The government must press ahead with controversial changes to language teaching in schools, which would see English pupils memorizing 1,700-word lists to pass GCSEs in Spanish, French or German.
The Department for Education (DfE) decision comes despite opposition from language associations, teachers’ unions and principals of public and independent schools, as well as fears it could trigger an exodus of language teachers of the profession.
Simon Hyde, general secretary of the Conference of Headmasters and Mistresses of Independent Schools, said its members were concerned that the emphasis on grammar and vocabulary was deterring pupils from studying modern foreign languages (MFL).
“This model will not give students the confidence in their language, both in exams and as a life skill, to pursue their studies, careers and personal projects,” Hyde said.
The initial proposals, published in a consultation last year, were criticized for removing cultural topics from the content of the courses offered and replacing them with lists of words to memorize. While the DfE made some concessions in its final proposals, one academic dismissed the revisions as “a nod” to previous criticism.
The Association for Language Learning said it was “very disappointed” that the DfE had not accepted an invitation to work in collaboration with subject associations, examination boards and school leaders on further examination of GCSE content and development.
Headteachers said they were grateful for the DfE’s decision to delay the introduction of the reformed curriculum until September 2024, meaning the first GCSEs with the new content would be held in spring 2026, to be followed by students currently in 7th grade.
The DfE said its consultation received 1,644 responses, with the majority “of language teachers agreeing with the proposals”.
Robin Walker, England’s Minister for Schools, said the study of languages was “hugely important” to the global economy: “That’s why we want more young people to take up modern languages GCSEs, and those Evidence-based changes aim to do just that – make these qualifications more comprehensive and accessible, and help more young people love learning languages.
The DfE said students will be assessed on 1,200 words or “word families” – for example, counting grand and big in French as the same word – at foundation level GCSE and 1,700 words or ‘word families’ at higher level, mainly drawn from the 2,000 words most commonly used in conversation and writing of a language, plus grammar and pronunciation.
But Katrin Kohl, professor of German at the University of Oxford, said: “There is no pedagogical precedent for using vocabulary frequency as a key driver of subject content, and as has been widely pointed out, the approach is not tested at GCSE level.
“Vocabulary frequency is a statistical measure that depends on the context and not on the absolute. It is difficult to see how the subject objectives can be achieved with a narrow range of vocabulary which has been selected on a single statistical basis, which varies between languages and which is focused on the formal language used by adults.
Jim Milton, Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at Swansea University, said the focus on the most common words ignores the fact that less frequently used words provide the bulk of the content when people communicate.
“I once arrived in Outer Mongolia at a hotel where everything was written in Chinese and no one spoke English. I wanted a cold beer but didn’t know the words for it. After some inventive use of my Chinese, lots of circumlocution and some acting out, I was served an omelette,” Milton said.