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A closer look at that ALCAB report

I am returning to the theme of quite a few of my blog posts over the last month. I want to look at more of the detail of this report on which the new MFL A-levels are set to be based. I previously considered the five main weaknesses it pointed out in the current A-levels. I have also blogged about the implications of the indicative list of themes it has proposed for exam boards to consider.

Here is the report:

Firstly, below is the complete list of French themes which it is suggested should be studied from the three categories below:

  • social issues and phenomena
  • politics, current affairs and history
  • intellectual culture, past and present
The themes:

Republican values
Provinces and regions
Québecois culture
Les grands projets
Freedom of expression

The French revolution
The French empire and decolonisation
The Algerian war of independence
The occupation
The Dreyfus affair
Right and left in politics
The revival of antisemitism

The new wave
Popular music
Contemporary television
Impressionsist painting
French mathematics
Science and technology in contemporary France

Yes, you did read correctly. You would expect the Spanish and German themes to be as challenging.

It is worth noting that in the new decoupled AS level three themes, one from each category, must be chosen. At A-level six must be studied (it does not specify how many from each category). I am sure, like me, you have your doubts as to how many students emerging from GCSE (even a reformed one) would be ready to take on these themes. We could probably kiss goodbye to AS level.

Let me briefly reiterate what I blogged about previously. The above topics may or may not appeal to you, but how easy will it be to plan communicative lessons based upon them? Where are the pros and cons? Where is the personal experience to be worked in? These topics are largely university topics where the aim is the acquisition of knowledge followed by discursive essay rather than group conversational classes in the target language.

Next, they state:

"The translation from one language to another.... is a key competency". This is open to question and the place given to translation in the new qualification means teachers will spend less time working in the target language. Grammatical range and accuracy can be developed without recourse to translation.

The ALCAB panel is explicit in its belief in the "skill building" hypothesis, namely that acquisition occurs by analysing structure and practising it. This not uncontroversial, but most teachers would go along with it, at least in part. The ALCAB report reveals little awareness or belief in other theories of second language acquisition.They most definitely wish to enhance the role of declarative grammatical knowledge and accuracy, claiming (incorrectly, as it happens) that accuracy is undervalued at present.

The report is particularly critical of the subject matter currently being studied, particularly at AS level. They have been given to understand that AS is a dull rehash of GCSE material with little cognitive challenge beyond the linguistic. They say, for example, that it would currently be possible to study euthanasia at GCSE, AS and A-level. (!) What they do not mention is that AS level is currently a sensible stepping stone between GCSE and A-level. In any case I dispute the claim that AS level is boring. The topics give rise to vigorous communication and interesting writing.

Perhaps the heart of the issue emerges in the ALCAB panel's aims for AS and A-level. The aim of AS level is spelled out as follows:

The aim of the AS qualification is to enhance candidates' linguistic skills in the language of study and to begin to promote their capacity for critical thinking on the basis of their knowledge and understanding of the language, culture and society of the countries of the language of study.

The fundamental shift is towards critical thinking and culture. But I believe that this may be at the expense of linguistic progress if the subject matter is uninspiring and fails to promote communication. When one adds to this the controversial inclusion of an essay in English on the literature and film to be studied, what we see ultimately is an attempt to make A-level more like degree level study. If this were to improve the take-up of languages at AS and A-level then universities may have something to gain, but all my many years of A-level teaching suggest to me that this new qualification will put off more students than it attracts.


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