Unfinished business

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Unresolved issues remain for teachers tackling the new ASA-level courses, says Helen Wright

Schools are now almost a quarter of the way through the first AS course in Year 12, yet a number of issues continue to raise questions for teachers and pupils preparing for the AS exams in modern languages next summer. We are perhaps justified in asking: should we have embarked on this new curriculum?

A chief concern is assessment. Some practicalities remain unresolved: with the introduction of AS exams at the end of Year 12, teaching time in that year becomes as limited as in Year 13, with only two full terms of teaching. As pupils are taking four or five subjects rather than three, each receives less out-of-class time for homework, learning and general reading and listening to foreign language material; and pupils will be required to spend more time at an earlier stage developing exam skills.

A careful reading of the criteria by which exams will be assessed shows that there is a greater emphasis on writing and speaking in the target language, as comprehension is often tested through the ability of pupils to communicate the meaning in the target language, while the emphasis on the acquisition of grammar is firmly placed into Year 12 - a burden while it is still possible for pupils to achieve an A* at GCSE with little more than a rudimentary appreciation of grammar and syntax.

Of greater concern is the wider issue of the focus of the new curriculum. The content of the modern languages curriculum in Year 12 is clearly secondary to the content of the exams and the assessment procedures. Languages departments are now realising that they need to consider approaching teaching and learning in Year 12 in different ways. They will need to bridge the gap between Years 11 and 12 more effectively, tightening up on which resources are used and dividing up more carefully the grammatical elements.

Many schools are muddling through on old schemes of work, rewriting Year 12 schemes as they encounter the pitfalls in the system. This is not ideal, and is made more worrying by the apparent absence from official documents of the "how" of the curriculum - ways to encourage students to learn a language, where to find the latest research on how young people learn languages.

This raises a much larger question - is the new curriculum doing our pupils any favours? How flexible, modern and empowering - all words employed in defence of Curriculum 2000 by Government bodies - is the new curriculum for our current Year 12 pupils? From the modern language student's point of view this curriculum is arguably more restrictive than before - a smaller choice of final assessment patterns, more emphasis on grammar, the same old topics. It is perhaps not entirely unfair to draw comparisons between the A-level classroom of today and that of the Eghties, if not the Fifties - not because teachers cannot or will not teach in other ways, but because the exam specifications restrict our creativity.

What has happened to globalisation, the need to prepare our children to be flexible and independent, focusing not on what they should learn but encouraging them to learn how to learn?

What about a new, radical and genuinely exciting curriculum that allows students to give vent to their curiosity, to explore subjects related to life in other countries and develop their sense of language and culture? When we let them pursue their interests, it is surprising and encouraging how engaged they become, how much language they learn and how their knowledge of other countries can flourish, especially with the internet at their disposal.

Even 13 and 14-year-olds branch out and become engaged in language learning in surprising ways, and when sixth-formers feel a personal interest it makes a significant difference to their learning potential.

Could we not design a curriculum for languages that more truly reflected the needs of our modern world? We would have to consider shedding the shackles of assessment altogether - this has implications for assessment in all subjects.

Or why not abandon altogether the notion of subjects, in favour of a multifaceted and individualised learning programme that would include languages as a central skill? Teachers are not in a position to change the curriculum at present - one of its most disempowering aspects has been the way the focus on assessment has forced them into spending all their INSET training on planning for the new exams. What chance has there been to discuss alternatives?

Teachers and students had little choice in planning the new curriculum. The personal intervention by Baroness Blackstone on the subject of dictionary use in exams, and the insistence by QCA that grammar and syntax are assessed at 25 per cent of the final mark, reinforced the idea among teachers that popular notions of old grammar school standards have formed the mainstay of the curriculum. This, as M Eraut ("Curriculum Frameworks and Assumptions in 14-19 Education", Research in post-Compulsory Education, 1997) remarks, appears to be based "on selective memories of what was achieved by a different population (usually from a higher percentile ability range) 40 years ago".

The Nuffield Inquiry recommends "a range of attractive courses to extend existing language skills or acquire new languages" in the 16-19 curriculum. The new AS and A-levels hardly count as a range, and are not easily defined as attractive; perhaps we should consider a radical overhaul of our approach to the post-16 curriculum.

Helen Wright is deputy head at Heathfield School, Ascot and is a member of the executive council of the Association for Language Learning

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