A Level reform

I ended my last post by asking for any readers to get in touch with any views they would like to express on A Level reform. Please feel free to comment and as promised, I will add your thoughts to my summary to go to ALL – thank you in advance.

Having read through the draft proposals a number of times now, I’m asking a number of questions and have listed them below.

ALCAB say… ‘The existing requirements do not promote the development of transferable critical skills. Such development is an important part of language learning.

1) I think that current teaching does promote this, do you?

I have to say that, alongside the core aims, I like these bullet points under ‘Aims and Objectives‘:

  • equip themselves with transferable skills such as autonomy, resourcefulness, creativity, critical thinking, and linguistic, cultural and cognitive flexibility that will enable them to proceed to further study or to employment
  • develop as independent researchers through the language of study

However, I have similar concerns to others in the language teaching world, who have already expressed their opinions. During the time that I worked with CILT, there was a lot of work carried out across all the key stages, including a survey conducted by Irene Wilkie on Bridging the Gap between A level and HE. I worked on KS2 to KS3 and KS4 to A level research, but a number of A Level students and teachers I worked with completed the survey, so I was very interested in the results. The findings were presented at a conference in 2010. I’ve just looked up my workshop title and description…

“Being the best you can be! An exploratory journey at A level.

All teachers know that encouraging an understanding of cultural diversity whilst ensuring linguistic progression needs careful planning.  As pupils move from KS4 to AS/A2, and then on to university, or the working world, they need to have increased opportunities to grapple with more complex issues in order to mature individually, deepen intellectual curiosity and become equipped with the knowledge and skills they need as citizens in the wider world.”

A Level teachers have been working very hard for many years to encourage lifelong learners of foreign languages.

2) Will the reform bring the change needed to encourage more students at A level and at university?

There is of course great concern about the drop in numbers studying languages at university. A conference being organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum due to take place on 3rd December has a good agenda:

“This seminar focuses on policy priorities for encouraging more UK students to take up modern foreign languages – from primary school through to Further and Higher Education. The conference follows recent UCAS figures showing a drop in those applying for language courses at university and comes a year into the new HEFCE-funded Routes into Languages scheme. The seminar includes a contribution from Professor Michael Kelly, Director of Routes into Languages.”

Irene Wilkie and other colleagues at CILT were due to report their findings on transition A Level to HE at a conference in 2011 which was cancelled. This was a shame, because in my view if cross-phase discussion takes place it really makes a difference and always leads to greater understanding.

3) Experience proves this. Do you agree?

This was the conference description!

“What’s it all about?

There sometimes seems to be a mismatch between what A level teachers think their students can do and the perception HE tutors have of a ‘good’ A level student, which can make for an uncomfortable start to HE language courses for some students. This conference is a chance for A level teachers and HE tutors to come together and discuss ways in which they can work together to smooth the transition from A level to HE study for their students. A wide range of sessions and workshops will explore the content and teaching methods in MFL, English Language and Linguistics across both sides of the divide and hopefully lead to greater understanding and cooperation.”

In order to ensure that reform makes a difference to the education of all children, whatever age they are, people from different sectors need a chance to discuss proposals and strategies to implement reform in depth. I hope that during this period of change, notice will be taken of research that has been completed and subsequent project work that has already been undertaken.

My main concern about the proposed reform is about how the use of the target language might be reduced in lessons. Shouldn’t it be increasing at this stage?

4) How will these proposals affect what goes on in the classroom? What will actually happen in lessons?

5) If there is to be more emphasis on translating from and into the target language, will more English be spoken?

Students will have to “translate an unseen passage or passages from the language of study into English and unseen sentences or short texts at AS and an unseen passage or passages at A level from English into the language of study.” Of course I am in favour of improving accuracy, but not at the expense of fluency. We need to strive for both.

Let’s think about this aspect too. Specifications must also require students to:

  • at AS, know, understand and respond critically in writing in the language of study to one work chosen from the prescribed list provided in the specification. Students must choose either a literary work or a film
  • at A Level, study and critically appreciate in writing two works, one of which must be a literary work, chosen from the prescribed list provided in the specification
  • at A Level, students must know, understand and respond critically in writing in the language of study to either a film or literary work; and appreciate, analyse and respond critically in writing in English to either a film or literary work

As you know I am very hopeful that the teaching of languages in primary schools will be successful. KS3 lessons are building on prior learning and the use of authentic texts is also being encouraged at GCSE. Group Talk techniques are making a big difference in secondary schools, so my next question is…

6) Do you think it is the right thing to include the writing of an essay in English in the A level paper?

I think it is good to include the study of a range of literary works (see the bullet points from section 10 below) but feel that they should be discussed in class and written about in the target language.

The works prescribed in the specification must be appropriate authentic sources.

  • the list of literary works must include a range from the following genres: novels, series of short stories, plays, selections of poems, life writing (such as autobiography, letters and journals)
  • the list of films must include feature length films and can include selections of short films organised by theme or director
  • students are required to study two discrete works at A level i.e. students cannot be assessed on a film adapted from a literary work as well as on the original literary work itself

I am in favour of point 11 which promotes independent research.

In addition, A level specifications in a modern language must require students to:

  • develop research skills in the language of study, demonstrating the ability to initiate and conduct individual research on a subject of personal interest, relating to the country or countries where the language is spoken

Can we now look at Dawn Marley’s article Breathing life into modern foreign language A-levels, orginally published on The Conversation. Dawn is a senior lecturer in French at the University of Surrey. Here is just one section:

“A Level reform. Better understanding of culture. The proposals for the revival of A-level are directly in line with what most, if not all, academics in language departments would see as essential.

They recommend the promotion of accuracy in conjunction with fluency and the study of a language in the context of the society and cultures of the countries where it is spoken. They also offer a way to create a rounded, challenging and rewarding learning experience, encouraging students to develop linguistic strategies and meta-cognition – better awareness of the way they learn. If this can actually be translated into practice, it would indeed produce a generation of language learners who would understand better what they are doing and why.

More crucially, they might actually see the value of language learning in a wider context, and want to take it further.’’

If you can spare the time, please read the whole article by Dawn and the comments.

Please do get in touch and let me know what you think about A Level reform. Even a short comment on any one of the questions above might make a difference. At least we will have expressed our views.

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