Skip to main content

The ALCAB report on A-level modern languages

ALCAB stands for A-Level Content Advisory Board. It is a panel of university academics who took advice from a range of stakeholders, including the ALL, subject associations, with a little input from schools (notably independent ones) and other bodies.

Here is their report:
https://alevelcontent.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/alcab-report-of-panel-on-modern-foreign-and-classical-languages-july-2014.pdf

The panel identified five weaknesses in the current AS and A level. I shall add my own gloss to each criticism in turn.

(a) The regulatory requirements are of such a general nature that they do not require awarding organisations to prescribe topics which require students’ direct engagement with material relating to the society of the countries where the language of study is spoken.

On the one hand, this appears to be a criticism of the lack of prescribed texts we now see (with the exception of the WJEC). The panel believe that teachers cannot be trusted to select material, whether it be from literature, film, history or elsewhere. On the other, it also suggests that there is not enough reading and listening material which relates to the culture of the target language.

There may be some truth in the fact that teachers' choices of texts, films and so on are inconsistent across schools, but I do not believe that students are getting an inadequate diet of material relating to the societies of the languages being studied.

 (b) The study of cultural topics is only an A2 option and general topics predominate, some of which are studied and restudied at GCSE, AS and A level. Despite examples of good practice by awarding organisations and inspiring teaching, this can make the current syllabus rather dull and uninspiring, particularly at AS level. 

I reject the claim that material being studied at A-level is a rehash of GCSE style subject matter. A2 material is fundamentally different and more challenging. At AS level, there are GCSE-style topics and for good reason. AS level needs to have a link with GCSE in terms of progression and it is already the case that some students find the leap from GCSE to A-level difficult. The future AS level is, of course, supposed to be "decoupled" from A-level and pitched at the same level, so we are not comparing like with like in relation to the existing AS level and any new one. If AS level is decoupled (a future Labour government may undo this) then Y11 students will be discouraged even more from starting an AS in MFL if it is harder.

What students and teachers find dull is a matter of taste, but I would note that the AQA did a lot of focus group work on this around 2000 before designing their specifications. As a result they chose topics which they thought would be of interest to students. My experience was that students rarely found the topics dull and usually had plenty to talk about in the target language. In addition, we must make sure that future exams cater for all abilities, not just an academic elite.

(c) The language of study tends to be conceived principally in terms of its immediate practical use and in isolation from the student’s competence in other languages. There is therefore no encouragement to develop a more searching understanding of linguistic systems. 

I don't really get this criticism. In my view "immediate practical use" should remain the fundamental aim. Topics are a vehicle for us to get students listening, speaking, reading and writing. I do not believe we need to focus particularly on "developing a more searching understanding of linguistic systems". What does this mean? There is an overlap in topics currently across different modern languages, but little I have seen in the new subject content will change this.

(d) The intention to promote accuracy in language use is not carried through in practice and some awarding organisations advise examiners not to penalise grammatical mistakes in some parts of the written examination. There is a need for balance between fluency and accuracy. 

This is the classic plea from universities to schools to produce more accurate linguists. "We have to teach them grammar when they arrive at university." We already have a balance between fluency and accuracy. There is a strong traditional bias towards accuracy and I would argue that we still lean a fraction too far towards accuracy. University lecturers are academics whose prime interest is not practical use of the language. In schools we should continue to focus on fluency, comprehension and general proficiency, with proper regard to accuracy.

No doubt some teachers and schools are better than others at promoting grammatical rigour, but we do not need to fundamentally alter our specifications to account for this.


(e) The existing requirements do not promote the development of transferable critical skills. Such development is an important part of language learning. 

I am not sure it should be a major focus. Yes, A-level MFL is rather like teaching general studies through he medium of a foreign language, but, I repeat, the stress should  be on language. The above argument about critical skills ends up with students writing essays in English as part of an MFL course. This is wrong.


It is regrettable that universities are being allowed to dictate the nature A-level modern language courses as they did many years ago. We need to attract as many students as possible. The panel acknowledges as much in its statement of context. I do not think we will do so by a return to a more traditional curriculum. I must be part of the Blob.

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…