Updated on 7th April, with a few modifications to the original post written about a month earlier.
The DfE in England has recently published information about the proposed new GCSE exams, first teaching September 2023, first exams June 2025. There are two consultations going on, one regarding the subject content, and the other (much shorter) with respect to the assessment arrangements such as tiering.
The context is important here. DfE are worried about uptake in GCSE MFL, especially with their EBacc target of 90% uptake in mind. (This is highly unlikely to be achieved.) Therefore they would like an exam which makes the subject more attractive, both in terms of interesting content and accessibility (how easy it is thought to be). They are aware also of criticisms levelled at current papers that the exam is elitist, featuring too much subject matter which appeals to middle class students. Recall that MFL has become, to an extent, a preserve of pupils in private schools, grammar schools and other schools in wealthier areas. In addition, they wish to respond to the criticism that current exams are too hard, with confusing rubrics, too much tough vocabulary and grammar, and with listening tests spoken too fast.
In this post I'll give a first look at the subject content.
The key document is this:
I'm going to take out a few quotations and make some initial observations. Is this a change for the better? Is this likely to have an influence on the attractiveness of MFL at KS4?
From page 1, a significant change from the current syllabus is apparent:
It is important that students should be taught the language in the context of the countries and communities where the language is spoken. As they learn the language, students should become familiar with aspects of the contexts of the countries and communities in which the language is spoken.
This is because an appreciation of the culture, history, geography and working environments of these countries and communities is an integral part of a well-designed language course and 2 is likely to be motivating and interesting for students. Such contexts will be referenced in assessment tasks as appropriate.
I believe this is a key change we shall see from current courses. It's as if GCSE is going down the same route as A-level did some time ago and putting the emphasis on source material rooted in the target language culture. Unlike A-level, however, the Ofqual consultation suggests that there is no intention to assess knowledge of the target language culture. I know a number of teachers had been hoping for a greater focus on culture at GCSE, with the aim of making the content more interesting and cognitively challenging. Interestingly, the requirement to include literary texts has disappeared.
Specific aspects of culture are not referred to at all in this document, beyond the broad references quoted above, so I assume it will up to the awarding bodies (exam boards) to put forward any specified content for approval. This has the potential to offer schools more variety in exam board offerings. I suppose the alternative is that no thematic or topic content is specified at all, but I find that unlikely. On page 3 we read:
Because vocabulary specified in this content is informed by the frequency of occurrence in the language it will be well suited to communication about a wide range of common themes and topics, and for different purposes.
Keep in mind that TSC/NCELP worry that topic-based courses encourage too much use of low frequency vocabulary at the expense of greater automaticity with more common words.
Once this consultation is over a process will begin with exam boards designing content and consulting with stakeholders, as well as Ofqual who have to give the ultimate green light.
An initial challenge I anticipate is the one of reconciling the thematic content with linguistic requirements I'll refer to below. How do you produce interesting content on a narrow range of pre-defined vocabulary (see below).
I understand that the intention is not for teachers to slavishly omit words beyond the defined list, but that papers will only include the listed words with up to 2% of unknown words allowed to be glossed. (Easier with written texts than aural ones perhaps.)
Next, from page 2:
GCSE specifications in MFL should enable students to:
a. Learn, and be able to recall readily and use, the range of vocabulary required for the level at which they are studying...
b. Learn and be able to use the grammar specified to understand and produce meaning accurately, in oral and written modalities, and to speak with increasing fluency...
c. Know and be able to apply the principles by which spelling represents sounds in standard or widely used forms of the language, and use clear and comprehensible pronunciation when speaking the language.
Those of you familiar with the TSC Review (2016) and NCELP will recognise the three pillars of vocabulary, grammar and phonics. It's the third of these, phonics, which is the novel aspect of the new GCSE. So the whole MFL curriculum from Y7 to Y11 is set to be based on the principles put forward by the TSC Review.
I note in passing that the language of this document is similar to that used in NCELP materials, so practical communication is not really placed in the foreground, whereas vocabulary, grammar, phonics and culture are. The language is significant. Previous iterations of GCSE usually referred to language as a "practical tool for communication", but you'll struggle to find the word communication here, despite references to using and understanding the language.
Pages 2 to 3 are interesting. It's made clear, as mentioned above, that students will have to read and hear texts based on defined vocabulary lists at each tier. (The other consultation makes it clear that it is intended that tiering will continue as now, with no "pick 'n' mix" tiering.)
Translation both ways will feature, as they do now.
In the speaking assessment students will read aloud (a new departure, reflecting the emphasis on phonics and accurate pronunciation), show understanding of what they read (for example through questions), do a role-play with clear prompts (unlike now - so we may assume the prompts will be in English) and a photo exercise. Again, vocab and grammar must come from the defined list.
I rather like the reading aloud test with follow-up questions and the idea of a conversational role-play (as opposed to a situational one) seems okay as does the picture stimulus. When I look at these proposals I often think of the "backwash effect" - how will these assessment task types influence classroom teaching? If they encourage reading aloud from texts, responding orally to texts and having to produce some spontaneous language based on picture prompts or role plays, that seems alright. If the translation is kept in proportion I have no real issue with that.
I would have concerns that there will be insufficient opportunity for spontaneous conversation.
Where questions are designed to test comprehension of written and spoken texts in the assessed language, these comprehension questions will be in English. Other types of question will be in English or the assessed language as appropriate to the task. Rubrics will be in English.
I see the advantages of this in terms of clarity and reliable assessment, but there is a risk that the backwash effect will lead to too many lessons where English is used at the expense of target language. One can already imagine new textbooks with texts in French accompanied by sets of English questions and therefore a reduction in time spent interacting in the TL. Texts + English questions can lead to superficial practice of language and guesswork, rather than the sort of intensive input-output work which is beneficial for acquisition.
Students will be expected to know 1200 lexical items for foundation tier, and a further 500 lexical items for higher tier (p.3)
By 'know' they mean be able to both recognise and use those words. The choice of vocabulary will be based on frequency lists (called corpora). Lists will be based almost entirely on isolated words, not multi-word units (up to 20 of these are allowed).
1700 words for Higher Tier may be on the low side if you go along with researchers such as Jim Milton who has argued that you need around 2000 words after about five years' study.
From page 5:
At higher tier students are expected to read texts that may include a small number of words outside the vocabulary list defined by the awarding organisation. English meanings of such words must be supplied adjacent to the text for reference. No more than 2% of words in any given higher tier text may be glossed in this way.
So some glossing is allowed, which is new and welcome. I'm curious about the 2% figure. Is it at all connected to the Paul Nation figure of 98% for text comprehensibility? (Nation has argued that to comprehend a written text we need to know between 95-98% - ideally 98% - of the words already.)
The remainder of the document consists of annexes relating to the grammatical and phonics components of French, German and Spanish.
By the way, the speaking will still be assessed by the teacher with the exam board doing the marking and supplying the materials. But the new Assessment Objectives will look like those we have for A-level, rather than the simple, but flawed model of 25% Listening, 25% Reading, 25% Speaking 25% Writing. Despite the new design of the AO's the four skills will still, ultimately, be equally rewarded.
So there you are. Just a few highlights picked out which may leave you thinking that you would like to know much more about the thematic content exam boards come up with.
Will it be better than what we have now? I think it's too soon to say. I'm yet to be fully persuaded that it's possible to successfully reconcile the desire to have both intellectually stimulating subject matter alongside feasible language which enables students to feel confident and acquire language efficiently. Does this herald the end of "talking about hobbies" "describing my town", "what I do for the environment" or "where I went on holiday last year"? Watch this space!
Could this type of syllabus make GCSE more attractive? I'm a bit sceptical on that one. When target language culture was foregrounded at A-level it had no discernable effect on uptake. Claims by ALCAB that the A-level reform would attract more students were wrong. But if a focus on aspects such as reading aloud, phonics and interesting comprehensible texts (a tough one, that!) produces more self-confident young linguists, then it may have a positive effect.
And crucially, this reform does not mean that grades will become easier to obtain. The relatively severe grading of MfL, notwithstanding recent adjustments to bring French and German into line with Spanish, will remain off-putting to some pupils and school leaders.
Anyway, I'd encourage you, if you have the time, to take a look at the consultation which can be done online here: