• Suzanne Terrasse

GCSE Results' Day 2018 - what can we expect for languages?

So it’s GCSE results' day 2018 on Thursday. Languages' teachers and students wait with bated breath; but it is possible that, in spite of hard work from students and teachers, there will be a drop in results at KS4.

Why is this likely?

Controlled Assessment (CA)

For many years CA has been the way that writing and speaking skills have been tested at GCSE. The thinking, when it was introduced in 2008, was that it would make languages more accessible for greater numbers of students; in fact quite the opposite has happened.

Instead of teaching grammar to students, so that they could begin to use language creatively,  lists of set phrases (to be learned by rote) have been consistently passed out by teachers seeking to build complexity in their pupils’ written and spoken language. Not only is this counterintuitive, it has been particularly harmful and demotivating for some specific groups of students.

Advanced Learners

An advanced learner is one who is learning at a level which is significantly higher than most of their peers in one or more topics within a classroom situation.

Under CA advanced learners became those with the best skills for memorisation. Linguistic aptitude and ability, a sensitivity to language and an ear for it became secondary characteristics in the language learning journey in schools.

Furthermore, these talented students were no longer being given the building blocks they needed to learn to use language creatively, to express their ideas and thoughts. Grammar teaching was deemed de-motivating and ‘far too difficult‘ for most students.  

This has always amused and appalled me in equal measure! What if we were to say that maths formulae should be learned by rote instead of being grappled with, understood and applied? Would that motivate our mathematicians? It’s the same for grammar! Our students need the struggle, and we as teachers need to wise up to how to teach grammar in an interactive and motivating way! It can be done!

So advanced learners did not benefit at GCSE and paid an even higher price at A level as they did not have the basic skills they needed to excel.

Struggling Learners

A struggling learner is a student who may have difficulty accessing an age appropriate languages' curriculum, struggling to progress in one or more topics within a classroom situation, yet does not have special educational needs.

For this group of students, CA was a disaster!  They already found language acquisition a challenge, but instead of concentrating on building mastery and understanding in a small range of tenses, structures and vocabulary, we gave them the lists too! And we were surprised when they struggled even more! Languages in many schools became a hated subject. Setting became the norm, with many schools having only one set where they hoped to achieve well in languages at GCSE. Behaviour in the languages' classroom deteriorated and students and teachers became increasingly desperate.

So, CA was a disaster for languages. The system badly needed to be changed.

However, a strategy for change needs to be worked out over a generation. This time last year I was interviewed about the maths' results on BBC lunchtime news, and I made that very point. A term of government is not enough to effect systemic educational change.

It needs to be conceived and carefully implemented over the long-term. When such a huge sea-change is introduced, teachers need time to learn the skills they need to input those changes in the classroom and students need time to build mastery of them.

In the school where I was Head of Department, we taught GCSE for one year, and I then went to SLT and asked that we be given permission to change to the IGCSE  (for which there was no CA) with immediate effect as I could see how harmful CA would be for us at GCSE and the effect it would have on our potential A level linguists. I was lucky they listened and we changed (mid-course for our year 10s) and so enjoyed nearly a decade of fun-filled, exciting, creative languages lessons, (with lots of grammar!), instead of handing out the dreaded lists!

I absolutely hope I’m proved wrong and that this year’s languages' results are a triumph for the hard work students and their teachers have put in over the past two years; but I fear that (unless there’s a whitewash), this might be a very disappointing Thursday for languages' departments across the country.

I'd be really happy to talk with you about strategies you can employ to effectively move from teaching Controlled Assessment to helping foster independent writing and speaking skills in your students.

Look out for our upcoming courses on speaking and writing arriving later in the Autumn Term.



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