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So what's the point of translation?

Translation is in GCSE for the first time. The last time pupils had to translate both ways was back in the days of O-level i.e. pre 1987. Its position is also reaffirmed at A-level from which it has never disappeared.

I would hypothesis that it is in at GCSE because someone at the DfE, or advising the DfE, estimated it was the only way to get teachers to apply a rigorous approach to grammar and vocabulary teaching. To many of us it seems like an old-fashioned and misguided way to achieve that end and one which will inevitably lead to poor classroom practice and an even greater neglect of target language use.

With that preamble out of the way, what is the value of translation?  It clearly has merits as a language learning activity. Let's take each form of translation in turn - L1 to L2 and L2 to L1. Please note that I am limiting myself to written translation of written passages or sentences.

L1 to L2 (translation into the target language)

We used to call this "prose translation".


1.  It probably helps fix grammatical accuracy and revise vocabulary.

2.  Some pupils enjoy it. It satisfies the puzzle-solver and accuracy fan.

3.  As a testing tool it can be made to be quite unpredictable and therefore hard to learn up for.

4.  As a testing tool it can be marked quite objectively.

5.  It reflects a reality that language learners often work from L1 to L2. Why not develop this skill?

6. It is challenging for students when set at the right level.

7. There may be an element of real life activity involved. Adults do sometimes need to translate, even if technology makes this less likely nowadays.


1.  It limits the amount of target language use in the classroom.

2.  It is an uncommunicative sort of activity - it's talking about the language rather than using it for communication.

3.  When used as a testing tool, because of the backwash effect, teachers may do too much of it in the classroom. Teachers love to teach to the test.

4.  It offers almost no new comprehensible input to further language acquisition.

5.  It may encourage interference from the first language, based as it is on a cognitive rather than natural approach to second language acquisition.

6. It may suit able learners, who are good at cognitive problem solving and pattern spotting, more than students of lower aptitude. Some may see this an unfair and argue that naturalistic methods do not have this bias.

7. Many students find it boring and would be more motivated by other tasks.

L2 to L1 (translating into English)

This was known as "unseen translation".


1.  Sentences and passages in the TL are a source of comprehensible input.

2.  Translation requires a fine attention to detail. Everything must be understood and rendered accurately.

3. Some pupils enjoy the challenge of doing it. It can be satisfying to find the solution.

4. There may be some real life use for it, despite changes in technology.

5. We often translate in our heads so why not help develop this skill?


1. Beyond a certain level it becomes a test of English usage as much as a test of comprehension.

2. Students are writing English when they could be writing in the traget language. This limits acquisition.

3. Detailed comprehension can be assessed in other ways which provide more language input e.g. TL multiple choice.

4. Teaching this skill in the classroom involves using English, not communicating in the TL.

5. It is a task which involves talking about the language not using it.

Perhaps you can come up with some other arguments.

My bottom line is this: translation can be a useful classroom activity and means of testing certain types of knowledge, but if you use it frequently you inevitably end up reducing the amount of comprehensible input students receive and the amount of communication they engage in. In addition (excuse the capitals, I'm not shouting) YOU CAN DEVELOP INTERNALISED GRAMMATICAL SKILL WITHOUT TRANSLATING.

So, if you can get the rigour you may want, you can do it by skilled questioning, meaningful controlled practice and some explicit explanation. If these means simultaneously play to the unconscious learning end of the learning-acquisition spectrum, why not use them rather than translation?

I repeat: the return to translation at GCSE is a retrograde step, will not raise any standards and will end up boring too many students if teachers end up teach to the test. It was abandoned in the 1980s because it was seen to switch off so many pupils. If I were still a Head of Department I would be urging my colleagues to severely limit its use in KS3 and to use it judiciously at KS4, mainly near the end of the course in Y11. Be rigorous and stress accuracy if you want, but remember that language learning is much more about proficiency, understanding and fluency.

For more on ways of using translation creatively see two of my other blogs;

20 ways of doing translation into the target language

20 ways of doing translation into English


  1. Interesting article. I agree with many of the points you make, although you don't explain why this might reduce target language use in the classroom. Perhaps I need to come and see you teach.

    " will end up boring too many students " why? Aren't too many students bored by mfl anyway? They might prefer this kind of task as the teacher can control the language, rather than students making up what they want to say/write and producing complete rubbish in the process.

  2. Thanks for, leaving a comment. Some students might prefer that type of task. History teaches us that many did not. The alternative to translation is not, however, "making up what they want to say/write and producing rubbish". One alternative is controlled practice (e.g. oral drills, structured question-answer) in the target language which develops grammatical skill without resorting to English. For long term proficiency I would argue pupils need to hear a good deal of target language. Pretty much the more the better. Translation lessons will not help achieve this as much as alternatives.

  3. I forgot to address your question about reduction of target language in the classroom. For prose translation the TL is used but the input is in English so pupils hear or read little or no "natural" language. For unseen clearly the input is in TL but discussion and writing is in English. In both cases the amount of TL is compromised.

  4. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts and those of Gianfranco Conti in response. Have suggested that the return of translation may not be all bad at

  5. Thank you for commenting. If it takes the reintroduction of translation to push more teachers into a more structured approach to grammar, then it may have a positive impact. It still feels retrograde to me though. I am not, as you can see, against translation at all costs, but including it in GCSE could result in some lazy teaching. that was one reason I wanted to suggest some variations on the theme.


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