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Today the government Department for Education (DfE) has announced changes to the MFL GCSEs of French, German and Spanish to align the subject content more closely with the recommendations of the Teaching Schools Council’s 2016 MFL Pedagogy Review.  These are probably the most substantial changes to the GCSE in French, German and Spanish since the GCSE was introduced in 1988. Children who are currently in year 7 will take the new exams. The first cohort of year 10 students will start to study for these GCSEs in 2024 and take the exam in 2026.

Prof. Emma Marsden (University of York, Director of NCELP) and Dr Rachel Hawkes (Co-director of NCELP, CamTrust schools) contributed substantially to the MFL Pedagogy Review and the GCSE review panel. The work of the NCELP team has provided research expertise and meticulous evidence to inform some of the changes to the GCSE. Emma and Rachel have worked with colleagues at NCELP, the GCSE review panel, the DfE, Ofqual, and the Awarding Organisations, to scope out the detail of the new content.

NCELP was established in 2018 to take forward the recommendations of the 2016 MFL Pedagogy Review and ensure they are achievable and effective in schools. The MFL pilot project aims to improve language curriculum design and pedagogy, leading to a higher take up and greater success at GCSE.

NCELP has provided training to the awarding organisations (AQA, Edexcel, WJEC) to help them to prepare for the changes, and will continue to offer support wherever possible to help support the rollout of the GCSE.  Furthermore, NCELP offers CPD designed for those new to NCELP approaches, and those who want to develop their understanding further (for example teachers who have already adopted NCELP Schemes of Work). Researchers at NCELP have provided detailed analyses of the current GCSEs and A Levels, demonstrating that these proposed changes are much needed and feasible. The new word lists should provide better preparation for both GCSEs and A level exam papers. 

The 2016 Review said students needed to “gain systematic knowledge of the vocabulary, grammar, and sound and spelling systems (phonics) of their new language, and how these are used by speakers of the language. They need to reinforce this knowledge with extensive planned practice and use in order to build the skills needed for communication.” The review made 15 recommendations for schools and teachers, for initial teacher training and for Ofqual and the examination boards.*

An expert panel, commissioned by the DfE in 2019, which included Professor Emma Marsden and Dr Rachel Hawkes, reviewed the subject content of the MFL GCSEs with the aim of making “languages more accessible at GCSE and encouraging more students to study a foreign language at A level and undergraduate level”.  Approximately 1/4 million children take a GCSE in these subjects every year – and the aim is to increase this number.

The revised subject content was published together with a consultation on the changes in March 2021. Ofqual also consulted on new assessment arrangements for the three GCSEs to reflect the revised content.

The Government announcement today means that for the first time, a vocabulary list will be provided for the GCSE – meaning that teachers, pupils, and textbook writers will know what can be tested. Only a small amount of vocabulary on the exams will be ‘off the list’ – to test inferencing skills. This will make a better connection between what is taught and what can be tested.  With these changes, the choice of vocabulary will be informed by its frequency in the language – many of the words (85%) have to be the most generally useful words. This has been made possible by a tool created by NCELP at the University of York – the first tool of its kind to allow people to know which words in a text are the most frequent, in French, German, and Spanish. 

This tool draws on data from vast corpora of millions of spoken and written words – about what the most frequent words are in the language, to inform our teaching and assessments. This evidence about frequency must be combined with teachers’ knowledge about what kinds of words are likely to be of interest to young teenagers (the changes stipulate that 15% of the words on the GCSE list can be less frequent words, but words that are likely to be specifically useful or of interest to young teenagers)

The changes have defined the grammar content much more carefully, taking on board evidence about what is most likely to be learnable at this stage of learning. Much of the previous vague and overly complex grammar has been stripped out. In actual fact, it was rarely if ever actually tested in the exams (NCELP analyses have shown), and so again there was a mismatch between what teachers thought could be tested and what was actually assessed.

To encourage teachers to make sure that learners can read unfamiliar words and spell words that they hear, the new GCSE now contains a list of phonics (sound-spelling relations) that can be tested, and dictation and reading aloud (with comprehension) will be assessed, as well ascomprehension, speaking and writing, as before.

The rationales for studying a language remain the same – to communicate meaning and interact, to become familiar with the countries, communities, and cultures which use the language, to gain an interest in learning languages to prepare for future study. What has changed in this revised content is that the language content is more clearly defined to help teachers and students know what the goal posts are. This will include a list of vocabulary (that is informed by research into the usefulness – frequency – of the words in the language) and a reduced but much more precise content relating to grammar and sounds of the language. The vast majority of 16 year olds usually only have about 450 hours of lessons before they take their GCSE. Over the last couple of years we have worked with the subject content review panel, the DfE, Ofqual, and the Awarding Organisations, to inform discussions about the amount of content that is realistic to expect for these learners,

Professor Marsden

In June 2021 Ofsted published a review of research into FL curriculum, which also aligns with many aspects of the revised Subject Content (2021) and the MFL Pedagogy Review (2016).

How NCELP can support the revised GCSE subject content

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