GCSE MFL review: Why word lists are key

The chair of the review of subject content for GCSE modern foreign languages explains the rationale behind the new reforms put forward today
14th January 2022, 12:35pm
Ian Bauckham


GCSE MFL review: Why word lists are key

Word lists, foreign, language

Mastering a foreign language is one of the most rewarding educational experiences there is.

Whether it is basic holiday communication abroad, interpreting everyday information, building relationships with work colleagues overseas or accessing culture and literature, the journey of language learning brings many benefits. 

Language teachers in England work day in, day out to open up the world of languages to young people. They seek to bring insights into different countries and cultures, as well as knowledge of the language itself, to their students. 

But their work is not always easy. 

Some of us in this country have been reluctant language students, falling back on the easy excuse that English is a global lingua franca, so why bother with a foreign language? 

GCSEs: changes to modern foreign languages 

Collectively, we need to wake up and realise that being a global player relies on building relationships, and relationships require mutual understanding and insight. 

There is no better way to achieve this than through knowledge of our partners' language, culture and customs. 

We also need to give our young people in schools the best chance of success in languages. Teachers are well practised at making their teaching engaging and varied. 

They know how to root the language they are teaching in the context of the countries where it is spoken, bringing it to life. 

Students who study hard, and who are genuinely able to recall and use the language they have been taught, should go into their GCSE examination knowing that they will be able to excel. 

And teachers need to know that what is actually tested will be drawn from the material the examination board sets out for them to teach. 

The amount of content specified for teaching should be both sufficient to stretch the most diligent and able students and also manageable to teach in the time available for languages in most schools.

Vocabulary that suits all learners

The changes to GCSE content in modern foreign languages, which will underpin revised GCSE specifications, are designed to achieve just this.

For example, they will require examination boards to set out a vocabulary list that teachers and the authors of course books will draw on as they design and create their teaching programmes. 

Words are at the heart of a language: you can't say or understand much if you simply don't know the words.

Being clear about vocabulary that needs covering will make sure that students know the most commonly needed words for practical communication across a whole range of themes. And GCSE examinations will have to reflect a sample of that vocabulary. 

That way teachers will know what they are teaching is what will be tested, and the content they teach will stand students in good stead both for their immediate communication needs and for further study.

Exam boards will have to support teachers and course book writers to structure their teaching around relevant and interesting themes. 

It is important that those themes take students into new worlds and experiences, but that, in doing so, they do not assume that everyone learning a language is already familiar with the likes of skiing holidays and posh restaurants.

That is unfair and alienating for many students.

Thinking deeply about word lists

These changes follow a wide-ranging consultation that secured strong support from those involved in teaching languages, many of whom have recognised the need for change. 

Others have been worried that setting out a vocabulary list will lead to "teaching by lists", making lessons less interesting or discouraging teachers from building interesting subject matter into classes. 

Others are concerned that the size of the lists is too restrictive or that a focus on mastering core, most often needed words will squeeze out other vocabulary needed to make teaching really relevant. 

These points have been taken seriously. All of us approach this task with the same fundamental aim. 

A list of content is, of course, not by itself a programme for teaching.

Of course, pupils could still produce vocabulary that goes beyond the specified content and be given full credit, if their language does the job at hand or expresses what the student wants to say or write about. 

It is the skill and experience of the teacher, supported by those who compile courses and coursebooks, that turns the specified content into an exciting and engaging programme, selecting and combining new language to teach in manageable and logical steps so students can experience growing confidence in using the language for real purposes. 

The vast majority of our everyday speech and writing, whatever language we teach, relies on a relatively small range of vocabulary that we draw on constantly, complemented by more specialist words as the need arises. 

For students learning a language up to GCSE, it is critical that this pattern is reflected. 

As such, to communicate fluently on an everyday basis they need to be able to use those words that are needed again and again, whatever the topic of discussion, as well as be able to draw on more unusual words as and when required. 

Making sure that students really know the basics is also essential for those taking their languages to further study. 

The requirements of the new content get that balance right, drawing on the best research about vocabulary knowledge and use.

How much we expect students to be able to learn for GCSE depends, of course, on how much teaching they receive. 

Languages are important, but they are not the only subject on the school timetable. 

Aiming for balance 

The new content strikes a sensible balance between setting out enough content to challenge the most able and ensuring that the volume is manageable for students in mainstream schools. 

In doing this, we have drawn both on research about vocabulary knowledge and learning and on detailed analyses of historical GCSE papers. 

The range of vocabulary specified is greater than historical GCSE papers have used. 

We can be confident that new GCSE papers will be able to provide stretch for the best linguists, while at the same time assuring all students that they will not be expected to know content their teachers could not possibly have known they were supposed to teach.

Finally, many of those who spoke to us were passionate about the importance of rooting language teaching in the context of the countries where the language is spoken. 

That is why we have strengthened this aspect further still in the final version of the new content. 

The new content goes much further than the document it is replacing, asking examination boards to identify relevant and interesting themes to help teachers design stimulating and relevant courses for their students that will really support their knowledge of the culture and country concerned.

Ian Bauckham is chair of the review of subject content for GCSE modern foreign languages, and also chair of Ofqual

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