Alison Thomas reports on trials of Asset Languages, a new voluntary assessment scheme linked to the DfES Language Ladder
"I hate exams that stress people out. With this, there is no big rehearsal.
You just do your normal teaching and slip in the assessments as you go along. If you pick the right level, pupils succeed, which is incredibly motivating. When I forgot to give one group their results, they kept pestering me: 'Have they come? Have they come?' It gives them something worthwhile to aim for and is much better than any internal tests we might devise. When pupils arrive in Year 7, GCSE is a long way away."
Dr Pamela Evans is head of modern languages at Applemore College, Southampton, one of more than 100 centres that have trialled Asset Languages, the new voluntary assessment scheme from OCR which measures achievement against the six stages of the DfES Languages Ladder. Each stage is broken down into smaller graded steps, with separate qualifications for listening, reading, speaking and writing. Testing takes place in the classroom through a flexible combination of teacher and external assessment.
"This is not a system where everyone sits down together in the exam hall on June 6. It is a system where learners opt in when they are ready," explains Languages Ladder project director Kate Green at this year's annual conference of the Association for Language Learning.
Another unusual feature is the emphasis on proficiency rather than a particular programme of study. For students, there is no last-minute revision, for teachers no temptation to teach to the test. "The questions demand real language skills, not just vocabulary, and there are little pointers to help you work things out if you are alert," says Dr Evans.
Gen Mitchell, head of modern languages at Coppenhall High School, Crewe, agrees: "It has been very carefully thought out and tasks tie in well with the key stage 3 strategy. Guessing intelligently, drawing inferences, sequencing, that sort of thing. Our pupils also filled out questionnaires.
What did they think of it? Were the questions hard? Were they boring? Their responses will allow Asset Languages to identify what worked and what didn't, which will inform their decisions when putting together future tests."
Like Pamela, Gen was encouraged by the impact on motivation, so much so that some Year 7 pupils even laminated their certificates to hang on the wall at home. Older students may not have gone to such lengths but they shared the sense of achievement. When Year 10 discovered that their grades at the intermediate stage equated to GCSE, their confidence soared, while across the board the graded steps and short-term goals have helped to counter the common perception that languages are hard.
"These tests show them they can do it, even if they don't do every skill,"
If things do go wrong, students can try again and the most unlikely individuals volunteer, as Pamela discovered when two disaffected boys were awarded grades three and one in listening and reading. "It was only Breakthrough (beginners) but they really valued it. They reckoned that if they had succeeded in one skill they should be able to match it in the other," Pamela says.
Even Year 9 students who are intending to drop languages stay on task. "It is so much better than ending three years of work with nothing to show for it. And they can always go back to it later as they have a nationally recognised qualification defining their level," she says.
This sort of flexibility epitomises the spirit of the scheme, which is designed to cater for everyone irrespective of age, ability, linguistic background or programme of study. Fluency in community languages can receive formal recognition, while at the other end of the spectrum even short taster courses can lead to a certificate.
A single or double-skill language qualification would fit well with travel and tourism or business studies, or sixth-formers might like to develop conversational proficiency without committing to a major exam. In addition, the discrete skills assessment provides tangible proof of learners'
individual strengths. "An A* or a G at GCSE gives you a good idea of what the candidate can do, but what does a grade C tell you? This offers a much clearer picture," says Kate Green.
This does not mean that the scheme is designed to replace existing qualifications, rather to complement them. Pamela Evans foresees using it with low achievers in her mixed-ability Year 10 to keep them on board in the long haul to CGSE. Gen Mitchell goes one step further: "If it gains credence, I see no reason why I would not consider switching in the longer term," she says. "It allows people to progress at their own pace and there is no concept of pass or fail. They just aim to move up a grade next time.
In a town like Crewe, which is quite socially deprived, that counts for a lot."
Many secondary schools find it hard to build on children's previous learning, especially those with a wide range of feeder schools. Pamela Evans of Applemore College, Southampton, believes this might change if Asset Languages become widely used.
"If children come to us with, for example, Breakthrough level 2, we will know exactly what that means and could take them on through the tests," she says.
Elizabeth Ellis, advanced skills languages teacher at Bourneville Junior School, Birmingham, hopes this proves to be true. "Our pilot group in Year 6 had done French for only two years, but we now start children off in Year 3. Some of them may well get beyond Breakthrough by the time they leave us," she says.
In the meantime, she appreciates the clear progression, flexible timing, lack of upheaval and the opportunity to resit. She also believes it raises the profile of languages. "Because they do Sats in maths, English and science they conclude these are the important things. If they are getting recognition for languages, they too must be worth doing," she says.
* Asset Languages Tel: 01223 553998 www.assetlanguages.org.uk
* Languages ladder www.dfes.gov.uklanguagesuploadsLadder.pdf
Caters for all ages and abilities.
Measures proficiency against the "can do" statements of the DfES Languages Ladder, eg "I can write a simple text giving and seeking information"
(Preliminary Grade 6).
Assesses each of the four skills separately.
Learners progress in small graded steps.
Tests take place in the classroom when learners are ready.
The preliminary stage is the equivalent of foundation GCSE, Intermediate equates to GCSE higher grades.
Accredited teachers conduct assessments using materials supplied by OCR and issue grade awards. For formal accreditation within the National Qualifications Framework, external assessments take place at the end of each stage. These are available throughout the year.
Teacher accreditation is free for one teacher per stage and language in each registered centre.
For additional staff, there is a small charge. Fees for external assessment are comparable to those of corresponding traditional qualifications.
Breakthrough, preliminary and intermediate stages are available in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Panjabi, Spanish and Urdu.
Additional stages and a further 13 languages will follow next year.