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Jacqui Turner on the new MFL A-levels

 Jacqui Turner is an experienced, practising teacher of A-level French. She kindly sent me her  views on the draft subject content being proposed for the new MFL A-levels to be taught from September 2016. She writes:

Steve has written extensively about the proposed changes and new forms of assessment, so I don’t intend to repeat those here. Rather this is a personal reaction, from a teacher who has extensive knowledge and experience of teaching A Level and supporting practitioners in other schools. I’ve deliberated for quite some time about this post before putting pen to paper, so to speak, because my first response is actually one of disappointment over a number of issues.

Firstly, I was somewhat dismayed over the makeup of the group putting forward these new recommendations. There was no representation from the examination boards; I consider this to be a major oversight, as there seem to be some exaggerations, even inaccuracies, in what is asserted by ALCAB over the current picture of assessment at A Level. Furthermore, there were very few current practising A Level teachers on the Board and one of those teachers is employed in the independent sector. I would imagine that the challenges facing an MFL teacher in a comprehensive school are very different from those in a selective school, particularly as regards recruitment of students to A Level programmes. 

Additionally, the report makes constant reference to what is ‘intrinsically’ motivating to A Level students, in the absence of a student voice, I feel that their teachers would then be best placed to comment on this.
Throughout, we are reminded that a major aim of this proposal is to reinvigorate and revitalise language teaching, it is a shame then that what is put forward is a return to form of assessment which was used over ten years ago. Language teachers of a certain age and experience will certainly be very familiar with the proposed scheme of assessment. If it had been ‘right’ then, would there have been a need to deviate from this? 

This revitalisation is needed, the report reminds us, because at the moment too many MFL lessons are ‘dull and uninspiring’. Scant evidence is cited for this stark claim, so whether this comes from Ofsted reports, anecdotal accounts etc we are left to ponder. A repetition of subject matter between GCSE and AS Level is largely to blame for such boring teaching. Whilst there is some overlap of topics, I know from my own experience that students finds this reassuring that they recognise key topic areas before embarking on the course. The perceived ‘jump’ from GCSE to AS is often quoted as being a turn-off to potential students. In my experience though, the vast majority of language teachers simply use this ‘overlap’ as a mere springboard which then becomes the vehicle by which more complex vocabulary and constructions can be introduced. It is also a helpful way to measure and demonstrate progress beyond GCSE – that is after all, the aim of each and every lesson! The articles used to justify these wide sweeping claims date from 1997 and 2004 – I would have hoped and expected that such radical proposals would have been based on more current research into classroom practice.

The content of current AS and A level specifications is further criticised as it could feasibly be taught with no, or minimal, reference to the target language society. I do not deny this claim, but very few teachers with whom I work, do not take these opportunities to bring the country into lessons, whether that is with newspaper or magazine articles , YouTube clips and so on, whilst MFL teachers across the country return from holidays abroad laden with examples of realia to be exploited in lessons. I myself could not conceive of teaching the topic of the environment without investigating the socio-political background of France’s nuclear policy or the immigration topic without news footage of the 2005 riots. Indeed, it is precisely these lessons that have really piqued the students’ interests, given rise to heated classroom debates and sparked their intellectual curiosity. The report claims that such content has little value, beyond the practical, something that I cannot agree with and it is the ability to converse at such a high level that students do find intrinsically motivating. 

Furthermore, discrete assessment of students’ cultural knowledge has produced some unusual results – when working as an examiner for an examination board , I remember credit being given for simply knowing that Le Monde was an example of a French newspaper!

Therefore, in order to ‘reconnect languages with cultures’, we will now have to introduce some specific aspect of culture, be it a film, body of poetry, Francophone region from AS. I have a number of concerns and questions from a teaching point of view:

-who will choose this topic?
-is it envisaged that all students will study the same topic?
-where will materials come from?
-why must the works studied come from a pre-determined list? (The current theme I study with my classes is on that prescribed list, so this is not sour grapes!)

My current Year 12 group is a mixture of humanities and science / mathematics students, I relish this diversity which was after all one of the key arguments for the introduction of the AS qualification. However, I do fear that these proposed written ‘context’ questions may deter the less ‘arty’ students who do not enjoy this type of study. 

Moving on to year 13, students will have to engage in a personal ‘individual research’ project.  Whilst no-one would doubt that developing and honing good research skills is an important precursor to embarking on undergraduate courses, I do have concerns about student access to reliable, up to date information and the amount of lesson time that will be needed for this, which could otherwise be spent  on developing active language skills. 

At both AS and A Level, the speaking test will involve a presentation on these cultural themes. I am worried that this will produce the very ‘rote learnt’ pieces which the report actually criticises. Perhaps it is for this reason that an external examiner is requested by the ALCAB group for the conduct of AS speaking examinations. It will be interesting to see examination boards’ responses to this, as it brings with it training and logistical costs. 

The ALCAB report also states, incorrectly in my opinion, that currently it is possible to perform well at A Level without sound knowledge of grammar. In the speaking examination grammar is marked throughout the 15 minute ‘performance’ at both AS and A Level and in both written papers there are specific grammar sections, involving completion of cloze type exercises testing concepts such as verb tense endings, adjectival agreement, word order etc. This requires careful preparation on the part of both teachers and students and cannot realistically be taught without discrete grammar teaching. Indeed at AS, a multiple choice type of exercise is proposed which I would contend is less rigorous than that which is currently on offer. 

Steve and other language teachers have mentioned the issues with the proposed translation parts of the written paper, so I won’t dwell on that here, but I would remind readers that there is already with the AQA board a translation exercise from French into English, though this does not seem to be acknowledged by the ALCAB report. 

ALCAB justify some of these changes as an attempt to broaden and increase students’ knowledge of vocabulary. I personally do not think these proposals will achieve this aim as I think the cultural elements such as literature, film, study of a region, require a very exclusive, specialised lexis which is not necessarily required in everyday life. 

All in all, I’m left somewhat dismayed by what has been put forward here, especially from the perspective of our future A Level students. There was the chance to do something innovative, yet what we have been given is a retrograde step in my view, which takes us back to a form of assessment abandoned some ten years ago. I urge the examination boards to engage with current, practising and experienced A Level teachers to try to produce something which can excite, challenge and equip our students for the challenge of successful language learning.

Jacqueline Turner
30 July 2014


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