAB indicative lists very dull and off-putting.

The more I look at what is proposed, the more I think that we are going down the wrong track. I would have thought that the prime aim of universities in the current climate would be to keep their departments open. What is being proposed will, as the recent JCQ report suggests, do nothing to get more linguists doing A-Level.


  1. hi Steve, as a former Head of Modern Languages in a large rural comprehensive (now employed by a Russell Group institution) I would like to think that I can see both sides of your discussion of the A level proposals. It is very important to consider how such lists will be interpreted both by exam boards and by classroom teachers, the pragmatic counts. However, I think we need to appreciate that the work of academics is often to tackle the big themes arising from their areas of study and these are often more relevant to real lives that may at first be apparent. For example the nature of post colonial discourse between developed and developing countries offers a real opportunity to critically assess our assumptions about our place in the world and about justice, it is relevant to those communities in our schools who have family and friends in Dom-Tom countries but also to many others in the UK. As a lover of the works of Camus I can imagine many opportunities to get philosophical in the classroom too. I understand the Sisyphean task that is language teaching and know that is is best undertaken as part of a community. So if we are lacking resources and support in certain areas, let's solve this together and increase the understanding across sectors of the challenges that we all face to enthuse the next generation of linguists.

  2. Thank you for commenting. I understand what you are saying. Having taught Camus a good few times I also value how philosophy and history can be incorporated into A-Level lessons. Yes, the pragmatic counts for a lot, and we are a while away from seeing how far exam boards take up the indicative lists of topics. I come at this after years of a consensus that A-Level MFL is, as a chief examiner for AQA put, general studies through the medium of the target language. I still think this approach, plus a strong focus on language more than culture, is the way to go.

  3. Thanks Steve. I would love to see greater overt support from exam boards for the use of computer-mediated communication as a means to facilitate interaction with native speakers, there are so many opportunities now that weren't available when I was in secondary teaching! You are so right about the power of washback.

  4. Yes. Never underestimate the teacher's willingness to teach to the test. The backwash effect is very powerful indeed. I personally would regret all that time which may be given over to practising essay writing in English and translating, when communication in the target language could be going on. I agree with you, by the way, that we are exploiting far too little other ways of getting native speakers into the classroom, whether it be by Skype, Facetime, or even inviting that large number of French/Spanish/German etc people who live in our regions


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