Since 2002 entries for Modern Foreign Language GCSEs have fallen by almost a half. The government hopes that 90% of pupils will be studying a foreign language as part of their EBacc by 2025. With this target in mind, the Department for Education aims to increase the take up of languages, and, consequently have published revised subject content for French, German and Spanish GCSEs.
From 2024, pupils will study the most common vocabulary used in conversation and writing, (high frequency words), as well as grammar and pronunciation. Pupils will be expected to know 1,200 word families at foundation tier and 1,700 word families at higher tier. An example of a word family would be ‘manage’, managed’ and ‘manages’.
Educationalists appear to view these changes with a degree of scepticism. Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says that the changes made will put children off languages, rather than motivate them to take them up.
‘At a time when pupils need to be enthused to learn languages, the government has chosen to make GCSEs both prescriptive and grinding.’
The main complaint is around the emphasis put on pupils learning the lists of high frequency words. These lists have been published to try to avoid the situation of children being faced in their GCSE exams with words they’ve not seen before
However, one of the problems of static lists is that in the real-world, pupils will come across words they don’t know all the time, and will have to cope. It would be surprising if children visited European countries and only heard high frequency words. Often it is the low frequency words that provide clues in a conversation, and these words are not static, but relate to current topics of interest, for example, vocabulary linked to Brexit, Covid or the Olympics. Slang and informal words do not appear in the vocabulary lists, yet these are words that are useful for young people to know in order to communicate with same age peers.
A second problem would be that pupils do not learn vocabulary to the extent teachers would hope. Research suggests that the average learner will learn about half of the words they are taught. Some children will not retain vocabulary because they find rote learning tedious, while other children are unable to memorise lists of random words, regardless of the amount of effort they make.
The overarching problem the government is hoping to solve relates to this perception of MFL exams being unfair because of the unseen vocabulary. It is felt this gives pupils with a good general knowledge and a wide English vocabulary an unfair advantage. These children are the ones who may have visited France / Spain / Germany, and seen road signs, place names, and menus. They may have been to museums, swimming pools, restaurants, stations and shops. In addition, the same pupils may have a good prior knowledge of word families, word origins and the roots of words acquired through regularly reading English literature. These advantaged pupils are likely to come from middle-class and upper-class homes.
The solution to middle class advantage lies outside the MFL classroom. It is ridiculous for the government to bemoan the fact that pupils with a rich vocabulary and good general knowledge will do well in language exams. Of course, they will.
All educational research points to vocabulary and general knowledge being a vital component of academic success. We should be working to ensure every child has a rich and varied vocabulary. Unfair isn’t the absence of vocabulary lists; unfair is allowing pupils to move through school with poor lexical knowledge.