Thursday, 31 July 2014

Jacqui Turner on the new MFL A-levels

 Jacqui Turner is an experienced, practising teacher of A-level French. She kindly sent me her  views on the draft subject content being proposed for the new MFL A-levels to be taught from September 2016. She writes:

Steve has written extensively about the proposed changes and new forms of assessment, so I don’t intend to repeat those here. Rather this is a personal reaction, from a teacher who has extensive knowledge and experience of teaching A Level and supporting practitioners in other schools. I’ve deliberated for quite some time about this post before putting pen to paper, so to speak, because my first response is actually one of disappointment over a number of issues.

Firstly, I was somewhat dismayed over the makeup of the group putting forward these new recommendations. There was no representation from the examination boards; I consider this to be a major oversight, as there seem to be some exaggerations, even inaccuracies, in what is asserted by ALCAB over the current picture of assessment at A Level. Furthermore, there were very few current practising A Level teachers on the Board and one of those teachers is employed in the independent sector. I would imagine that the challenges facing an MFL teacher in a comprehensive school are very different from those in a selective school, particularly as regards recruitment of students to A Level programmes. 

Additionally, the report makes constant reference to what is ‘intrinsically’ motivating to A Level students, in the absence of a student voice, I feel that their teachers would then be best placed to comment on this.
Throughout, we are reminded that a major aim of this proposal is to reinvigorate and revitalise language teaching, it is a shame then that what is put forward is a return to form of assessment which was used over ten years ago. Language teachers of a certain age and experience will certainly be very familiar with the proposed scheme of assessment. If it had been ‘right’ then, would there have been a need to deviate from this? 

This revitalisation is needed, the report reminds us, because at the moment too many MFL lessons are ‘dull and uninspiring’. Scant evidence is cited for this stark claim, so whether this comes from Ofsted reports, anecdotal accounts etc we are left to ponder. A repetition of subject matter between GCSE and AS Level is largely to blame for such boring teaching. Whilst there is some overlap of topics, I know from my own experience that students finds this reassuring that they recognise key topic areas before embarking on the course. The perceived ‘jump’ from GCSE to AS is often quoted as being a turn-off to potential students. In my experience though, the vast majority of language teachers simply use this ‘overlap’ as a mere springboard which then becomes the vehicle by which more complex vocabulary and constructions can be introduced. It is also a helpful way to measure and demonstrate progress beyond GCSE – that is after all, the aim of each and every lesson! The articles used to justify these wide sweeping claims date from 1997 and 2004 – I would have hoped and expected that such radical proposals would have been based on more current research into classroom practice.

The content of current AS and A level specifications is further criticised as it could feasibly be taught with no, or minimal, reference to the target language society. I do not deny this claim, but very few teachers with whom I work, do not take these opportunities to bring the country into lessons, whether that is with newspaper or magazine articles , YouTube clips and so on, whilst MFL teachers across the country return from holidays abroad laden with examples of realia to be exploited in lessons. I myself could not conceive of teaching the topic of the environment without investigating the socio-political background of France’s nuclear policy or the immigration topic without news footage of the 2005 riots. Indeed, it is precisely these lessons that have really piqued the students’ interests, given rise to heated classroom debates and sparked their intellectual curiosity. The report claims that such content has little value, beyond the practical, something that I cannot agree with and it is the ability to converse at such a high level that students do find intrinsically motivating. 

Furthermore, discrete assessment of students’ cultural knowledge has produced some unusual results – when working as an examiner for an examination board , I remember credit being given for simply knowing that Le Monde was an example of a French newspaper!

Therefore, in order to ‘reconnect languages with cultures’, we will now have to introduce some specific aspect of culture, be it a film, body of poetry, Francophone region from AS. I have a number of concerns and questions from a teaching point of view:

-who will choose this topic?
-is it envisaged that all students will study the same topic?
-where will materials come from?
-why must the works studied come from a pre-determined list? (The current theme I study with my classes is on that prescribed list, so this is not sour grapes!)

My current Year 12 group is a mixture of humanities and science / mathematics students, I relish this diversity which was after all one of the key arguments for the introduction of the AS qualification. However, I do fear that these proposed written ‘context’ questions may deter the less ‘arty’ students who do not enjoy this type of study. 

Moving on to year 13, students will have to engage in a personal ‘individual research’ project.  Whilst no-one would doubt that developing and honing good research skills is an important precursor to embarking on undergraduate courses, I do have concerns about student access to reliable, up to date information and the amount of lesson time that will be needed for this, which could otherwise be spent  on developing active language skills. 

At both AS and A Level, the speaking test will involve a presentation on these cultural themes. I am worried that this will produce the very ‘rote learnt’ pieces which the report actually criticises. Perhaps it is for this reason that an external examiner is requested by the ALCAB group for the conduct of AS speaking examinations. It will be interesting to see examination boards’ responses to this, as it brings with it training and logistical costs. 

The ALCAB report also states, incorrectly in my opinion, that currently it is possible to perform well at A Level without sound knowledge of grammar. In the speaking examination grammar is marked throughout the 15 minute ‘performance’ at both AS and A Level and in both written papers there are specific grammar sections, involving completion of cloze type exercises testing concepts such as verb tense endings, adjectival agreement, word order etc. This requires careful preparation on the part of both teachers and students and cannot realistically be taught without discrete grammar teaching. Indeed at AS, a multiple choice type of exercise is proposed which I would contend is less rigorous than that which is currently on offer. 

Steve and other language teachers have mentioned the issues with the proposed translation parts of the written paper, so I won’t dwell on that here, but I would remind readers that there is already with the AQA board a translation exercise from French into English, though this does not seem to be acknowledged by the ALCAB report. 

ALCAB justify some of these changes as an attempt to broaden and increase students’ knowledge of vocabulary. I personally do not think these proposals will achieve this aim as I think the cultural elements such as literature, film, study of a region, require a very exclusive, specialised lexis which is not necessarily required in everyday life. 

All in all, I’m left somewhat dismayed by what has been put forward here, especially from the perspective of our future A Level students. There was the chance to do something innovative, yet what we have been given is a retrograde step in my view, which takes us back to a form of assessment abandoned some ten years ago. I urge the examination boards to engage with current, practising and experienced A Level teachers to try to produce something which can excite, challenge and equip our students for the challenge of successful language learning.

Jacqueline Turner
30 July 2014

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Latest primary French resources on frenchteacher

Here is the latest list of resources which might appeal to primary French teachers, especially those teaching Y6. A particular feaure is the list of 21 parallel reading tasks.

 “A good student” poster
Teacher phrases for the classroom
Stick-in vocabulary lists
Strip bingo vocabulary game
Fridge sheet – stick on fridge for revision
Place mat with classroom expressions
Prepositions – Où est le chat? (display/worksheet)
Conversation questions board game
Parts of the body strip bingo game
Clothing strip bingo game
Pair work interview slips
Word re-ordering for revision
What is the question?
General revision questions

Numbers wordsearch – which number is missing?
Variations on number bingo
Numbers 1-60 – arithmetic sheet
Numbers 1-50 dominoes
Numbers 1-100 dominoes
Numbers 1-100 crossword
Days and months wordsearch
Months of the year + dates

Easy text and exercises on the Simpsons – good for whiteboard
Family crossword + mon/ma/mes
Family wordsearch + mon/ma/mes – add hyphens svp
Family dominoes + possessives
Listening: La famille Berrow (BBC)
Pets crossword + articles
Animals crossword – French to English
Pets reading and drawing task
Animals song

Becoming a vet
Simple family poem
Simple family description
My dog
My house
Weather forecast
The boy who cried wolf
Asking directions
Daily routine
My friend (male)
My friend (female)
My mum
The blue whale

Practising être
Practising avoir
Practising -er verbs
Practising -er verbs
Practising -er verbs drill
-er verbs – battleships game
-er verbs crossword
 -er verbs sentence translation
-er verbs grid to complete
Simple daily routine
Using the verb s’appeler 
je vais + au/à la/à l’)
Using subject pronouns il/elle/ils/elles
Ils or Elles? (1)
Ils or Elles? (2)

Weather (2)
Weather dominoes
Weather crossword
Weather forecast – parallel reading

Time (1) – hours and half past
Time (2) – quarter past and to
Time (3) – minutes past and to
Time (4) – mixed Telling the time worksheet
Where and when.
Using aller plus time.
Time matching task

 Battleships game for places in town (can be adapted for other grammar or vocab areas)
In town – directions
In town – code breaking
In town – crossword
In town – crossword with definitions
In town – wordsearch
In town – dominoes
In town – vocab matching
Pour aller…..
Transport Shops (oral/written drill)

La maison de la famille Leblanc
House for sale advert
Trotro joue à cache-cache – video listening
In the house
In the house crossword
In the house (2)
Rooms in the house
Ma chambre
Dans ma chambre – wordsearch
Ma chambre – video listening sing-along

Classroom vocabulary – code breaking
Classroom vocabulary – video listening
Classroom vocabulary list
Classroom vocabulary dominoes
School subjects
Classroom vocab – crossword Eng-Fr
Classroom vocab – crossword Fr-Eng
Classroom vocab with indefinite articles- crossword
Classroom wordsearch
Classroom vocabulary anagrams
Classroom items strip bingo game

Saturday, 26 July 2014

So what would a better A-level have looked like?

In contrast with the backward-looking A-levels proposed by the Russell Group and accepted by Ofqual, what might we have done to improve an already effective modern languages A-Level? What would be fresh, challenging and engaging?

The recent JCQ report looked into why students are not doing A-level language courses and one thing which emerged was that students would like to see more interesting topics, see a greater stress on communication and less stress on grammatical accuracy. Although this would not meet the preferences of Russell Group universities, I believe student opinion, if accurately recorded, has got it right.

The British tendency towards conservatism finds its expression in the desire to protect the role of reading, writing and grammatical accuracy, even when most observers would place greater value on the practical skills of listening and speaking. Most of us learn a language primarily to listen to it and to speak it. A-Level should keep this strongly in mind.

My own sketch of A-level would look something like this:

Listening - 30% - adapted/authentic sources tested in the target language by means of multi-choice, matching, gap fill, spotting differences in transcription, ticking true statements etc.

Speaking - 30% - terminal oral test featuring discussion of topics done in class and one major work/film/historical topic, discussion of a picture or text, possibly some kind of role play task.

Reading/Writing - 40% - to include a range of authentic/adapted texts, tested in the target language, with a focus either on reading comprehension or written accuracy. No translation, but testing of detailed comprehension and grammatical knowledge by various means e.g. question-answer in the TL, multi-choice, cloze, matching etc. One essay in the target language on a cultural topic either from a prescribed list or freely chosen by the school to correspond with the teachers' and/or the students' preferences.

Topic content would resemble the idea of "general studies in the target language" and feature a list of important themes from contemporary culture (e.g. integration, environment, education, development, popular culture, media, moral issues and so on) with the stress to be on sources from the target language and stressing points of view from the target language culture.

You will note that I have rejected the approach suggested by the Russell Group which lays far more emphasis on knowledge of the target language culture with topics they mention such as Dreyfus, the Algerian war, impressionism, the New Wave, surrealism etc.

I ask you which type of syllabus is more likely to engage young people and get them to develop fluency in the target language?

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Implications of topics to be covered in the new MFL A-levels

The Ofqual draft content of the proposed new A-Levels refers to three thematic strands which would form the basis of the subject matter studied. These themes were chosen by the ALCAB (Russell Group) advisory group to encourage students to engage with topics relating more directly to the culture of the target language. They feel that students arriving at university have too little knowledge of the literature, history and intellectual culture of the target language cultures.

Although the Ofqual document does not list in detail what might be studied, they have kept the three strands put forward by the Russell Group.

These are:
  • Social issues and phenomena
  • Politics, current affairs and history
  • Intellectual culture, past and present
The ALCAB report went into greater detail with an "indicative list" of topics which we may assume would be picked up by the examination boards. For example, under "social issues and phenomena" for French they suggest:

Les valeurs républicaines
Les provinces et les régions
La culture québecoise
Les Grands Projets
La laïcité
La liberté d'expression

Now, all of these are interesting subjects which would certainly increase a student's knowledge and understanding of the culture of the target language, but in terms of developing language skills, how would these be turned into lesson plans which would generate communication in the classroom?

From the list above, the only overlap with the current specifications would be valeurs républicaines, l'école, la liberté d'expression and laïcité which can form the basis of good discussion. Resources can be found for these topics and discussion, the lifeblood of A-level lessons, can be generated. Could a teacher get much communication out of les DOM-TOM, les Grands Projets or les provinces et les régions?

I know that as a teacher I would have avoided topics like these because they just don't generate conversations. The other two strands are even worse in this regard. How many A-Level teachers would want to plan exciting, communicative lessons on topics such as existentialism, French mathematics, surrealism, the French empire and decolonisation, the Algerian war and the Dreyfus case (these are all on the indicative list)?

You see, I think this gets to the heart of the matter. The Russell Group panel look at A-Level from the perspective of university academics whose focus is not the same as that of a school teacher. They value knowledge of culture and written accuracy more highly than teachers. They feel frustrated when freshers arrive with suspect written accuracy and a limited knowledge of literature, history and film. School teachers, on the other hand, rightly, want to motivate their classes with topics which will engage and even excite them and generate all kinds of communicative activities. They see topics as a means to get students using the language communicatively. They do not want to be talking and writing about literature history in English. In addition, many A-level students, particularly those who struggle a bit more, would find the ALCAB indicative lists very dull and off-putting.

The more I look at what is proposed, the more I think that we are going down the wrong track. I would have thought that the prime aim of universities in the current climate would be to keep their departments open. What is being proposed will, as the recent JCQ report suggests, do nothing to get more linguists doing A-Level.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

JCQ report on low take-up at A-level and the A* grade issue

The JCQ is "a membership organisation comprising the seven largest providers of qualifications in the UK".

They have just released a report to look at the reasons for low and declining take-up of modern languages at A-level and the reasons for the relative lack of A* grades. Its chapters, produced by different people or agencies e.g. Ipsos Mori, contain a very thorough analysis of recent trends in languages, both at GCSE and A-Level, including, for example, the issue of "severe grading" as well as the key issue of why there has beena decline in take-up. There some very useful recommendations. I thoroughly recommend this report if you are interested in policy or qualifications.

Here is a concise summary of their findings as summarised by the AQA site:
  • students' motivations for choosing, or not choosing, to study a Modern Foreign Language (MFL) at A-level are wide ranging and include a perception of difficulty
  • some teachers feel the jump between GCSE and A-level is too great and can act as a deterrent
  • learning languages requires the ability to develop across a wide range of skills which all need to be mastered to achieve an A*
  • writing and speaking tasks are most likely to test stretch and challenge students and so a relatively weak performance in writing skill is a key factor in a student not achieving an A*.
From my own perspective as a long-standing (now retired) Head of MFL, a few points did occur to me on reading this. I have previously blogged about the take-up issue here.

The first bullet point above is very relevant. Motivations for not choosing a language at A-Level do vary a lot. I would mention that weaker students are more likley to choose other options, the number of which has risen over the years. Subjects such as psychology, media, religious studies and biology have grown hugely in the last twenty years. This has been at the expense of languages and other subjects (geography has seen a decline, though history has not). MFL IS perceived as hard and severe grading does not help.

The second point has been true ever since GCSE was introduced in 1987. AS level has evolved into more of a transitional qualification (subject content resembles that of GCSE in many ways), but students with grade B or C at GCSE find A-level tough. The proposed new A-Levels to be taught from September 2016 will do little or nothing to change this perception. Indeed, quite possibly the opposite will be true.

The third and fourth points relate to consistency across skills and in particular a weakness in writing. I must confess that I find this analysis odd. It would be a mere mathematical operation to raise the rate of A* grades to match that achieved in subjects like maths and science. It seems to me that the error was made when the A* grade was introduced and that it has not been put right. I taught some thoroughly excellent students who failed to achieve A*. I was left to conclude that Ofqual had got the sums wrong and that some of the A* grades may have gone to bilingual candidates, which would skew the results.

If you look into the detail of the chapters in the report some interesting points emerge with regard to low take-up.
  • Apparently students are still unaware of the economic benefits to them of learning a language. This is not the case for STEM subjects. In addition students are not sure what career paths they may follow with a language
  • 92% of students surveyed by MORI said they thought MFL was perceived as hard
  • 83% of teachers thought students considered you need a special talent for learning languages to gain proficiency
  • Controlled assessments at GCSE were thought by teachers to have a negative effect on attainment later
  • Students think the jump from GCSE to A-Level is greater than for other subjects. In particular they think you can get marks at GCSE by rote memory and that AS level demands more sophisticated skills
  • Most teachers thought that future reforms of A-level would have no impact, or a negative impact on take-up
  • Teachers felt decoupling of AS level from A-level may reduce take-up
  • Teachers felt A-level should take into account a wider range of ability levels
  • With regard to the A* issue "A* outcomes are often lower than those predicted from the students’ prior attainment scores, a phenomenon that cannot be changed using the current awarding process, even if it was deemed appropriate to do so". Put simply, the current mathematical arrangements (raw scores to UMS) cannot be changed!
NOW, the punchline:

IPSOS concluded that there were four major factors behind the decline in take-up of MFL at A-level:

1.  A-Level (and GCSE) is not focused enough on speaking and topics are not interesting enough. An academic focus on writing and assessments is off-putting. (Take note, Russell Group.) The balance of skills and content should be more engaging.

2. GCSE puts off students from continuing to A-level. It is too based on memory work Teachers feel that teaching to the test limits the possibility of producing inspiring lessons.

3.  MFL is a risky choice for A-level. Students think they work harder to achieve lower grades than in other subjects. they think it is virtually impossible to get a top grade (A*). A review of grading would be useful.

4.  Students do not appreciate the value of MFL qualifications. They are unaware of career options with languages. They note that STEM has been promoted to them more heaviliy. More work to promote languages is needed.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Steve Glover's comments on the draft MFL A-levels

I am grateful to Steve Glover, author of the excellent ALF (A-Level French) and ALGIE (A-Level German Literature and Cinema), who was kind enough to send me comments about the ALCAB report on A-Level modern languages and what I have written in my blog posts. You may recall that the report is the basis for new specifications which will be taught from September 2016. Steve brings a wealth or knowledge and experience to the field of A-Level languages, having taught and written for A-level students. He has given me permission to post his comments as a blog.  I have very slightly edited what he wrote. I hope colleagues who teach A-level MFL find this interesting.

Key link:

I certainly don’t disagree with most of your comments, Steve, although I would agree with the ALCAB report that some of thematic material chosen by teachers arguably doesn’t lend itself to progression to university as well as it might. I am thinking particularly of the film Les choristes in the context of the WJEC prescribed list and the other boards generally. The film could just as well be set in another country and I do imagine lecturers sighing when they find out their incoming students have spent half their learning time on it.

Amélie, La haine and Au revoir les enfants, probably three of the other most popular choices, do have the merit of being steeped in the culture of the target language which is what ALCAB are stressing. Whatever exam boards put on their list, there will still be a tendency to gravitate towards what appear to be the most easy or approachable titles resulting in a “bunching” effect.

 The “indicative” list published by ALCAB for French doesn’t mention a single one of the most popular texts currently being studied, which is not in itself a problem, as I think teachers should change what texts/films they do to reflect student interests, requirements and aspirations. However, the list appears dominated by personal stories of ethnic minorities alongside a very random mix of authors and titles from Voltaire’s Candide up to Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et tremblements. Apart from the latter the books seem to come from the back of the group’s mind on what used to be popular in the past.

Having had a quick trawl through the Amazon book list many of the books are not even obtainable, or scarcely so. “Indicative” means that boards will be able to choose equivalents to the books mentioned, so any Molière, any female 1950/1960 author, any personal account of the occupation etc may appear. I quite like the idea that the AS question on the book/film and half the A2 question are intended to be a context type question or set of questions rather than a full essay. I guess this removes the AS essay, the marking of which has generally been considered suspect.

Regarding questions in English involving higher analytical and critical thinking skills, personally I don’t think this should be too much of a problem as most of the texts around have guides on background such as the Methuen series - theoretically students shouldn’t take as much time to train to write better essays than in French although clearly those studying other languages or English would be advantaged.

This emphasis on serious literature and cinema in itself, however, is going to put off students from studying the A-level course; long, serious books are likely to be a real turnoff.

The way I read the ALCAB report was that there may well be explicit grammatical questions on the paper testing a range of grammar; I guess this could be done through reading comprehension with the students distinguishing the correct answer or maybe having to transform active into passive, indicative to subjunctive as wellas the good old cloze test for endings etc.

I agree with you on the themes. It is quite possible to take the existing ones to the required level of analysis and evaluation within a French/international context. How many teachers have actually not been using target language texts and listening material in preparing students? Over the last 30 years or so the issues coming up for discussion are pretty much globalised in any case, or at least fairly even across Europe, so a purely French /French speaking reaction to a topic is unnecessary.

I am rather worried about the idea of a very random English to French translation but the exam boards have a long history and experience of this and it needn’t be a problem.

I’m not sure that the personal project for the oral is a big deal as the Edexcel board already does it with a one minute presentation, defending a controversial issue followed by a discussion of that position. The proposed oral in fact seems to most to resemble Edexcel's.

I’m interested in the way the ALCAB report describes students currently needing to have the knack to score well on the comprehensions with the language accuracy not generally counting. I do agree to some extent with them that current comprehensions for some boards are a bit of an intelligence test. The boards vary on this, but certainly cloze tests for listening can be more of a reading comp/grammar test - much quicker and easier to approach in that way. They don’t really have that many answer  in the target language where the accuracy of the grammar is disregarded. I guess they’re saying that they would set a listening passage the content of which would be expected to generate considered critical responses.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

How will the new MFL A-levels affect classroom teaching?

This is my fourth and last blog for the moment on the new draft content for MFL A-levels, largely inspired by the ALCAB report from "top" universities with input from subject associations, independent schools and one academy. It is notable that exam boards were not consulted. This was an appalling omission. To my mind they have extensive knowledge and experience in these matters which should have been drawn upon. They have intimate knowledge of what students can and should do.

What practising teachers would be most interested in perhaps is how any new specifications will affect the classroom.

Crucially 20% of marks will now be awarded for knowledge of the target language culture (literature and film) and half of these marks will be given for work written in English (e.g. essay or context commentary). This means that at least 10% of marks will be given for answers in English (I mention "at least" because listening and reading papers are allowed a certain amount of questioning in English). How will this affect what teachers and students do?

  • There will be more use of English in the classroom as teachers and students discuss works through the medium of English in preparation for essays in English. Teachers have always had the dilemma regarding how much TL to use when teaching cultural topics. In the new regime they may feel safer using English.
  • In the run-up to mock exams and terminal exams a good deal of time will be allocated to doing practice essays in English. This will mean less time for developing language skills. More routine homeworks may be done in English.
  • Teachers will be discouraged from using textual material which does not relate to the target language culture. (In practice teachers already largely use resources relating to the TL culture, but do allow themselves to exploit other resources when they are though to be more motivational.)
  • Because teachers will have to work to a prescribed list of texts and films they may not find something to their taste. I recall reluctantly having to teach Manon Lescaut many years ago. A-level classes really buzz when both teachers and students are enthused by the subject matter. Can we be sure the exam boards will produce long enough and stimulating enough texts?
  • The stress on literature and film will be a challenge to some teachers who are not trained in these areas or who have a preference for other areas such as history, art, music, geography and so on. Teaching literature and film at A-level requires great skill. Will all teachers be up to the challenge?
  • The inclusion of "intellectual culture" will mean teachers do more on more "heavyweight" topics such as those mentioned in the ALCAB report e.g. new wave cinema, existentialism, impressionism, contemporary music and "mathémathiques françaises" (not sure where that one sprang from!)
  • The inclusion, specifically, of politics and history will mean spend more time on these topics than they may have been used to
  • The inclusion of a research topic at A-level will require a greater amount of self-study than is offered by most departments at the moment. I am not against this, but teachers will need to think through how they will manage this greater independence. Weaker students will need a good deal of support in terms of time management and planning. In addition, although the internet will be the main source of research material, departments may need to look at their libraries. This also applies to the resources required to teach film amd literature; study guides in English will be needed.
Having said this, it may be only fair to acknowledge that much current practice will remain unchanged. I hope there will remain a strong element of A-Level as "general studies in the TL", and as language knowledge and skills are very transferable across topics, teachers need not worry that they are going to have to be experts on history, politics or French mathematics (!). the main focus will, and should, remain on language. A-level MFL is already very good and considered a tough challenge by students. I do not believe it needed toughening up and I certainly do not believe that getting students to write in English makes it any tougher. Finally, and importantly, the new A-levels are most unlikely to attract new recruits.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The ALCAB report on A-level modern languages

ALCAB stands for A-Level Content Advisory Board. It is a panel of university academics who took advice from a range of stakeholders, including the ALL, subject associations, with a little input from schools (notably independent ones) and other bodies.

Here is their report:

The panel identified five weaknesses in the current AS and A level. I shall add my own gloss to each criticism in turn.

(a) The regulatory requirements are of such a general nature that they do not require awarding organisations to prescribe topics which require students’ direct engagement with material relating to the society of the countries where the language of study is spoken.

On the one hand, this appears to be a criticism of the lack of prescribed texts we now see (with the exception of the WJEC). The panel believe that teachers cannot be trusted to select material, whether it be from literature, film, history or elsewhere. On the other, it also suggests that there is not enough reading and listening material which relates to the culture of the target language.

There may be some truth in the fact that teachers' choices of texts, films and so on are inconsistent across schools, but I do not believe that students are getting an inadequate diet of material relating to the societies of the languages being studied.

 (b) The study of cultural topics is only an A2 option and general topics predominate, some of which are studied and restudied at GCSE, AS and A level. Despite examples of good practice by awarding organisations and inspiring teaching, this can make the current syllabus rather dull and uninspiring, particularly at AS level. 

I reject the claim that material being studied at A-level is a rehash of GCSE style subject matter. A2 material is fundamentally different and more challenging. At AS level, there are GCSE-style topics and for good reason. AS level needs to have a link with GCSE in terms of progression and it is already the case that some students find the leap from GCSE to A-level difficult. The future AS level is, of course, supposed to be "decoupled" from A-level and pitched at the same level, so we are not comparing like with like in relation to the existing AS level and any new one. If AS level is decoupled (a future Labour government may undo this) then Y11 students will be discouraged even more from starting an AS in MFL if it is harder.

What students and teachers find dull is a matter of taste, but I would note that the AQA did a lot of focus group work on this around 2000 before designing their specifications. As a result they chose topics which they thought would be of interest to students. My experience was that students rarely found the topics dull and usually had plenty to talk about in the target language. In addition, we must make sure that future exams cater for all abilities, not just an academic elite.

(c) The language of study tends to be conceived principally in terms of its immediate practical use and in isolation from the student’s competence in other languages. There is therefore no encouragement to develop a more searching understanding of linguistic systems. 

I don't really get this criticism. In my view "immediate practical use" should remain the fundamental aim. Topics are a vehicle for us to get students listening, speaking, reading and writing. I do not believe we need to focus particularly on "developing a more searching understanding of linguistic systems". What does this mean? There is an overlap in topics currently across different modern languages, but little I have seen in the new subject content will change this.

(d) The intention to promote accuracy in language use is not carried through in practice and some awarding organisations advise examiners not to penalise grammatical mistakes in some parts of the written examination. There is a need for balance between fluency and accuracy. 

This is the classic plea from universities to schools to produce more accurate linguists. "We have to teach them grammar when they arrive at university." We already have a balance between fluency and accuracy. There is a strong traditional bias towards accuracy and I would argue that we still lean a fraction too far towards accuracy. University lecturers are academics whose prime interest is not practical use of the language. In schools we should continue to focus on fluency, comprehension and general proficiency, with proper regard to accuracy.

No doubt some teachers and schools are better than others at promoting grammatical rigour, but we do not need to fundamentally alter our specifications to account for this.

(e) The existing requirements do not promote the development of transferable critical skills. Such development is an important part of language learning. 

I am not sure it should be a major focus. Yes, A-level MFL is rather like teaching general studies through he medium of a foreign language, but, I repeat, the stress should  be on language. The above argument about critical skills ends up with students writing essays in English as part of an MFL course. This is wrong.

It is regrettable that universities are being allowed to dictate the nature A-level modern language courses as they did many years ago. We need to attract as many students as possible. The panel acknowledges as much in its statement of context. I do not think we will do so by a return to a more traditional curriculum. I must be part of the Blob.

New MFL A-levels - part 2

In my last post I looked at the draft content of the proposed new A-levels for modern languages. I shall now deal with the assessment objectives and mark weightings. Once again, there are very significant changes. Here is the link again:

To summarise succinctly:

Listening   20%
Reading (assessed through speech and writing)   30%
Language use (accuracy and appropriacy, both speech and writing)  30%
Culture     20%

We have to be a little careful here, because reading will be partly assessed within the oral. (We may end up with summary and discussion on short texts.)

The big change here is the allocation of marks for cultural knowledge. When the existing post 2000 A-levels were designed teachers expressed the view that culture (literature, film etc) should still feature in courses. It was decided, however, that no marks could be awarded for cultural knowledge. This led to the curious situation of orals and essays being marked without explicit reference to knowledge of books, films etc. Marks could only be given for use of language, relevance, accuracy and structure. I do not know for sure why it was decided at that time not to give marks for cultural knowledge if it was valued by teachers. Perhaps it was felt that language should prevail, or perhaps it was recognised that if you gave free rein on choice of texts and topics, the examiners would not have reliable mark schemes to work to.

I have mixed feelings about this. To reward cultural knowledge means downgrading language to some extent. To include marks for cultural knowledge probably means you need to have set texts as the WJEC chose to do post 2000. If we end up with prescribed texts, as looks almost certain, I just hope they are long, imaginative and give teachers a good chance to find something that both they and students will enjoy.

What is more worrying, and I mentioned this in my last post, is that assessment of literature or film (why just these?) must include essay writing in English (50% of the marks for AO4). This is what many universities still do and I think that it is a poor idea for A-level. Why? Because it will lead to too much use of English in classrooms and, frankly, it may be too easy. Ask a student what they would prefer: to write an essay in English in French or English? They will say English. It is arguable that use of English will allow some deeper level of analysis, but it comes at a cost. My experience over many years was that you could teach serious texts without vast recourse to English and without having to write essays in English. This is a terribly retrograde move. Perhaps they were right in 2000 to keep the focus relentlessly on language.

Just a note that up to 10% of marks will be given for questions and responses in English. Is this really necessary? Is it beyond the wit of examiners to test comprehension of gist and detail through the target language?

What about listening? Why is it considered less important than reading? To my mind it is the key skill and if you award it fewer marks teachers will spend less time on it.

As for oral work, it is not yet clear to me from the assessment objectives precisely how many marks are to be awarded for it. I wonder if it will work out at around 20%.

If so, listening and speaking together would account for roughly 40% of marks. I believe this is too little. Modern languages at A-level should still be viewed primarily as a practical tool and many would argue that listening and speaking are the most useful skills for later.

Overall, the assessment objectives, like the subject content, smell fusty. It's as if we are going back at least three decades. What a shame! This has the fingerprints of the universities all over it and, even if this is what we end up with, I hope teachers and subject associations will have a serious say in the consultations.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Draft content for new MFL A-levels

The key documents from Ofqual, which I recommend you read, are here:

Subject content:


 The documents are short but there is a fair bit to take in, including quite significant changes from what we have now. Ofqual are under some time pressure with this, no doubt, but what a shame the consultations end in mid to late September. Many teachers may not be switched on to these things over the summer break.

The draft content draws strongly on the recommendations of the A-level Advisory Panel which consists entirely of university academics, with little input from the secondary school sector. Teachers may feel concerned, even angry, that they have had so much influence over the new content. I do not believe university lecturers know a great deal about A-level and would be overly concerned with that declining minority of A-level linguists who go on to study languages in higher education.

In this blogpost I am going to look at the subject content. I'll write separately on the assessment. Here is my take so far.

Headlines: new focus, explicitly assessed, on cultural content with a return to prescribed lists of texts (only literature and film), a new emphasis on personal research, a retreat from target language use, more "academic" topics and a reaffirmation of the place of translation to and from the target language.

The draft aims and objectives lay a greater stress on critical thinking and culture and society, as well as language. Students should "engage critically with intellectually stimulating texts, films and other materials in the
original language, developing an appreciation of sophisticated and creative uses of the language and understanding them within their cultural and social context". Students should "develop their capacity for critical and analytical thinking both through the language of study and in English" (my italics).

The section on subject content reaffirms clearly the importance of culture: "The content for AS and A level is conceived as an integrated study with a focus on language and culture and society." It goes on:

The specifications must require students to develop knowledge and understanding, through the language of study, of aspects of the society, culture and history of the country or countries where the language is spoken, studying one theme at AS and two themes at A-level from each of the following areas of interest (i.e. 3 themes at AS; 6 themes at A level):
• social issues and phenomena
• politics, current affairs and history
intellectual culture, past and present (my italics)

The Ofqual report does not elaborate on these themes,but the ALCAB report, from which they emerged, lists topics such as the Algerian war, surrealism, the New Wave, existentialism French mathematics, laïcité and school. I note in passing that quite a few of these do not lend themselves to very communicative lessons (I develop this in later blogs).
Further down: students will have to "translate an unseen passage or passages from the language of study into English and unseen sentences or short texts at AS and an unseen passage or passages at A level from English into the language of study." 

At AS level students will have to study a literary work or film. At A-level they must study two works, at least one of which must be literature. Students will have to write about either a book or film in English.

Finally, students will have to carry out a personal research study on a topic they choose, writing about it and giving an oral presentation.

I have a few observations so far. It may be worth mentioning that I taught A-level French for 35 years, so have seen a few changes in emphasis over the years.
1.  Many teachers will regret the return of prescribed lists of texts and films, even if, as most do, they want to see a strong cultural content element at A-level. I imagine this was seen as a necessity for two reasons. Firstly, examiners will need to know texts or films well to apply a given mark scheme. Currently there are no marks as such for cultural content - a somewhat anomalous situation to say the least. 
Secondly, a prescribed list ensures "rigour" and consistency across schools. The chosen texts or films will be chosen to be equally challenging in terms of language and content. Teachers will not be able to opt for anything shallow or too short. I understand those arguments, but the problem with prescribed lists is that sometimes that they do not always allow teachers to play to their own strengths and those of their students. You can end up (I know from experience) teaching something you do not have your heart in. 
Whilst free choice causes difficulties for assessment (the examiner may not know the text or film), we have muddled through with the current assessment based on language, structure and relevance to the title. In addition, experience suggests prescribed lists will include familiar, arguably unexciting and unoriginal works from the canon: what Michael Gove might have described as a selection of the best of the literary and cinematic culture. Fans of art, music, literature and geography will regret the downgrading of these from the prescribed list. It would be possible, of course, for students to do personal study on these.
So, on balance, just, I regret the return to prescribed lists. At least we have kept cinema, the bias towards literature displayed in the GCSE content is only partially maintained.

2.  I welcome he emphasis on personal research. It is not new, of course. In the days of coursework it was a part of the course many students valued and I marked some superb long essays over the years. I believe that the Edexcel board currently offers something along these lines at present.  It will be interesting to see how this is assessed in writing and during the oral. I welcome the fact that students will have the opportunity to research a topic of their own. Some find this quite daunting, take a while to settle on a theme and need a good deal of nursing through the process, but the results are often superb.

3.  At first view it looks like the quantity of work has risen. At A-level two works plus a personal research project looks like more than what most schools do now. Given that there are only so many hours in the week and that most students already work very hard, something else would have to give. That something would presumably be routine topic work from texts, audio, video and so on. If students are heavily focused on two texts/films and a personal study, this limits the time for other work.

4.  The insistence on using English for writing about one of the books/films is a seriously retrograde step. It's a mistake. It comes from the Russell Group universities who do more of thsi type of activity. The feeling is no doubt that students need to write in English to be able to express more profound ideas and to show a high level of critical analysis, but the backwash effect from the exam will lead to more use of English in the classroom, more practice essays in English and less use of the target language. Acquisition will inevitably take a hit. We know that students are capable of writing at quite a high level in the target language and Ofqual should have stuck with target language as a priority. A-level is not university and we should  be wary of returning to the days when universities set the agenda.

5.  The reaffirmation of translation at AS and A-level is also, in my view, a mistake. It is consistent with the subject content for GCSE, but once again, the cart will lead the horse, and teachers and students will use too much English in classrooms. I strongly stress that grammatical rigour can be had without recourse to translation. Similarly, detailed comprehension of texts does not require testing through translation. Again, I wonder whether universities had their say here. Translation is a specialised skill, not the best way to develop long term acquisition.

I have always been clear about this: translation can have a place, but if you put it in an exam it ends up occupying too much time in class.

Teachers who want to take part in the DfE consultation should look here:

You can fill in an Ofqual consultaion form here (scroll down):

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Michael Gove's legacy to languages

Mr Whippy van - image: wikimedia commons
Since I wrote this post I have now had the chance to see the draft content of the new A-levels for teaching from September 2016. It is alarming to see how retrograde the new content is and, in particular, the huge influence of the university sector in its formulation. Please see my more recent blog posts. Gove left us with more than I had thought.


You can usually tell when politicians have inspired a degree of hatred: they are referred to by their surname only. Just think of Thatcher and Blair, as opposed to Major, Callaghan, Wilson, Heath or even Brown. Most teachers would have liked party poppers and champagne to hand on hearing the surpise announcement that Gove's tenure at the DfE has come to an end. For an Education Secretary he had a long run.  I cannot recall such a despised, ideological minister, but has his influence been felt to a large degree by language teachers?

It is true that Gove has wanted to raise the status of languages. He once said: "Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children". I am sure he meant it. He obviously rated languages as seriously academic too.

But have his policy changes brought about significant improvements in the status and teaching of languages?

Firstly, with regard to primary languages, after pulling the plug on money from 2010, damaging networks which had been built up over a few years under Labour, he did eventually allow for the introduction of compulsory languages at KS2. The hiatus was very harmful, however, and there is very little money now available for the training of teachers at KS2 (the DfE are claiming that £350 000 is there for training at KS2 and above). The principle of compulsory languages at KS2 is easy to justify, but we shall inevitably end up with a patchwork quilt of coverage across schools, with little chance of rigorous and consistent progression between primary and secondary. It's simply too complex to get right everywhere. I doubt if this policy change will be revolutionary.

What a shame that Gove pulled the plug on funding for the Asset Languages scheme, originally known as the languages ladder. Many schools used these qualifications and with some more political follow-through the scheme may have acquired a similar status to RSA-style music exams. This was only one of several initiatives allowed to wither. Think of CILT, Teacher's TV and the Teacher Resource Exchange.

At secondary level the Ebacc accountability measure was a neat trick to encourage school leaders to raise the status of languages and humanities. It did arrest the rapid fall in GCSE entries for MFL and has led to an increase of students doing AS level in 2013-14, but the introduction of the P8 measure will devalue the Ebacc, so the number of 15/16 year olds doing languages is unlikely to rise much further. Gove would have been braver to stick to his principle of a rigorous academic education to all pupils up to 16 by making languages compulsory. This proved a bridge too far and reveals that, ultimately, maths, English and science are considered more important.

The decoupling of AS levels from A-level, if it happens, is likely to lead to a further fall in the number of students taking MFL in Y12. Nothing else has yet been done to arrest the disastrous decline in A-level MFL entries for French and German. A courageous move would have been to get universities, or at least some of them, to make a GCSE pass in MFL a requirement for entry. That would instantly raise the status of MFL at KS4. The UCML letter to universities on this is to be welcomed as is the All-Party Parliamentary Group Report on Modern Languages which recognises the serious "national deficit in languages".

Changes to the National Curriculum set in train under Gove's watch are relatively minor at KS3 and KS4, but he has managed to get Ofqual to include more references to translation and literature. I imagine the intention is to make language teaching a little less communicative and a bit more based on traditional attention to grammar and accuracy. I regret this change in emphasis, but in any case, since only half of English secondarry schools have to follow the National Curriculum, you wonder why we have one at all. In practice, the National Curriculum gives a strong lead to Ofqual and the exam boards who will set the standards. Teachers will teach to the new specifications as they always have done. I hope these and their associated specimen papers do no more than pay lip service to translation. I would not expect much of a revolution in exam papers, but they will need to be very smart in the setting of writing questions.

As far as GCSE is concerned, many teachers will be glad to see the back of controlled assessments, but will be concerned about the exact nature of terminal exams to come. I am glad Gove ditched CAs. If you want to have a robust exam and accountability system, you cannot rely on teachers applying the rules consistently. In addition, CAs have been a serious disruption to schemes of work and forced teachers to employ dubious pedagogical practices, notably large amounts of rote learning to maximise marks.

The removal of levels will affect all subjects, possibly in quite subtle ways. In languages, along with other subjects, it may remove the undesirable practice of setting tasks to hit a level artificially. It may encourage teachers to focus a bit more on pig fattening than pig weighing.  This was clearly the intention. Gove was responding to what some teachers were saying about levels. It remains to be seen whether schools can devise effective, less time-consuming assessment and tracking procedures.

Overall it is hard not to conclude that Gove's period in office has had a minimal effect on the status of languages in England. University departments continue to close, A-level numbers continue to fall and GCSE entries have pretty much stalled. Meanwhile reports periodically emerge that our lack of linguists is holding back the nation. I have the feeling that, unless the OECD start to report modern language learning in their PISA report, languages will remain in the doldrums. Sorry!

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Early exam entry in MFL

There are schools who enter pupils for GCSE exams before the end of Y11. There may be several reasons for this. Some schools with pupils of very high academic ability may feel that the GCSE exam is not challenging enough by Y11 and prefer to take on more challenging, or different work. Other schools may wish to enter pupil very early, even in Y9, so that their students get some accreditation before they drop the subject at KS4. In the days of O-levels, "academic" schools would allow pupils to sit exams at the end of Y10, taking on an "AO" qualification in Y11, for example business French or language and literature.

In general I am against early exam entry. Let me explain why.

Firstly, early entry requires teachers and students to focus too much on exam technique in Y10. With the current system of controlled assessment, squeezing exam work into Y10 becomes even more of a challenge. With new linear courses with terminal exams coming in June 2018 it may require more time to embed the skills needed to cope with the level of speaking and writing needed in the final exam. When you focus on exam preparation you severely limit the amount of comprehension work needed to build long term acquisition. You end up taking short-cuts, focusing too much on grammatical explanations, spoon feeding model answers and techniques.

Secondly, it is wrong to assume that, because a pupil can cope with early entry (and even get very good grades) this is the right thing to challenge them. Early entry means many pupils will get reduced grades (bad news for them and probably for school value-added figures). In addition, the problem with early entry has always been: what do you do in Y11? If you start AS level or A-level work you have to deal with the situation whereby any non-accelerated students will join in at the start of Y12. Another possible avenue, Asset Languages, has now gone. Many students will not be mature enough to deal with some of the topics covered at A-level. If AS level is decoupled from A-level and pitched at the level of A-level (as opposed to post GCSE, which it is now) this may become an even greater issue.

Even if you assume that the GCSE specification is too easy for some pupils (I doubt this, with very few exceptions), this does not mean that lessons need to be too easy. Skilled teachers will always know where to pitch work with their classes, challenging them just enough to make further progress. There is nothing wrong in having classes of motivated, confident classes, all getting A* at GCSE. The challenge at that point for a few is whether they can achieve maximum UMS point scores. Teachers can always create a sense of challenge.

For well embedded acquisition to take place, a long period of drip-feed structured target language input is the best solution in a school setting. Five years of little and often practice will produce the best outcomes and students well prepared to move to higher levels. It works for many students if the timetabling is right and the teaching effective.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Using music in language lessons

This blog is copied from the teacher's guide of It also features in the MFL teacher handbook downloadable from the Samples page.

  • Music lyrics are a good source of comprehensible input
  • Music is a good way in to cultural aspects of France and French-speaking countries
  • Singing can help learners memorise material
  • Singing is active and fun
  • Singing can relax learners, make them comfortable about using the foreign language
  • Singing is a good controlling activity; it has  a calming effect and everyone is busy
What can you do with music?

Beginners and near beginners
  • Songs with actions – give pupils something to do. Actions can serve as memory-joggers and can be used to reinforce vocabulary and structures.
  • Simple verb chanting to familiar tunes accompanied by moving arms to indicate the personal pronoun work well with beginners. Try Mission Impossible theme with aller, Here We go Round the Mulberry Bush for être. (YouTube has quite a few verb conjugations set to music.)
  • At a slightly higher level pupils can sing Alouette and point at parts of the body. Singing numbers with clapping can work well: sing scales with numbers in different orders and ask pupils to clap on certain numbers.
  • Do a French hakka to a backing track
  • Singing raps
  • Do tongue twisters to a backing track or easy tune
  • Singing lists to well-known tunes e.g. days of the week to The Flintstones theme or Camptown Races; the alphabet to an American army marching tune; the song Quelle est la Date de ton Anniversaire – where pupils stand up and sit down when their month of birth is mentioned in the song? (from Un Kilo de Chansons – a familiar collection to many French teachers)
  • Singing well-known tunes with made-up lyrics. Try a daily routine to the tune of Uptown Girl
  • Singing rounds. The classic example is Frère Jacques
  • Singing Christmas songs. YouTube is a good source. Easy examples are Douce Nuit (Silent Night) and Vive le vent (Jingle Bells)
  • If you play guitar or keyboard students may enjoy hearing you perform or join in with you
It is worth mentioning that not all pupils enjoy singing, some classes are reserved and some pupils sing really badly!

Higher levels

When choosing songs for more advanced students bear in mind the following factors:
  • Are the lyrics clear? Don’t underestimate how hard it is for students to pick up words, especially with accompanying music
  • Are the lyrics of interest to the students in your class?
  • Is the style of music likely to please students. (But be prepared to open their minds to musical styles they may not have encountered – we are educating young people!)
  • Is the tune memorable enough for them to be humming or singing by the end of the lesson?
Once you have chosen your song, what can you do with it? Here are some ideas:
  • Give students the title of the song and ask them to predict what type of vocabulary they are going to hear. Ask them what type of song they think it might be
  • Make a transcript of the song then cut it up and jumble up the lines so that they are out of order. Students listen to the song and simply tick the lines as they hear them or reassemble them in the correct order.
  • Give students a number of symbols that represent the meaning of the song, but in the wrong order. Ask students to reorder them so that they are in the correct order for the song
  • Use gap fills if you want students to listen out for particular vocabulary or grammatical structures e.g. the perfect tense. Filling gaps is no doubt the most common activity undertaken with songs. It forces students to listen carefully for detail. They may be amused if you replay short sections numerous times. This is good ear training.
  • Give students a short list of words and ask them to note down how many times they hear each word
  • Give students a set of lyrics with deliberate (plausible) errors in. They have to underline where the errors are and then, later, insert the correct words
  • Split sentences from the song in half and ask students to match the sentence halves before they listen, then to check their answers by listening
  • Discuss the themes of the song, if appropriate
  • Once students are familiar with the song, get them to sing along with you
  • Students can do follow-up research on the singer and perhaps produce a powerpoint presentation
  • Students could try doing some karaoke in French. Here is a site which makes that possible:

Here is a genuinely brilliant site called Lyrics Training with which advanced students can listen to songs and do gap fills interactively at various levels:

Here is a site for advanced students with numerous lyrics and worksheets on French songs:

If you like the idea of making more use of music and song in the classroom, you may find the following links useful.
The TES has a collection of resources using song here:

Here is a blog by Isabelle Jones with examples on how students can create raps:

Here are some recorded songs and rhymes from the MFL Sunderland site (scroll down):

Here are some ideas from Carole Nicoll who knows a lot about learning languages through music, rhythm, drama and movement.

Here are some French pop songs on YouTube, collected by Michelle Cairns on her blog:

Here is a slideshow of 23 interesting ways to use audio in the classroom from Samantha Lunn’s blog.

Here are links to other ways of exploiting music:

Over the years I have enjoyed using songs by Francis Cabrel, Maxime LeForestier and Florent Pagny. They have very clear diction and their songs are lyrically interesting. For the record my favourite songs have been:
La Corrida (Cabrel ) – a dramatic denunciation of bull fighting
Madame X (Cabrel) – a touching ballad about poverty
Hors Saison (Cabrel) – a haunting evocation of lost love
Savoir Aimer (Pagny) – a powerful song about the nature of love
San Francisco (LeForestier) – hippy memories of friends in San Francisco