The new MFL GCSE – my reflections on the DFE’s consultation questionnaire.

by senorcordero

Having had two cohorts formally assessed using the 2016-specification, 2021 and the height of a pandemic make for a very illogical time for a new specification to be drawn up. To all intents and purposes, I had my worries when the current specification was introduced but having been a Head of Key Stage 4 and seen through 2 full cohorts of students (over 200) with very good outcomes for two years, I really felt that this specification that we are currently teaching has a lot of merits. The specification set students up well for A Level study, left them with a thorough grounding of grammar and a good basic vocabulary that would work well at A Level or even on the streets in Spain. Having looked at the DFE’s consultation questionnaire, these are my reflections on the proposal. My key worries: a lack of parity between languages caused by the use of the 2,000 most frequently occurring words in standard forms of the language; the lack of information on how the 2,000 most frequently occurring words will be sourced; the impact on the jump from GCSE to A Level and the fact that students will not be able to draw upon specific reading strategies, such as Quigley’s (2018) 7 strategies for dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary. 

The vocabulary section of the questionnaire focuses on the 2,000 most frequent words in the (for the purposes of this blog, I have used the Real Academia Española’s Corpus de Referencia del Español Actual’s 5000 most frequently occurring forms (which can be found here: http://corpus.rae.es/frec/5000_formas.TXT). All references to examples can be found in this document 

To highlight my reflections on the proposals, I will be making references taken from specific parts of the questionnaire. These will include the question followed by my reflection. 

Question 10. Do you agree with the requirement that 90% of words must be taken from the top 2,000 most frequently occurring words in the most widely spoken standard forms of the language? 

The subject content stipulates that at least 90% of words selected must be from the 2,000 most frequent words occurring in the most widely spoken standard forms of the language. Research indicates that a relatively small number of high-frequency words represent a large proportion of the total words in written text or speech and that the 2,000 most frequently occurring words represent around 80% of the words in any written text and upwards of 90% of words in informal conversation. (Department for Education, 2021)

My first issue, before I look into any of this question, is that either we haven’t been given access to the source of the 2,000 most frequently occurring words – or it has been well hidden so that we cannot find it. If we are to judge any ideas around this concept and be able to judge the validity of this argument, we should be granted access to this list readily in the questionnaire to look at this. The below points that I am making, therefore, are purely based on the Real Academia Española’s Corpus de Referencia del Español Actual’s 5000 most frequently occurring forms. This type of evidence should readily be available for consultation. 

Having addressed the issue of not being able to find the list of vocabulary, two things crossed my mind. Firstly, in terms of parity across languages, I would predict that there will be variation between French, Spanish and German. Secondly, looking at the RAE list (2021), inflectional forms of verbs, such as ven (imperative of the verb ‘to come’) appears; yet its infinitive venir (infinitive – to come) does not. For the imperative to feature and the infinitive not to, I believe this approach would potentially devalue the importance of the paradigm, which is essential core knowledge if student want to be successful at A Level; as well as remove critical vocabulary students will need in real life situations in Spain should they try and use their Spanish. Let’s face it – students use modal verbs plus infinitives frequently in their work to ease the cognitive pressure of having to conjugate verbs.

Furthermore, the ranking of the inflections of the verb decir (to say), for me, are another point of conention. The forms dijo (he/she/it said – 3rd person singular, preterite tense); digo (I say – 1st person singular, present tense); dije (I said – 1st person singular, preterite tense); fue (he/she/it was/went – 3rd person singular – preterite tense) and fui (I was/I went – 1st person singular – preterite tense) feature in the top 2,000 of the RAE corpus list; however, the 2nd person singular form of the preterite tense fuiste or the 2nd person plural form of the preterite tense fuiste do not appear. These 2nd person forms are essential for asking questions or for understanding questions. My worry is if this list of vocabulary list is taken literally, that this would place more focus on students understanding what others have said rather than putting focus on them being able to use the language for themselves. In my view – the whole paradigm needs to be taught for full understanding and use – receptively and for production.

What’s more – other key words, such as estación (station or season) – which is essential if you are travelling in Spain and need to get around, falls at number 2000 in the list provided by the RAE, as does the verb comprar – essential if you are shopping out an about in Spain. This reinforces my point that production seems to be of a lesser importance in a subject where what students are effectively learning is a skill that can be applied to real life contexts. Looking at vocabulary in this way and limiting it as such arguably removes the real-life application of the language which is one of the selling points, which have already been diminished following Brexit.

11. Do you agree with the requirement for foundation tier students to know no more that 1200 words and higher tier students to know no more than 1700 words? 

The subject content expects students to know 1200 lexical items for foundation tier (papers capped at grade 5), and a further 500 lexical items for higher tier (papers capped at grade 9). The ‘number of words known’ that has been documented by research usually reflects receptive (listening and reading) vocabulary knowledge, which is larger than productive (speaking and writing) knowledge. In the proposed new content, students will be required to demonstrate both receptive and productive knowledge of all words on the list. Given this, it was determined that it would not be helpful or motivating to require students to use more words productively than research has suggested can be known receptively for the top levels.

Coming back to the point about language being a useful tool we can use when travelling, there are key elements of vocabulary that are omitted from this list that students need to be able to use in order to successfully talk about themselves and express themselves in Spanish, such as películas (films), fui (I was/I went), serio (serious) – based on the top 1,700 most frequent forms according to the RAE corpus. 

More specifically with this question and a limiting of vocabulary to 1,500/ 1,700 words, I believe there would also have detrimental impact in terms of understanding. A lot of teachers look to strategies such as the 7 strategies for dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary (Quigley, A. 2018) to help build confidence with dealing with vocabulary passively and also to help expand active vocabulary. If we take the example using morphology and the word  cocina (kitchen) from the RAE corpus, this features at number 1,377. If we were to use morphology, teachers would previously have ensured that students know that -ar suffix indicates an infinitive of the verb which means ‘to’ do something; and students could therefore work out that cocinar means to cook. Teachers may also have taught the suffix -ero to imply a job, so students could therefore make the link and decipher that cocinero is a cook; however, neither of these words feature on the RAE corpus of the 2000 most used forms. Not having the need to provide students with strategies to practise decoding vocabulary, in my view, would detrimentally impact reading skills in Spanish in my opinion, especially further up at A Level.

12. Do you agree that the vocabulary lists proposed for GCSE should set out all content required for GCSE, even though in many cases some of this may have been learnt prior to the start of the GCSE course itself?

It cannot be assumed that everyone who enters a GCSE language course will be entering with a similar level of language proficiency. Additionally, scenarios can arise where a secondary school student might decide to take a language at GCSE, having not done it in previous years.

When I give my students verbs as vocabulary, they expect to receive the infinitive, or to be asked to work back to the infinitive. For me, manipulating infinitives and knowing the basic tenses in any language and how to use them is a non-negotiable of any language. I learned Russian and Czech in 4 years from an absolute beginner and graduated with a distinction in spoken Russian and spoken Czech, with the emphasis on years 1 and 2 of university study being on grammar and verbs; before padding out with nouns when appropriate and furthermore so on our year abroad. If students are just expected to know certain inflectional forms of verbs, I think providing lists of vocabulary for students to learn is detrimental to A Level study. I would agree on this point only on the condition that verbs are listed in the infinitive form so as to promote the teaching of grammar

13. Do you agree that cognate words (words which are very similar or the same in English and the assessed language) should be included and counted in the defined vocabulary in a way which reflects their frequency of occurrence in the assessed language?

In the revised subject content, the 1200 (foundation) and 1700 (higher) word lists will include cognates in a way which reflects their frequency of occurrence. This proposed change means that unspecified cognates will no longer be included in assessments with the expectation that students will be able to guess their meaning.

I believe this will not give us a clear understanding of the reading ability of the student in front of us. This is a key skill needed for A Level and ultimately if we do this, I think we are setting students, and our departments, up for a fail at Key Stage 5 study.

15. Do you agree with the proposal not to require overarching themes and specific topics in the revised subject content?

The overarching themes listed in the current content document are very broad. However, perhaps because they were not accompanied by specified vocabulary, there was a tendency still to design teaching and assessment around very specific thematic topics. This, in turn, encourages the teaching of topic-specific and specialised vocabulary, rather than the most important words for general communication and understanding. Students are most likely to recall and be able to use a word when they have encountered it in a number of different contexts, rather than in only one ‘topic’. Because of this, and because we are specifying the vocabulary to be taught and assessed, specific topics or overarching themes will not be listed in the revised subject content.

Thinking of my classes, the first thing they do when they tackle a listening paper is use the 5 minutes’ reading time to identify semantic fields and to try and anticipate vocabulary they might hear as part of their strategy to deal with the listening exam. By not requiring overarching themes, this could make it harder for students to identify semantic fields and reduce their likeliness to be able to perform well due to the less predictable nature of the questions. 

23. Do you consider the grammar annexes to be comprehensive, unambiguous and easy to understand?

GCSE students will be expected to develop and use their knowledge of grammar throughout their course. The grammar requirements for GCSE are set out in two tiers: foundation and higher. Students will be required to use their knowledge of grammar from the relevant lists, appropriate to the language studied and to the relevant tier of entry. Students entering higher tier assessments will be required to apply all grammar listed for foundation tier in addition to the grammar listed for higher tier. These lists describe grammatical features of the most widely used standard varieties. The lists are written from the point of view of English-speaking students of the language, and so include some reference to certain cross-linguistically complex relations with English. Students will be required to demonstrate both receptive and productive knowledge of the grammar from the list.

Once again, such annexes appear to not be available or not readily available if you are carrying out the questionnaire. However, going to my previous points regarding vocabulary (lexical items) and then this specific reference to grammar, I can see there being points where this will interfere with the RAE most frequent forms which would have implications with teaching. Do we teach the full paradigm, or do we just teach items in the preterite tense or the imperfect tense as lexical items without attaching the grammatical meaning and explanation to it, so that it can be more widely put into context? As a linguist, this does not sit right with me.

24. Do you consider the revised subject content to be unambiguous, clear and easy to understand?

As stated in my previous comment, only including vocabulary from the top 2,000 forms in the Spanish language and then specifying set grammar for me causes a contradiction. It would also see students learning a different list of vocabulary and topics for French/German etc. and would take away one of the big selling points of doing more than one language at GCSE/A Level: that one language will help out with another. There needs to be consistency across all languages for quality of teaching. We still are not sure where the vocabulary list will be specifically drawn from which is an issue too. A draft copy of this vocabulary would have been useful to see before putting out such a consultation. As is such I have used the RAE Corpus. We should not have been asked for our thoughts without being provided this.

Concluding thoughts: 

I do believe what we have works well. Is it perfect – by no means is it, but staff are accustomed to it, it has only had 2 examined cohorts go through it and I believe it still has shelf life in it. It produces linguists who can actually use the language and sets students up nicely for the journey ahead at A Level. The changes proposed appear contradictory in parts, and do not cater well enough for production in my view. Furthermore, I envisage the gap between GCSE and A Level study widening, possibly negatively affecting numbers which are already dwindling. It will ultimately do nothing to reverse the declining trend in language study at both GCSE and A Level study. 

For further reading on the changes: 

AQA Briefing Paper: https://filestore.aqa.org.uk/content/our-standards/AQA-GCSE-MFL-POLICY-BRIEFING-APRIL-2021.PDF

Helen Myers on the DFE proposals:  https://helenmyers.blogspot.com/2021/04/dfe-proposals-for-gcse-mfl-subject.html  

Mr E’s blog: https://whoteacheslanguages.blogspot.com

References: 

Department for Education. 2021 GCSE MFL Subject Content Review. As found at: https://consult.education.gov.uk/ebacc-and-arts-and-humanities-team/gcse-mfl-subject-content-review/consultation/intro/. Accessed: 3rd May 2021

Quigley, A. 2018: 7 Strategies to explore unfamiliar vocabulary. As found at: https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2018/04/7-strategies-to-explore-unfamiliar-vocabulary/ Accessed: 3rd May 2021.

Real Academia Española: Corpus de Referencia del Español Aactual (CREA) – Frecuencia 5000. As found at: http://corpus.rae.es/frec/5000_formas.TXT Accessed: 3rd May 2021