As somebody who currently teaches in a Six Form environment it often feels that a significant number of students begin to study A Level MfL without the necessary foundations on which to build. Out of the 30 AS students that I have this year (all of whom got A and B grades at GCSE), only a handful had a basic understanding of the notion of conjugating verbs when they started the course. Many have said to me that whilst they are enjoying lessons, they are finding the AS Spanish course significantly more difficult than their other AS Levels. So what is going wrong? Why are they finding A Level MfL so difficult compared to other subjects?
My main worry is that we are so desperate to increase participation in MfL at KS4 and that we are under so much pressure to get results that these results sometimes come at the expense of a true understanding of how language works. I have found that this is especially true in 11-16 schools where from personal experience very little grammar is being taught. But we all know why … if you need the kids to get good results and you can do so without them having to be grammatically aware then why wouldn’t you? The real problem is that we work in a system where it is possible to pass exams without a real understanding of what you are being tested on. If you have students who find language learning difficult then instead of focusing on the language skills you home in on exam preparation skills. The problem is that if this student then decides that they want to continue to study the language at A Level, then they are going to have problems.
As a student I remember that although I enjoyed studying French at GCSE I found it extremely frustrating not being able to manipulate language and say what I wanted to say, instead having to limit myself to expressions which I had been given by the teacher. The problem for me was that when I started AS Level and realised that it was going to involve a lot of grammar I felt somewhat overwhelmed!
I could have cried for joy on Tuesday morning when on the bus on my way to work I heard kids from a local school reciting the French present tense endings. This particular school has decided to put a lot of emphasis on grammar in the lower school to help students understand how language works and it seems to be going well. Students haven’t been put off languages and those who continue onto AS Level have a massive advantage.
Sometimes I think that we need to step back and remember exactly what is expected of students at A Level so that they feel ready and equipped for the transition. As one of my students recently put it, it is no wonder that people are put off at A level when they go from describing their bedroom in year 11 to having to debating nuclear energy using the imperfect subjunctive after less that two years of teaching.