Skip to main content

New GCSEs: intended and unintended consequences

Most language teachers in England and Wales welcomed the end of the previous generation of GCSE exams largely because of the way they skewed teaching towards rote learning for controlled assessments. Little did they know at the time quite how hard the new papers would be, in particular the listening tests. Once again this year teachers on social media are commenting on how difficult, even unfair, the first Higher Listening papers are. (Note: this complaint is heard every year actually, but the new tests do seem to be genuinely more difficult.)

But the 9-1 GCSEs have brought in their wake a few unintended consequences.

But first there is an intended consequence. It's true the DfE wanted to create a harder and more reliable assessment, arguing that we need to match the standards in other countries. (How reliably they can do this when many countries don't have an equivalent to GCSE must be opne to question.) This they have done, even if the grade outcomes are in line with those of recent years because of the "comparable outcomes" policy.

Did they, however, anticipate that many schools would replace the old national Curriculum levels with GCSE grades? From my observation of comments on social media, it is now quite common for schools to track pupil progress using GCSE 9-1 grades with associated descriptors. There were good reasons for scrapping levels. To use the DfE's own words;

"Despite being intended only for use in statutory national assessments, too frequently levels also came to be used for in-school assessment between key stages in order to monitor whether pupils were on track to achieve expected levels at the end of key stages."

Using GCSE grades as levels actually bothers me even more than NC levels did since they imply a total slavishness to the GCSE exam and all the accountability issues associated with it. 

Secondly it is apparent that many schools are making significant changes to schemes of work and pedagogy to match teaching to the needs of the new exam. For example I read of schools designing Y7 assessments with GCSE already in mind, introducing photo cards and translation into KS3 lessons and even changing the whole structure of the curriculum by ending KS3 in Y8 to create a longer GCSE course. (The latter is somewhat irrelevant to MFL since all work done from KS2 up to 16 is relevant GCSE.)

One teacher on Facebook wrote:

 "I have made all Unit tests for 7-9 in the style of GCSE - list questions, sentences to translate and a 16 mark writing. Have also added photo cards when I feel they can cope with it, but more as multiple choice so they get used to the idea of describing a photo. I’m also starting GCSE in the final term of Y9 and am considering starting at the beginning of the year, but can’t quite decide."

  I would not criticise this proactive teacher for one moment (it may be a great idea), but what worries me slightly about these changes to teaching is the extent to which they may be driven by sensible, thought-through pedagogy rather than just a knee-jerk reaction to a new high stakes exam taken up to five years later. Now, views about effective pedagogy vary hugely, so I hesitate to preach about what's best and what isn't, but I do think it's worth questioning a change when it occurs.

Take the use of photo cards at KS3. While I understand teachers who say pupils need to be well-practised in exam techniques, is KS3 too soon to be doing an activity of arguably dubious value? There are some useful descriptive (and even imaginative) things you can do with GCSE-style photos, but I would argue that there are many better exercises you can do in class, all of which generate more input, practice and repetitions of high frequency language: written and audio texts, sequences of pictures for storytelling, transcription, drill-style interactions including question and answer, information gap activities and much more. So, if a teacher chooses to use a photo card task à la GCSE, is this being done because it is inherently a valuable task or because "it's in the exam." My suggestion would be that if you don't rate the activity, don't do it.

The same argument would apply to GCSE-style role-plays and translation. As regards the latter, opinions vary and my own belief was that translation is best used in small doses (since it reduces the time given over to TL use), but the point again is whether the translation is being used in class for sound pedagogical and theoretical reasons or just because it's in the exam five years later.
So you can see I think that at root what bothers me is the idea that the exam dictates classroom practice and that the tail is wagging the dog to too great an extent. Clearly pupils have to be prepared for exams, but from Y7? 

In the words of TSC Report on MFL Pedagogy (2016):

"Terminal assessments in languages, in particular the reformed GCSE, set out to assess pupils’ competence in language in a range of contexts. There is every reason for pupils to be familiar with and to have practised GCSE style assessments. However, we wish to caution against the overuse of this approach, especially at earlier stages. Moreover, courses should be designed by teachers first and foremost on the basis of good curricular and pedagogical principles as set out in this report, rather than only with an eye to terminal assessment."(p.19)

Finally, to some extent one of my "unintended consequences" may have been intended. I'm pretty sure some MFL people associated with the DfE would be delighted that pupils are doing more translation. You might be happy about that too, but I would only reiterate the suggestion that teachers choose their pedagogy for well-founded reasons based on their experience, common sense and knowledge of the research out there. So do what you think is right!

Final report of the Commission on Assessment without Levels (2015)

 MFL Pedagogy Review. Teaching Schools Council.


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…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for 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 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…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

GCSE and IGCSE revision links 2018

It's coming up to that time of year again. In England and Wales. Here is a handy list of some good interactive revision links for this level. These links are also good for intermediate exams in Scotland, Ireland and other English-speaking countries. You could copy and paste this to print off for students.

Don't forget the GCSE revision material on of course! How could you?

As far as apps for students are concerned, I would suggest the Cramit one, Memrise and Learn French which is pretty good for vocabulary. For Android devices try the Learn French Vocabulary Free. For listening, you could suggest Coffee Break French from Radio Lingua Network (iTunes podcasts).

Listening (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher)