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Challenges of the new MFL GCSE

Controlled assessment will be gone, good riddance, but many language teachers will be wary of a new GCSE syllabus they will have to teach from September 2016. What will the challenges be? Perhaps in the gained time of this summer departments will be discussing how they intend to handle this significant curriculum change, so here are my thoughts as a former head of department.

Firstly, no need to panic, of course. Teachers will continue to teach the language pretty much as before (assuming they have been doing it well). But the new exams will certainly require some adjustments and changes in emphasis. These changes concern mainly the approach to speaking and writing assessment, along with strategic decisions about tier entry.

Let's take tier entry first. Recall that under the new arrangements you cannot "mix and match" your tier entries - it's all Foundation or all Higher. You will be faced with many borderline candidates and have to make some key decisions. How might you go about this? Here are some possible steps:

  • Take a good look at specimen papers and be prepared to try them out on students.
  • Use older past papers too. I doubt if the standard will change that much because of Ofqual's "comparable outcomes" policy. There may be a slight toughening.
  • Look at your entries historically and use that as a general guide.
  • Don't let poor performance in writing guide your decisions too strongly; writing is only 25% of the mark and is bound to be a problem area for weaker candidates. It always was.
  • If getting C grades is a priority (grade 4 in the new system) then you may want to play safe first time round.
  • Consult with students, and possibly parents, but make clear that you know best.
  • Accept that you won't get it right for every student, especially first time round.

Speaking exam

All the exam boards have a broadly similar approach. In all cases the stress is on general conversation, even where a photo card stimulus is used in the test. If you choose AQA, general conversation is at the heart of every section: role play, photo card and conversation. This may be a good reason to go for AQA, rather than the boards which use situational dialogues in the role play or place a slightly higher emphasis on description for the photo card question.

The end of CAs will not mean an end to memory learning. You will need to practise topic conversations ad nauseam with masses of pair work practice and learned mini talks. I used to mark orals for AQA and it was clear which schools had prepared their candidates well in learned conversations. These schools did well.

You would be wise to offer models to learn, especially with weaker candidates. Where there is an element of choice in the conversation candidates will still be able to reel off some pre-learned material. I intend to produce in due course material like this for

If you practise conversation, the role play will tend to take care of itself (with AQA). With the other boards you will need to do situational dialogues (shop, ticket office etc) and learn some more set phrases.

Writing exam

Some teachers will feel that this is the major challenge. How can we get students to perform well in exam conditions, without a dictionary and with a time limit? How will students cope with translation into the target language?

Firstly, this is not a quick fix. Here are my thoughts:

  • Make sure students are writing compositional work throughout their course, from Y7 to Y11. Try to make sure they are writing at paragraph level at least once every two weeks. Homework is the best time for this. Provide as much scaffolding as necessary.
  • Give them plenty of timed practice in class. Include timed writing of compositional work in end of unit tests.
  • Do not go overboard on translation - it is worth only 20% of the marks for writing. If you do too much you will neglect target language work which pays off in the listening and reading papers. If students have been doing composition for five years they should be okay with translation. However, I would do plenty of sentence translation practice in Y11. Students often like the security and analytical nature of this type of activity. Why not occasionally do bits of translation in KS3?
  • Provide model essays and spend time on modelling good practice with students, explaining how they get he best marks.
  • Provide lists of phrases and structures to include in compositions.
  • Adopt a cross-skill approach. e.g. do dictation/transcription and gap-fill work which doubles develops listening, reading and writing skill all at the same time.
  • Do question-answer oral work during which pupils make notes to write up in composition work.
  • Get students to pre-learn short paragraphs on set topics as for the oral. Weaker students will benefit from this. Remember that material learned for the oral may be reused in the writing paper and vice versa.
  • Getting students to keep target language blogs is a good way to encourage free writing.
  • Always stress the primacy of content, communication and range of language. These are worth far more marks than accuracy. In the past the weakest candidates struggled most because they wrote so little.
Listening and reading

Students will need to get used any rubrics and question types. 

See my other blogs for detailed analysis of the new draft specifications.


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