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General studies in the target language

Spoiler alert: this is about A-levels! Please read on.

Back in the early 1970s an evolutionary new textbook called Actualités Françaises changed the way we taught French. Firmly rooted in the structural, audio-lingual approach, it took texts about contemporary French culture and exploited them with questions, copious grammar drills for oral and written practice and some translation. It was quite a contrast to the books which had preceded it, notably those by Whitmarsh and collaborators which took texts, often literary, and exploited them with some comprehension questions, grammar explanations and lots of translation both ways. The newer course shifted the emphasis strongly towards topic-based oral work within a strong grammatical framework.

I wrote evolutionary above rather than revolutionary, because the newer course still placed the emphasis on grammar and, at the very least, paid lip service to translation (partly because translation featured in A-level exams, as it still does).

Actualités Françaises and its German equivalents set a trend which would last up to today. (Spanish was not widely studied at that time.) The topics to be taught would hopefully be (a) of general interest to sixth formers and (b) of general importance in society. Book 1 of Actualités Françaises had enough material for a whole A-level course and included topics such as: education, leisure and sport, transport, housing, industry and women at work. Sounds familiar?

Since then the emphasis in the topics may have changed somewhat, and we now place greater emphasis on the communicative functions of language, less on repetitive practice of grammar points. But what has not changed is that we still choose topics which fit those two criteria mentioned above: general interest and importance.

This notion of "general studies through the target language" remains a sound one if our main aim is to get students communicating at the right level in the classroom. We need sources, written texts and listening material in the target language, which will stimulate students to engage in classroom discussions. One way we achieve this is by trying to engage with the personal interests and views of the students. When preparing lessons my first thought tended to be: will they be interested in this? Will it get them communicating?

Alas, the general topic strands and individual themes being proposed by Ofqual/DfE, based on the ALCAB report from the Russell Group universities fail rather miserably to take into account what will produce engaging lessons stuffed with communicative activities. Indeed, they explicitly reject what they dismissively refer to as "lifestyle" topics. I have blogged previously about the "indicative" list of French topics. German topics include: three state systems (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), Germany's relationship with Europe (they meant the rest of Europe), ideals and realities of the DDR, the world from the perspective of von Humboldt, Freud and Viennese Burgtheater. Gems from the Spanish list of topics include: Nobel prizes in the Spanish-speaking world, Argentinian cinema, the generation of 1898, leaders and dictators in Latin America and the Cuban Revolution.

I can hardly believe I just typed those topics. Can you imagine designing engaging, communicative A-level lessons based on them?

I pity the exam boards who will have read the Ofqual draft content with horror. From conversation with a senior administrator at an exam board I know that this is not what they wanted and I know that they will struggle to make the general topic strands approachable.

This is why teachers and associations need to let Ofqual know that what ALCAB have proposed is totally wrong-headed. Ofqual may not know much better. They were under orders from Michael Gove to implement what his Russell Group committee proposed. I do hope a clear message is sent to Ofqual from schools and exam boards that we have been landed with something quite unfit for purpose.

"General studies through the target language" was the right idea in the 70s and it is still the bets apprioach.


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