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A-level summarising tasks

One of the new aspects of A-level assessment from 2017 and 2018 is the inclusion, at both AS and A-level, of summary tasks. On each Listening, Reading, Writing paper (Paper 1) there will be two summary tasks, one of a listening source, one of a written text. At AS-level the source texts are of around 150-200 words, at A-level a little longer. With AQA the length of the summary, written in target language, is around 75 words at AS-level and 90 words at A-level. You need to check specifications for any variations. The inclusion of summary comes from the DfE/Ofqual and is common to all exam boards.

I welcome this change. Summary is one of those multi-skill assessment tasks which marry well with what I would consider good classroom practice. Once you have worked on a listening or reading text with a class, exploiting in various ways (e.g. pre-reading/listening tasks, reading aloud, oral interactions including question-answer, correcting false sentences, aural gap-fill, information gaps and so on), morphological and syntactic activities with a focus on form - a natural and more challenging extension in the sequence is to ask students to pull together their knowledge to write a summary of the original source.

A good assessment should ideally reflect classroom practice and this task does so.

Teachers will, of course, have to help students develop their technique. This can be modelled orally, scaffolded with bullet points (as will be the case in A-level exam papers) and practised for homework or within a time limit in class. Students will need to learn to identify key points, not to transcribe large chunks, but also not to feel that every item of language needs paraphrasing. They will need to be concise. They will also need to be familiar with the mark schemes which give points for communicating key points and for using varied, accurate language. Teachers could even use these mark schemes when assessing their students work in the run-up to examinations.

What I also like about the task, apart from its 'multi-modal' aspect, is that students are being assessed on their comprehension and skill with language, not, as with language essays, on their ability to write a coherent essay. The latter is no doubt a useful skill and one which is developed elsewhere in the specifications, but with summary students do not need to be concerned with introductions, conclusions, essay cohesion and so on. Nor do they have to produce their own ideas, which can hold back some quite competent linguists.
On a specific point of technique, the exam boards make the point that students need not try to “over=paraphrase” the source text. While it is not appropriate to copy whole sentences or long chunks, sometimes you just have to reuse an original word or phrase. They key thing is to make sure that the main comprehension points come through clearly. Exam candidates would be wise to prioritise getting across the main points as clearly as possible, THEN look at making the language more interesting.
In sum, whilst the new specifications contains a much shorter list of topics, which may come as a relief, the classroom emphasis may change somewhat towards summary, as well as translation and the study of film and literature. For many teachers this change will be a subtle one if you have already been doing these things.


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