GCSE English: Should we assess spoken language?

If we deem the GCSE spoken language assessment as important, it should contribute to the grade, says Kate Watts

Kate Watts

GCSE English: Should we have the spoken language assessment?

Are the GCSE English spoken language assessments especially useful? I’m sure if you teach GCSE English, then you are very familiar with these assessments, but in case you’re not, or you’re new to the qualification, here’s a quick explanation: currently learners are required to produce a presentation on an independent basis on a chosen topic or area. They present to a small group of peers, who will ask them questions, whilst their teachers assess them. There is only one task, and they can achieve a pass, merit or distinction.

Firstly, given that this component of the GCSE English language specification doesn’t contribute towards the calculation of their final grade, is it really of any use to our learners? For learners completing this at school, I can see the benefit, but not for those resitting GCSE English at college. Why are we completing them at college, you say? It is quite simple: we need a unique code on the learner’s statement of results, but if they don’t present these to us by a certain date, their previous grade can’t be banked, and they must complete it again.

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When this happens, (which it does for 80 per cent of the cohort), it becomes a long, dragged out, laborious task for both learner and teacher – especially when they must be filmed. At college, the only incentive for learners to complete this component is the fact that it’s displayed on their qualification certificates, and no one wants an "unclassified".

GCSE English: The spoken language assessment could count towards the grade

If speaking and listening skills are so valued, then why doesn’t this assessment count towards their final grade? Wouldn’t it be better if this assessment even counted as 10 per cent of the grade? I thought this long before Covid, but now, more than ever, I think for some learners – those who are verbally very articulate but struggle to transfer this on to paper – this change would really benefit them. Having to worry about these assessments that essentially count for nothing during Covid-19 was incredibly stressful and was not ideal when learners had already lost precious classroom time due to the lockdown.

Of course, not all teachers will agree with me about this or welcome this idea – and I can understand why: more hassle, more paperwork, more time cramming something else into the resit year… but ultimately, if it’s going to benefit the learners, then isn’t it worth it?

Secondly, is it really valued by the other educational establishments and employers that the learners will progress to? This is a difficult question for me to answer accurately, but based on my experience of having my certificates checked by the college and universities I went to, and places I’ve worked, I doubt it. If I was an employer and I asked one of my learners what they had to do, I don’t think I’d be blown away. I suppose it really depends where and what they are progressing to.

Thirdly, is it me or does the GCSE speaking and listening component seem easier compared to the functional skills speaking and listening assessments? At level 1 functional skills, there are two tasks: one presentation of a topic in a group and one group discussion. Surely a speaking and listening qualification that precedes GCSE should entail less not more? The assessment criteria for each qualification are quite different and don’t really help learners to progress their speaking and listening skills from functional skills to GCSE, at least not in the right direction. Instead, these skills simply stagnate or decline. At least, that’s what I see happening in front of me.

I’m not dismissing the fact that being able to speak and listen well are vital communication skills that we all need, but I’m sure making this component more FE-friendly would be welcomed, not only by teachers but learners as well. At the end of the day, we want what’s best for them – especially in this ever-changing Covid world where attainment cracks are starting to show.

Kate Watts is a further education lecturer at a college in London


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