GCSE languages plan could lower standards, expert warns

Proposals for new languages qualification will leave pupils ‘able to talk about almost nothing’ panel is told

Catherine Lough

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Proposals for new “streamlined” modern foreign language courses at GCSE could leave pupils being able to “talk about almost nothing”, an expert has said today.

New plans to make the qualification more accessible could lead to a lowering in standards, an online panel has heard.

In March, the Department for Education (DfE) launched a consultation on how it could make GCSE languages more motivating for students.

The proposals said that “a precise specification of vocabulary and grammar to be taught is critical for those following a language GCSE course”.

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But at an online panel about the changes, organised by exam board AQA, Jim Milton, emeritus professor of applied linguistics at Swansea University, said that the proposals would lower standards.

He said that in Ofqual and the DfE’s consultation there is “a very limited and very particular vocabulary specification, and this is the 1,200-1,700 words that are overwhelmingly the most frequent words”. 

“So, at foundation tier, it’s expected that learners will learn 1,200 lexical items, and a further 500 lexical items at higher tier – and 90 per cent of those words must be selected from the 2,000 most frequent words,” Professor Milton added.

He said this was an “admission” that the standard of the proposed GCSE would be at A1, which is the lowest level of mastery in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

This is despite the consultation suggesting that the qualification would be at a higher level (A2), he said.

“I say that because there’s a strong relationship between vocabulary size and your ability in a foreign language...Learners with 1,200-1,700 words are typically A1. And they’re at A1 because there is inadequate vocabulary here for communication at any other level.

“There’s a mismatch between the broad goals of MFL [modern foreign language GCSE] at the start of the document and the vocabulary contained within it – learners can’t achieve the goals without a lot more vocabulary.

“I think it’s very likely that this is going to lower standards in MFL – not all of those 1,200-1,700 words which form the specification, if that is the content of teaching, will be learned.”

He added: “It’s not rocket science in the sense that, if you teach less, learners will learn less and they won’t be as good – and the new proposals identify less vocabulary learned so the standard will go down.

“The proposed lexicon here is pretty uncommunicative. The idea that 1,200 -1,700 words means you can talk about a wide variety of topics just isn’t the case. 1,200-1,700 words in a language probably means you can talk about almost nothing.”

At the AQA event, Westminster School languages teacher Oliver Hopwood also raised concerns that if the content of MFL was reduced, it could put pressure on how much space was allocated for languages in timetables.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The revised subject content for French, German and Spanish GCSEs will encourage more students to take up these important subjects, broadening their horizons and improving their employment opportunities.

“These changes will make modern foreign language GCSEs more well-rounded for both teachers and pupils, by prioritising the foundational building blocks of learning a language, particularly vocabulary and grammar.

“These changes will also make language GCSEs more exciting and motivating for students, and we look forward to considering the responses to our consultation as we progress towards teaching the new curriculum.”

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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