Lost for words

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Having a dictionary in an examination made candidates feel more confident." Well that won't do will it - take it away!

Candidates using a dictionary "can access a wider variety of texts, use a more varied range of expression when communicating in the target language... Pupils should be taught and encouraged to use a dictionary or glossary to improve the accuracy of their written work... Used effectively, a dictionary is a valuable aid to learning a modern foreign language." So why take it away from students at the point of assessment? Do you know anyone of even the most advanced standard of a modern foreign language who would undertake a written assignment without a dictionary to hand?

The above quotes are from the University of Birmingham research project commissioned by the QCA which "informed" some unnamed ministers' decision to remove access to dictionaries in exams.

As a head of faculty in a large inner city comprehensive, I have found that one of the biggest obstacles for all students, but particularly the less able, is a lack of confidence in their abilities. This is particularly evident when they come to study a foreign language, the relevance of which they question and the difficulty of which continually frustrates them. Suchstudents have been made to "feel more confident" and have experienced a degree of success in exams hitherto unknown, thanks to the lifeline of a dictionary. They will be seriously disadvantaged by this decision.

Many of those middle set C-D borderliners who, with careful tutoring and advice in the use of how to access reference materials, have been achieving that all-important "C" grade (with boys among them who respond to verb tables made available in an almost scientifically analytical manner akin to their experiences in maths and science with their access to formulae and data booklets), will no longer make it.

Faced with the retrograde step of constant grammar grind and endless out-of-context vocabulary lists - the sort of thing I experienced some 20-odd years ago - they will simply turn round and say "forget this", or words to that effect, when they realise that rote-learning and memory rather than a test of applying their reference skills are what will henceforth be required.

The quotes above make the case perfectly. It is a matter of teaching and resourcing which can radically enhance the performance, aptitude and attitude of even disaffected students.

Graham Smith is head of languages at Hanson School, Bradford

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