Translation is nothing to fear…enjoy!

Did you hear the good news about Bernardette Holmes, Teacher and Modern Languages Education Advocate, being awarded an MBE in recognition to her services to Education? Isn’t this great for languages! Well done Bernardette!

As promised last week here is the first of Rob Pike’s guest posts. Over to Rob…

suitcase books

“In my line of work I am fortunate to meet a large number of language teachers and it is rare that I speak to one who is sad to see the back of controlled assessments. If I were to feedback some of the comments and complaints about these ‘unloved’ and ‘ill-conceived’ tests, they would include points such as the lack of a need to master real language, the reliance on memory and even the ease by which some schools might choose to bend the rules!

As of 2016 the new GCSE will no longer include either these or even pre-2009 style coursework. Instead teachers are faced with the daunting prospect of preparing their students for a new examination. This will be first run in 2018 so current year 9 pupils need to be prepared for something entirely different.

There are lots of pros to having an examination. Suddenly teachers will no longer be baffled by marks returned that do not reflect those ‘awarded’ by themselves in school when looking at work and feeding back to their charges. The examination will be largely ‘points-based’ and it will be easier to judge where the marks lie. In addition it will be a real leveller. All students will be examined under the same conditions, at the same time and will have marks awarded by broadly the same people. And there will be a clear mark scheme available for teachers to pore over in the following months.

It will however require a change to teaching methods.  Time will have been freed up by the abandonment of controlled assessments and this time will need to be put to use in other ways. For now let us just turn our minds to one of the skills that will be needed and which teachers are seemingly concerned about: translation.

It appears on all versions of the exam, whichever board you might go for. I would recommend taking this opportunity to look at the draft specifications and materials made available by the various boards and have a look at which one best suits your needs. Look out for how the marks on the higher papers in particular are allocated. Are the exercises marked globally, or with a points system, for example?

Back to translation. Some tasks are list-based, some are longer sentences or short paragraphs. No passages are going to be very long. Translation from target language to home language will be on the reading paper. Translation from home language to target language will be on the writing paper.

As with the other skills that will need to be worked on to succeed in the new papers, translation needs to be something that is taught prior to starting Key Stage 4. Begin with Key Stage 3, and be creative with how you approach translation. You do not want to scare anybody away from choosing your subject!

Initially translation could be single words, using dictionaries, and you might then withdraw support and practise recognising cognates and word families. Move on to short sentences with gaps to fill, initially listed then not. You could have multiple-choice sentences so that younger students have to make choices rather than produce language themselves. All the time keep grammatical points in mind. Get students agreeing adjectives or conjugating verbs early on. As time passes become stricter and stricter, disallowing answers if words have not been properly adapted or language sufficiently manipulated.

Another excellent way to practise translation is by jumbling up words in sentences. Firstly keep it straightforward, but over time introduce some grammatical structures of the type that might appear on papers. Code-breaking could be another way to get students working out language systematically and logically. This will have the added benefit of appealing to large numbers of boys.

As students get better at this you could introduce dictation, which would also improve their listening skills. Some students will not like to ‘mess up’ their books so use scrap paper or mini whiteboards. Allow students to enjoy the challenge and give them time to work out their own corrections and peer assess their efforts.

I would want my students to be pretty good at doing sentences before moving onto anything trickier. When ready perhaps do some running dictation in groups, or even better running translation! Try translating very short paragraphs in the context of a current topic, with pictures as support. Do not expect miracles. I’ve seen plenty of ‘A’ level students producing gobbledegook when first attempting any sort of translation. They will need to be taught to think in their new language rather than translate word from word, something that needs to be developed over time. That is why they need to be started young.

This is why I would like to come back to controlled assessments. In my opinion some key linguistic skills have been neglected over the last six years in a bid to get top GCSE results. I by no means blame the teachers (I would be blaming myself if that was the case!) but some of the best linguists have suffered as a result – they may not have had a great ability to learn long passages of pre-prepared language.

So let’s embrace this change, and take translation on as a wonderful skill to taught gradually and carefully over time.”

by Robert Pike (Teacher trainer MFL, author, ITT team University of Worcester)

Thank you Rob. This is really helpful!