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What about the defined vocabulary lists for the new GCSE?

This will be the last of my posts commenting on the proposals for the new GCSE, currently going through a 10 week consultation period. Once again, my aim is to reflect personally and hopefully help you with your own thinking.

The document is here. It’s only 29 pages long, with a large part (curiously, but signficantly) devoted to grammar lists.

The proposal is that Foundation Tier a list of 1200 words will be produced (1700 at Higher Tier). These lists will be based primarily (90%) on what are called frequency corpora - databases of language as it is used. The use of corpora is interesting. To start with, what appears in a corpus depends on where the language is drawn from. Spoken language? Written language? ‘Standard’ forms? Do they include commonly used swear words? Do they include, for example, South American Spanish or Canadian French? You can see a few issues here. The 90% figure allows for some wiggle room in the choice of words. A small number of multi-word phrases are allowed in the lists.

In the new exams only words from these lists will be used, for example in reading and listening texts. Any words not from the lists will have to be glossed separately, but cannot exceed 2% of the words in the text.

As I see it, the reasons for this approach are two-fold. The first is theoretical, stemming from the idea that when we speak a language we largely use high frequency language which is transferable from one context to another. So, even if you are doing a text on recycling in France, the language of that text will contain plenty of words which aren’t just about the environment. This principle underpins the TSC/NCELP approach to vocabulary - focus on high-frequency vocabulary, especially verbs, to produce automaticity in the most efficient manner. This also explains why NCELP eschews a topic-based curriculum, since this may require too much less common, topic-specific vocabulary.

The second reason they have gone for a defined list is that they wished to respond to the common complaint levelled at the current GCSE, namely that texts (especially listening) are too hard and contain too many words not in the vocabulary list. The fact that glossing will also be allowed should mean that the exams seem easier than now and make the subject more attractive. This is key. A major reason for this reform was to respond the perceived crisis in the subject and to help the government achieve its (unrealistic) goal of 90% take-up at GCSE.

As an aside, you can make an exam easier, but this does not mean grades will improve, of course. As it stands, grading remains harsh for MFL, so there are good reasons to allow the new assessment regime to produce better grades. That’s a political decision.

It is easy to find fault with a defined list based, in this case, on quite a low word count - 1700 words at Higher Tier is low when compared to other countries’ syllabuses (thank you MFL Transform). A crucial issue is whether you can do interesting content with limited vocab. The answer is that you cannot, so if text book writers and teachers are to use interesting material they will have to use rarer, topic-specific words. They will also want to teach strategies for working out the meaning of new words. Keep in mind too that there is a strong correlation between language proficiency and vocabulary size. You need a sizeable vocabulary to speak and understand well.

On the other hand, it may seem to you only fair that pupils be tested on what’s in the syllabus, not stuff which isn’t there. After all, we wouldn't expect a geography student to be tested on volcanoes if they had studied rivers, but not volcanoes. But should we test pupils on their ability to infer words from context? This is a real life, important skill.

In addition, if you believe that the key to acquisition is comprehensible input, then it seems right to make sure that exam texts are easy enough and reflect good classroom practice. There is currently a perceived mismatch between the classroom and the exam. As I mentioned before, many teachers complain that the exams are just too hard and therefore unfair.

Another issue to keep in mind is the fact that these lists largely consist of isolated words, not chunks. This may have the negative backwash effect of encouraging teachers to favour word learning at the expense of chunk learning and practice. NCELP has, in my view, failed to take on board the importance of chunking in its methodology. They still, essentially, support a ‘words + grammar’ methodology, believing that is what produces creative language use. We know this has failed for many, many pupils over the years. Chunking does, of course, generate creative language use and is not just about memorising phrases which cannot be used to produce novel sentences.

In sum, there are pros and cons when it comes to defined lists. Note, in passing, that we don’t have any at A-level. My feeling about this is that on balance it’s a good idea, but that that there is a serious risk that teachers end up limiting their ambition by avoiding other useful and interesting vocabulary. Notoriously in England, with its high-stakes GCSE, we teach to the test, this is a real danger. I would argue that it’s up to teachers and writers not to fall into this trap. Too often we are slaves to the exam and need to have the courage to choose texts and tasks because they are inherently stimulating and useful for acquisition.

A second risk, alluded to before, is that some teachers and pupils may imagine that learning the words on the list will guarantee success. This is far from the case.

I also have concerns about NCELP’s rather evangelical rejection of ‘topics’. It feels to me that they have taken one issue (vocabulary frequency and the problems with themed/topic vocabulary lists) and used it as an argument to ditch topics full stop. (The research on the disadvantages of learning from themed lists is not that strong, and previously, eminent writers like Paul Nation encouraged the practice.)  Avoiding topics is unnecessarily zealous. You need content and it makes sense to me to organise that content thematically in some way. I hope the exam boards find interesting ways to do this, if they are allowed to do so by Ofqual.


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