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Time for a less starchy option

Susannah Kirkman finds out how students and tutors take to teaching language units for vocational courses. It's the last class of the day on a warm spring afternoon at Exeter College, but Martina Esser's GNVQ students are wide awake, cheerfully practising a German drill explaining the transport they use to get to work.

Their accents are authentic and their answers are fluent, apart from a few stumbles over das Luftkissenboot (hovercraft).

The high motivation of the students is one of the advantages of teaching GNVQ additional language units, according to Martina Esser. "None of them was keen to do German when they started, but now they're all enjoying it," she says.

The level 1 class consists mostly of BTEC computer studies students who have been told to do German to equip them for an exchange visit next term. They are all complete beginners and, until now, many of them have only had negative experiences of learning languages. "At school, the teachers only talked to the people who were good at it," says Stuart Harrop."Here you get much more practice and you're taught practical things you need," adds Daniel Littley.

Instead of finding the frequent assessments daunting, they seem to enjoy them. "You get assessed on what you've already done. It's all still fresh in your mind and you get better results," explains John Donovan.

The class has just completed an assignment involving tasks like deciphering a message on an answering machine and responding to a letter from a German colleague, both typical of the course's vocational approach.

Continuous assessment is the key to the success of the GNVQ approach, according to Nicola Golby, who is European officer at the college; she teaches French to a GNVQ class. "There are students in my group who, in any other context, would be considered linguistic failures," she says. "Because of the on-going assessment, they now have a sense of achievement. I have one mature student, a single mother, whose effort and commitment could never be reflected in a traditional, end-of-course exam."

Assessment is flexible; tutors can choose when to assess their classes, waiting until students are ready to tackle the skills demanded.

Nicola Golby thinks the teaching methods appeal to students, too. "They see it as a fun thing to do. It's less starchy than other options." Lecturers combine word games and role play to teach new skills. And one of the aims is to teach students the strategies to solve their own linguistic problems.

Although the language courses are not included in the compulsory "core" of GNVQs, they are already attracting a wide range of students. Nicola Golby's group includes an A-level geographer and an A-level PE and Leisure student wanting to keep up a language, as well as GNVQ students doing Business or Leisure and Tourism.

At intermediate level, four language units, in speaking, listening, reading and writing, are equivalent to two-thirds of an A-level. One attraction for students is that units can be acquired efficiently; while a language A-level requires five hours of classes per week, the GNVQ equivalent will only take two and a half hours a week.

The College has started to tailor language units to the vocational needs of specific courses. A group of students taking a GNVQ in Built Environment, for instance, will be able to take four additional units of Italian, as their main course involves an exchange with civil engineering students in Italy. The specific vocabulary will focus on topics like building site regulations and faxes to surveyors.

However, lecturers feel that GNVQ additional units will not catch on among A-level students until everyone is sure that universities will include them in the tally of admission points. One encouraging sign is that A-level language teaching is gradually converging with the GNVQ approach. The Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations has just developed a new modular modern languages syllabus which includes a section on the world of work, worth one-eighth of the total marks.

"When we consulted potential users of the syllabus, we realised that most of them wanted more vocational material," explains Robin Pickering, Oxford's chief examiner for A-level languages, who teaches at Exeter College. "We'd like to give A-level students the opportunity to work with language and skills which will be useful to them." Oxford is also developing an A-level syllabus in modern languages for business.

While many lecturers are full of enthusiasm for the vocational turn that modern languages are taking, there are some reservations. Linguists who enjoy basing their teaching on current affairs, philosophy or contemporary culture are worried that a business slant may be very dry. "Will it end up as a business management course with language thrown in?" asks one.

Others are daunted by the assessment requirements of the new vocational courses. The marking scheme for a GNVQ additional language unit at level 2, for instance, contains nearly 300 assessment targets for the teacher to record. There is also confusion about what constitutes acceptable evidence of attainment at different levels.

But some staff are determined to face up to the challenge. "We have to recognise that we're catering for a changing student population," says Nicola Golby. "Not everyone we get now is cut out for or is even interested in writing essays in a foreign language."

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