Friday, 24 September 2010

ALL speak out about languages

Here are my quick answers to the four questions posed by ALL in their week for 'speaking out about languages'.

Within the context of your own work and locality:

1. What is the achievement you would most like the media / public / decision-makers to know about?

Language teachers are a particularly committed set of professionals. e.g. the ALL London branch has two events a year which draw over 100 people on a Saturday morning to talk about their work; The Yahoo mflresources group has nearly 3,000 ‘connected’ members, and a large core of regular contributors. There is a committed group of MFL ‘twitterers’. I do not know of another subject community with such a strong networking presence.

I am delighted that reading and listening will be tested in English .. this leads to a much more natural experience in the classroom and exam room where students can be given authentic tasks and authentic sources.

2. What is your response to media statements such as “language teaching puts most people off learning a language” or “Languages considered least important subjects for children to learn at school” ?

It is important to check the validity of statements made about languages and to avoid ‘knee-jerk reactions’ to them.
Just because people do not choose to take a language does not mean that they dislike them or do not value them. There are plenty of examples where pupils enjoy languages and the teaching, but when faced with a range of options, cannot ‘fit them in’ or see that other options suit their personal goals better. There are adults who value languages who see the point, but who just don’t allocate time to learn them. There are even more constraints of time and dilemmas of choice within a secondary curriculum.
We cannot be complacent .. as with any subject , we are always looking for ways to maintain and improve our teaching methods. However, there is no evidence that there is a particular problem with T&L in languages by comparison with other subjects. (cf Geography OFSTED)
We are aware that the nature of the exam can lead to repetitive tasks.
What does put languages in a different category for most learners, is the fact that it can seem ‘hard’ - just as in maths. Maths and languages are subjects where learners are continually faced with explicit examples of things they cannot do.

3 What are the issues that worry you most?

The apparent trend towards reducing time spent on ML at KS3 (presumably often dictated by a school’s desire to attain the highest scores for the purposes of the league tables .. e.g. by starting formal preparation for GCSE in Year 9, or allowing pupils to stop learning languages before the end of year 9.

(See appendix for reference to ALL London website which has links to relevant statistics.)
The false assumptions that are being made in response to a situation where numbers are continuing to fall in post 14 take-up. Too often the assumption is made that this is to do with valuing languages, or responding to the teaching and learning, whereas the most obvious reason is that severe grading makes it more difficult to attain a grade A*-C in languages. (A disincentive to all in the system: managers, teachers, pupils and parents)
The failure of DfE to respond to the QCA report which gave clear evidence of severe grading.
The slow response of OFQUAL to severe grading. An inter subject comparability seminar has been held and we await follow up.
The low percentage of A* grades awarded at A level in a subject area which clearly has a more able cohort.

I am very disappointed that the exam boards did not allow for differentiation in the support given for speaking and writing tests and a more flexible approach to assessing speaking. The current format encourages ‘rote learning’ so that students can show what they know understand and can do in the limited ‘test window’ available (one hour for each of two writing tasks, approx 10 minutes for each of two speaking tasks, both with very limited support during the test. This can lead to very dull preparation, and a very negative test experience for the least able.
The subject specific criteria do not preclude a more helpful format. This is something that could be changed.
The qualification should be a ‘General Certificate of Secondary Education’ which should be accessible to all, and NOT a qualification only for the ‘high fliers’ and the specialists. In its current format it is not, and this has led to people quite understandably opting for other qualifications whose format is more suited to the less able (e,g, NVQ). This should not be necessary. The GCSE should be appropriate for the vast majority.

There are differences in opinions from within the subject community
Very often, mixed messages can be sent out by well-meaning people.
It would be helpful to articulate the separate issues objectively, without emotion (e.g. to avoid the criticism of ‘well they would say that, wouldn’t they?)
It is very difficult to influence decision makers when they can easily find contrary views and information from other language professionals.
An example: Primary languages. The success of primary languages will depend on the opportunities and constraints of the local context. Dearing and King accepted that ‘the devil is in the detail’ … it is vital to acknowledge this and avoid sweeping generalisations about what ‘should’ be happening.

While this strategy will probably increase numbers of able (i.e. those likely to achieve A-C) students (and there has been a great need for this strategy .. it has been especially worrying to see the drop in absolute numbers attaining A*-C .. evidence that able students are dropping languages) .. it will not make any difference to encouraging less able up-take. This is why it is not enough.

4. How can we ensure that decision makers in education value language learning?

I believe that decision makers in secondary education do value language learning and that it is unhelpful to ‘blame’ them for not promoting languages. However, decision makers at school level (curriculum managers) will not decide to promote languages if this leads to a poorer judgment of their overall performance as published in league tables and this is totally understandable.
A significant ‘negative’ will be removed by ensuring that the award system fairly rewards language learning with comparable grades e.g. at GCSE and AS/A2.
It would be helpful for the subject community to understand their predicament (and certainly not to ‘blame’ them for the problem) and to provide managers with the information needed to ‘make the case’ for change. The Headteacher union ASCL is behind the proposal for change. (2 key members of the ASCL management team are linguists .. )
It would also be helpful to challenge those who extrapolate generalisations from their own personal experience.

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