Curriculum - By word of mouth

5th February 2010 at 00:00
The new English language GCSE will see pupils tested on analysis of the spoken word for the first time. And as Dorothy Lepkowska reports, Dizzee Rascal might be an excellent subject for discussion

He may not have been the most obvious choice as a political commentator, but when rapper Dizzee Rascal appeared on Newsnight in November 2008 to discuss the election of Barack Obama he took the opportunity to make his case for becoming Britain's first black Prime Minister.

Dizzee's Newsnight debut raised questions about whether such a controversial figure from youth and music culture was a suitable choice for this highbrow discussion, and critics accused the BBC of being "patronising and crass" in its treatment of the rapper.

The interview would have made perfect material for analysis in the spoken word component of the new English language GCSE. Pupils will look at anything from the speeches of contemporary figures to conversations taking place around their own dinner tables.

The new specifications are being introduced this September to support the growth in popularity of the English language A-level. This will take the number of English GCSEs to three: English, English language and English literature. Because English and maths achievement is measured in school league tables, schools will not be able to enter pupils for English language or literature alone: pupils taking the new qualification must also be entered for English literature. Generic GCSE English, meanwhile, will focus on functional English use with some literature, and will count on its own.

"It is a very exciting time for English language study," says Sandra Stalker, director of general qualifications and life skills at the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority. "We are giving students and teachers more flexibility and choice over what they learn and giving young people better preparation for life.

"It is a chance for pupils to look at their own spoken language, (to think) about regional and local variations and how language works and evolves."

Ms Stalker says that support for the changes has been extremely positive. "Employers and higher education want this, and teachers have reacted with excitement. We want to see schools being creative about how this is taught and to draw on a wide range of examples," she adds.

The spoken language element of GCSE English language will comprise 10 per cent of the total marks. Pupils will be assessed through a piece of written work on a single stream of speech from an individual, or an interview scenario, and there will be a small choice of questions from which pupils will have to choose one.

Schools will be able to draw on a wide range of sources for inspiration, including TV, radio, YouTube and the internet. Teachers who have not dealt with this aspect of English before can receive training from the examination boards.

So if the aim is to test pupils on spoken language, why not do this in an oral exam? Proposals to give teachers the option of assessing the unit orally were scrapped early on, says Charmaine Richards, qualifications manager for GCSE English language at exam board OCR.

"Generally, it was thought that a 15-minute oral examination did not equate to candidates having to write a 1,000-word essay," she says.

"All the awarding bodies considered offering this option, but in the end a decision was taken to assess spoken language in written form only, through controlled assessment."

Pupils will study the use of language or specific genres of the spoken form and examine social contexts, language change and evolution. Pupils already do some spoken language work in key stage 3, and then again at A- level. So until now, there had been a gap at key stage 4 where pupils did not look at spoken language.

"This will give students wanting to do A-level in English language better preparation, and crucially it will also help those doing vocational subjects and any aspect of study in which communication is important," says Ms Richards. It also ties in well with the teaching of functional skills in the 14-19 Diploma, where pupils are required to portray their work in a variety of ways, including oral presentation.

"We believe that the component will make young people more aware of the impact of spoken language in different contexts," she adds. "Hopefully, it will also help those pupils who take a back seat in the life of the school get the confidence to play a wider part, when previously they might have felt excluded."

Exam board Edexcel has been piloting elements of the new GCSE for the past four years, including the spoken language component. Emma Clarke, Edexcel's senior business manager for English, believes the unit takes learning beyond the classroom and into the wider world.

"We are offering a wide range of resources, but teachers are encouraged to find their own examples, to individualise teaching for pupils," she says. "They can look at how people speak in their own localities and consider the use of slang and dialect as well as standard English to see how and where the two might be used.

"So far we have had a very positive reaction from teachers who like the way they can approach this subject. They can even personalise study for each individual pupil if they wish."

But some teachers have expressed concern about choosing the right materials for pupils to study, although the exam boards are keen to stress that there are no right or wrong examples.

"Analysing a speech made by Gordon Brown or Barack Obama is as valid as seeing Dizzee Rascal on Newsnight or studying the language used by presenters of youth TV," says Ms Clarke. She adds that this component of the GCSE can be particularly useful for young people who do not live in big cities and don't enjoy exposure to a variety of speaking styles, accents and dialects.

Staff and pupils at Henry Cort School in Fareham, Hampshire, have been trialling the spoken language unit in conjunction with Edexcel for the past three years.

Claire McKay, key stage 4 co-ordinator with responsibility for GCSE English, said the school had been piloting a range of spoken language modules and there was evidence that attainment was rising in English as a result.

"The component has been great, particularly for the more able pupils who have been really interested and engaged in it. They particularly enjoyed examining how language is used and interpreted and how different generations speak to each other."

One of the exercises required pupils to tape a conversation over the dinner table involving family members, including grandparents and younger siblings.

They also looked at how spoken English was used in different parts of the world, including the United States and the Caribbean and how accents and usage varies.

"The unit took quite a lot of work to set up and organise, and that was one of the trickiest aspects," Miss McKay says.

Pupils needed to make tape recordings, so she had to organise equipment. There was also the challenge of finding appropriate materials to inspire them.

"The children had new skills to learn, too, such as transcribing what they had taped, which was something they had not necessarily done before.

"But overall, we found that they could relate to this type of exercise far better than looking at the language Shakespeare gave his characters because they were doing it for real, rather than studying a text."

Ian McNeilly, an English teacher at Brantwood School in Sheffield and director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, believes the new component is a positive addition to the curriculum.

"Speech is a fundamental means of human communication and one which deserves to be studied by young people," Mr McNeilly says. "It is a fantastic opportunity to engage young people because of the breadth of work they can cover, in terms of formal language, dialects, regional accents and so on."

He adds: "There is a lot of prejudice still out there from sections of the population who believe that we should all speak with received pronunciation, so that will be another interesting topic for young people to explore."

David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, and a commentator on the English language, said it was "about time" that the spoken language element was introduced into GCSE.

"Ever since the national curriculum was introduced, the importance of speaking and listening has been played down in favour of reading and writing. It seems to have taken people quite a long time to realise that competence in one is dependant on ability in the other," he says.

Professor Crystal says that he has no concerns about the way young people communicate and believes that most know how to switch from "street talk" to standard English when required.

"I don't believe this is a reason we need to teach spoken English. Actually, listening to young people speak among themselves, most do so in a fairly sophisticated way about the issues that are important and relevant to them, and they know how to get their message across."

Perhaps one day, like Dizzee Rascal, they might find themselves opposite Jeremy Paxman thinking exactly the same thing.



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