Academics propose changes to modern languages A levels

Universities have proposed wide-ranging changes to modern languages A levels as “serious deficiencies” mean they are seen as “dull and uninspiring”.

July 16, 2014

In a report into languages A levels published on 17 July, the A Level Content Advisory Board (Alcab), which was set up by the Russell Group to oversee A-level content, proposes “significant changes…designed to produce a rich and rewarding qualification”.

It follows an investigation by a panel of leading academics, chaired by Stephen Parker, professor of German at the University of Manchester, which identifies five weaknesses in current modern languages A levels.

These include the tendency to re-teach subjects addressed at GCSE, a desire to not penalise grammatical mistakes and a lack of understanding of linguistic systems.

The report notes a “grave decline in the numbers studying modern languages beyond the age of 16”, saying that they have been “traditionally viewed as a difficult subject”.

But “serious deficiencies” in content have also led modern languages to be viewed as “dull and uninspiring”, it adds.

In a letter by Alcab chairman Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, sent on 7 July to Michael Gove, then education secretary, he says the panel wants to “re-establish modern languages” through the “revivification of content by means of critical and analytical study of literary works and of themes concerning cultural and social concerns in countries where the language of study is spoken”.

They also want “a consistent approach to the importance of linguistic accuracy as a determiner of meaning”, he writes.

The report follows calls by Mr Gove for universities to “take ownership” of A levels to restore rigour to the qualifications. However, a review of subjects by Lancaster University vice-chancellor Mark E. Smith found that most subjects were broadly fit for purpose, with only a handful requiring substantial reform, which would be led by Alcab.

As part of the Alcab reviews published on 17 July, Professor Thrift recommends some limited changes to maths and geography A-level syllabuses, but says classical languages A levels require only a small amount of fine-tuning.

In his letter, Professor Thrift adds that the AS qualification, which the government has decided should not count towards A levels but can be taken as a separate qualification, is “valuable and valued by universities”.

He adds that teachers will need training and resources if they are to be able to teach the new syllabuses by 2016.

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Reader's comments (3)

I fear Languages may unfortunately be starting down a similar path to that taken by Engineering/Technology some few decades ago, when the degree syllabi were perceived to need revivification after faltering student recruitment trends. The out-turn review of professionally accredited university degree courses subsequently enhanced the theoretical aspects and diminished the vocational subjects, and narrowed the prerequisite routes to predominantly A levels entry. Perhaps the emerging 'trailblazer' Higher Apprenticeships may begin to redress the balance, if the accrediting Professional Institutes get fully behind the initiative, including for professional careers in Languages.
The University Council of Modern Languages welcomes the ALCAB report and we really hope that the teaching community will get behind these proposals and see them as an opportunity to revive interest in languages A levels.
In my experience, first-year undergraduates with English A-level arrive at university able to repeat, and sometimes correctly spell, the term ‘iambic pentameter’, but, when asked, a significant proportion of them cannot identify the term, much less explain it. Similarly, students arriving with French A-level say they’ve been told that they will gain some marks if they deploy the term ‘alexandrine’ in their examination; but they haven’t been told what it actually means. They have no sense at all of the variations and nuances of English verb tenses, so can write only stilted translations. Thus, notwithstanding context, ‘Je danse’ is treated as the simple present, ‘I dance’, and never ‘I am dancing’ or ‘I do dance’; while all French past tenses are rendered into the English simple past, regardless of sense or logic. Every year, more of these students are stating, often with a depressing world-weariness, that their A-level teaching has been completely and utterly focused on ‘passing the examination’; this they do understand. Indeed, some are so drilled in this technique that they resent and resist reading anything that will nor or even might not ‘appear in the exam’ — and they do ask, some of them at every step. Clearly there is something very wrong somewhere.

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