A well-planned journey
The whole of our education system, from Education Secretary David Blunkett's office to the classroom teacher, is becoming more sophisticated as each year passes. The real challenge for any head of department and teacher lies in how to interpret and then apply the data to make everyday teaching more effective.
Global targets for a modern department at GCSE cannot simply be decided by looking at last year's results and adding "inflation" - eg 3 per cent. You have to know the ability spread of the pupils in the cohort. Is the mean verbal reasoning quotient (VRQ) higher or lower than last year and, more significantly, what is the ability spread? A cohort with a higher mean might still have more pupils below the CD border-line because it has a few pupils with a very high VRQ score who distort the mean. This can be particularly significant in small schools.
Targets for your Year 11 pupils must be based on the actual VRQ scores of the pupils on entry to the school, linked to the previous year's correlation pattern. This might tell you that a boy in your school with a cognitive ability test (CAT)VRQ score of 108 (above average) might expect, on the basis of the performance of the previous cohort, to get a B. A girl might only need a CAT score of 102 to achieve the same outcome. These are statistical correlations and not precise predictors for any individual pupil.
All the above refers to the "achievement targets" and will mainly be in the mind of the head of department. As far as the pupils are concerned, what matters are the "action targets". These are the specific goals which they are challenged to achieve in the classroom day in and day out, week on week, not just in the run-up to the GCSE exams but throughout their secondary school course. A variety of action targets can be appropriate to different learners: quantity of language (going beyond the minimal utterance), application of core non-topic specific language to new settings, vocabulary accumulation, and so on.
As well as the mood-setting posters of France and Germany, many languages classrooms now display lists, in English, of what you have to do to achieve each level in each kill, as specified in the national curriculum. This acts as a constant reminder to pupils that language can be analysed, created and expanded, and that progression does not happen by a mysterious imbibing of foreign language atmosphere but by conscious application of criteria.
For some teachers, perhaps those who remember happier times when you just taught languages with enthusiasm and hoped that pupils would pick it up, target-setting may seem arid and not much of an improvement on the grammar grind pre-dating audio-visual and computer technology. But there can be no doubt that it is working. Why? Because it helps pupils to focus on bite-size chunks of language and think, yes think, about what they are learning and why.
It is particularly noticeable that boys, whose lack of motivation for learning languages is extensively documented, find that working for specific, short-term targets (15 more words this week, two examples of the past tense, four sentences with a subordinate clause, 35 seconds of oral work without stopping) helps them to stay on task. It appears to help them to get better results at GCSE. Whether it makes them more likely to continue with languages in the sixth-form is quite another issue and as for inspiring a love of France, Germany or Spain, who knows?
From a wider educational perspective, involving pupils in setting their own learning targets, guiding them to push themselves slightly harder each month or term, does contribute to their own personal skills of organisation, self-discipline and time-management. Language learning lends itself well to this process because it is essentially linear and can be sub-divided into skills and small components.
The challenge for language teachers is to harness the effective aspects of target setting and simultaneously bring all the parts together with that joie de vivre which transforms the languages classroom from a boring and artificial setting into a little corner of France (or Germany or Spain or wherever) and lights a spark of real interest in learning a language for its own sake, not just for the all-important GCSE grade C.
Peter Downes is past president of the Association for Language Learning and Iain Mitchell is an independent advisory teacher for modern languages, based in Cambridge