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AIBU to think if you want more people to study languages, why make it so difficult to be successful in the exams?

(110 Posts)
annoyedandfrustratedagain Thu 25-Aug-16 10:05:53

Yet again the top end of my GCSE languages groups, with the exception of the very able, have achieved on average a grade or two lower in their languages GCSE than they have in other subjects.

We live in a country which is not known for being the most enthusiastic at learning foreign languages and I'm starting to wonder whether this is because it is so difficult to get the top grades at GCSE and A Level.

In my experience, for a lot of kids by the time they get into Y10, any love of language learning is quashed by constant pressure to achieve on the exams and some of the content we have to cover is completely irrelevant to today's teenagers.

I love languages, they fascinate me and the thrill of being able to speak to someone in their own language still gets me when I go abroad today. But how can I convince my students that learning a language is worthwhile when a. realistically when you go abroad, most people can speak some English anyway (and want to at every available opportunity) and b. they exam boards make it so hard for you to get a decent grade?

AIBU to think that if the government/exam boards want more youngsters to study a foreign language, instead of making the exams harder (which they are doing year on year), they should make them easier for the kids to be successful in? The content and grammar they have to be able to use after a few lessons per week for 5 years amazes me! I wish I could just teach languages for the love of language learning, not to be constantly jumping through ever changing hoops, predetermined by someone else as to what a successful linguist looks like. Rant over, sorry I'm just so disappointed for my students sad

myownprivateidaho Thu 25-Aug-16 10:10:40

Are there actually statistics on language exams being harder? This surprised me. At my v ordinary grammar school in the early 00s they put the best students in for French GCSE a year early, think we all got As and A*s. I've always assumed languages were easiest for the most able students -- not a lot of (conscious) memorisation as in other subjects.

Tiggeryoubastard Thu 25-Aug-16 10:12:45

If all their grades are lower in languages than everything else then that seems more likely to be a problem with the teaching. All teachers jump through hoops and it isn't any worse for languages. And irrelevant content for teenagers? Doesn't happen in other subjects? You don't really sound like you have a grip on the job you claim to do.

badtime Thu 25-Aug-16 10:13:38

No, they shouldn't make them easier. What is the point of learning a language if you don't actually learn the language?

I always found languages (up to GCSE level anyway) an absolute piece of piss. I found maths harder. The government wants more people who are good at maths. By your argument, they should make the maths exams easier, so people would get better grades. confused

Tiggeryoubastard Thu 25-Aug-16 10:14:02

And I know two MFL teachers (one a HOD) very very well.

myownprivateidaho Thu 25-Aug-16 10:14:09

What about a conversation club one lunchtime to put it into practice?

QueenJuggler Thu 25-Aug-16 10:14:33

Really? I am constantly appalled at the low standards we seem to expect from our children with regards to MFL compared to other countries. I don't see how making exams easier is going to fix that.

Freemind Thu 25-Aug-16 10:26:14

Completely agree with you. Harsh grading for MFL has been an issue for years and undermines teachers' efforts.

annoyedandfrustratedagain Thu 25-Aug-16 10:27:56

Ouch...OK. Fair enough. Some of those comments are a bit harsh - how you can tell what kind of a handle I've got on the job I'm supposed to be doing from that snapshot?

I do the best I can with the time and resources I've got. I do lunch time clubs, after school clubs, exchanges and trips. I'm constantly looking for new ways to get the kids to learn and practise.

I don't have any statistics at hand and when I look at the exam breakdown later, I'll be able to see exactly where they fell short but kids getting B/Cs in my groups this year can produce and understand language of a much higher standard than the students who got B/Cs last year and the year before. So from that I can only conclude that standards are going up.

They were getting A* and As on past papers, their controlled assessments had been marked and moderated in line with exam board standards yet some of my kids have come out with grades lower than expected. I suppose only more detailed analysis will tell exactly where they've gone wrong.

annoyedandfrustratedagain Thu 25-Aug-16 10:33:03

I think our main problem with competing on an international stage for foreign language competency is that many countries start learning languages much earlier than we do. Yes we do have languages taught in primary schools but in my school, kids arrive in Y7 knowing very little at all. When I compare the 11 year old's French when they arrive in Y7 at my school to the standard of English my friend's son could speak by the time he was 11, he was miles ahead.

JudyCoolibar Thu 25-Aug-16 10:37:35

There are some stats here which I'm afraid don't seem to support you - though they don't give the numbers of students taking the relevant exams and I suspect that is significant.

natwebb79 Thu 25-Aug-16 10:40:06

MFL teacher here and I completely agree with you. Without investment in primary level languages our students don't stand a chance of developing the level of language skills our European neighbours achieve. By the time they start learning MFL properly they are at an age where they often feel mildly dickish singing songs and speaking foreign languages. The attitude towards languages in this country often doesn't help. I've lost count of the times parents have said that they've told their child to focus on the other subjects as MFL is the least important.

annoyedandfrustratedagain Thu 25-Aug-16 10:40:54


ShanghaiDiva Thu 25-Aug-16 10:41:08

My comments will probably not be very popular, but I took O levels back in the early 1980s and I think the standards today are lower, in terms of what is being tested.
For O levels we had a dictation paper, translation, essay - and no controlled assessments or coursework - 100% exam based. This resulted in a really solid foundation in the language.
For one of the boards I looked at a couple of years ago the oral was not even compulsory - madness!
I have looked a lots of papers from various exam boards as my son took iGCSEs in mandarin chinese and german and AS German and we used papers from various boards as extra practice.
I do, however, think that the jump from GCSE to AS/A level is much bigger than when I took A levels.
I also agree with pp that the levels we accept in the UK for MFLs are low when compared with countries such as Germany and Austria (used to live there). Perhaps the attitude that everyone speaks a bit of English has made us complacent in the UK.

leccybill Thu 25-Aug-16 10:42:50

Understand your frustration,OP. Anecdotally, in 12 years of results days, I've always been faced with students who have done well across the board but with a languages grade one or two grades below all of their other subjects.
The current GCSE relies on memorisation and I'll be glad to see the back of it next year.
I also think bilingual/native/near native speakers who always get full marks skew the grade boundaries - a unique feature of this subject.

OhTheRoses Thu 25-Aug-16 10:45:52

My DD got A* at GCSE. She started Level French at a different and more academic school where her classmates had taken IGCSE French. She was so far behind, she gave up before the first term ended. She also gt A* Latin and Spanish so a reasonably competent linguist. Food for thought.

DiegeticMuch Thu 25-Aug-16 10:46:11

I think that languages are like maths, music and PE - if you've natural aptitude, it's quite easy to do well with a bit of graft. If not, it's uphill all the way, and psychologically debilitating.

LucyLucyLou Thu 25-Aug-16 10:47:29

I feel my old o level was worth it: It gave me a basis to go on further. I accept it was not accessible for non academic pupils.

My children's experience at school has been of a scattergun approach in mixed ability groups with memorisation for the oral part, resulting in no long term confidence or knowledge acquired. Really sad.

LifeIsGoodish Thu 25-Aug-16 10:48:32

I think it's because we don't start teaching languages early enough, and, when we do, we dump it on primary school teachers who are expected to be able to teach everything. At my dc's primary, several teachers admitted to having to mug up the night before for each lesson. None could actually speak French.

IMO MFL teaching in secondary has improved since my teens. No way could I have created several sentences, let alone written a one-page essay at the end of Y7! I got A/A in my French O-level, but that was because my parents sent me to stay for two weeks with a French family in France in the Easter hols of Y10 and Y11. I was predicted Cs by the school.

QueenJuggler Thu 25-Aug-16 10:52:23

I'd agree that we start learning languages far too late in this country (multi-lingual family here). Most people I know who are bi-lingual had immersive language experiences at a young age.

Lunde Thu 25-Aug-16 10:52:47

I found the MFL expectations quite a culture shock when my kids did high school in Sweden - everyone takes English as a compulsory subject through to A level ( a compulsory subject) and everyone does a 2nd MFL at least until 16 (unless SEN).

There were concerns a few years in Sweden ago about MFL and Maths being perceived as harder subjects so you get bonus points on your A-level grade point averages for higher levels of MFL and Maths.

There is an expectation of students speaking languages to a very high level after A-level and, for example, to be capable of reading University literature in English as a basic requirement when they arrive at Uni. My Danish husband did medical school in Denmark and was expected to be able to cope with textbookd in Danish, English, German and Swedish.

LucyLucyLou Thu 25-Aug-16 10:53:00

Off topic but just to say:

My one child with dyslexia just couldn't put enough hours in to have a decent go at writing in a foreign language. His accent is good but even absorption of new spoken vocabulary is extremely slow. Sometimes parents are right to tell their children to focus efforts on other areas..

paddypants13 Thu 25-Aug-16 10:59:53

I don't think the exams are too hard. There are four disciplines with learning a language, reading, writing, aural and oral and all of them need to be tested.

We are no where near other countries when it comes to the teaching of languages.

When I go abroad and speak a foreign language (even though my skills are rusty now.), people are always shocked that I'm even attempting to speak another language.

We are at a disadvantage though because most films and many popular tv shows are made in the USA and therefore in English. We loose the opportunity to hear languages in common usage through films and tv.

sashh Thu 25-Aug-16 11:02:21

We are bad at teaching languages in this country.

I'm supply and lots of the schools I teach in (not MFL but occasionally have to cover it) have children with English as a second or third language, so they have the ability to learn languages but really struggle with NFL.

Why do we even have GCSEs in MFL? All countries have language exams, wouldn't it be better to teach French (for example) towards DELF/DALF?

natwebb79 Thu 25-Aug-16 11:04:02

Lucylucylou - your case is completely understandable. The cases I had were just students who were able but hadn't pulled their weight.

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