Exploring the interconnectivity of skills at Key Stage 3

Last summer, I was asked to take part in a project on assessment at Key Stage 3 to consider what the Programme of Study for languages might mean for the design of new assessments in the classroom.  Reviewing this document, I was reminded of the emphasis on the interconnectivity of the four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing, previously approached as separate disciplines. I felt that it was this interconnectivity that could bring something new to assessment design. To extract and make explicit these interconnections from the narrative of the Programme of Study, I started to sketch out the connections. The resulting model attempts to break the four skills into smaller subsets and to highlight the (sometimes forgotten) relationships between them. What is the thinking behind it?


Comparisons made between the demands of planned and unplanned speaking made by Dr Rachel Hawkes (and others) means that a finer distinction between the different elements of this skill is required. Unplanned speaking involves an interlocuter processing and decoding utterances at speed (often with few contextual clues) to formulate a response. Planned speaking (particularly of the presentation type) allows language learners to prepare utterances in advance by removing the pressure of having to respond to previously unheard prompts. Both types of speaking require good pronunciation and intonation skills to effectively communicate meaning. Speaking is, therefore, now three separate subsets.


If speaking can be redefined as three separate subsets, then the same is true of listening. Unplanned speaking is the product of unplanned listening. This is a different skill set to the planned nature of much of the listening conducted in class, which is supported and scaffolded, for example, by knowledge of the context and question framing. A piece written by Professor Larry Vandergrift for the Centre for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies (1) cites Richards’ (1990) (2) differentiation between interactional and transactional listening. This distinction between the two-way interaction with a speaker (interactional) as opposed to ‘one-way […] message-oriented’ listening requiring ‘accurate comprehension of a message with no opportunity for clarification’ (transactional) fits perfectly with the Programme of Study. Phonological knowledge is key in decoding the sounds of the target language before the listener can begin to search the brain for the word[s] to match them and build meaning. Conversely, it enables the listener to encode (to spell and write) the sounds heard. Thus, transcription (phonics) becomes the third skill subset for listening. However, phonetic knowledge can play a role in supporting reading. Subvocalisation (the act of forming words or sounds silently or barely audibly when reading) can assist word recognition and comprehension. Transcription becomes the gateway to reading.


Reading can also be broken down into transactional and interactional skill subsets. The former are the reading activities that are familiar to us in the languages classroom; ‘traditional’ comprehension tasks (reading and processing text to understand its meaning and/or extract key information) in which the reader can use their knowledge of the purpose and context of the text to enhance their understanding of it. Interactional reading activities can use text as a frame for writing or to provide ideas and structures for independent writing or as a stimulus for expressing students’ own ideas and/or opinions.


Interactional reading also offers the possibility of writing for a communicative purpose; students can engage in writing in the classroom to respond and to elicit response. This is an underexploited opportunity at Key Stage 3 and an interesting one to explore. It is also necessary as the new GCSE writing paper requires candidates to read and process text stimuli to formulate a spontaneous written response tailored to the demands of a task framed in the target language.  However, the content of much of the writing that is done in Key Stage 3 is negotiated in advance. These possibilities lead to the division of writing into the skill subsets of planned and unplanned. Translation (into and out of L1) is placed in the corresponding disciplines of reading and writing respectively.


A look at the Programme of Study for Key Stage 2 and subject content for the new GCSE, AS and A levels shows that opportunities to emphasise these interconnections between the skills are present throughout the school language-learning continuum. Perhaps if we reconsider the nature and type of assessment carried out from the start then, like ripples in a pond, the skillsets of our language learners will continue to expand and grow. [WC 727]

To explore Yvonne’s interpretation of the KS3 Languages Programme of Study further listen to the webinar.

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(1) Prof. Larry Vandergrift, Centre for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies, Theory and Practice in Modern Foreign Language Competence https://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/67#ref15

(2) Richards, J. C. (1990). The Language Teaching Matrix. New York: Cambridge University Press.


About Yvonne Kennedy

Yvonne is an Advanced Skills Teacher and Specialist Leader in Education for MFL with over twenty years’ experience of teaching, which includes experience of primary, secondary and adult education. She is a qualified translator and a  freelance languages consultant and trainer, currently working for a large not-for-profit provider of school support services.  She also works as a freelance educational resource writer and is one of the co-authors of Allez KS3 French (Oxford University Press).  Yvonne is a member of the National Association of Language Advisers and the Chartered Institute of Linguists.  She is also an associate member of the Association of Language Learning.