Saturday 2 December 2023

Evolution or Intelligent Design?

 Evolution and "Intelligent Design" are two opposing arguments about life on Earth. "Intelligent Design" argues that such complexity could not have arisen spontaneously without a Creator. While Evolution suggests that a process of constant mutation and adaptation is what makes life survive. Within the theory of Evolution there have been various competing ideas around whether change is by gradual adaptation or by sudden mutating jumps.

So our new GCSE. Is it an example of "Intelligent Design"? Or is it a natural Evolution of what we have now? 

This post is based on a talk I gave to the HMC Modern Languages Conference in the East of England at Langley School. Thank you very much for inviting me! Many of the more practical (and positive) ideas are already on this blog in other posts, so please do click on the links that follow to see further detail for balance and hopefully useful ideas for planning and teaching.

I do like the fact that committees have been around long enough to have a proverb about them. A camel is a horse designed by a committee. In particular, as the result of a design process which was "conflicted or overly idealistic". And where too many "conflicting and inexperienced opinions were incorporated into a single project".

We can see this in the creation of this new GCSE. A politically selected panel putting forward reforming ideas to fit an agenda, flying in the face of established values and practices. Followed by a consultation which deformed some of the principal features. Followed by the creation of the exam by the Boards, with a totally different perspective from the original intention. This post details how a GCSE initially constructed around a limited high frequency vocabulary list has been sold as a syllabus built around diversity, individuality and culture. And whether that hybrid beast can survive in the wild.

Of course, while camels may look ugly and ungainly, they are in fact robust and resilient. So we need to look carefully at the new GCSE and see if it turns out to have surprising strengths and versatility.

What sort of creature have we got? 

I am going to look at four headline features of this new beast.

Firstly dictation.

Dictation. Not what it says it is.
Image created by Bing AI


Dictation. Not what it says it is.

The reason the panel tell us Dictation is in the new GCSE, is in order to test knowledge of the Sound-Spelling link, or Phonics. This is NOT what dictation does. When French school kids do dictation, it is NOT to see if they can write down how it sounds. They can do that:

Je c'est pas se qui t'arrive

Tu es la meilleure maitresse

The point of Dictation is to STOP them writing it down as it sounds. Dictation is a test of knowledge of correct spellings and correct grammar. Not a test of phonics. This post on dictation shows how understanding this can lead to the development of effective ideas for using dictation in class. I would encourage you to read it and see if there are useful ideas you can try. One of the main ideas is not to start doing dictation and realise it's all about grammar. Instead, build in dictation to your grammar teaching. For example from the very start, alerting pupils to the change in a sentence that a key sound can make:

__ petit_  chien_ noir_ cour_

This sentence will look totally different depending on whether the first word is le or les. Dictation means we have to highlight this kind of grammatical awareness in our teaching from early on. Don't wait until you decide to do some dictation (imagining it is just a phonics test) and discover you have opened a can of worms! Please do look at the post on dictation mentioned above to see more ideas on how to make this work.

Next. Role Play.

Role Play.
What Role is it Playing?

Role Play. What Role is it Playing?

Again, I have a post on Role Play in the AQA and Edexcel specifications which looks in detail at how they work. To summarise here how I see the AQA Role Play, I would say that it has questions very similar to the ones you would expect to ask in the Conversation. But they are marked for short correct answers, in the same way the current Role Play is in the current GCSE. So no reward for extended answers, and the word "ambiguity" used to introduce marks for accuracy into something intended to be marked for communication.

Please do click on the link above for detail on Edexcel Role Play as well. But I will spell out the main ideas here. Edexcel have gone down the road of Role Plays in transactional situations. It doesn't seem a good fit for what the GCSE was intended to be about. It smacks of phrasebook learning in a GCSE that was all about building sentences from knowledge of the grammar, not whole phrases. Even worse, it could run into the buffers of the lack of transactional vocabulary.

Already in the sample assessment material, we can see that the transactional nature of the Role Play is starting to break down.

You arrive alone in the café in a foreign town. You ask for your drink. You ask the price of something on the imaginary menu (from a very narrow choice - chocolate, cheese, French stick, ice cream, pasta, rice, fish, fruit, egg, cake, sugar or rabbit). At this point the waiter engages you in conversation about your favourite food. Things escalate quickly as he asks you if you are doing anything tomorrow. And you reciprocate by asking him what time his work finishes! We have come a long way from transactional Role Plays in a very short time.

I would also add that the Edexcel Role Play, while purporting to be about real world communication, is marked for full grammatically complete sentences. They give this example in a tourist office:
Je peux vous aider ? 
    Un plan de la ville ?
This is deemed to be "only partially communicated".

Please do follow the link to the post on Role Play. It's one of the major differences between the boards.

A Conversation Killer?

The next area I spoke about was the Conversation in the Speaking Exam. The GCSE panel were keen to stamp out rote-learned answers. Have they also managed to stamp out  interaction and spontaneous extended answers?

In this post on the Conversation, I tried to answer exactly that question. There is still scope for conversation style questions. And there are some marks for developing answers in some sections of the exam. (Although no marks for interaction.) But in the explanation of the markscheme, AQA specify that an "extended" answer means 3 clauses. And I don't like social media because it is boring would be an example of "good development".

Nevertheless, I gave examples of how I teach extended spontaneous speaking, using a core repertoire that can be deployed across topics. This post explains in detail how my Year 10s learn to tell stories on any topic spontaneously. I will keep on teaching this way for three main reasons: pupils will still have to give extended answers in the writing; they will still have to be able to give some (short) improvised answers in the speaking; and it works as a way of teaching core language round which other language can coalesce. Please do look at the post, because the talk was designed to have many positive useful ideas rather than be dominated by a sense of impending extinction and judgement day.

The final creature from this new bestiary I looked at was the Vocabulary List.

The Vocabulary List 50 -50

The Vocabulary List: 50 -50

50% of the words we currently teach will not be in the new exam. 50% of the words in the new GCSE are words we have not taught before.

The new exam was originally designed to be built around the vocabulary list, not topics. Topics were seen as being responsible for introducing a plethora of words (often nouns) that were needed for different pupils to give an individual answer, but that were not central to the body of language being learned. In fact many words would be abandoned at the end of the topic. So in fact 50% of the words we currently teach, are not needed for the new GCSE. Will we be cutting them?

How will we teach pets in KS3 if only horse, dog and fish are on the list? I see one of the exam boards has added rabbit. How will we teach transactional role plays without chicken and with only chocolate, cheese, French stick, ice cream, pasta, rice, fish, fruit, egg, cake, sugar and the aforementioned rabbit available? Especially if we teach in a way dependent on substitution tables or functional phrases with elements to be substituted.

How do we write resources and texts if we don't have the words we need?

Marie Curie was a chemist. Can't say chemist. OK. Marie Curie was a cook. From Poland. Can't say Poland. Right. Marie Curie was a famous French cook.

Marie Curie in her kitchen

Of course, we can gloss words that aren't going to be in the exam. But that's not the point. Our texts and resources should be introducing and revisiting the words that we are teaching. Otherwise what is the point of a new GCSE with a defined vocabulary list. Especially published resources. They will need to be designed meticulously so that the pupils meet all the words regularly in different contexts.

Which is where a topic based approach could break down. For the exam boards and for teachers.

Rachel Hawkes speaking at the ALL in the East meeting pointed out that in their sample assessment materials, Edexcel used all the shops and a large chunk of the clothes words available in just one listening question. They won't be able to continue like that. They will have to rotate the vocabulary used in the exams so that all items are examined over the years. This is already a problem for the exam setters, who in the sample materials were perhaps over-reliant on the 15% extra vocabulary they were allowed to choose in order to make their topics viable.

This is one reason textbook publishers need to be wary of a topic based approach. If those topic words get used up early on in the first years of the specification, we are going to find ourselves with exams increasingly based on words that weren't prominent in our teaching. I have written about the way this specification could start to resemble a boa constrictor, starving us of the oxygen of vocabulary, in this post.

Of course, for the Speaking and Writing exam, the whole restricted vocabulary list has gone out of the window. Given the personal nature of the questions, "What do you like to do with your friends?", pupils are going to want to have a range of words in order to give a personal answer. Not be able to recall one of the limited number of items on the list which could give a theoretical answer to the question.

This is where my talk came to an end with the question: What are we going to do?

I know from the old Controlled Assessment GCSE, that you can get wiped out if you fail to adapt. Continuing to teach spontaneous speaking was a mistake in the climate of retakes, targets, rote learning, academisation.

Can I spontaneously evolve and steal a march on the dying dinosaurs?

Because the premise of my talk was mistaken. I was thinking of looking at the new GCSE as a hybrid chimera. But that's the wrong way round. We are the creatures in this scenario. Faced with a change of epoch. Can we evolve and thrive?

What I said to the conference was, stick together! Work in your departments with a plan and as a team. Use your social media networks. Join a subject association. This is a time to all support each other. I don't have the answers, but I'll keep looking. Meanwhile, if this is all a bit too apocalyptic, go back and click on the links which will take you to practical things to start trying as we get to grips with the beast.

If I had to say what animal it is, I would say it's a Schrödinger's cat of a GCSE. Simultaneously dead and alive. And it's us, by opening the box, who will determine its fate.

Bing AI's idea of a half dead, half alive hypothetical cat.

Saturday 18 November 2023

Will I need new textbooks for the new GCSE?

 Yesterday I gave a talk to the HMC MFL in the East conference, asking whether the new GCSE is an example of Evolution or of Intelligent Design. I might turn this into a blog post, once I've decided what the answer is. Meanwhile, on the theme of how we are going to adapt to the new environment, here's a quick post on what I am currently thinking, about creating new schemes of work and buying new textbooks.

Please take these as thinkings, not decisions. I do not know what to do. That's the problem.

The key aspect of the new GCSE is the defined vocabulary list. This vocabulary list is derived not from the topics and tasks pupils will be required to cover. It is derived from the 2000 most frequently used words in the language. The idea was that the vocabulary list should be central, and that these are the words that equip you to understand and communicate regardless of topic. It goes hand in hand with the idea that learning happens by meeting words over and over (in a deliberate and rigorously programmed way) in a range of different contexts. So starting from the Vocabulary list, not from Topics.

Whether topics can be made out of these words was in doubt. So the exam boards have been allowed "free choice" for 15% of the words on their lists. These precious few words have been carefully chosen and rationed, shared out between the topics that have been proposed. Even so, it is important to note that in the initial wording of the specifications, the topic areas are indicative of the sorts of contexts in which the words may be used in the exam. Rather than topics being central to the way the course is designed.

I do not have the capacity to create this kind of course. To meticulously plan when words are met and re-met. To imagine what texts and contexts I could construct from them in a well selected and cumulative syllabus built from words rather than from developing pupils' growing ability to communicate. And neither do I have the capacity to write texts when I am starved of the words I need. You can't write a text on Marie Curie if you haven't got the words chemist or Polish. You could gloss them. But then our texts aren't doing their job of constantly focusing on decoding sentences of known words that are actually going to be in the exam.

So I have been waiting to see what the publishers come up with. Would they produce something spectacular, building on NCELP's work on logical step-by-step sequencing where learning happens not by enthusing the learners about the topic content and self expression, but by having secure building blocks and intellectual self efficacy?

Well. A strange thing has happened. Faced with a vocabulary list of very selective high frequency vocabulary, Edexcel from the start have gone with the promise of diversity, culture and self expression. The very opposite of the tools at their disposal. The problem of a restricted vocabulary list was always going to be a narrowing of possible expression, not a diversification and opening up to people with low-frequency lifestyles. And now I've seen advance materials from a publisher for the AQA specification, there seems to be a similar emphasis there too. And topics. Topics, topics, topics.

And we need to look very closely at the advance materials. Just as we had to look at the sample exams. If the books are written based on topics, are they over-reliant on the 15% of "free choice" words the exam boards were given? Because those words can only come up a couple of times in the lifetime of the exam before they have to give way like Man City players in your Fantasy Football team. They might be great players, but if they get rested and rotated then they aren't scoring you any points.

At the ALL in the East meeting in October, Rachel Hawkes pointed out that this risks happening with the exam board's sample assessment materials. In just one listening question, Edexcel used up all the shops and a third of the clothes words. Once we're into actual exam setting, they can't repeat those words year on year. So what may look like a familiar topic-based exam may be unsustainable. Will the same thing happen with textbooks if they are built from topics, not from the vocabulary list? 

A topic based approach to exams and to resource creation may end up creating a Death Star trash compactor curriculum. If the books and then also the exams are over-reliant on topic words in the initial years of the specification, we will be increasingly left with the dregs. Exams concocted more and more from words with no obvious topic and that don't feature prominently in our teaching or resources. The walls could start to close in.

I don't know how Darth Vador's strangulation works. But I know about boa constrictors. They don't exactly crush. They just tighten every time you breathe out. So after a couple of years of exams, we could see the oxygen of topic vocabulary getting shorter and shorter in supply. If we go with resources that stick to a topic based approach.

Another thing that has happened is that the idea of the restricted vocabulary list has actually gone out of the window. Because we will still teach pupils the words they need in order to express the things they want to say. In the speaking and writing exams, pupils will need to be able to say Portuguese, chicken, trombone, snake, canoeing, jam, trainers... All the things they want to say in order to express themselves and complete the tasks. The exam boards will have to construct tasks such that they could be answered just with words from the list. But pupils won't be doing it that way. Imagine having to know and think of one of the handful of random items that are on the list, when you could have a range of words to deploy. And words you actually want to say and which fit the tasks.

What this means is that the published vocabulary list will apply for the receptive skills of Listening and Reading. And for Speaking and Writing, pupils will have a wider and greater knowledge of vocabulary. Which is the wrong way round from a language-learning perspective, where you normally have a greater receptive vocabulary than active.

So where are we at the moment? The textbooks seem to be based round topics. The Speaking and Writing exam will be based round the tasks and pupils' answers to real questions, not words from a vocabulary list. I don't have the capacity to imagine a syllabus or write the materials for a vocabulary weaving approach. So the situation I'm in at the moment is that the textbooks on offer, from what I have seen so far, don't offer a solution to my problem. So I am coming to the conclusion that I might carry on with our current textbooks for French. And our development of a strong core of reusable language for Speaking and Writing. This will be based around opinions, reasons and tenses as it is now. One thing that will change is the vocabulary learning pupils do at home. We will be able to tell them which words to focus on.

I think "conclusion" is the wrong word. It's the shape my thoughts are taking at the moment, but I am very much wanting to continue to think and to bounce ideas off people. In my department, on social media, at conferences, and at ALL Meetings. This is key. Listen and talk. And listen most to the people you don't agree with. That's when you learn most.

Saturday 14 October 2023

What Role Will Role Plays Play in deciding between exam boards?

 Looking at the new GCSE specifications from AQA and Edexcel, it's the Speaking Exam that draws most of my attention. Because I feel this is the one that will have the most impact on what happens in the classroom.

Perhaps I am wrong here. Dr Rachel Hawkes warns against over-preparing pupils for the speaking exam, resulting in the Listening and the Reading grade boundaries having to work overtime to discriminate between pupils of different grades. But it always seems the case that pupils are either prepared for the speaking exam or not. And looking at the array of tasks they will face - reading aloud, role play, photo description, compulsory questions, conversation - it's going to take quite a lot of preparation just to negotiate the ins and outs of the tasks: 

Keeping track of whether to give a short answer or a long answer; if you are talking about the photo; if you are in character; if you are being yourself; if you are talking about the topic of the photo; if you've moved to a different topic now; if you are reading a text without worrying about meaning; if you are reading your notes; if you are listening and responding; if you are against the clock... I had to use semi-colons in that sentence which is always a sign that something is too long, convoluted and getting out of control.

In a previous post, I already looked at where the new exam gives scope for responding spontaneously to questions. Next, I want to look at the Role Plays and see how they fit in with the obstacle course of demands on pupils.

Both exam boards have Role Plays which pupils can look at in their preparation time. They can write out their answers and read them out. For both exam boards the Role Play is worth 10 marks. For short full-sentence answers. There are no marks for extending or developing, and no marks for the quality of language used.

AQA Role Play Marks

Edexcel Role Play Marks

Ostensibly these are marked solely for communication of the message. But the word "ambiguity" is a slightly ambiguous way of bringing in accuracy marks. By pretending that the message hasn't been fully understood because of some error or omission. For example Edexcel, which is selling their spec on the grounds of containing "real life communication", has the following guidance for a role play in a tourist information office:

Edexcel "partially communicated"

Asking for a plan of the town without a verb, is deemed to be only partial communication. Odd, I know. Especially as phrasebook learning of things like je voudrais is the opposite of what this exam was meant to be about.

This is at the heart of the difference between the two exam boards when it comes to Role Plays. Edexcel have ignored the new focus on teaching well sequenced grammar and vocabulary in that they have gone for situational role plays. Which smacks of pre-learned phrases.

The Edexcel Role Play will always be in one of the following formal transactional situations: 

Café / restaurant, shop / market / shopping centre, hotel, railway station, tourist information office, cinema / theatre / concert hall, campsite, leisure centre, doctor's surgery / hospital, in town.

Confusingly perhaps, it says the pupils won't have to use the formal register. At Foundation Tier answers are in the present tense or in familiar set phrases (!) such as je voudrais. And the pupil will have to ask the examiner one question. At Higher Tier, one of the bullet points will always be in a future time frame. And the pupil will have to ask the examiner two questions.

Personally, I am absolutely gobsmacked by the decision to go for transactional Role Plays. It seems almost to be going back to the teaching of phrasebook functions for a series of situations that we used to teach in the 1990s. The exact opposite of where the new GCSE was supposed to be taking us.

And it also seems potentially incompatible with the defined vocabulary list. The Sample Assessment Materials seem to draw very heavily on the 15% of words the exam boards were allowed from beyond the 2000 highest frequency words. They have to design tasks that can be carried out only using words on the list. The transactional words are very restricted - they have had to include a few items of food or clothing to work with. But this could quickly become unsustainable, as the exam must not repeat the same items year after year. Which means that the "transactional" role plays may not be as transactional as you are expecting. And Edexcel have form on this. In the current GCSE, the Edexcel "in a restaurant" Role Plays can take a sudden and disturbing turn, where you ask for the menu, and the waiter asks if you are alone and new in town and if you have any plans for later.

Sure enough, here is an example Role Play from the new Edexcel GCSE Sample Assessment Materials.

Edexcel sample role play

It's in a transactional situation. The first bullet is a je voudrais set phrase with one of the drink items from the vocab list. At a quick glance I have spotted coffee, tea, milk and water as the options. The second is a set phrase for asking how much something costs. With a choice of chocolate, cheese, French stick, ice cream, pasta, rice, fish, fruit, egg, cake, sugar or rabbit. The third bullet point is an opinion, with one of the aforementioned food items. Then the fourth is the future reference, answering one of the nosy waiter's impertinent questions. And finally the second question to be asked by the pupil, which is a mixture of a set phrase to ask "at what hour" and maybe a set phrase about closing, or perhaps testing the grammar/vocabulary knowledge to concoct a sentence.

Can't help wondering about the turn this has taken, with the pupil responding to the waiter enquiring about whether they have any plans for later, by asking what time they finish work...

Here's another example from Edexcel:

Edexcel sample role play

Again, it's a mish-mash. Some situational language learned phrasebook style. Some opinion/tense questions. Having the cues in English was meant to make the Role Play clearer, but even so, there are some questions on these sample role plays that leave me scratching my head. "Say why you are in France." Or "Say why your friend is paying." Taken in the high stakes exam context of constant chopping and changing between being yourself, being in character, talking about a photo, this topic, that topic, short answers, long answers... there is still the potential for pupils to be bamboozled and just not knowing what to say. I don't want my pupils to be bamboozled.

And I don't really want my teaching to be a mish-mash. I will have to have planned a grammar progression that covers the spec, building in each new item as part of the pupils' growing conceptualisation and repertoire. I will want to make sure they can express themselves on any topic, using opinions and reasons and tenses to develop an answer where required. I will need to be covering a huge vocabulary list of adverbs and adjectives. In addition to all this, do I really also want to have to fit in phrasebook learning for situational role plays that may or may not turn out to be situational transactional role plays? It seems like a whole extra dimension to the course for just 10 marks. Some people may love this idea. But I don't think I do.

So what do AQA role plays look like? Here's some.

AQA sample role play

AQA sample role play

In terms of the exam, these AQA Role Plays don't require the pupil to suddenly imagine they are in character ("Say why your friend is paying."?!?!?!) or in a bizarre conversation with a creepy waiter. 

And in terms of planning and teaching, they don't need me to teach set phrases in addition to the repertoire of vocabulary and grammar pupils are learning for the rest of the exam. In fact these AQA "Role Play" questions seem entirely in-line with the type of compulsory questions that follow the Read Aloud and Photo Card tasks (see previous post) and the Conversation questions I will be asking. I won't have to teach pupils a separate set of rote-learned language just for the Role Plays if we go with AQA.

I don't know if Role Plays will be the deciding factor for me in choosing between the specifications. There is a clear difference here between the boards which could make it easy to decide. There may be other features which could push me in the other direction. And of course I could be wrong or you may love the real life dimension or even the learning of useful phrases. This may be a really important feature for you. We will have to keep up the debate and sharing insights as we come to our own conclusions.


Sunday 8 October 2023

Colonial Curriculum

 At the same time as "the knowledge curriculum" is promoting the study of authoritative voices, the "best" of great literature and "standard" English, there is also a conflicting movement to "decolonise" the curriculum. In our subject, this is deeply problematic.

For a start, if we were decolonising the curriculum, why would we be teaching the languages of faded colonial powers? 

There is a hierarchy in the English establishment, of the status of different languages. Highest status are Latin and Ancient Greek. The original languages of heroic superiority, empire and unproblematic slavery. The signs of an elite education, where languages are an intellectual and cultural pursuit. The study of Latin and Ancient Greek came in handy in portraying a small remote island as the inheritor of ancient civilisation through an era when we were colonising in India and Mesopotamia: Civilisations who could trace back their own written culture for thousands of years to a time when agriculture and urbanisation were barely getting started in Britain.

After Latin and Ancient Greek in the hierarchy, comes English. The power dynamic is that we expect others to learn our language. It is beneath us to learn theirs. As language teachers we come across this regularly in the attitudes shown by our learners. Of course, the practical predominance of English is not down to us. It hangs firstly on the cultural and economic protagonism of the United States in the Twentieth Century. And secondly on the fact that English no longer belongs to us. Just as we may claim to have invented football, but the rest of the world are quite capable of playing it without our say-so, so English for most speakers is not the language of England. Much as we may try to pin our cultural commercial properties such as Shakespeare or the Beatles to the global English language business.

But if we do learn a modern "foreign" language, which one would it be? It would be French, German or Spanish. The languages of European colonial powers we grudgingly accept could have similar (if lesser) status compared to English.

Languages spoken in the British Isles such as Welsh are not deemed worthy of study. Languages spoken in our former colonies or by communities living here in the UK are not deemed worthy of study. This hierarchy of languages is clearly linked to colonialism.

But so too is how we study languages and what the study of a language involves. Because as an academic subject, studying a language is learning what millions of ordinary "foreigners" can already do with no intellectual effort! So we bulk out our A Levels and degrees with essay writing (often in English, to maintain standards of intellectual rigour), literature, culture, history and politics.

Our attitude to how to learn a language swings with political changes. For the right wing, language learning is intellectual study of complex grammatical terms and systems. Preferably of ancient languages. For the left wing, language is communication and engagement with authentic materials.

So where to start with "decolonising" such a colonised subject?

Firstly, on a national level, we should be questioning why we offer, for example, Urdu or Portuguese GCSE to speakers of those languages, but we don't think that it would be a superb idea for us (as teachers) and our pupils to learn to speak the languages spoken by families in our own community. Or British Sign Language.

Secondly, we should be looking at why it is that our pathways for language learning fizzle out in the dead end of worthy intellectual academic study. A Level languages or a degree in Philology, with study of literature and grammar and essays. That should not be the main offer of language learning. It should be (and is) for a specialist academic few. There should be the pathway of doing a language course in any language or languages, studying the language for the pleasure of learning and communicating. One thing we know the human brain can do is learn a language. It takes time and requires regular exposure to the language, without forced models of progress and pass/fail. We need to make language-learning the norm for our young people.

And meanwhile, what should we do in the French, Spanish, German classroom? Widen horizons, yes. Learn that what we know is only a small part of humanity. Question stereotypes. Teach how people are the same? Or teach how people are all different?

Having lived in Mexico, I see some pretty horrific attempts at diversification of approaches in Spanish resources. Factual error, cultural appropriation, stereotypes. Europe-centric (ie colonial) labels such as "with a strong accent" or "dialect". In fact a majority of Spanish speakers live outside Spain. Just as the majority of French speakers do not live in France. Were I to teach about French-speaking countries other than France, would I be perpetuating the same ignorant takes? I certainly avoid pictures of mud huts and cheerful resilient poverty. I follow the Jeune Afrique newspaper on Twitter and try to get a sense of local perspectives and modern life.

I admit I do concentrate on France. But in our booklets we use French musicians such as Louane or Oli and Bigflo. For our pupils they are the representatives of France. But when we study them, we learn that their parents came from other countries. With songs like Bienvenue chez moi, we see that they are as French as any other French person.

We try to set up communication with French pupils, often with schools with diverse intake. And look at everyday life in France rather than just tourist sites and special celebrations. What I need to do as much as possible is let French-speaking culture speak for itself, with authentic resources.

We are living through a phase of right wing emphasis on grammar and vocabulary selected from a specific corpus. Of communication being delayed until later. Of reading being word-by-word parsing of sentences to practise known language. Of authentic materials being questioned as encouraging guessing and frustrating pupils. Of Latin being revived for high status intellectual study. Decolonisation does not sit well with the current political pressures. It means resisting or at least questioning what we are being asked to do. I would invite you to go back through this post and click on some of the links to other posts to see how the issues we are currently faced with all tie into the power of the colonial hierarchy currently seeking to dominate language teaching.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Is the new GCSE a Conversation Killer?

 The new GCSE is a reaction to the 2009-2017 GCSE which ruined language learning for a generation. In that exam, Controlled Conditions speaking meant pupils memorising long scripted answers containing fancy language. So the new GCSE will be deliberately designed to stop this.

Of course, I hated the Controlled Assessment exam. And was glad to see the back of it. And although not perfect, the current GCSE means that rather than learning lots of answers off by heart, pupils can practise speaking spontaneously using a core and growing repertoire of language, interacting with the teacher in a conversation. They can deploy their core of language to any of the topics, with lots of speaking practice, making up different answers each time, and responding to prompts for more information and to develop their ideas further.

But it would still be possible for some teachers to ask pupils to learn a huge number of answers off by heart, if you are still stuck in the mindset of the old Controlled Assessment GCSE. So the new GCSE is designed to prevent that.

How is it going to do this? And what does it mean for teaching pupils to develop spontaneous answers and interact with further prompting and questioning?

I've looked at the speaking exam for AQA and for Edexcel, with my own personal perspective of hunting for where it rewards pupils' ability to develop spontaneous answers from language they can use across topics. Not just because this is what I want them to be able to do, but because this is how I want my lessons to be and what pupils seem to love doing.

So what does the exam look like, and what are the marks for?

There are the set pieces of the Read Aloud, the Role Plays and the Photo Description. In amongst these, there are the questions pupils will have to respond to spontaneously. These fall into 2 types. What I have called "scripted" (for the teacher) questions, where the teacher has to read the question exactly as set by the board. And "unscripted" (for the teacher) questions, where the teacher can decide what questions to ask and follow it up with further questions to make it into a conversation.

For AQA, all four "scripted" questions are based on the topic of the Read Aloud task. They are worth 10 marks. Then after the Photo Card, there is a Conversation where the teacher can ask their own questions and conduct an interactive conversation. This is worth 20 marks. So in total, there are 30 marks for speaking in response to unprepared questions.

For Edexcel, the four "scripted" questions are split between the Read Aloud task and the Photo task. In total, there are 8 marks for these questions where the teacher has to read the question set by the board. And after the Photo Card there is time for the teacher to ask unscripted questions. This Conversation is worth 16 marks. Giving a total of 24 marks for speaking in response to unprepared questions.

So AQA gives more marks for the unprepared questions overall, both for the ones where the teacher reads the set questions, and for where the teacher can conduct an interactive conversation. This is because Edexcel gives more marks to the Reading Aloud and to the description of the Photo.

It may well be that you like the idea of giving more marks to the set piece tasks that the pupil can make notes on in the preparation time. It might even be the case that I end up going for this, if it turns out I have to abandon teaching spontaneous developed answers. I know to my cost from the 2009-2017 exam that you can't carry on teaching spontaneous developed answers if the exam doesn't reward it.

Next, I looked at what the set questions are like. For AQA and for Edexcel, they are nice open questions. The sort of question that isn't designed to test if the pupil has learned an off pat answer to every obscure question. Or to see if they can remember specific vocabulary or use bits of abstruse grammar. No. They are the sorts of questions designed to invite the pupils to show off what they can say.

These are from AQA, so follow the Read Aloud task.

For both boards, the set questions are like this. Open questions on the sort of topics we are used to for the conversation, often asking for an opinion and details.

But. With Edexcel, when you look at how these are rewarded, you are in for a disappointment if you are looking for opportunities for pupils to show what they can do with their language or in developing an answer.

Marking for Edexcel set questions

The marks are for short correct answers with a verb. Similarly to the current GCSE Role Play marking, it's best to give a short answer to the question. Developing your answer further means no further credit and if by speaking more you make mistakes, it will cost you marks.

AQA looks a little more promising for marking these set questions.

AQA marking for the set questions

Here there is some reward for being able to develop an answer. So although it's not a real conversation with interaction, there is perhaps an opportunity for pupils to start to show what they can do in terms of their ability to use their language, rather than just testing their knowledge of bits of language.

And so to the Conversation itself. This follows the Photo Card and is on a theme determined by which card the pupil has been given.

Edexcel Conversation Marking - Higher

Edexcel do reward developed and extended answers, mentioning use of past, present and future.

AQA Conversation Marking - Higher
AQA Conversation Marking - Higher

AQA also mention developed answers and extended responses. They don't mention past, present and future, but these would be good examples of the wide variety of structures that is called for.

I also looked at the AQA guidance for the Conversation. It specifies open questions, designed to allow the pupils to show off their ability to use the language, and encourages the teacher to push for more detail and explanation with short prompts, like "Why?" rather than a list of different questions. BUT...

And it's a big BUT...

AQA conversation guidance

What do AQA mean by an extended answer? They mean 3 clauses. This is not what I mean by developing an answer. Not when I have pupils who can easily have a 5 minute conversation about a trip to the beach or a theme park or a zoo.

So that's what we've got. Reading Aloud, Role Play, Photo Card prepared and notes written. With some conversation style questions squeezed in between. Some of them are set questions, and some that can develop into more of a conversation. One of the boards, AQA, gives these questions more marks than the other. Edexcel focuses more on the pre-prepared tasks. AQA also has a markscheme that rewards more developed answers for the set questions. Whereas Edexcel want a short correct answer. It's important to note that AQA has used more of its allocation for accuracy marks in the Writing paper. So for AQA, the speaking emphasis is slightly less on accuracy and more on being able to express the information. Both boards do have scope for a Conversation at the end where pupils' ability to use the language is rewarded. There are no marks for interaction. But there are marks for developing answers, even if that means relatively short and simple development.

This was one of my fears for this new GCSE. In its attempt to stamp out the rote learning we saw in the old 2009-2017 GCSE, would it also stamp out spontaneous extended speaking? It's certainly tried. I think what will save it in my classroom, is ironically the Writing paper. Pupils are still going to have to write 150 words, developing ideas spontaneously. So lessons spent practising speaking will directly support that. Even if it's not required or rewarded in the actual Speaking exam anymore.

I am planning to look at other aspects of the Speaking exam such as the Role Plays, Read Aloud task and Photo Card in future posts. So watch out, because as with the Conversation questions, there are big differences between the boards.

This post was based on parts of my talk for the Association for Language Learning in the East. The video of the talk will shortly be available to members on the ALL website Secondary Zone along with Dr. Rachel Hawkes' presentation.

Sunday 27 August 2023

AI and Language Learning

Red flag. Since I wrote this, I have discovered that Google Bard's sexism is also accompanied by colonialism and racial stereotypes. Of course this is not intentional, but it is a result of the material it has been trained on. And it has no moderation or filter. I asked it to write the story of an American child who goes to Guatemala. It immediately made stereotyped, negative, colonial, prejudiced assumptions. The conclusion of my post was that the best use of AI is to let learners chat with it. This is now off the table. Here is the start of the story it wrote, based entirely on affirming stereotypes:

And if teaching in the UK, that doesn't strike you as problematic, just imagine you are teaching Spanish in the USA, to a class of pupils many of whom are from a Hispanic background. That's the stereotype of Latin America they live with. And based on a false comparison with the States as a rich, clean, comfortable, safe, entitled, white country.

Here's the post as I wrote it. But this isn't funny anymore.

 Yesterday I saw an article advocating the use of Google Bard for language learning. Google Bard is one of the popular Artificial Intelligence bots currently causing a storm with their amazing ability to replicate human speech. I have already tried to use Bing and ChatGPT, so I thought I would test the capabilities of Bard and see if it really is any use for teaching languages.

My first question was simple. I asked it, in Spanish, to explain the rules for using question marks.

It gave me perfectly good examples, in Spanish, of questions using the Spanish ¿___? . But its explanation made no mention of upside down question marks. It just said to put a question mark at the end. So it failed my first test.

I had this test ready, as I'd already used it on ChatGPT (which also failed it). The reason is that these AI chat bots have been developed to work in English. They can then translate into other languages, but their working is in English. It's important to realise this, and the fact that it does impinge on its ability to work as a language learning tool. It's also alarming to note the fact that it doesn't detect when its examples don't match its explanation. More examples of this to come!

I wondered, if it's working in English then what will happen if I ask it for words that rhyme? If I ask it for words that rhyme with pescado, will it translate into English and give me a list of words that rhyme with fish - dish, wish - and translate them back into Spanish? It did this:

So, it is capable of working in Spanish. It's taken a definition of "rhyme" that means containing the same vowels. So lavo sort of rhymes with pescado. But I can't help noticing expedientes on that list. Which doesn't rhyme at all.

I did another test of its Anglophone bias by asking it in Spanish who the President is. I thought it could offer maybe AMLO or Sanchez as possibilities, because I had asked in Spanish. But it automatically assumed I meant Joe Biden. I've tried this cultural bias with ChatGPT with questions about Spanish food or French music. It does tend to come up with answers known to English speakers and even stereotypes.

Back to language based questions. This is one that Dr. Rachel Hawkes had alerted me to, when she was genuinely using ChatGPT to "help" create language learning resources. She asked it for a list of French nationality adjectives ending in "-ain". It was unable to do this, producing a list including the marvelous "espagnolian". So I tried it with Google Bard:

It didn't have the wonderful and undesired inventiveness of ChatGPT. But it still was no use at all. Joe Dale had a further extended conversation with Bard on this question where it acknowledged that it had done badly, and then in a series of attempts went from bad to worse.

Unlike some of my questions, this wasn't a deliberate trap or tricky test. It started from a genuine question Rachel asked to try to save some time. And it's not clear why it failed. It seems that AI isn't very good at taking language apart. So gaps in texts, parts of words, or focus on endings can all trip it up. Unfortunately these are exactly the sorts of things we want to concentrate on in language teaching.

I tried to use it to create a text where it removed the words for his and her and replaced it with son/sa/ses for the learner to choose the correct one. I explained this carefully in English, to avoid it simply doing what Microsoft Word would do and replace the letter string son even if it was in the middle of the word. Even so, it did this:

Not only has it done what I was worried about, and replaced son inside the word sont, and sa in the word responsable, but in giving the "answers", it's also tried to do it with the words garçon and attentionnée. We can't ever understand why this happened. AI works by "learning" from huge amounts of language. And somewhere in that learning it knows that çon is equivalent to son. And it thinks that tion is the same too. So it's struggling with phonics! That's cute, because so are our learners!

I didn't pick it up on the sexism of its examples. But I had previously challenged chatGPT on a very similar piece of writing it created. It got very snarky and self defensive. Of course, its biais is a reflection of the material it has been trained on.

While we are talking about using it to create resources for the new GCSE, here's what happened when I asked it to write me a story using only words taken from the 2000 most frequently used words in French.

I was surprised at the mistake with est peur. I've done similar things with ChatGPT and it shares all the flaws that we're finding here in Bard, but it doesn't tend to make mistakes in its French. But both have the annoying tendency to happily tell you they have done something, when they haven't. I am pretty sure s'enfuir and un serpent are not in the top 2000 words in French. But then again, ChatGPT's story had sword, treasure and dragon. If only it just said, "Sorry, I don't know what the 2000 most common words in French are" then it would be fine. Bing AI also has this tendency to oblige and make things up when it doesn't know. Which is inexcusable because Bing does have access to the internet and acts as a search engine.

So far, Bard immediately failed all my requests based on language. Whether they were tests I designed to see if I could catch it out, or genuine requests of the sort you might make for creating language teaching resources. You can see more on this twitter thread. It also failed other straight-forward requests like a list of masculine countries in French.

So instead of trying to see if it would work for creating resources for a teacher, I decided to see how it would work for a learner asking for explanations of language points. This is one of the uses directly mentioned by articles advocating the use of Google Bard for language learners.

Where shall we start? I may as well say at this point, that it goes on to fail at explaining every single grammar point I asked it.

Here it is saying that c, z and s are all pronounced as th in Spain:

Now it tells us that mieux and meilleur  are pronounced the same. (It made the same claim for bien and bon.)

And now it explains why you need a grave accent on the word for at in French:

Again, you can see more hilarious examples on the twitter thread. It got in a muddle with tout/toute and with black and white cows being zebras. Oh, go on, I'll give you that one here:

I was surprised at that one, because the difference between some cows which are all black and white (des vaches noir et blanc) and a mixed bunch of black cows and white cows (des vaches noires et blanches) is the go-to example used in explaining the rules for adjectival agreement. I think that ChatGPT may be slightly better here. But both ChatGPT and Bard suffer from the general problem of the examples they give just not matching what they are explaining.

So AI isn't good at looking at parts of words, and it isn't good at explaining grammar with coherent examples. What else do people suggest using it for? It's suggested that it is good at giving feedback to learners. I know already that ChatGPT is terrible at this. Just as with grammar explanations, the examples it picks out from pupils' work, just don't match the point it was trying to correct. Let's see how Bard does. Are you feeling hopeful? Sorry:

It has ignored the actual mistake in using the article with a job, and the question of gender. And instead it's made up something called "noun-verb" agreement, saying the verb est should be feminine.

Alarm bells should be ringing. We should not be using AI for grammatical explanation. AI has no knowledge or intelligence. It is simply a very very impressive predictive text tool. It has been trained on patterns of human speech. It can parrot and sound as if it knows what it is talking about. But it has no knowledge. Any information it gives is a lucky coincidence, the result of putting words together in a way it has spotted humans do. And it seems that the humanity it reflects is anglophone and sexist. The fact that it comes even close to giving vaguely reliable sounding information, is a comment on how predictable we all are!

What should AI be good at? Well, language, I suppose. But have a look at the twitter thread where I posted all the questions I asked it. It failed every single one. It's inexplicably bad at language, or maybe languages. This article from The Times may be behind a paywall, but its conclusion is that "Letting AI teach is like letting Casualty actors run A&E." AI is just mimicking. Nothing else.

And here's what was my final paragraph. Which now has to be withdrawn. Because interacting with google bard is not safe for our learners.

Except there is one way you could use AI for language learning where the potential is huge: chat to it. The clue is in the name ChatGPT. In your prompt, explain that you want it to be a conversational partner for learning the language. Tell it your level. Ask it to answer but also to ask questions. And have a conversation with it.

When you start to use google bard, it does warn you that it is experimental and may be inappropriate. But all the articles suggesting you use it for language learning don't say that. And they should.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Coming up on the horizon already: The new GCSE

 How much of a roadblock is the new GCSE going to be? There are several things to look forward to over the next few years. The NCLE hubs working to share good practice, the possibility of a new government, and hints of a National Language Strategy being formulated. Will this be a period of renewal and excitement? Or will it all be insignificant pretty little daisies growing around  the edges of a hulking great boulder: the new GCSE.

We know what is in the new GCSE: grammar, vocabulary, role plays, pictures, translation, dictation, reading aloud. Will it be similar enough for us to easily move to teaching the new exam? Or does it require fundamental change?

The exam boards have indicated that the areas of content will be similar to the current topics. Many of the tasks and question types will look familiar. It would be reassuring to think that minimal adjustment is needed in planning and teaching. And yet, this exam was supposed to be a lever in bringing about change in how we teach. So is it dangerous to assume we can carry on as we were?

At the East of England Association for Language Learning meeting in June 2023, Rachel Hawkes warned us to be careful. Of the current GCSE, only 50% of the vocabulary list is on the new GCSE list. So there is a lot we could cut out. Perhaps more importantly, 50% of the vocabulary on the new list, wasn't on the old list. So we do have to teach words that we haven't been teaching before.

The vocabulary list is central to the new GCSE. The idea is that with limited time for learning, the content to be learned should be clearly defined. And the GCSE panel specified that the most logical vocabulary to learn is the words which are used most frequently. This way, from KS3 (or even KS2), we can cut out words which are not going to appear in the GCSE. All those lists of pets, foods, sports, places in town, pencil case items, family members. We don't need to teach so many nouns.

And the words we do choose to teach can be revisited regularly. When they are introduced and how often we come across them again (and again) can be preplanned. Texts can be built out of the words and out of the carefully sequenced grammar. And this is what NCELP did. Their materials are a marvel of carefully sequenced and revisited language. A far cry from so many text books with long lists of words met only only once and grammar points covered ticked off on a grid.

This is the task facing exam boards and publishers. To do it properly, they have to take this approach: start with the defined content (grammar and vocabulary), sequence it, and then build texts out of it. Starting from the vocabulary list, planning the occasions when the words are to be met, and then writing texts using those words.

Sounds easy. But it is immensely difficult. The exam boards have already come a-cropper with words in the Sample Assessment Materials creeping in which are not on the list. I think, like a vegetarian exchange student staying with a French family, that one of the offending items was chicken!

This summer I have turned down writing work from companies wanting to tweak and update resources for the new GCSE. Because doing it properly will not be tweaking. Doing it properly means starting from the vocab list and planning what to create. Like cooking based on what is in the fridge, not on what you and your guests would like to eat. 

It means you have to hold at arm's length any actual texts of interesting or true information. Because the words you need will not be the words you have at your disposal. So you have to start to create an alternative reality built out of the words you do have. Reminds me of this sketch rewriting the the Sesame Street song, being forced in frustration to change one word at a time until you end up with "Stormy Nights... can you tell me how to get to Yellowstone Park." Because ultimately content, culture and meaning are secondary to meeting and practising the language.

If this is how professional published material will work - starting from the word list - I think teachers will work differently. When we write or re-use texts, we will write the text first. Then we might use the multilingual profiler to check which words we have used are not on the list. And then we can give a gloss of those words in English so pupils don't have to worry about them and we don't have to throw away our text.

So we won't be doing it "properly" like the publishers will have to. We will be doing it pragmatically. Taking texts and checking them, tweaking them where we can.

Will we be cutting back on vocabulary taught in KS3? It sounds like a great idea. But what words will be cut? We've already mentioned chicken. If not many foods or animals are on the list, then what do we do? Teach the core ones and let individual pupils know the ones they personally want to ask for? Because at GCSE, they can use "chicken" in the speaking and writing exam. But it won't be in the Listening or Reading exam, and the Speaking and Writing tasks will be devised so as not to require any chicken.

This model of teaching the core high frequency vocabulary and handing out individual preference words to individual pupils sounds like a lot of work. Teaching individual pupils individual words. But it also puts a stop to communicative tasks in the classroom. If the only animals all pupils know are dog and fish -and you teach cat, bird, snake to individual pupils but not to all - then how do they do a survey about what pets they have, when they don't know what the other pupil is saying?

Here's a question. What are the Restaurant Role Plays going to look like at GCSE if words like chicken aren't on the list?

So again, I don't think I am going to be doing it "properly". I will not be removing words from KS3 which are not on the GCSE list. I don't think I'll be removing them from GCSE either. When it comes to revision, homework and exam preparation, I can be much clearer in telling the pupils what words they have to know. But I don't think that is the same as long term language learning.

At KS3, I will be sticking with our approach of simultaneously building pupils' accumulation of language and developing what they can do with it. So that, like snow, rather than having an even coating (prone to melting away), they have a snowball that more and more language can stick to.

And I think that if that's what works at KS3, then it's what works at KS4 too.

It would be lovely to think that rather than a massive boulder we crash into or have to find a way around, the new GCSE is a bit of a speed bump that slows us down and makes us pay attention, but doesn't actually make us change our plans completely.