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Response to ALL on new MFL A-levels

For readers outside the UK the ALL is the Association for Language Learning.

After blogging several times on the issue of the new A-levels being proposed by Ofqual, based on the ALCAB report carried out by a panel of Russell Group university academics, this is my feedback to the ALL. It partly draws on the ALCAB report and partly on the recently published report by the JCQ into why fewer and fewer students are choosing languages at A-level in England and Wales.

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This is a more considered response to your invitation for feedback on the new MFL A-levels. I sent a brief response about three weeks ago, before I had seen the JCQ report. Here are my observations on what is being proposed by Ofqual:

  • The ALCAB report states that it is in the context of falling numbers at A-level that they produced their recommendations. The JCQ report (Chapter 2) notes that one reason given by teachers for students rejecting languages at A-level is that they are perceived as too hard and suit only gifted linguists. What Ofqual and ALCAB propose is clearly harder. In the IPSOS MORI survey for the JCQ 83% of teachers felt that students thought that it was impossible to gain proficiency without a special aptitude. Making A-level harder will not attract more students.
  • The JCQ report notes that in MFL the gap between GCSE and AS level is considered too wide. Students say they find it wider than for other subjects. This may dissuade them from taking languages. Languages are considered a "risky" option, reports the JCQ. What Ofqual/ALCAB proposes will make the gap far wider. The current AS level acts as a bridge between GCSE and A2 level. The new decoupled AS level is as hard as A-level, but with less quantity, so is bound to deter students from doing it in Lower Sixth. Currently many students opt for MFL for one year in Lower Sixth. Some of the who had not originally intended to do MFL to A2 level change their mind and do so. The current AS level is therefore advantageous to our subject area. Content is a rather subjective matter, but it seems a natural progression to have some overlap between GCSE and AS level. A2 is markedly more "grown up" and currently suits the students we have, not all of whom are "natural linguists". The Ofqual/ALCAB subject matter categories are unlikely to appeal to many potential students.
  • ALCAB/Ofqual claim that the current A-level lacks cognitive challenge and is inherently less interesting than other subject areas. I disagree. There are different types of cognitive challenge. Language acquisition is a controversial area, but most would agree that the key element is for students to get as much target language input as possible. What is proposed (e.g. translation and essay in English) will reduce the amount of target language used.Indeed, allowing students to write essays in English is less of a challenge than having them write only in the TL as we do now. In addition, the topics currently covered at A-level do challenge students to think about issues which they find inherently interesting, which are important and which may relate to their personal experience. I believe the traditional approach of  "general studies through the medium of the target language" which goes back to the 1970s remains the best.
  • The JCQ report (Chapter 2) finds that students are not dissuaded from doing A-level because of subject matter taught. Amongst other things (grading and the gap after GCSE) it is their previous experience of GCSE which plays a greater role. There is no need to fix the content of A-level fundamentally.
  • Ofqual/ALCAB say that we need to award more marks for cultural content and grammatical accuracy. By allocating 20% of marks to cultural content (film and literature) this inevitably devalues skills such as listening and speaking. The JCQ report notes that students would like to see a greater emphasis on speaking and conversing. Students are right. These skills are not inherently easier than grammatical accuracy; indeed some might argue the opposite. The Ofqual/A:LCAB proposal runs counter to what students and teachers would like to see. In the JCQ survey teachers said they would value greater emphasis on written skill, but not at the expense of orals skills.
  • The JCQ study does report that students would like to see more appealing topics at A-level. Interestingly, prior to the 2000 reforms, the AQA did a good deal of focus group work which informed the current specification. The challenge remains to keep content engaging. What is being proposed by Ofqual/ALCAB does not seem to me to be appealing to the average sixth-former.
  • Ofqual/ALCAB are right to note that there is a vagueness in the current arrangements with regard to cultural content. There is no compulsion for boards to set prescribed texts (although WJEC do). This leads to inconsistencies across schools. There may be an argument, therefore, for more prescription with regard to cultural content, but I am not totally persuaded. The current freedom given to schools allows teachers to select material they think classes will find motivating. Teachers may also play to their own strengths when choosing material.
  • Ofqual/ALCAB proposes only literature and film within the cultural content. Why this bias? The current arrangements allow teachers and students to cover a wider ran ge of topics including art, music, history and geography. It is true that some of these area are covered elsewhere in the content, but there is a bias towards what university academics enjoy studying and researching.
  • I welcome the idea of individual research projects. They are a challenge for students, but can produce excellent results and allow students to pursue their own interests. However, assessing them purely through the oral may leave students thinking why they should take enormous time and care over accuracy of written material.
  • The proposed assessment weightings favour reading and writing too much when the focus should be on the more useful and valued skills of speaking and listening.
  • The JCQ report notes that teachers feel that courses should be attractive to a wider range of abilities. I am extremely concerned that the Ofqual/ALCAB proposals will only appeal to a minority of already able linguists.
  • If, as students report, students value speaking so highly, we need to have topics about which students wish to talk. The categories being proposed would present a serious challenge to teachers wishing to plan communicative lessons. French mathematics? Surrealism? Dreyfus? The Algerian War? This is the most deficient area of the whole ALCAB/Ofqual proposal.
  • The ALCAB report claims that in practice the intention to promote accuracy is not carried out in practice. I reject this claim. Current mark schemes do reward accuracy. If anything, we still have a traditional academic bias towards written accuracy at the expense of language fluency. There is no need to reinforce accuracy and, as the JCQ survey notes, students find the stress on written accuracy off-putting. Now, of course, what students find off-putting need not be the key criterion in designing a course, but it is of great significance in the current climate of drastically falling numbers.
  • One of the key changes put forward by Ofqual/ALCAB is the awarding of marks (20%of them) for cultural content, which was rejected in 2000. This is a genuine dilemma. All teachers value cultural content. It is a major part of what we do. At GCSE there are no marks for it. Why should we start to award them at A-level. As long as teachers are guided to use resources relating to the target language culture, then cultural content will be covered.
  • ALCAB regrets that language is currently seen in terms of its immediate practical use. They wish students to develop a "more searching understanding of linguistic systems". I disagree with this. The focus should remain on developing linguistic skill, not analysing structure and focusing too much on declarative knowledge of grammar. It is competence which counts.
  • ALCAB claim translation is a key skill which should be taught. Translation both ways does, of course, already feature at A-level. I would argue that we do not need to do much translation to develop range and accuracy. Including it in any specification means that teachers may focus unduly on it at the expense of target language communication.

What should be the purpose of an A-level in MFL? We need a course which can stretch the best, but  attract students of a reasonable range of ability, which promotes above all the key skills of speaking and listening and which aims above all to focus on the use of language as a practical tool. It is not there primarily to prepare students for university (the large majority of A-level linguists do not continue beyond A-level). It should be opening minds to the target language culture, but allowing them to involve their personal experience.It should to some extent be related to the world of work (an area neglected by ALCAB). It should follow a natural progression from GCSE. It should see the language as a living entity to be used, not an object to be dissected.

They current generation of A-level linguists is small but very talented. In many ways they are up with the best of the past. In some ways they are better. We just need more of them.

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