Skip to main content

How did we end up with some good A-level specifications?

When the government decided it wanted to reform A-levels, they set up a committee called ALCAB, largely made up of Russell Group university academics. ALCAB looked at the existing specifications and recorded a number of perceived weaknesses.

Firstly, they noted that there was too much inconsistency between schools in terms of the challenge offered by the cultural topics being studied. For example, was it right that some schools taught a relatively shallow film whilst others were teaching lengthy, serious novels? This meant the assessment was not as robust as it should be.

Secondly, they were concerned that not enough language study was being conducted in the context of the target language culture. The panel was concerned that too many of their undergraduates were arriving at university with inadequate knowledge of the culture of their language of study.

Thirdly, they claimed that the current A-levels did not present enough if a cognitive challenge, leaving them devalued when compared with some other A-levels. In particular, they were worried that they did not produce students with a thorough enough command of grammar.

Finally, ALCAB believed that a renewed A-level could attract more students to the subject, including students who may have had the perception that languages were simply not as interesting as subjects like physics, history and English literature.

In short, ALCAB felt that A-level was not a good enough preparation for higher education. Let us not forget that the DfE had already stated that the main aim of A-level was to produce university-ready students.

ALCAB's response to their perceived inadequacies and their recipe for improving A-level involved a number of recommendations: beefing up the grammatical element, having prescribed lists of books and films (thus devaluing other areas beyond film and literature), introducing a independent research project and insisting that cultural content be both firmly embedded in the specifications and assessed.

As far as the latter point is concerned, ALCAB proposed that the film and literature be assessed by essays in English. This, they felt, would ensure a greater level of cognitive challenge. After consultation this was thankfully rejected since it would have led to less teaching in the target language.

Furthermore, to ensure the syllabus was challenging, ALCAB produced an "indicative list" of topics rooted in the culture of the language of study. These included topics such as French impressionism, the new wave of French cinema, the Spanish Civil War and French mathematics. It contained interesting elements, but too many were inappropriate as a basis for designing communicative lessons; so much so that the exam boards were initially alarmed by how off-putting some of the topics would be to students, especially at a time of falling entries.

Using their experience and by eliciting teachers' views, the exam boards set about producing specifications which were in line with the DfE/ALCAB subject guidance. They avoided topics which they felt would be too dry and unteachable, used the best of the (quite popular with teachers) existing specifications and, in conjunction with publishers, have come up with what are looking like good text books. So far, two specifications, those from Pearson and AQA, have been accredited.

The new specifications represent an evolution, not a revolution. They also represent a return to previous practice, for example, the research project looks a lot like what we used to call coursework and there is nothing new about prescribed lists of works. The nature of the challenge to students is somewhat different, with a greater emphasis placed on translation at AS-level, summary work, personal research and essay writing on film and literature in exam conditions. It is also true that actual knowledge of the target language culture in general will play a slightly greater role in lessons - look out for more texts featuring factual information and history, for example.

In the end, after initial dismay and alarm, the exam boards have made the new A-levels more than palatable. Will they make languages more attractive to students as ALCAB hoped? No. This would have involved quite a different type of reform, one which would have viewed A-level as a stimulating course in its own right, not one designed as a preparation for that minority who carry on with languages at university. We remain very stuck in our ways.







- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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 _____ …

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…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from pixabay.com to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:





Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…