Teachers reject plans to have pupils learn 1,700 words for language GCSEs

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<span>Photograph: redsnapper/Alamy</span>
Photograph: redsnapper/Alamy

Proposals to make pupils in England learn a set of up to 1,700 frequently used words as part of government reforms to French, German and Spanish GCSEs have been rejected by headteachers and exam boards, who warn they will not “inject new life” into the study of modern languages.

Nine organisations with an interest in the teaching of languages in secondary schools have written to the government, demanding a rethink of plans to reform the teaching and assessment of modern foreign languages at GCSE level.

Related: Millions of pupils in England had no language teaching in lockdowns – survey

Candidate numbers have plummeted in recent years and the government has been searching for ways to increase participation in and enthusiasm for language learning. Experts say the latest proposals, though well-intentioned, will not lead to increased uptake among pupils.

The organisations behind Thursday’s letter include the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) as well as three exam boards. The Association for Language Learning, the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association and the National Association of Language Advisers have also joined calls for a rethink.

They are concerned the proposals as they stand do not promote the core communication elements of learning a language – listening, speaking, reading and writing – and could also undermine the teaching of languages in primary education and at A-level.

“While the proposals were based on a segment of relevant published research, we note there is a considerable body of research which validates our concerns,” their statement said. “We also note that the proposed model of learning and assessment is a risky one, given the lack of international precedent and absence of independent evaluation.”

Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, said: “There seem to be very few people, language experts included, who agree with the Department for Education’s (DfE) view that this reform is the way to inject new life into the existing modern foreign languages GCSE.

“An approach is needed which encourages a love of learning of these subjects. Requiring students to grind their way through a list of words is a fundamentally flawed approach that will not enthuse students and we urge the new ministerial team at the DfE to take a step back and rethink this reform.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Ofsted research shows that students benefit from learning the building blocks of a language first, particularly focusing on vocabulary, phonics and grammar. Our proposals aim to increase pupils’ motivation through this approach, and we will continue to work with professional bodies to achieve this.”

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