Reviewing subject content for GCSE Languages

In this Guest Blog  Greg Horton gives his personal views on the GCSE specification, and puts forward ideas for future development.

Greg is an Advanced Skills Teacher with 30 years of teaching experience, and was formerly MFL Adviser in Hampshire and SSAT Lead Practitioner

Without doubt, the current GCSE subject content for modern foreign languages has ensured an examination that is a great improvement on the era of controlled assessment. However, there are still, to my mind, fundamental flaws meaning that, overall, the GCSE specifications do not fulfil their purpose.

  1. Underpinning any new subject content should be the need to develop learners who can confidently apply basic vocabulary and linguistic structures in everyday interaction.
  2. Appropriate subject content should signpost a motivating course of study, and assessment should be inclusive. This would enable modern foreign languages to compete with other subjects in the key stage 4 options market place rather than be justifiably seen by students as a ‘hard subject’.

What should stay the same and what should change?

No change required

The aspects of the current subject content that should be retained are: terminal assessment; equal 25% weighting for the four skill areas; the use of translation as an effective tool for testing specific vocabulary and structures, both receptively and productively.

Possible change required

There was originally a great deal of concern about the use of the target language to write rubrics and questions. Fortunately, skilled work by the awarding bodies has resulted in most tasks being accessible to candidates. However, from an examining point of view, this way of setting questions does restrict scope and variety.

Single-tier entry, inspired by a rather patronising notion of challenging students to improve their weaker skills, is also popular with awarding bodies as it avoids mathematical hurdles in producing scores and overall grades. However, many language teachers believe that students should be rewarded for their relative strengths, and so do not support the concept .

It is also worth noting that, as many key stage 4 classrooms are mixed-abilit, single-tier entry poses a real challenge for the teacher in preparing students who are entered for either Foundation or Higher tier with no overlap.

Definite change required: Streamlining vocabulary lists

The current GCSE vocabulary lists, particularly at Foundation tier, are ridiculously long and contain a lot of superfluous lexical items. The learning, retention and application of such a vast amount of knowledge is a major factor in students claiming that they ‘have to work much harder’ in modern foreign languages. And they are right. Which other subject requires the assimilation of a couple of thousand pieces of individual knowledge i.e. words?

The emphasis should be on equipping students with a core vocabulary that can be applied through the use of core linguistic structures. These should all be recognised as high frequency in nature so that their application is in everyday context. Currently, specifications encourage knowledge of some specialist vocabulary at the expense of everyday items. For example, students know the word for ‘nuclear power station’ but cannot use the verb ‘to put’; sadly, there are many more examples of this.

It should not be up to awarding bodies to submit a vocabulary list within any bid for accreditation. Any new subject content should include  a vocabulary list that will be used by all awarding bodies to set their papers. This will be carefully constructed and driven by frequency of use (rather than GCSE topics).

Definite change required: Differentiating Speaking from Writing

The productive skills of speaking and writing have traditionally followed a similar pattern of assessment, with little appreciation of the two distinct disciplines.

The current subject content has for the first time rightly identified ‘spontaneity’ as an intrinsic part of speaking; however, GCSE specifications have been approved that still only pay lip service to the key skill of spontaneous interaction. Students are still rewarded most for conveying (prepared or pre-learnt) longer responses and using a range of (premeditated) linguistic structures. This means that, despite excellent practice by some teachers, too many have just carried on doing the ‘same old’.

Any new subject content should require GCSE speaking tests that are designed to assess authentic interaction. Only then will we also change classroom practice for the better.

For example, the general conversation should take the form of a dialogue with the candidate required to play an effective role as a questioner. Most marks should be awarded for the ability to sustain an authentic dialogue using the necessary linguistic tools.

The use of pictures is an excellent way to prompt language, but, again, there is currently too much of a rehearsed element to this part of the speaking test. The photo card task should focus solely on a candidate’s ability to depict the content and theme of a picture spontaneously. There should be a short preparation time but no written notes, and there need be no follow-up questions that become a mere extension of the general conversation.

Definite change required: The Listening test

It is essential to bear in mind that listening without visuals is becoming increasingly alien to people. Sitting in an examination room with a foreign voice hitting them through speakers is a challenging experience which is not replicated in any other subject area.

Currently, the GCSE Listening test requires sustained concentration for an excessive amount of time. It should be much shorter and should not have to cover the breadth of the specification. (This could be achieved in combination with Reading). 

In an age of video, the idea of an audio only test should actually be rejected. Video clips are used more and more in the classroom and, without doubt, hold the attention of learners much more effectively than audio recordings.

The subject content should include, or even require, tests that take the form of video clips so that the demands of unaided listening are lessened and the task is made more authentic by offering visual support. This would also motivate learners more in the long run and aid uptake at key stage 4.

Definite change required: The Reading test

The Reading test at both tiers is also too long. It is worth noting that candidates are required to show reading comprehension skills across the other three skill areas in any case.

In terms of content, there is some value in the use of a literary text at Higher tier, as some of these students will potentially go on to do A Level; however, is it really appropriate for a Foundation tier candidate? Its inclusion seems to owe itself more to a ministerial notion of challenge, rather than any real purpose, especially given the associated tasks.


In order for language learning to thrive in England, there is no doubt that some new and radical subject content is needed. I believe that the changes I have recommended would help to achieve this.

Most importantly, any new subject content needs to be prescriptive enough so that its key elements are not open to interpretation, but rather take concrete form in GCSE specifications and examinations.

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