Daily Archives: March 15, 2015

Working Towards the New GCSE in MFL – Martine Pillette for Network for Languages

On Friday I had the opportunity to attend an excellent course at Bryanston School, focusing on the following:

  1. What’s in store for the pupils (and us!) in the new GCSEs, from 2016 onwards?
  2. How do we facilitate the increased level of spontaneous talk required?
  3. How to use authentic resources (including the new requirement for “literature”…).
  4. Some practical ideas to help students cope with final exam written tasks.

Martine Pillette was her usual engaging, focused, purposeful self, and Laurent Johnson’s MFL Department (and Bryanston’s award-winning catering crew) were excellent hosts. There were plenty of opportunities for discussion, allowing the attendees to share our hopes, fears and ideas for what the new criteria hold in store…

In this post, I am going to look at the first of these 4 sections – it would not really be right to post all of the lovely practical ideas that Martine shared with us without asking her first (which I shall be doing, by the way!). Hopefully the topic of a future post or three, therefore… ūüėČ

Our current Year 8 pupils will be the first cohort to tackle the new exams, in 2018 – and so we absolutely MUST work with them to “train them” for the anticipated differences between the current style of GCSE and what is on the drawing-board. Looking further ahead, working with our younger pupils from primary level upwards will help ready them for the challenges. In actual fact, though, as I mused during the day, as long as are¬†teaching our pupils FRENCH, and GERMAN, and SPANISH (and so on…), in “the right way”, passing a GCSE will be a handy by-product of what should be a much wider process, with greater goals than mere Ofqual box-ticking and hoop-jumping.

Right. Enough soap-box stuff!

Martine took us through the “nuts and bolts” of the new criteria, which the exam boards are distilling into their various specifications as we speak – and hopefully by Summer, allowing us the luxury of a whole year to prepare (apologies if my sarcasm is not particularly well-masked, here…). The boards will, as previously, interpret the criteria in their own ways, but we can anticipate the content fairly confidently, as Ofqual are apparently going to have much more power to reject specs than was the case for the current GCSEs.

The headlines, many of which we are already aware of:

  • back to 25% for each skill (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing), in spite of some desires to the contrary in the consultation period
  • candidates will take either all Foundation or all Higher Tier papers (by the way, it would appear that we are lucky to retain the tiering at all, as other subject areas have lost this…)
  • no more Controlled Assessment for Speaking and Writing – instead, a final oral and written exam (more on these later).
  • Listening and Reading papers to contain authentic materials – i.e. not (re)written specifically with a non-native speaker audience in mind, and containing contemporary and cultural themes.
  • Reading papers to include an element of literary texts – although not “set texts”.
  • Reading papers to include some translation from Target Language (TL) to English.
  • Writing papers to include some translation from English to TL
  • Speaking tasks will require spontaneous talk, “responding to unexpected questions, (…), sustaining communication by using rephrasing or repair¬†strategies” (i.e. getting back OUT of linguistic/communicative difficulties once they are IN them!)
  • all Oral exams to be internally assess but externally marked
  • Oral exams: 7-9 minutes long at Foundation level, 10-12 at Higher
  • Oral exams: to be confirmed, but probably involving a stimulus, or a role play (back to O Level!)
  • Oral exams: emphasis on fluency rather than accuracy

There will therefore be a need to adjust the overall approach:

  • moving away from the “me! me! me!/pencil-case/I have two brothers and three hamsters” curriculum to a bigger picture
  • adopting a more cross-curricular approach
  • training our pupils to decode the unfamiliar, rather than just to “know lots of words”
  • getting away from the parrot-fashion approach which has unfortunately held pupils in good stead during the Controlled Assessment years… (phew!)
  • allowing language to be¬†not merely the objective, but also the medium to understanding the culture

After looking over the new KS3 MFL Framework’s programme of study (which is entirely non-prescriptive in terms of content,¬†placing the emphasis on skills), we looked at the DfE’s GCSE subject content documentation, and were relieved (cynically, perhaps a little surprised ;-)) to see that whoever had worked on the latter had at least perused the former…It is clear that the bar is being raised, across the board – not in itself a bad thing, but of concern to those pupils at the weaker end of the scale. Of some comfort, perhaps, is the fact that it is in the interest neither of Ofqual nor the DfE to preside over a “failed qualification” – and that they will therefore need to ensure that WE can make it work!

Martine highlighted the fact that we should push our SLTs¬†for all the teaching-time we can get, to give ourselves scope to factor in the new skills (literature, translation both ways, spontaneous talk…) that we must ensure our pupils can handle – from KS2 onwards, ideally – to create the circumstances for them to do well, from 2018’s first examination onwards. She did, however, also suggest that a degree of pragmatism would be needed, so as not to “flog” any “dead horses” into mastery of (for example) translation from English into French, when this skill will ultimately only be required for one part of the Writing paper – especially at Foundation level.

We then spent a short while discussing the new grading system which has been the subject of much heat under collars already, in the blogosphere and beyond! As you no doubt already know, the 8-level A* to G arrangement is being shelved, and replaced with a radical (!) new 9-1 scale. Amongst the ramifications of this are the following:

  • a raising of the bar, across the board, but especially at A/A* and the Pass/Fail borderline
  • at the current C/B level, two grades become three (4/5/6) – and the pass grade being set at 5 means that some student who would previously have attained a C will get a 4, and not pass
  • it would appear that playing safe, and entering pupils at Foundation Tier, might become the “safe choice”. (Is that what we want to be encouraging, though? And what about the good old league tables? That’s a topic for another blog post!)

In order to leap over this raised bar at KS4, it will be crucial from KS3 onwards (and preferably even earlier) to move away from a culture of “excessively content-focused / ‘feeding’ / addressing topic ‘coverage’ / short-term objectives / nurturing ‘dependent’ learners” towards one where we are aiming to be more¬†“skills-focused / ‘enabling’ / inculcating ‘language mastery’ / longer-term objectives / fostering ‘independent learners’. As Martine put it: instead of “giving our pupils a linguistic fish”, teaching them to fish for themselves, linguistically”.

The focus will therefore need to be on

  • learning how the language actually works (applying grammar – not just knowing verb declensions off-by-heart…)
  • creativity and spontaneity in spoken and written forms
  • practising high-frequency language (the “little words” that enable so much more communication)
  • phonics work
  • regular use of authentic or adapted-authentic resources

As I said before, I am not going to go into further detail now, in terms of the practical ideas that Martine gave us for facilitating¬†spontaneous talk, developing pupils’ creative writing and tackling the exploitation of “literature” (with a small “L”)… unless she says I can, in a future post or series of posts. Instead, for now I will unreservedly recommend that you attend one of her courses, if you can, before the new MFL GCSE comes on-stream…

In conclusion: while the new courses represent a(nother) moving of the goalposts, and lots of work for us in terms of rewriting or at the very least reinterpreting existing schemes of work, I feel that they can offer us exciting new opportunities in terms of teaching actual LANGUAGES, rather than just “how to do GCSE”… if we get it right. Can we “sell” the new GCSEs to students, and reverse the current overall slide in uptake of languages at KS4? Will the renewed authenticity, and real-world applicability of the curriculum, be more motivating – and more appealing – to students? We’re about to find out, I guess! Good luck to us all!