Skip to main content

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.

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…