But the one topic guaranteed to provoke heated debate among modern language teachers is the use of the target language.
For years Her Majesty's Inspectorate have suggested that there is a link between appropriate use of the target language and standards of pupil achievement. The emphasis on the use of the target language in the national curriculum has reinforced this, and this has been followed through this month with the publication of the new GCSE criteria which state: "A syllabus must require candidates to express themselves in the target language when speaking and writing. In listening and reading, where a response is spoken or written, it should be in the target language, except where a response in another language is a necessary part of the task (for example, in an interpreting exercise) or where a non-linguistic response is a natural and appropriate alternative to a response in the target language.
"A maximum of 10 per of the total marks for the subject may be awarded for answers in English or Welsh. No more than half of this maximum allocation may be assigned to any particular assessment objective."
In other words, if a listening or a reading paper has 25 marks, five of these may be awarded for answers in English or Welsh, and the remaining 20 will be awarded for "other" tasks.
Responses to the consultation on the criteria showed that although there was general recognition of the logic of continuing the use of the target language into the GCSE examination, there were concerns about exactly what sort of tasks would replace the present questions in English. Would there, for example, be candidates who failed to score because they could not understand the question? This is answered in part by the requirement for examining groups to list the words and phrases which will be used in rubrics. Since these will be published well in advance of the examinations, pupils will have time to become accustomed to them There has perhaps been a misconception that avoiding the use of English automatically means responding in the target language. This has led some teachers to fear that pupils may be penalised in a listening or reading test for their writing. This is not the case.
First, there are many ways of showing understanding which do not require use of the target language. Second, if writing is required in response to a listening or reading task, it is likely to be minimal and will be marked only for communication not for accuracy (which is tested in the writing and speaking components).
Last November, in response to requests for more preparatory work in this area, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority set up a small development project to identify possible test-types, develop sample tests, try them out with pupils, and analyse their strengths and weaknesses. The main audience for this work is the examining groups, who are presently developing specimen papers for submission to SCAA in June. But since many teachers may be interested in the findings, the working document Target Language Testing in Modern Foreign Languages, together with the sample tests, will be available after Easter.
This was a small-scale project; we are conscious that further work needs to be done, particularly in comparing pupils' performance on the current GCSE listening and reading tests with their performance on "new style" tests. SCAA and the examining groups will work together to ensure that the new examinations allow pupils of all abilities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills and that standards are comparable with the current GCSE.
Perhaps the most telling part of the stuy is the page quoting pupils' reactions to the tests. A number clearly shared the view of the pupil who wrote: "I think they are better than the ones we have to sit at the moment". My favourite is this one: "Good try. Very interesting."
Sheila Rowell is SCAA's professional officer for modern languages. She can be contacted at at SCAA, Newcombe House, Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3JB.