UKEdMag: Evolving Languages by @bellaale

Our current Year 9 pupils will be the first cohort to tackle the new MFL GCSE exams in 2018 – and so we absolutely MUST work with them to “train them” for the anticipated differences between the current style of GCSE and what is on the drawing board. Looking further ahead, working with our younger pupils from primary level upwards will help get them ready for the challenges.


This article originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of UKEdMagazine

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The main “nuts and bolts” of the new specifications are fairly straightforward:

  • It’s back to 25% for each skill (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing), in spite of some desires to the contrary in the consultation period.
  • Candidates will take either all Foundation or all Higher Tier papers (by the way, it would appear that we are lucky to retain the tiering at all, as other subject areas have apparently lost this…)
  • There will be no more Controlled Assessment for Speaking and Writing – instead, a final oral and written exam
  • Listening and Reading papers will contain authentic materials – i.e. not (re)written specifically with a non-native speaker-audience in mind, and will contain contemporary and cultural themes.
  • Reading papers will include an element of literary texts – although not “set texts”, as such.
  • Reading papers will also include some translation from Target Language (TL) to English.
  • Writing papers will include some translation from English to TL
  • all Oral exams will be internally assessed but externally marked
  • in the Oral exams, the emphasis will be on fluency rather than accuracy
  • Speaking tasks will require spontaneous talk, “responding to unexpected questions, (…), sustaining communication by using rephrasing or repair strategies” (i.e. getting back out of linguistic/communicative difficulties once they are in them!)

There will therefore be a need to adjust the overall approach: for better or worse (and in the view of most of us, worse), the Controlled Assessment regime lead to dull, task-focused teaching, and is almost certainly a major contributory factor behind the dip in take-up of MFL subjects at GCSE and therefore beyond which we have witnessed over the past few years.

We will be required to move away from the “me! me! me!/this is what’s in my pencil-case/I have two brothers and three hamsters” curriculum to a broader picture. (Thank goodness!)

We will need to adopt a much more cross-curricular approach: again, something which I welcome with open arms, but which may worry some.
We must train our pupils to decode the unfamiliar, rather than just to “know lots of words”.

The onus will be on getting away from the parrot-fashion approach which has unfortunately held pupils in good stead during the Controlled Assessment years… (again, thank goodness!)

It will be a case of allowing language to be not merely the objective, but also the medium to understanding the culture of the countries in question. With the new 1-9 grading scale, it is clear that the bar is being raised, across the board – not in itself a bad thing, but of concern to those pupils at the weaker end of the scale. Of some comfort, perhaps, is the fact that it is in the interest neither of Ofqual nor the DfE to preside over a “failed qualification” – and that they

With the new 1-9 grading scale, it is clear that the bar is being raised, across the board – not in itself a bad thing, but of concern to those pupils at the weaker end of the scale. Of some comfort, perhaps, is the fact that it is in the interest neither of Ofqual nor the DfE to preside over a “failed qualification” – and that they will, therefore need to ensure that WE can make it work… In order for this to happen, MFL departments MUST push our SLTs for all the

In order for this to happen, MFL departments MUST push our SLTs for all the teaching time we can get, to give ourselves scope to factor in the new skills that we must ensure our pupils can handle (literature, translation both ways, spontaneous talk…) This needs to be from KS2 onwards, ideally – to create the circumstances for them to do well, from 2018’s first examination onwards. In order to leap over this raised bar at KS4, it will be crucial from KS3 onwards (and preferably even earlier) to move away from a culture of excessively

In order to leap over this raised bar at KS4, it will be crucial from KS3 onwards (and preferably even earlier) to move away from a culture of excessively content focused work, simply spoon-feeding the pupils and addressing topic ‘coverage’ via short-term objectives, nurturing ‘dependent learners’. Instead we must move towards one where we are aiming to be more skills focused, enabling and inculcating ‘language mastery’, with longer-term objectives in mind – with the ultimate aim of fostering ‘independent learners’. As Martine Pillette put it to us in a training session I attended: instead of “giving our pupils a linguistic fish”, teaching them to fish for themselves, linguistically”.

The focus will therefore need to be on:

  • learning how the language actually works (applying grammar – not just knowing verb declensions off-byheart…)
  • creativity and spontaneity in spoken and written forms • practising high-frequency language (the “little words” that enable so much more communication)
  • phonics work
  • regular use of authentic or adapted-authentic resources

In conclusion: while the new courses represent a(nother) moving of the goalposts, and lots of work for us in terms of rewriting or at the very least reinterpreting existing schemes of work, I feel that they can offer us exciting new opportunities in terms of teaching actual language, rather than just “how to do GCSE”… if we get it right. Can we “sell” the new GCSEs to students, and reverse the current overall slide in the uptake of languages at KS4? Will the renewed authenticity, and real-world applicability of the curriculum, be more motivating – and more appealing – to students? We’re about to find out, I guess! Good luck to us all!


Alex Bellars has been teaching for twenty years, in both state and private schools, and from KS2 to KS5, mainly teaching French and German, but also ICT and PE! His blog about teaching and anything else that grabs his attention is at alexbellars.wordpress.com, and you can find him on Twitter at @bellaale.

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