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The grammar-translation approach and beyond

Younger teachers and readers may be curious to see these two examples of O-level French exam papers from 1959 which have been on the Lawnswood School, Leeds website for some time. (Thank you to them for keeping them on public record, along with papers for other subjects.)


Addendum:  See these papers kept in archive by Cambridge too. Thanks to Frances Wilson from OCR.

Grammar-translation was the predominant approach to language teaching for much of the twentieth century and was based on the way Latin had been taught for many years. There was no real syllabus to speak of. Teachers worked through text books (often written by W. F. H. Whitmarsh) and relied on past exam papers to give them a guide on what to prepare. Lessons consisted of vocabulary learning, grammar explanation and practice (often via translation), reading comprehension and dictation.

Here is something from my Y9 German exercise book. Yes, I know, you still give grammar notes or handouts and you are probably right to do so!

More forward-thinking teachers with the requisite oral skills (a minority) included question-answer practice and storytelling with the aid of pictures. Some might even do listening comprehension work using their own voice or, more rarely, a reel-to-reel tape recorder or vinyl record player.

By the time I did O-level in 1973 the exam papers had evolved somewhat, but still relied principally on translation both ways, comprehension and a picture composition. I also had an oral exam with a visiting examiner. We prepared long lists of questions which might come up on the day.

Grammar-translation fitted with the educational paradigm of the day. O-level was designed for the minority of the school population who went to grammar schools (roughly 25% of the school population). Pupils who went to the other schools, mainly "secondary moderns" sometimes did O-level, but were far more likely to do the easier CSE exam or not do a language at all.

When you look at those papers from 1959 you are struck by a few things. Firstly, they were hard. Secondly, they strongly featured a certain type of literary, narrative language. Thirdly, they stressed above all written range and accuracy. No importance was given to listening skills in the exam. I suspect there was an oral test in 1959 (does anyone know?).

Although O-level had evolved somewhat by its demise in 1986 you can imagine what a change the GCSE exam was. The new GCSE in 1987 gave equal weight to the four skills, tried to reward pupils of all abilities and attainment and was a good deal more motivating for the majority of pupils. At last the emphasis was to be on using the foreign language as a practical means of communication. Although we frequently criticise GCSE for its dull content it was a vast improvement on what preceded it.

Since 1987 GCSE has evolved in various ways, although not fundamentally. The recent decision to bring back an element of translation is, in my view, regrettable and unnecessary. Fortunately it attracts relatively few marks so it is to be hoped that teachers do not spend too much time doing translation at the expense of communicative work in the target language.

Was there anything better about those 1959 exam papers? Not much. They worked quite well for a small minority of motivated and able linguists who enjoyed manipulating language, including their own. But even those students, although possessing a large vocabulary and sound command of grammar rules and well primed for reading literature in the second language, were poorly prepared for speaking and listening to a language abroad.

I wonder what assessment will look like in 50 years from now. That could be a subject for another blog.


  1. Hello Steve,

    I found your blog entry to be interesting, from the standpoint that, yes, you have a point that translation is largely, if not entirely ineffective. How I think assessments may look in 50 years, could be that they are virtual and have a wide variety of common, but spontaneous circumstances to which the tester can respond. Who knows? What I do know is that there is a movement in the USA towards proficiency-based learning, with an emphasis on negotiating meaning in the TL by use of drawing, acting out essential vocabulary, or using circumlocution. Hopefully we can see real change continue to develop. The traditional teacher faction (generally speaking) is fighting hard to keep this evolution from progressing. I certainly hope that in 50 years time, assessments can ACCURATELY reflect a student's authentic language ability, meaning that the student can be evaluated on spontaneous, unrehearsed scenarios.

  2. Thank ypu for commenting. You may have misunderstood my meaning. I did not say, or imply, I hope, that translation is largely ineffective. However, I do believe that in most contexts it should be used in moderation. I am aware of what Americans call "proficiency-based" language learning. To be honest I don't know how the average US teacher goes about by their business, but I would always support an approach with the focus on communication amd target language. I would hope grammar is not ditched, though. Again, in most contexts, I would support explicit focus on form to some extent.


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