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MFL A-levels are not dire; they are rather good!

I blogged yesterday about remarks made about the current modern languages A-levels. The accusation was, essentially, that they are dumbed down, lack rigour and are not interesting enough. I categorically rejected that claim but did not go into why I believe the current A-level is very good.

  • The AS level offers a good bridge between GCSE and A2 level. ALCAB made this a criticism, claiming AS was too much like AS level. I think they underestimate how much students like the topics, how stimulating they can be and how weak many students are when they emerge from GCSE. ALCAB believed that the new GCSE might fix the latter issue. It will not.
  • The current A-level stresses target langauge use in nearly every respect, especially as far as the cultural topics are concerned. Discussion and assessment in the target language are best. If you set essays in the target langauge, you will practise them that way. If you set essays in English students will spend hours writing English, not the target language. Assessment through English will harm acquisition.
  • The current A2 topics approach - what I label "general studies through the target language" - has been established for years and it works. ALCAB worried that there was insufficient reference to the culture of the target language, but in practice teachers use resources which, in most cases, refer to the target language countries. In addition, the topics are of great relevance to the modern world and merit continued loyalty: integration, environment, development and so on. These are the issues of the day and they are of relevance in all countries.
  • The balance of communication and grammatical rigour is about right as it stands. If students emerge from A-level without a firm grammatical and lexical basis it is not because of the syllabus. It may be because they are not taught thoroughly enough or that some students do not retain structures as easily as others.
  • The current system of cultural topics gives teachers freedom to choose from a wide range of areas: history, film, drama, the novel, geography and so on. Not all students are motivated by film and literature. A-level need not reflect a university academic bias towards these areas. Prescribed lists may allow for a slightly more robust assessment and greater consistency, but they do sometimes force teachers to teach in areas they are less confident with or enthusiastic about. Any essay-based assessment will always leave room for subjectivity and complaint.
  • The current emphasis on translation is adequate. Indeed, I would remove it completely. You can achieve grammatical and lexical rigour without translation.
  • The current A-level is set at a reasonable level of challenge. I know this having taught students with a range of aptitudes, from E/U-graders to Oxbridge entrants. Noone ever complained it was too easy. Indeed, the grading regime places languages among the hardest subjects, along with sciences.
  • Students are challenged by and enjoy the current A-level. Low take-up at A-level has little to do with the A-level itself. As the recent JCQ report found, it is much more about previous experience of GCSE and the perception that languages are harder to get good grades in, therefore a risky choice. Most students want stimulating courses with a stress on speaking and listening.

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