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The 2026 GCSE subject content is published!

Two DfE documents were published today. The first was the response to the consultation about the proposed new GCSE (originally due in October 2021) and the second is the subject content document which, ultimately, is of most interest to MFL teachers in England.

Here is the link to the document. 

We are talking about an exam to be done from 2026 (current Y7s).

There is always a tendency for sceptical teachers to think that consultations are a bit of a sham and that the DfE will just go ahead and do what they want when it comes to exam reform. In this case, the responses to the original proposals were mixed, and most certainly hostile as far as exam boards and professional associations representing the MFL community, universities, head teachers and awarding bodies are concerned.

What has emerged does reveal some significant changes which take account of a number of criticisms levelled at the proposals. As I read it, the most important changes relate to vocabulary and the issue of topics and themes. For the detail of this, if you are interested, you can see the consultation response here.

When you get a moment I suggest, for professional interest, you have good look at the subject content document (there really is no rush and it is very short).

I would pick out the following key points which classroom teachers may find interesting:

1. I am please to see the clear statements about the importance of culture and communication. Some of us have been concerned that communication has been downplayed somewhat in recent times.

"Through studying a GCSE in a modern foreign language, students should develop their ability and ambition to communicate independently in speech and writing with speakers of the language for authentic purposes and about subjects which are meaningful and interesting to them. (p.3).

2. Following the consultation, it is now clear that exam boards can prepare specifications with themes or topics in mind. This is reassuring to those of us who feared that any new specs would be founded merely on phonics, vocabulary and grammar, rather than meaningful content.

"It is important that students following a GCSE course should become familiar with aspects of the contexts and cultures of the countries and communities where the language is spoken. Linguistic content may be developed through a range of broad themes and topics which have, for example, cultural, geographical, political, contemporary, historical or employment-related relevance" (p.3).

3. Those 'three pillars'! The trinity of vocabulary, grammar and phonics is spelled out clearly. Note that pronunciation as well as phonics is referenced. Students will have to, quote:

a. Learn and use the range of vocabulary required for the level at which they are studying. 

b. Learn and use the grammar specified to understand and produce meaning in written and oral modalities. 

c. Learn and 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.

By the way, this type of trinity is not new. Traditionally, we used to talk about vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. It's the extra sound-spelling emphasis which is still quite new in MFL.

Exam paper specifics

1. There will be dictation with credit for correct spelling. NOTE: some words have to be outside the specified vocab list. (This is to ensure candidates are tested on sound-spelling correspondences, not just remembered words. There is no guarantee this will be the case. Some candidates will know these 'new' words, others won't. This is one area where the content seems a bit doctrinaire and may encourage teachers to spend too long practising the transcription of unknown words. Is this a good use of time?)

Respondents to the consultation rightly pointed out that dictation is harder in French than Spanish and German. This will need addressing in grade allocation. Will French sentences have to be made simpler? Will they be trying to catch out French candidates with preceding direct object agreements? - please, no.

2. There will be a reading aloud element in the speaking test (along with questions on the paragraph, a role-play with prompts which are unambiguous (presumably in English therefore) and a picture(s) stimulus with accompanying conversation.

3. There will be translation both ways, as now. We've got used to this and it barely seems controversial. It really is, though.

4. On question types:

"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 may be in English or the assessed language as appropriate to the task. Rubrics will be in English."

So, as a rule, questions will be in English for comprehension purposes, possibly in other forms where the aim is not to assess comprehension. (This is a return to testing skills 'discretely' - not muddying the waters by simultaneously assessing comprehension and production.)

5. Writing. This comes across as a little vague. Candidates will have to:

"write text in the language in a lexically and grammatically accurate way in response to simple and familiar stimuli (p. 4). 

I am not clear yet whether any potential bullet-point prompts would be in English or L2. To maintain the principle of discrete skill testing they should be in English.

6. Listening. Students will have to:

"understand spoken extracts comprising the defined vocabulary and grammar for each tier which are delivered at a pace which is no faster than a moderate pace, where each word is clearly discernible (as appropriate to pronunciation norms for each language), and which do not contain extraneous distractions or interruptions" (p.4).

This is welcome. Of course, in reality Ofqual will demand that there is a range of performance on papers to ensure that they can allocate grades reliably, so questions and content will still be designed to ensure some low marks. This could be through crafty questions.

6. Dealing with unknown words. (This is in response to exam board and teacher concerns that we should assess, to some degree, students' ability to infer meaning of new words from the context.) The document says students should:

"infer, by using knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar specified for each tier, plausible meanings of single words from outside the Vocabulary List when they are embedded in the context of written sentences" (p.4).

7. Themes and topics

This is an area where concerns have been heeded:

"Specifications should identify a limited number of broad themes or topics with relevance to the countries or communities where the language is spoken."

This is an interesting one. It reminds me of the current A-Level specifications. Some text books (most?) have this covered already, but it is a reminder to do language work in a cultural context, at least some of the time. (I would not recommend all of the time by any means.)

8. Vocabulary

This is where is gets a bit more technical. I would pick out the following:

a. The word lists will be based both on general frequency lists and the needs of teenage learners. 1200 words for Foundation, 1700 for Higher (as originally proposed). But you can add to these inflected versions of words, notably verbs in their various forms. So the count is now really about 'word families' not just words. the word lists must include the ones listed in the annex of the dfE document.

b. Some multi-word phrases can be included in lists, but not many, so there is little concession to lexicogrammar. The DfE are keen that students don't just memorise chunks at the expense of sound word and grammar knowledge. That's another debate!!

"Up to 2% of words (rounded to the nearest whole word) of any given text can be comprised of true and exact cognates which are not included in the Vocabulary List" (p.6).

This gives exam boards a bit more freedom when writing texts, as does the ability to include some unknown words in reading texts (see above).

c "At least 85% of words selected must be from the 2,000 most frequent words occurring in the most widely used standard forms of the language" (p.7).

This is a compromise - the proposals wanted 90%, but they have listened to exam board concerns that 90% was too limiting. Exam boards would have preferred an even lower figure than 85%.

So will this reform be a game-changer? Will it address the current lack of takers for GCSE MFL? Will it help the government reach its Ebacc target?

No, of course not. Those issues would have required a more root and branch reform or addressing the issue of severe grading. If I were still a Head of Department, I would be thinking that this is an evolutionary change. It's nothing like the revolution we saw in 1986-7 when O level was replaced by GCSE.

In the longer term, I wonder if dictation and reading aloud will survive the next reform.(They are pretty out of the mainstream.) Will translation survive? That depends on any future pendulum swing.

Now the fun starts for the awarding bodies!


  1. Thank you for this summary, it is very helpful!

  2. Thanks for this, when I read the doc. Late last night I was in a right panic, but feeling that it might not be SUCH a massive overhaul of the curriculum as I feared….maybe…

  3. Many thanks for this Steve, it's a real help, especially for someone like me just starting to re-engage at this level and whose brain is therefore still a little slow when reflecting on these big questions/issues - thank you very much :-)


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