Saturday, 27 March 2021

New MFL GCSE Proposals: some thoughts!

As you know a couple of weeks ago we woke up to the news that GCSE content for MFL was going to be changed and the new proposal, currently under consultation, was published. I have mixed views on the proposal as a whole. These are the main points that struck me straight away:
  • A specific list of words, 1700 for Higher and 1400 for Foundation on which the exam will be based, without distinction between receptive and productive vocabulary. Some of those words include irregular forms of verbs so the list is actually narrower. 
  • Only 2% of the words in the exam can be outside this list and will be glossed. 
  • 90% of vocabulary on this list will be based on the most frequent words in a given language. 
  • Emphasis on phonics, which will be reflected in a reading aloud exam element and dictation.
  • Listening extracts will be at no faster than moderate pace.
  • Explicit teaching of grammar is expected, although grammar knowledge, a priory, seems reduced from the current GCSE. For example, the Pluperfect Tense and the passive in the Future, Imperfect and Perfect forms has been omitted, together with the Subjunctive and juxtaposed object pronouns. 
  • Receptive and productive knowledge of grammar will be tested. 
  • Culture will be inherent in the way we teach but will not be assessed.
  • The oral exam will include a Role Play and answers to visual stimuli, although a more general conversation, non scripted, seems not to be present. 
  • Questions in the Reading and Listening exams will be in English. 
The rational behind the proposal seems valid and Rachel Hawkes explains it very well in this 60 minute screencast video.

It is difficult not to agree with her in many aspects. Her rational is: the current GCSE is too inaccessible as it has too many topics, too many words to master and too many words that need to be inferred by context, meaning that it advantages bilingual candidates and high ability students with better literacy skills. The proposed GCSE aims to close this gap and make languages accessible to all as it removes guesswork and rewards hard work: if you know that list of words you will be fine! The proposal aims to promote individually generated and more varied written and spoken outcomes, giving individual words their value back and discouraging a reliance on unanalysed chunks, promoting manipulation of language. 

What I like!

The importance of phonics in the curriculum. I agree that Phonics improves writing and speaking, helps with vocabulary learning and, I welcome that it will be explicitly assessed in a test. Decoding words is very rewarding for students and extremely powerful when learning structures, so this will promote phonics teaching in the classroom. 

Questions in English for the Reading and Listening tests.

Glossed vocabulary 

A reduction of the content that students need to master: less is more! Although I have reservations, I agree on a reduction of the corpora that students need to master to get the highest grades. In the current GCSE there are far too many topics that I tend to rush through without having a chance to really allow students to embed structures properly. Also, I don’t like the current distinction of receptive and productive vocabulary, which has been eliminated from the proposal. I hate when high ability students perceive MFL as too difficult and choose other subjects for ALevel, which will allow them to achieve UCAS points more easily. 


My initial thoughts to see a specific list of vocabulary were of joy as it seemed to promote the less is more concept: Let's learn less content but learn it really well and become fluent in it, incorporating a corpora of key, important structures to be mastered and used in all contexts. However, there’s a catch, 90% of those words come from the most frequent words, meaning there are a lot of prepositions, conjunctions, common verbs but not a lot of content vocabulary that allows you to speak of more varied and interesting topics, especially if we want to speak about culture, as we should, and if we want to inspire students and broaden their views of the world. Also, how do these words relate to the interests of a 15 year old? is there a frequent word list for different age ranges?

Although, a priori, not having prescribed topics seems like an opportunity to design a curriculum around a communicative approach, grouping words around functions, for example, and focussing on useful content that students could find useful if travelling to the target countries, that is clearly not the intention as I started reading through the proposal, in fact the word communication is not used at all! That worries me. We use a language to communicate in real situations!

This made me think that surely, the proposal does not expect us to teach random words and grammar in isolation from each other and expect students to become creative with it? There must be some specific contexts in which to teach this list of words in conjunction with grammatical structures. These contexts are not clear and it worries me that schools will create their own contexts for this, increasing workload and creating disparity among schools. 

This takes me to the next point, if themes or topics are not anymore, productive skills must be based pretty much around grammatical productivity. Students cannot be asked to write about the benefits of school uniform, for example. Written/oral utterances must be expected to be driven by grammatical knowledge and broad questions: what you did yesterday or plans for the future. This narrows the scope of questions tremendously and makes accuracy the inner force of the curriculum, rather than communication. This worries me. 

I am also worried about the emphasis on individual words and declarative grammar knowledge in isolation. The proposal clearly pushes for a structuralist pedagogy. This worries me as GCSE content should never prescribe a teaching methodology. It clearly discourages chunking when the lexicogrammar approach, based on chunking, is proven to lead to fluency and increase motivation in students as it promotes communication from day one and it helps memorisation of structures thanks to parsing. There seems to be a misunderstanding of the lexicogrammar approach, which is working so well in so many schools: this approach does teach grammar explicitly but only once students have embedded a particular set of lexical and grammatical structures. In fact, when applied properly, grammatical knowledge in students massively improves with this approach. Consequently, this emphasis on individual words and declarative grammar seems to be out of tune with what I am experiencing in my day to day lessons. 
Finally, I am concerned that the oral exam does not include a general conversation. I loved that part in the current GCSE. It was the opportunity to see real interaction and spontaneity! The reason why some schools have resorted to rote learning, devaluing the power of this task, is because of the pressure to include as many tenses as possible and show complexity at all costs, which is unnatural! I would also need to learn some of my questions if I need to give mini speeches, including a certain number of tenses, opinions, idioms etc if someone asked me where I live! It is not the task but the criteria at fault. I would get rid of the role play, as it does not allow for spontaneity and real interaction.

Those are my initial thoughts so far. I recommend that everyone attends the scheduled ALL webinar after the Easter break to debate these issues and have an informed view on the proposal. My main concern, is the pedagogical shift that underpins the proposal which may stop creativity in the classroom for us the teachers.


  1. Hi Esmerelda. I agree with absolutely everything you have said. I do worry that it is all a fait accompli though. What we may have to do is find ways to keep teaching the way we want irrespective of the exam format.

  2. Yes, it may change some bits if enough people respond to the consultation addressing concerns. But, essentially you are right. My intention is to keep teaching the way I am doing at the moment. :)

  3. I agree with your evaluation as well; learning a language is about communication. Yes, we have to make sure that grammar and syntax are learnt correctly but if we want students to enjoy languages (and then they will make efforts) we have to go away from narrow learning and widen the language, discover culture, literature, other countries... What worries me the most is the dictation? Bilingual students (for Spanish ) have trouble with V and Bs; how about dyslexic students; the only way a dictation can work is if the student has a choice of words to choose from for a gap fill as this will show the student understands the context. The current mark scheme for writing makes allowances for some errors of spellings and agreements; you can be a proficient linguist, travel the world, communicate and get understood with some errors. Let's reward communication not just grammar. Even more worryingly, who will take up a language at A level? Because it does not look like this is changing. Will grade 9 students be in any way equipped to deal with the demands of the A level or will they feel totally put off?

    1. Thank you for your comments. Yes, all very valid points. The gap between GCSE and Alevels is going to huge!

  4. I have just been to a college to observe for my PGCE and after speaking to a number of students, they all told me that they felt that they memorised answers for their GCSE. They didn't feel that they had really learned their language at GCSE nor anything about culture. They said that when they moved to college, they had a steep learning curve where the language was that of instruction, but their interest in language really came about when they started learning about the culture. As a language learner considering expectations and SOL, I think it would be a great move to have a stronger importance of phonics and attaching listening to writing skills with diction. I also think that learning to speak about less topics but in more depth is a great progression. A deeper understanding of grammar, in my opinion, will promote more spontaneity. However, I don't really associate exams with spontaneity regardless. This is something that should be practiced in the classroom.

  5. Thanks for your comments. I agree that culture is key for motivation and there’s not enough time for it in the curriculum, at the moment, which is such a pity! Grammar is important in achieving spontaneity, absolutely, but not in isolation from words. In order to become fluent students rely on a lot of chunks and grammar can be analysed later in the learning journey, rather than at the beginning. It’s true that spontaneity is difficult to demonstrate in exams but we should aim to do so, if spontaneity happens in lessons, to some degree should be demonstrated in an exam condition. The issue is that students require to answer unnatural utterances to questions leading to rote learning, hence, stopping spontaneity.

  6. I am very worried about this. The proposals are not going to benefit the students. I agree with your analysis and I share your worries. It is another missed opportunity to make MFL exciting for the students and I cannot see how a dictation or reading out loud for exams is relevant to a 15 year old. I haven't seen the lists of vocabulary yet but like you, I worry about the relevance for a 15 year old. And why can't we assess cultural content? We do at A Level. This could be a missed opportunity to get the students interested whilst getting them closer to world citizens (and more ready for A Level). Am disappointed with all this and worried this is change for change's sake.

  7. Thanks so much for explaining and summarising it so clear. I have been teaching only for a few years; in fact, this is the first year that I have taught Y11. I have been quite alarmed by how inaccessible the current GCSE is for my top students who work so hard. Then, one wonders how valid is the test if it doesn't test on what students learn. I agree though that the current proposal, in trying to fix this issuez has gone to the other extreme. Again, thanks so much for your post. Found it very helpful.


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