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Universities maintain their grip on A-level languages

The recently revised framework for A-level modern languages has seen the universities maintain their conservative influence on the curriculum. Since A-levels began, languages courses have been based on a watered-down version of an undergrad degree, with the inclusion of traditional essay, literature (later film, history and other areas) and, of course, translation.

The relatively heavy bias towards reading and writing has remained throughout and even if listening and speaking have gained some ground in the assessment regimes, they are not given the emphasis they need and students want.

There was a period from around the 1980s when schools reversed the trend and began to set the agenda for undergrad teaching. A-level style mixed skill lessons were taught with an emphasis on communication, but the most recent reform has seen a return to the traditional "top down" agenda setting. This was due to Michael Gove's decision to allow the Russell Group universities to largely dictate the shape of A-level MFL. At least the recent consultation prevented the return to a 1960s/70s style essay in English.

How refreshing it would have been to take a completely different approach to A-level languages, one which took much more account of what might stimulate school students and encourage higher take-up of languages. This year's JCQ/IPSOS report suggested that students would be far more attracted by a course which emphasised the practical, face to face skills of listening and speaking.

It would not be hard to design a course with a rough balance of skills as follows: listening 30%; speaking 30%; reading 20%; writing 20%. There is nothing "dumbed down" about this; it is merely a change of emphasis. In any case, we know that students often find speaking and listening, with the great demands they place on internalised language and quick reactions, the hardest to master. The focus should be placed firmly on using the language for practical communication and understanding. It should be less "academic". We are still coloured by the perception that reading and writing are somehow more serious than listening and speaking.

A fresh approach might see the abandonment of whole works of literature, which are off-putting to many potential students. This would gain us time for a wider range of stimulating topics, a greater focus on the world of work, on the target language culture beyond literature and film, more personalised reading and listening, more immersion, more discussion, and, yes, more grammar (though not much via translation). There would be more situational and task-oriented activities. Communication would take priority over grammatical rigour. How often do we say to students that making yourself understood and having a go are the most important? So why do we still fret so much about accuracy? The answer to the last question is probably that we teachers were good at it and taught in old-school ways.

In my experience A-level students enjoyed their work and it was a good preparation for university. But nationally, the number of language students has fallen disastrously and shows no sign of recovering. The decoupling of AS level will probably exacerbate the situation. Languages have become an area of study for an even smaller, mainly middle class elite. This has implications for the economy, but more importantly means too few of our citizens reap the personal rewards of long term foreign language skill. This should be considered a serious issue by government, but in reality it is not.

The latest reform to A-level has, in my view, been a huge missed opportunity.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Let's be honest; we're British and the whole world speaks English. Who needs a foreign language to get on as a banker, a solicitor or a doctor, or anything else for that matter apart from a MFL teacher or a translator?

  2. You are either trolling or ill-informed. I could explain why, but shall not bother.


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