French exam modules are too demanding for students, says Richard Walmsley, and that defeats the object
Am I the only teacher of French who finds that A-levels have become too difficult and demanding for students? I am thinking of certain modules purporting to test listening and reading comprehension.
I know they are too difficult because I find that, at best, I am debating what the correct answer is or, at worst, I just cannot fathom it out.
On one occasion, candidates were expected to rearrange sentences in the correct order based on a passage that they had read. Three students left the examination room in tears - something that I have never witnessed before. To answer this question myself, I had to photocopy the exam paper and cut out the "sentences" into strips so that I could reorder them correctly.
This took me almost as long as the candidates had been given to complete the whole module.
Without wishing to boast, I should say that I speak fluent French and have taught the subject for 30 years - just in case you are thinking I am some newly qualified tenderfoot. A native French speaker on our staff experiences as much difficulty as I do. A Somalian student, who speaks French better than English, failed his listening module altogether.
Another clear indication that all is not well is that when this particular examination board, which set a listening comprehension test in January 1999, published its usual examiner's report, the grade boundary for grade A was 25 out of 40 marks. I used to be able to predict a student's grade very accurately - based on their actual linguistic ability. Nowadays, I would not dare make any forecat without seeing what kind of tortuous questions they have had to answer.
It has to be said, however, that the oral modules have become much more liberated, and students perform well at spoken French. They can do equally well at written French, too, when their ability to express themselves in the language is given a free rein.
Students say that they have little problem understanding the listening or written passages set. The problem is deciphering the questions and linking them to the texts - or even just trying to second-guess the examiner. At times, it is more of an IQ test than a language test. Maybe I should just change exam board. But I have a feeling that this is just one more facet of this country's assessment mania.
A language examination should reflect the type of work done during the two-year A-level course and measure students' progress and linguistic maturation, rather than set obstacles to their passing which risk destroying their enthusiasm, and make the average would-be linguist wish they had chosen an easier alternative.
This particular exam board admitted at the inception of the new syllabuses in 1997 that the listening and reading modules would require "a lot of practice" if candidates were to succeed. They were right. Teachers, too, need a lot of practice.
But the object of providing a course that encourages students to develop their linguistic skills beyond GCSE runs a grave risk of being defeated - by an assessment system that bears little relationship to the way in which languages are used in the outside world and in the workplace.
Richard Walmsley is a lecturer in modern languages in Uxbridge