Derivational morphology: what is it? And so what?

In the proposed new GCSE, students will be expected to be able to use certain morphological patterns to understand words grammatically related to ones they already know. Specifically, using French as an example, it says that students will be expected to know:

  1. Adverbs: ending in –ment or –ement only where the English equivalent is -ly
  2. Adjectives: starting in in- only where the English equivalent is ‘un-’, or meaning ‘opposite of’
  3. Verbs: starting in dé- only where the English equivalent is ‘de-’ or meaning ‘not’

Words which follow these patterns will not need to be listed on the vocabulary list. This means that if “libre” is on the list, students will be expected to know “librement“. Ditto, if “efficace” is on the list, they will need to know “ineffecicace”. If “limiter” is on the list, they will be expected to know délimiter.

What does this mean in practice?

Firstly it has implications for the word count. Higher tier students will be expected to know 1700 words; but in reality, 300 of these will be ‘grammatical words’, i.e. words on the list because of the grammatical requirements, such as irregular forms of verbs. But, if you include the words expected to be known via “derivational morphology” along the lines above, that opens up another 200 words or so. About 170 of these words will be adverbs of the -ment/-ement variety. Of course not all of these will end up in the final exam board list: Exam boards need to select about 950/1400 words from the top 2000, and that means they won’t be including all of the adjectives from which you can form adverbs. They might select 100 or so of those 200 adjectives. This would mean the overall target vocabulary size will be something like: 1700, minus 300, plus 100 = 1500. Very small.

Are there any issues?

It will be slightly odd that 100 or so of the students’ words – more than 10% in most cases – will just be adverb variants of adjectives they know. This doesn’t give them much new to say, so the vocabulary might be argued to be somewhat unbalanced. But there is another problem – and namely that the two of the three ‘derivational morphology’ rules required don’t really make any sense when students are learning so few rules in the first place. Let me explain.

Adjectives: starting in- only where the English equivalent is ‘un-’, or meaning ‘opposite of’

By my rough calculations, there are about 20 words in the top 2000 where you can add ‘in-‘ and get a negated version of the adjective in French. Examples would be actif/inactif; capable/incapable; volontaire/involontaire.

But there are somewhat more numerous examples where of words where the -in rules does not work when limited to words within the top 2000. Specifically it doesn’t work with…

  • words where we might expect it to work, because we can add un- in English, but where we can’t add in- in French, such as réel, naturel, commun, critique, complexe, étonnant, naturel, original (in English we can say unreal, unnatural, uncommon, uncritical, uncomplicated, unexpert, unsurprising, unnatural, unoriginal)
  • words where there is a negated form in French, but where it isn’t formed with in-, such as précis, réel, moral, parfait (these exist as imprécis, irréel, immoral, imparfait)

So while it is fine to teach this in+adjective = negated adjective rule as a rule for receptive understanding, it is highly risky to promote it as a rule for productive use. Because students will end up creating words which do not exist. Remember, in these proposals, the aim is that productive knowledge should be the same as receptive knowledge.

Verbs: starting dé- only where the English equivalent is ‘de-’ or meaning ‘not’

French has this pattern just like English does: construct/deconstruct. Though in English it sometimes turns into ‘dis-‘, such as apply/disapply. So how relevant is it to the top 2000 words?

As far as I can see, not very relevant at all. There are only a handful of top 2000 verbs where you can apply this rule, and they’re not exactly priority verbs for your average grade 3-5 student.

  • faire/faire
  • composter/composer
  • conseiller/conseiller
  • monter/monter
  • limiter/limiter
  • former/former
  • lier/lier
  • charger/charger
  • régler/régler

Of course the exam board has to select 50-70% of the top 2000 for its vocab list, so it’s possible that only three or four would end up on the final list. Yet the exam expects students to have learned this as a rule?

More worryingly, learning this as a rule in such early stages of language acquisition could actually be very risky. Because there is a long list of verbs in the top 2000 where you can add de-, but where the meaning is not “de” or “not”. I think these verbs where the rule doesn’t work outnumbers the verbs where it does work in the top 2000 by roughly 2 to 1. For example:

  • tenir / détenir (détenir does not mean “not hold”, it means “detain”)
  • porter / déporter (déporter does not mean “not carry” or “decarry”, it means “deport”
  • montrer / démontrer (etc)
  • noter / dénoter
  • compter / décompter
  • laisser / délaisser
  • poser / déposer
  • passer / dépasser
  • terminer / déterminer
  • finir / définir
  • penser / dépenser
  • priver / dépriver
  • figurer / défigurer
  • marcher / démarche (=noun)
  • céder / décéder
  • nier / dénier

Again this rule doesn’t really make sense as one to teach when students have only got a few hundred words under their belt, if that. There’s nothing wrong with pointing this out as patterns which can and might be helpful when understanding a text, but it’s something else entirely to include it as a “high frequency pattern of derivational morphology” when students know so few words: the patterns aren’t necessarily that high frequency at all, and at this stage, might well mislead them.

But it’s another example of the structuralist nature of these proposals: they represent a world view where languages are really about rules first, then words slot in. In reality, languages are about words first.

MFL exams overseas

There’s lots of debates about what our new GCSE should look like. I’ve been looking at how MFLs (focussing on Languages Other Than English – “LOTE”) are assessed in different jurisdictions – you can see a summary table below, to which I plan to add more.

What strikes me is how straightforward it all is. In England we’re used to a highly choreographed, highly prescribed, highly engineered system with specific task types and very specific mark schemes. These leads to lots of “teaching to the exam task” such as “here is how to do a 16 marker” or lessons on “describing a photocard“; we also over-emphasise opinions and reasons because it’s precisely what exams require. Meanwhile we find ourselves teaching our students not to read and comprehend, but to spot distractors and traps. Does it work? No. Do we like it? No. Does it motivate students? No. Elsewhere, students appear free to get on with learning the language and using it to meaningful effect. There’s also much less obsession with individual points of grammar, and a greater focus on the overall picture, coherence and cogency.

Another key difference is revealed in the mark schemes – which remind us that elsewhere, grades are criterion-referenced (e.g. a certain number of marks or a certain level of skill gets you a certain grade or outcome), whereas our exams are significantly cohort-referenced (the grade you get depends on how well you did compared to other people).

CountryLanguage assessedExamPaperLink
FranceSpanishBaccalauréat – second modern language (Science stream) = B1 level, between GCSE amd ASReading & Writinghere
FranceGermanBaccalauréat – second modern language (Science stream) = B1 level, between GCSE amd ASReading & Writinghere. Mark scheme (inc writing) here
GermanyFrenchRealschule B1 (=Foundation GCSE)Reading Writing Speaking ListeningOverall info and example questions here   Audio samples and sample papers here   Speaking & writing markscheme
IrelandFrenchJunior Cert (has now been replaced) (= GCSE ish) Question paper here   Audio file here   Mark scheme here

If you have got links to other papers from other jurisdictions, please contact me and we’ll add them to this grid.

How many words is 1700 words?

It is proposed that in GCSE, students will be expected to learn 1700 words at Higher Tier. How does that compare? Well, it is less than the 2100 words that Realschule (equivalent of Foundation Tier) students learning French in Germany (for more comparisons, see this post)

But I also wanted to compare this vocab list with O-level, because as many have pointed out, this new GCSE does have a lot in common with O-level: lots of grammar testing, a dictation and less (if any) spontaneous output. So bought I.C. Thimann’s “A French Vocabulary for Ordinary Level “, published 1965. It wasn’t a comprehensive list, as this one in the new GCSE will be, nor was it endorsed by the Government as a full reflection of the curriculum. So we don’t know whether it correlates to what teachers taught. But it should serve as a decent indication.

O-level versus GCSE

Before we go much further it’s worth looking at some evidence from Milton (2008) which compared O-level learners with GCSE learners: are we as proficient in MFL today at the upper levels of attainment as we were in the days of O-level?

Milton tested the vocabulary of 21 individuals who had studied O-level French between 25 and 45 years earlier, but who had not continued learning French in any way since then (even in evening classes). They had scored a mix of Grades 1 (the top grade) to Grade 9, which was the greatest degree of failure possible. He compared them with the best 24 students from a cohort of 449 GCSE students in 2006, so the cohorts should be comparable. This is important because we know that O-level was a qualification only tackled by the brightest students (although by the mid 1980s there were more students taking O-levels in MFLs than there are taking GCSE today – and vastly more than than take GCSE at Higher Tier).

This is what he found:

Milton 2008: French vocabulary breadth among learners in the British school and university system: comparing
knowledge over time, French Language Studies 18 (2008), 333-348

A few things are interesting. Firstly, the ‘minimum’ scores are relatively similar – in other words the lowest-scoring participants in each test had roughly the same vocab size – but we must remember that 20-40 years had elapsed for the O-level learners. Secondly, the maximum scores are wildly different. This means that students who studied O-level 20-40 years prior were considerably more proficient than the best higher Tier linguists at GCSE in the year of the study. Today’s highest attaining Higher Tier linguists are presumably no less able and talented than the best students at O-level were, and arguably the curriculum should allow them to make the same degree of progress. But it appears not to. GCSE Higher is a considerable downgrade from O-level. Today’s learners end up being considerably less proficient than in pre-GCSE times.

I should also be clear that this is not a blog about single word teaching versus chunks. I merely using target vocabulary size as an indicator of proficiency. Vocabulary size is, after all, the best indicator of proficiency (Staehr 2008) . How you embed that vocab and encourage its uptake is a different issue. But one thing is certain: the more words you know overall, the better your proficiency in a language.

The purpose of this vocab book

The next interesting thing to look at is the preface to the 1965 vocab handbook. I’ve scanned it in for you at the bottom of this blog. It shows us a few things:

  • the preoccupation for picking the “right” words for learning is not at all new. This concern has been there for a good 50 years.
  • the vocab handbook is not intended to be exhaustive, unlike the new GCSE vocab list. It deliberately excludes “very common” words and words that it expects students to have come across in grammar lessons – such as pronouns and common irregular verbs. So we can assume that the total number of words contained in this book is an understatement of the learning envisaged. It excludes “easily ‘guessable’ items” such as exact cognates – position, importance etc. Again, this is the opposite to what is being proposed in the new GCSE list. I think that the list is an understatement of the learning expected by anything between 300 and 1000 words, having done some quick counting, but I haven’t included these in my totals below.
  • there was already an oral exam in O-level French in1965, as well as translation and composition
  • the author recommends that the words in this book be learned over three years or so – roughly one list per week (there are about 150 lists). That equates to about 5 school years if we assume no learning in the holidays. In the 1960s this was, apparently, deemed reasonable alongside other French “preparation” (i.e. homework).

My analysis and results

I wanted to know how the new GCSE – from a Government famed for rigour in education and promoting knowledge-rich approaches – compares with the old O-level. So I analysed the vocab in the 1965 book and compared it to the list being proposed for the Government’s new MFL GCSE, for teaching from 2023 (1700 words, of which approximately 300 will be pre-determined grammar items, and 90% of the remainder must be words from the top 2000 in word frequency).

What this shows is:

  • Higher tier students will be given a vocab list at least 44% smaller than the vocab list for O-level – and that’s a conservative estimate.
  • This disparity is actually very similar to the difference in attainment observed by Milton: in his study, GCSE learners knew 40% fewer words than their O-level counterparts did 20-40 years post-hoc. This new proposal engineers in a continuous decline in standards.
  • The O-level list was already weighted towards high frequency words – by a considerable margin. The idea of prioritising frequency is not new.
  • BUT the O-level list has roughly 50% high frequency words and 50% low frequency words – precisely the proportions recommended by researchers such as Milton (“An effective textbook is probably going to introduce frequent andinfrequent vocabulary in roughly equal amounts2009)
  • The total number of high frequency (top 2000) words on the list from O-level and the proposed GCSE are very similar: 1200 ish each)
  • But what O-level had was 1000 (at least) additional, extra words, in the lower (beyond the top 2000) frequency bands, which related to thematic and topic words (the ones which allow us to talk about things)
  • Remember that this Thimann book is an under-estimate of what was taught (he excludes cognates, grammar words and very common words), whereas the proposed GCSE list is exhaustive for both productive and receptive purposes.

If you want to see an example exam paper from precisely the year when students might have been using this vocab book, click here.

Current GCSE vs new GCSE

It’s also worth reflecting for a second on whether this GCSE is greater or smaller in content than the current one. Well, one of the panelists who designed it has said on twitter that it represents a “substantial reduction” in content. Is this true?

NCELP have certainly compared the two and suggest that there is a decline in grammar at least. It is hard to say whether the vocabulary expectations have reduced, because the current list is illustrative and not exhaustive. The current GCSE AQA list has about 1150 headwords on it, but it excludes lots of words assumed to be learned at KS3 such as numbers, colours, places around town, family members, and so on. These would presumably add up to several hundred. Bear in mind that the the exams also include words not on the list and not necessarily assumed to be studied, to test inference and deduction skills. So in terms of vocabulary, it probably is a sizeable reduction, given that Higher Tier will contain something around 1400 headwords once you factor in the compulsory grammar listings.

This tallies with the research that has been done looking at how many words students actually ‘learn’. In Annabel David’s study (2008), the average number of words learned by Year 11 was 564, but in Milton’s (2006) study it was 852. These correspond with research that shows in UK classrooms, learners typically uptake 30%-50% of words input during a course. A figure of 800 words learned suggests input was maybe 1600-2000 words – exactly the size of the current AQA lists. If we are now going to be teaching fewer words in the new GCSE, then all the evidence suggests that students will learn fewer words, unless we think there is going to be a significant shift in the quality of teaching to make up for it. There is no reason to suggest this will be the case, unless we believe that UK teachers are ineffective, and I don’t think that’s the case. Why would it be? Why would MFL teachers be any more ineffective than any other teachers?


This new GCSE appears to be the worst of both worlds. The assessment style and teaching approach of O-level (grammar-led with translation trumping spontaneity) with the ever-lower standards of Higher Tier GCSE (which was a 40% reduction compared to O-level, for equivalent students, and which is continuing to be downgraded). This is a Government which is engineering a decline in standards.

The Preface to Thimann’s vocabulary

(Thiman, I, 1959, A French Vocabulary for Ordinary Level, London: Harrap)

Why the GCSE proposals are disproportionately grammar-heavy

There are many, many problems with the GCSE proposals – which I’ve been blogging about for a while (see this summary). The problems relate both to what they were say and how they were drawn up. One of the many problems is the balance between vocabulary and grammar.

The 2016 Pedagogy Review, on which these proposals are based, had already made it quite clear that the these proposals were going to be heavily grammar-led (or “structuralist”). It declared “We use the grammar of a language to say what we wish or need to say” – which is a gross overstatement – because we first and foremost use words, and can communicate a great deal with just words alone. Anyway that’s not today’s debate, and I’m not really anti-grammar anyway (as any of my students would confirm).

The question for this blog is: is there too much grammar in these proposals? The answer is yes, without a shadow of a doubt – far too much grammar relative to the number of words (950 at Foundation and 1400 at Higher, once you allow for the grammatical items which, according to the proposals, will have to be separately listed within the total 1200/1700 words at each tier).

How much grammar is too much grammar might feel like a subjective question – one which just disintegrates into the grammar vs. communication debate, a debate which is as old as language-learning itself. So I’ve opted for a very simple definition. Too much grammar is grammar that you can’t actually use within the words specified. And remember, the main design principle of these proposals is the focus on high-frequency (top 2000) words.

We should bear in mind that some scholars (such as Vivian Cook) suggest that the acquisition of grammar is conditioned by the lexicon – i.e. you have to have lots of words and examples in order to absorb a rule or pattern. Because there are so many and so varied rules in a language you need a large vocabulary to access the examples and to make sense of them in context. This is just like learning vocabulary itself – it’s considered likely that you will need to see a word between 6 and 20 times before you know it. I wonder how many encounters with a grammar rule you need before it makes sense and sticks? Certainly several, with different words each time.

The Evidence

The more I look, the more I see that grammar is overloaded. I’ve based this analysis on the French grammar appendices. I’ll look at German in due course. I’m not a Spanish speaker so if anyone can do this, contact me and we’ll publish a blog!

Please note that I had undercounted some of the examples in the nouns/adjectives section so please read again! Many thanks to Natalie from NCELP for the feedback.


The proposals require students to know how to make various types of French noun plural, including those nouns which end -z,al and –eu.

  1. Yet there is one word in the top 2000 ending in -z.
  2. There are only four ending in -eu (feu, jeu, lieu and milieu)
  3. There are six ending in -al (journal, tribunal, animal, hôpital, canal, moral) and various other words listed as nouns but which are far more commonly adjectives (such as occidental and fédéral; to teach these words as nouns within a rule for nouns would be very confusing for secondary pupils). Of those 6, only four-ish might end up on the final list. This is because Boards will produce lists of 1700 words; 300 or so of these are pre-specified grammar items; a further 10% of the reminder will be lower-frequency words, so we’re looking at 1260 of the top 2000 words, judging by what’s in the proposals. Is four words enough to meaningfully learn a rule among so many rules? It’s hard to say, but very possibly not.
  4. There are very few feasible nouns ending in -eau, too (niveau, eau, réseau, bateau, cerveau, bureau, tableauI don’t think we would teach ‘nouveau’ as a noun), so it seems curious that students must learn this rule so early in their career. Bearing in mind that exam boards will have to pick 1260-1400 words from the top 2000, it’s possible that fewer than 5 of them would make the final list. So students would be learning the rule with very few examples indeed. I’d also say that “eaux” is an unusual, but not impossible plural; “cerveaux” is certainly a very unusual plural, because we all only have one brain (and remember the French rule for saying “my pupils’ brains” would be le cerveau de mes élèves, because each pupil has one brain; English doesn’t acknowledge this)


Similarly the proposals require students to learn feminine adjective ending rules for adjectives whose masculine form ends in –x, –en, –er, and –et.

  1. Yet there are only 4 adjectives ending in –et (complet, net, inquiet, concret). It is inconceivable, almost, that the final list of 1400 words would include all of these adjectives, so once again we would be asking students to learn rules with very few examples using words they’re learning.
  2. There are 6 adjectives in the top 2000 ending in -x (nombreux, sérieux, heureux, religieux, précieux and dangereux). Given that the final list will include 1260 of the top 2000 words, we might reasonably assume that only four of these will feature in the final list.
  3. There are 11 adjectives ending ending in -en (moyen, ancien, aérien, européen, canadien, quotidien, israélien, italien, indien, chrétien, irakien), though I wonder how many of these Boards will want on their list and it’s interesting to see how political texts has influenced the top 2000 here (the list was created in 2009 presumably featuring lots of texts about conflicts in the Middle East). I suspect that the frequency of moyen is elevated artificially due to the homonyms le moyen (the means) and la moyenne (the average). Note that while chrétien is a high-frequency word (thus better “bang for buck”), musulman is not (and therefore considered less of a priority. This is not OK).
  4. There are 12 adjectives ending in -er (léger, fier, cher, premier, dernier, étranger, particulier, entier, financier, policier, ouvrier and régulier). This is starting to look like a sensible number (accounting for the curtailed number which will appear in the final list) with which students might absorb the pattern, although ouvrier is more commonly an adjective not a noun. Note here two common words which ‘break’ the phonics rules relating to the sound of the letters -er at the end of the word: cher and fier

Singular demonstrative pronouns

  1. The proposals say that students must learn singular demonstrative pronouns – mien, tien, sien etc. Yet these are themselves not high-frequency words. I.e. the grammar is trumping the vocabulary – we are being told to learn grammatical structures which are less frequently used than the words we’re being told to learn.


  1. The proposals specify that we need to learn that we use jouer and faire with DE (the partitive article) when we are talking about musical instruments and sports respectively. Yet again, there are no musical instruments in the top 2000 words, and the only sport in the top 2000 words is lutte (‘wrestling’, which is high frequency because of its primary meaning, ‘fight/struggle’, as in la lutte contre le racisme)
  2. The proposals specify that students must learn certain irregular or pattern changing verbs, but the vocabulary parameters prevent us from really using these verbs. For example:
    – We need to learn boire but the only vocab items relating to drinks in the top 2000 are café and eau. Note that lait, coca, sirop, bière and vin are not high frequency words.
    – The verb manger is mentioned as one whose spelling changes in the stem. It says that this spelling will “not be credit-bearing”, so presumably the expectation here is that we teach this irregularity even though it won’t be credited in the exam. Note that NCELP materials do teach these patterns from what I’ve seen, such as the ç in some forms of commencer). Interestingly, though, relating to the verb manger, the only food items in the top 2000 are poisson and fruit. Déjeuner, dîner, légume, viande, pain, riz, pâtes, salade, repas etc are all low frequency words, not in the top 2000. Why even mention the verb manger if the nature of the vocabulary being proposed precludes things words for what we eat?
    – similar the verb jeter is listed as one with irregular spelling which presumably we are encouraged to teach, but I have not yet found anything in the top 2000 words that I could throw

Please note that the original version of this post said that ‘aujourd’hui’ is a low frequency word. This was incorrect and due to an error in NCELP’s online profiling tool

Curiously, in yet another example of astonishing incongruity (astonishing because I really would have expected the “expert panel” to have checked all this out before publishing the proposals – especially because there was a year’s hiatus between them being written and their publication), there is no expectation in the proposals for students of French to be able to understand or use the relative pronoun dont. This is despite the fact that dont is the 74th most frequent word in French according to the Government’s preferred list. They cannot simultaneously claim to be led by frequency data and then ignore that data in so many ways. If this is all about “bang for buck” and frequency, why is dont not on the grammar list?

So what?

Above I have given some concrete examples of the grammatical overloading of these proposals. The grammar is incongruent with the really important content – the words. This means that time and time again, students will be learning rules with no real words with which to apply them, or too few words as examples. This will be catastrophic for motivation. MFL is being turned into some weird puzzle. The GCSE can’t legitimately call itself “GCSE French”. In reality it will be “GCSE French Grammar with a few illustrative words.” I say this as someone who loves teaching grammar – I nerd out on it and always have done since my A-level Latin and GCSE Ancient Greek – but there’s no point whatsoever in teaching grammar before students have sufficient words in which to encounter and deploy it.

Another way of look at the weighting of grammar and vocabulary is this: for Foundation level (and remember the majority of candidates do score grade 5 or below), students will be expected to know 1200 lexical items. 250 or so of these will be grammatical terms, so the real number of ‘headwords’ they’re learning will be lower. And as ever, students won’t learn everything we teach them; in research studies it is suggested that students usually uptake around 50% of the vocabulary they see in a course. But let’s ignore that and be optimistic that students of this GCSE – a “substantial reduction” in content – will learn as many words as in the past. Evidence from UK classrooms tells us that the average number of words learned might be between 564 (David 2008) and 852 (Milton 2006). This is a very very very small number of words – roughly A1 level in the European Framework. This makes GCSE a beginner qualification. Is the amount of grammar in the proposals commensurate to a beginner qualification?

There’s nothing wrong with the grammar in the proposals. It is all correct grammar. But we need more words than is being proposed for it to make sense and be valuable.

The implications

The implications of this grammar-fetishistic approach are, for me, two-fold:

  1. Because there are relatively few words but lots of grammar, the assessment will inevitably be very grammatical; far more so than now. That means that there will be more of the questions which currently irritate and frustrate teachers and learners. Why learn adjective agreements if not even all colours are in the top 2000 words?
  2. Students will be able to communicate in the TL less effectively than at present. Not just because they will be required to learn fewer words (and the fewer words you learn, the less you can say and understand – it’s as simple as that) but because they’ll have spent time learning grammar that they can’t digest, deploy or practice.

What can I do about it?

Write to your MP to tell them how ridiculous these proposals are and demand that a new panel be convened, with full transparency, broader expertise and a more inclusive process. On this page I have provided a draft letter for you to use.

I’d also really encourage all readers to sign this petition – aiming to secure a full redraft of the proposals, and a new panel.


There’s an embarassing typo in the proposals. Presumably the new exams will tolerate spelling mistakes too?

Write to your MP to express your concern about the proposals for the MFL GCSE

As you may know, there are some grave concerns about the GCSE proposals, not just in terms of what they say but also in terms of the process DfE followed to draw them up.

Please consider writing to your MP to share your concerns. You can do so by using this website (be sure to scroll down to find your MP) or this one. I have drafted this text for you to use in your correspondence: you can copy and paste it, if you like:

You can also share your concerns via one of the exam boards, Pearson, in this survey. Responding to this survey will help the Board build an evidence base to oppose the proposals.


I am aware that the DfE is consulting, until 19 May on a new GCSE in Modern Foreign Languages. The proposal is that we limit exams to a small pre-specified word list based overwhelmingly on so-called high frequency words; at least some of the most important open-ended tasks (such as spontaneous conversation) have therefore been removed.

Despite ostensibly making sense, this is actually a dangerous, risky, and wholly untested proposal. DfE is punting the science angle in its proposals, but in reality ignoring it. It will further weaken MFL in the UK for a variety of reasons:

  • there is nowhere near enough space or credit for natural, spontaneous conversation in the proposals
  • the proposals specify a word list which is too prescriptive, too limiting and inappropriate for young people
  • the proposed content counteracts efforts to diversify, update and decolonise learning within MFL
  • it will cap the attainment of the most capable linguists and undermine KS5 study
  • the prescriptive list will stymie independence and creativity for learners and teachers
  • the content will not prepare learners for real-world communication or contexts
  • teaching in the way envisaged in the proposals this way does not account for the important linguistic differences which exist both spatially, socially and temporally

But most importantly, this approach flies in the face of so much of the research we have about what successful language learning looks like.

In addition, I object to the process whereby DfE has developed these proposals. FOI requests, whose responses are in the public domain, show that just 7 so-called experts designed these proposals, in no more than 6 meetings. Four of these panelists were handpicked by the Minister himself. The conclusions of the review were pre-determined, and had to align with the findings of another – itself not unproblematic – report on pedagogy from 2016. None of the representative professional or subject associations were invited to comment on the proposals with the panel present.

This may seem like a technical issue, but we must act now to prevent further damage to MFL in England by calling on the DfE to withdraw these plans and start again – with a new, more inclusive and transparent content review panel, and a more holistic remit. I would be grateful if you could urgently make this request to the Department for Education and Minister Nick Gibb MP on my behalf.

Yours sincerely,


How did the Department for Education come up with these proposals?

All of this material comes from a Freedom of Information request, available here. The proposals themselves are available here. They amount to the biggest change in the secondary MFL Curriculum since 1987 and relate to a subject widely accepted to be in crisis, yet one of crucial importance to post-Brexit Britain.

Key documents

Details on how the panel was appointed and when it met:

The Minister’s decision to create the panel and approve its membership

Terms of Reference of the panel

What does this FOI request show?

The panel

  1. It was convened very hastily – in 8 working days, seemingly for political reasons:
    24th October 2019: Minister Nick Gibb MP pre-selects some names that he wants to see on the panel. Its creation is prompted by Ofqual’s work on GCSE grading in MFL.
    25th October 2019: DfE officials email the Chair (whose name was pre-decided) saying that they have the go-ahead to proceed
    28th October 2019: The Chair replies and agrees to Chair the group
    Intervening Days: Panelists’ names are drawn up
    31st October 2019: A paper is submitted to Nick Gibb MP for him to formally sign-off creation of the panel
    4th November 2019: DfE emails panel members to sign them up and agree confidentiality of the work.
    5th November 2019: The Panel is publicly announced alongside Ofqual’s decision on grading.
    6th November 2019: Purdah period commenced, prior to the 2019 General Election.

    DfE was keen to time the announcement of the panel alongside Ofqual’s work on grading. This is expressed as a wish to “align comms” and explains why the DfE said “[they]’d like to move fairly quickly”. They note that the wording of comms and statements would depend on the purdah period and “grid slots” from Number 10.
  2. Ofsted and Ofqual were present in most meetings, despite not actually being on the panel. None of the subject associations were invited to comment, or invited to the meetings, as participants or observers. In this way, the Association for Language Learning was excluded, as was ISMLA, NALA, the UCML, LAGB, the Chartered Institute of Linguists, the British Council, and the British Academy. National cultural and linguistic associations present in the UK (Goethe Institute, Institut Français, Instituto Cervantes) were excluded, as were organisations representing lesser-taught languages (such as Confucius Institute or the Qatar Foundation International). Professional bodies such as the Chartered College of Teaching, NEU and ASCoL were excluded, too.
  3. It did not meet very often; 4 times as a full panel (Nov 2019, Dec 2019, Jan 2020, March 2020) and twice additionally as a seemingly ‘core’ group (Feb 2020). This was not curtailed by Covid-19. It was only ever intended to meet 6 times.
  4. The Chair noted the “relatively short timescale” and preferred a “smallish” panel of “6-8” people. My comment: this is a small group given the fundamental nature of the proposed changes.
  5. The Chair prefers to discuss the “balance of expertise as a whole” on the phone, not in writing. I wonder why…
  6. The Minister himself asked officials to approach 3 people to join the panel, along with the Chair: Emma Marsden (Director of NCELP), Katrin Kohl (Professor of German Literature) and John Bald, (former Ofsted inspector and blogger for Conservative Home, an “independent consultant”). This means that four of seven panelists were nominated by the Minister.
  7. It is written in black and white that DfE officials were drafting criteria for panel membership AFTER panelists had already been nominated / chosen by the Minister.
  8. The DfE has declined to disclose the rationale for the appointment of individual panel members, citing that to do so might
    – “discourage future broad and innovative policy development”
    – “significantly increase the risk that there will not be an in depth and open discussion at official and Ministerial level which would adversely affect good policy making”
    My comment: If broad and innovative policy development are such priorities, why did the panel have so few members and so few meetings?
  9. The Terms of Reference, not dated, detail criteria for panel membership. Only one criterion had to be met to qualify for the panel. Thousands of teachers would have qualified for this panel according to these criteria. One criterion stands out: “Independent advisor on MFL – who can bring a wider perspective of working with a range of schools and teachers”. It is not explained what “independent” means, but in the subsequently published panel list, John Bald is named as an “independent languages and literacy consultant”. He writes for the Conservative Home blog. The Terms of Reference confirm that panel membership be based on “recommendations” [i.e. not applications]. The Chair was invited to advise on panel members.
  10. DfE asserts confidence that the panel had “the necessary expertise and experience”, enabling the review to be “broad and balanced”, despite the fact that the panel only had 7 members, none of which were full-time classroom teachers.
  11. Attendance at meetings raises questions: In the Terms of Reference, it was stated that “[p]anel members must be able to make the commitment to attend these meetings”. But many panelists were not invited to two of the 6 panel meetings, suggesting the existence of a “core” panel comprising Ian Bauckham and Emma Marsden.
  12. As an aside, the Chair uses insider shorthand for DfE’s Headquarters, which is located in a premises called Sanctuary Buildings in central London. Mr Bauckham refers to this as “SB”.

The proposals

  1. DfE have been sitting on the proposals since 18 March 2020. A year later, on 10 March 2021, the proposals were published, precisely during the time in which teachers are grappling with how to assess work and award grades for the Summer 2021 GCSE/A-level cycle.
  2. It is confirmed that the panel did not consider grading standards or boundaries. In other words, this review has nothing to do with grading, severe grading or any other grading issue, and there is nothing to suggest grading will change.
  3. The outcome of the review was pre-determined before the review started, insofar as
    – the recommendation of topics was out of scope (and the proposals suggest that GCSEs no longer be topic-based)
    – all recommendations were required to be “compatible with the MFL pedagogy review” from 2016
    – a specific task for the Chair was to “assure that all recommendations by the panel about GCSE subject content are aligned to the MFL Pedagogy Review”
    This was also apparent in the emails from October 2019 shared between DfE Officials and the soon-to-be panel Chair, in which DfE officials state that the job of the Chair will be to “ensure that all recommendations from the group align with the your/the [sic] Teaching Schools Council MFL pedagogy review”. Note that the review panel and the Pedagogy Review were chaired by the same person.
  4. Prior to the review commencing, the DfE had already decided what it thought the problems with the existing GCSEs were: “some lower priority or extraneous content is taking pupil and teacher time away from the core study of vocabulary, grammar and phonics and other essential core knowledge” (although it does not elaborate on what this “other essential core knowledge” is)
  5. DfE set out very deliberately to “consider the direct and indirect impact of the subject content on teacher practice“. This is interesting as it appears to confirm teachers’ concerns that these proposals seem designed to influence how they go about their classroom practice
  6. Exam boards saw the draft proposals twice in 2020 – in March and November. They were formally submitted to Ofqual in December 2020.
  7. DfE appear to have an understanding of what “teaching hours” are usually allocated to MFL, as this was part of the overall consideration for the review. To my knowledge, the DfE has never published any guidance of or research on teaching hours for MFL.
  8. The DfE noted the Ofqual finding that low attainment in MFL may relate to “the extent to which content motivates students”. This is confirmed in the Terms of Reference. However, the subsequent proposals for actual content (words, phonics and grammar) do not clarify how the changes will ensure that content is indeed more motivating.
  9. The DfE was keen to identify where there are items in the current GCSEs which are “unreasonably [formatting sic] difficult”. It is not clear what the distinction is between ‘reasonably’ difficult and ‘unreasonably’ difficult.

If, like me, you think that MFL deserves better policymaking, better standards of transparency and above all a proper, expert-led, open review, then please write to your MP. Curriculum design is political, so our response has to be political, too. You should also sign this petition too, calling for a new panel and a new set of proposals.

‘Less is more’: is it true? Or is less, in fact, less?

The proposed new GCSE for MFL in England has much more specifically defined and limited content. The idea that ‘less is more’ seems to go down well with lots of teachers. In the words of one of the panelists who designed the proposals, “[k]nowing a specific bunch of words extremely well seems to me something that all teachers, students and awarding bodies will be able to get on board with”.

What is the appeal of the ‘less is more’ idea?

It’s easy to see why this such a seductive proposition. Lots of us feel like we are forced to move on to new content even though our students haven’t fully learned the topic we’re currently teaching. We want students to be able to use what they’re learning spontaneously, and we sense that students haven’t fully assimilated the knowledge we’re covering in lessons. It often feels like we just need to take more time and achieve proper mastery, rather than skip to the next thing. ‘Less is more’ feels like a way of us learning less stuff, but learning it better.

There’s another appeal of this “less is more” approach – namely the sense that current exams favour “very literate students with a broad, sophisticated vocabulary in English” (again, quoting a panelist here). This may well be true, although we should be very wary of surrendering the link between language and literacy. (For me it is absolutely right that students with broad vocabularies do well in language exams, because this is language after all.  My job is to make sure that students are as literate and have a broad a vocabulary as possible. If I don’t do this, I’m not really a language teacher. If I work in a school where students have more limited vocabularies in English, then that’s a very powerful argument for more timetable time both in English and MFL. Bring it on. But anyway…)

So broadly speaking, less is more?

“Less is more” is an unhelpful platitude. The devil is in the detail. Of course, if you completely overwhelm learners, never revisit learning or pitch things at the wrong level, then they will learn very little. In that sense, less is more. We are right to think about what is manageable in the time we have. Luckily, there are widely accepted guides for what sort of pace a school-age language learner can keep up with. Generally we can input – on average – about between 8 and 12 new words per hour (alongside the grammar and whatever else we’re teaching) and expect learners to learn roughly 4 to 5 words per hour. This tallies with the finding that on average, learners will learn, over time, roughly 50% of words input by the teacher/textbook. Stronger students will learn more words than this, weaker ones will learn fewer. No student will learn more words than input; students can’t learn words they’ve never seen before.

It is also true that students need time to revise and revisit. In some lessons we might introduce no new words at all, and revise old ones instead. This is already captured in the average figures I quoted above. The idea of staggering input is known in the literature as “periodicity” and it looks like this:

What’s the problem then? Less is more!

The problem is that less is not more. Less is less. If you know fewer words in a language, then you are less proficient. Vocabulary size is by far the biggest predictor of proficiency (see Staehr’s work). It doesn’t matter how fluently you can use a small vocabulary, or how many tenses you can use that vocabulary in – if you only have the words to articulate a very small or very generic selection of things, you really can’t say much.  There’s a powerful myth in UK language teaching that you can be good at a language by knowing few words but being able to use them well. It’s just not the case. We see this when we look at vocabulary size and A-level grades. The more words you know, the better you do.

If you want to say something, and you don’t have the words for it, you cannot say it. If you’re reading or listening to something, and you don’t know the words in it, you will struggle to understand it. It really is as simple as that. “Less is more” might feel seductive because it reassures us that our learners don’t need to learn as much; we can just teach them a nice core of words, with plenty of grammar practice and retrieval practice and they will be fine. They might be fine for an exam based on that tiny number of words, but they will know themselves that they can’t say much. They will be unimpressed and short-changed. This is catastrophic for motivation and subject uptake. Students enter a language classroom expecting to learn a language, not a weird code or made-up version of the language. Otherwise we might as well be teaching them Dothraki. It has a set of rules and a set of words and they won’t ever have to use it. That’s the basis on which this GCSE has been designed.

We need to be clear: languages are composed first and foremost of words. If you’ve got a big vocab, and poor grammar, you can do and understand a LOT. If you’ve got good grammar but poor vocabulary, you can do and understand virtually nothing at all. Have a think about the language you teach; craft some sentences with great vocab but terrible grammar and you’ll see what I mean.

So I assert that less is not more, less is less. Unless we’re learning new words, we’re not learning the language.

But what about that legitimate feeling we all have – that we shouldn’t move onto the next topic/set of words if our students haven’t learned the material from the one before?  The answer is we need to relax about that. Students never uptake (i.e. acquire or learn or assimilate) all of the words we input. They learn different words at different rates. On average, across the world, students uptake 50% of what we teach. If we teach in a way which expects or requires 100% uptake, we will literally never move on.  But we have to move on and we don’t need to worry. Just because a student hasn’t learned all the words about a holiday-gone-wrong doesn’t mean we shouldn’t introduce some new words about, say, the environment. They might learn those words more effectively, perhaps if it is more interesting to them. The specific content words on ‘holiday gone wrong’ aren’t necessary for the acquisition of environment content words. The high frequency generic words will reoccur automatically, of their own accord.

With plenty of rich, planned input, words will reoccur, and learners will learn them at their speed. And of course we can structure our teaching and help them on the way to learn words effectively with tests, apps, activities and good, old-fashioned notebooks. The more words we teach, the more words, in general (and within reason), students will learn. These statistics show that if you teach more words, learners learn more words. If you teach fewer words, they will learn fewer words, and therefore be less proficient.

We can also be reassured that you don’t have to learn words in frequency order. In fact, we know that successful learners of language don’t do this. Frequency influences uptake sequencing (as it already does in the UK: textbooks already do veer towards frequent words, and it would be impossible for them not to, because those frequent words are needed for virtually all sentences) but it does not determine uptake sequencing. Take a look at this graph showing the vocabulary of advanced learners of English in Japan:

But my student can’t speak fluently on the topic I’m teaching now! Well this could be for two reasons. Yes, they might not know any words and they might have learned nothing. But equally they might be hesitating because they haven’t yet learned the various words that would enable them to say what they actually want to say, and which we would cover if we moved on. Without words, they can’t do anything.  

The long term

Let’s just imagine that this GCSE goes ahead. I’m in year 11 and I’ve learned my 1400 words, of which 1360 (40%) are high frequency. This would give me my grade 9, let’s say. Good. Maybe I’ve learned some more words too on the side – perhaps I know 1700 frequent words. I’m being very generous indeed here. My teacher has followed the emerging orthodoxy of “high frequency words first”.

If I’ve broadly learned all the high frequency words, what do I learn next? Well I learn the low frequency words next. And I need to learn them fast: as we said before, if I’m not learning new words, I’m not learning a langauge. I need to maintain the 4-5 words per hour. If I’m now only learning infrequent words, that’s very difficult at KS5. Because I’d have to find texts which are full of infrequent words and which feature the same infrequent words again and again (I need to see a word between 6 and 20 times in order to learn in). This just isn’t how language works. If you use normal texts at KS5, students won’t encounter enough of the infrequent words that they need in order to progress. That’s why it is generally accepted that successful courses expose students to infrequent AND frequent words in roughly equal measure, right from the word go.

The explanation for this is as follows: just because a word is infrequent doesn’t mean that we need to see it fewer times to learn it. We need to see it just as many times as we need to see a frequent word. So for our students to learn infrequent words, we need to make sure they encounter them right from the start.

And we do need to learn infrequent words. Infrequent words are content words. Frequent words are generic words. Infrequent words tell us what we’re actually talking about. They’re our buildings around town, our emotions, our job titles, our sports, our passions, our concerns, our foodstuffs, our belongings, even our colours.


So is less more in this new GCSE? No, less is less. These proposals mark a deliberate decline in standards. This will help nobody and just condemn us to further decline. Yes we have to have a manageable curriculum. Yes we need to plan for revision (the periodicity principle). But we also need a curriculum which delivers a gratifying learning experience and we need to accept that we can’t wait for 100% mastery, because young linguists never uptake (learn) everything we input (teach), and if we try to make this happen, they will get very bored and frustrated, very fast. So what the new GCSE needs to do is set an ambitious learning goal. DfE then needs to make sure that we have the timetable time and teachers in order to teach it. Cutting the bursaries for MFL teacher training was a foolish decision, but a revealing one. This GCSE is about managed decline and I won’t stand for it.

What are “high frequency words”?

The proposals for the reformed GCSE in MFLs (French German Spanish) specify that exam boards must publish a word list, and that 90% of these words should be “high frequency” words. This is defined by the DfE as words which are in the top 2000 in terms of frequency. Sounds good. But what are high-frequency words?

The short answer is – not what we might expect, as this chart illustrates.

You might be thinking I’ve mislabeled the columns, or got the wrong end of the stick. I wish I had. You can check these words yourself at (select the French v5 option) or on the NCELP website tool.

How can this the case? Well, frequency lists don’t come from nowhere. Linguists derive them by ‘sampling’ the language in question. They therefore have to choose what to sample, and these choices are not straight forward. The French list is based, for example, on lots of political, technical and literary French, as detailed in the chart below. So what is a “frequent” word for you, for me or for your learners might not be the same as what a “frequent” word is according to official lists. Less than 1% of this is based on normal conversations.

Needless to say, this takes us a long way backwards in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion, as the frequency lists tend to ‘lock in’ social and linguistic power imbalances. If you sample what is said by the rich and powerful in your ‘corpus’, then your frequency list is a list reflecting the language of the rich and powerful. Nowhere is this more crass than in this example: in the French frequency list, chrétien counts as a frequent word, whereas musulman don’t. Ditto, français counts as a frequent word, but sénégalais and africain don’t. Even though there are more French speakers in Africa than in France.

Inevitably, frequency should be a consideration when we consider which words to teach. We want to equip our students to be competent in the language they’re learning. But it needs to be balanced out with other crucial factors – such as how relevant the words are for our learners and how learnable they are. See O’Dell for further info: O’Dell, F. (Ed.). (1997). Incorporating vocabulary into the syllabus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

It’s worth looking again at one of the most influential scholars on word frequency says about high frequency words – Paul Nation. He defines them as this: “a relatively small, very useful group of words that are important no matter what use is made of the language”. This is not the top 2000 words, and it is not the totality of a curriculum.

Why the proposed new MFL GCSE won’t make grading fairer

There has been a decidedly mixed reaction to the proposals for the next iteration of MFL GCSEs. One of the more positive reactions from practitioners, though, has been the sense that these exams might finally make MFL a bit fairer, and a bit more realistic for lower ability students. Sadly, I don’t think this is the case and I’d like to explain why.

The sense that the reforms will make things fairer comes from the fact that the reading and listening exams will contain fewer ‘unknown’ or ‘surprise’ words. Surely this is good news? Well, no, unfortunately not. Not in terms of grading and not necessarily in terms of pupil experience either.

Marks vs grades

This is firstly due to a distinction we need to make between marks and grades. There’s a common misconception that GCSE grades represent a certain level of ability or a certain mark – a bit like the way passing a driving test confirms that you have reached a certain level of competence in driving. This is how French exams in some parts of Germany work : you pass if you’ve reached a given level. But that’s not the case with MFL in England or with GCSEs more generally.

This is because GCSEs aren’t an indicator of a candidate’s ability, they’re an indicator of their position in a rank order. If you like, imagine one year there was an easy exam. You could score 90% but still get a grade 4, if lots of other people did better than you. Conversely one year there could be a really hard exam, and you could score 55% but get a grade 9. That’s actually more or less what happens with the current listening exams in French or the reading exams in German, where low marks equate to high grades.

The process whereby the system operates is known as “cohort referencing”. It means that the number of grade 7s, 8s and 9s etc is determined in advance each year (based on the national cohort and their attainment at year 6). So it doesn’t matter how easy or hard the exam is. In some ways that’s a good thing because it protects us from a rogue, hard exam. It also means that the only thing we can actually do as teachers if we want our students to get better grades is to help them learn in such a way that they outperform their peers. GCSE grades tell us what position you finished in the race, not how long or hard the race was. Ofqual’s job in all of this is to prevent grade inflation from year to year, and cohort referencing is one of the main ways they do this. None of this is changing, and claims to the contrary that you might have heard are disingenuous. Ofqual will in fact be required to make sure that the new GCSE delivers comparable grades. And despite what some have said, this therefore doesn’t eliminate the advantage held by heritage speakers.

A better exam experience?

There is another argument, though, for making the exams easier or more accessible by removing tricky words and ‘unknown’ words. Even if they don’t translate into higher grades, perhaps it will give students a more positive experience and help boost uptake? Again, this is very unlikely to be the case for reasons I’ll explain. 

An exam board has to design exams which deliver a good spread of marks. If they don’t do this, and if everyone gets similar – similarly high or similarly low – marks, then it is harder to award grades, because of the clustering of candidates around certain mark points. This results in the undesirable situation where the difference between two or even three grades could boil down to tiny handful of marks. Teachers and candidates understandably find this unfair and frustrating. Therefore exam boards design exams in such a way that marks are more spread out.

If there are no unknown words, then exam boards will have to find alternative ways to discriminate between candidates and achieve that spread of marks. That means we are likely to see even more of the grammatical and logical ‘traps’ that teachers and learners find very frustrating at the moment. Exam boards don’t have a choice here : they have to design in things that students will get wrong. Exam boards are already forced to do this to some extent with grammar and tenses, whether they want to or not. It is one of the requirements of the current GCSE. That’s why we get those strange questions which catch students out because students don’t realise they’re being tested on timeframes.

Arguably, vocabulary is a much more normal and natural thing to use to discriminate between candidates. The more vocabulary a person knows, the better they are at a language. If exam boards are less able to test via vocabulary, then they will have to test via weird and wonderful grammatical tricks. NCELP make it quite clear that they favour testing tenses without any contextual clues whatsoever – and it’s precisely this unnatural and contrived language we might be seeing more of in exams. This is unlikely to be a motivating experience for learners.

Fairer content?

One final thought is that whether, by doing away with socially problematic topics such as ‘holidays’, the exams become fairer in other ways. This is an issue I have campaigned hard about in the past and I certainly won’t shed a tear if some of those more alienating themes die a death. But the solution needed to be to offer a thematic diet – or options – which enthuse and inspire learners with rich and coherent contexts for their studies. This needed to be content studied and learned in the classroom. Instead what the reforms have done is remove meaningful thematic content entirely. This makes MFL fairer in a way – but only insofar as it makes MFL equally demotivating for everyone, rather than just for some.


So, will making exams “fairer” by removing unknown words mean that our students get better grades and feel more motivated? On both counts, I conclude this with a no.

There’s another debate about whether students genuinely feel that they’re making progress and are successful if they keep learning lots and lots more grammar rather than words (this belief lies at the core of the proposals for the new GCSE). This is a subject for a future blog, but I think I’ll also conclude this with a no. Grammar is important and has multiplicative effects on what we can do. But by far the most important factor governing how competent and successful we feel in a language is what we can say and understand. For this, we need words.

Should unknown words be glossed in language exams?

One of the proposals is the new GCSE MFL in England is that unknown words should be glossed:

It’s one of the changes that hasn’t yet caught many people’s attention, but it’s worth pausing on to reflect on for a second.

There are some clear arguments in favour of it:

  • Students should be able to revise given content, and if they know it, they should do well in the exam. It is arguably fairer
  • This is arguably more in line with other subjects, such as Biology, where all the knowledge needed is literally printed in the spec.
  • It means that teachers ‘know what to focus on’: if we teach the words on the list, students will do fine.
  • It ‘protects’ candidates from the phenomenon whereby top grades being achieved by native speakers

Interestingly the move brings us into line with GCSE Latin:

All sounds reasonable. So what’s the problem?

  1. Real life

The first problem is that this is not what happens in real life. As linguists, we constantly come across words that we don’t know. Every time I read an article or a book, this happens. A fundamental linguistic skill is managing unknown words by looking at context, analysing the part of speech, thinking about similar words and making quick deductions about what the word may mean. If we can’t do that, then we aren’t really linguists at all. It’s this kind of skill which enables us to know what ‘enseigner’ is and work out what ‘un unseignant’ would be. Ditto boulangerie – boulanger, école – scolaire, maison – maisonette, etc.

This isn’t a concept young people are unfamiliar with. They encounter new words in English all the time; their vocabulary is rapidly developing during the secondary years. It continues into adult life, too. I have recently learned what furlough and prorogue mean. When I renovated my flat I learned about finneals, lintels and architraves. I’ve got a garden for the first time and am learning about scarifiers and propagators.

Languages aren’t like Biology, where the knowledge for a qualification can be finite. Because languages aren’t artificial constructs with man-made lines drawn around them, like Biology is. A language exists on its own right, independently of what the DfE says. If we are serious about teaching languages in a way such that young people might one day use them, then we have to equip them for what they will encounter. And they will encounter people and texts which use words which aren’t on pre-learned list. We are doing a bad job of teaching them if we pretend this isn’t the case. Sadly it would appear that the goal of these GCSEs is not to actually prepare students to use their language, but something more along the lines of Latin: learn it for the sake of it being an intellectual pursuit and nada más.

Another aspect of real life which makes this GCSE problematic, by the way, is the fact that in real life we actually can’t say or do much with 1200 words (or 1700 words if you’re at grade 9). Independent use of language is seen to start at 2000 words: NCELP say this themselves. The idea that you can learn a small number of words – like 1200 – but be communicatively proficient because you’ve got great grammar and phonics is just categorical nonsense. If you don’t know the words for something, no amount of grammar will get you round it.

2. Incentives

The call for unknown words being glossed in exams comes from a sense of unfairness: it’s not fair that a student should lose out just because they don’t know a certain word.

Taking a step back, this really ought to raise our eyebrows. In MFL in England, mark schemes have got us so tied up in knots with grammar, tenses, opinions and sophisticated structures that we’ve forgotten some key fundamental principles about languages.

  • If you want to be able to communicate in a language, you have to learn lots of words. Grammar and phonics are not a replacement for words themselves. You can get quite a long way with good vocab and poor grammar. You can get nowhere at all with excellent grammar and poor vocab.
  • The more words you know in a language, the more you can say and understand
  • The more words a student knows, the greater their command of the language, therefore the higher the grade they should get
  • The fewer words a student knows, the weaker their knowledge of the language, therefore the lower the grade they should get

So if a student encounters words in an exam that they don’t know, then, yes, they should probably get a lower mark than someone who does know them. Let’s be honest: if you don’t know many words, then you don’t know the language. Someone who knows more words should get a higher mark. Of course, the exam has to be long and substantial enough to allow for all this to balance out across different texts and tasks; a student should definitely not be unduly penalised for not knowing just one word. The current exams are pretty sensible in that regard.

But grading is a different issue: many feel that a heritage speaker has an inbuilt advantage (controversial wording but not intended to be) over a classroom learner, and that this prevents school learners from getting top grades. People therefore like the idea of glossing unknown words because it means that some of that advantage is removed. Of course, they will still be at a vast advantage if they have had hundreds or thousands of additional hours of exposure. But the proposal to gloss unknown words has precisely nothing to do with grading. Glossing words won’t suddenly make it easier for non-heritage learners to get high grades because the number of top grades is pre-determined, and heritage learners/native speakers may still come out with the highest marks.

Ofqual could allow exam boards to give out unlimited top grades – to anyone who has met a required standard. This would immediately remove the ‘impact’ of heritage speakers. But they don’t do that: the number of grades 7, 8 and 9 is pre-determined. This is the issue which needs resolving – not the issue of vocab not being glossed. Remember there is a difference between marks and grades: a student who knows fewer words should get fewer marks; its up to us what grade they get though and where those grade boundaries lie. I would have an exam which includes unknown words, and in which some of the marks rely on students making sensible (and not unreasonable) deductions about the meaning of a small number of those unknown words. I wouldn’t cap the number of people who achieve a certain grade.

Glossing the words in an exam creates another issue. It puts in place this ceiling of 1700 words. There would be literally zero credit or justification, in exam terms, for going beyond 1700 words. It would cap the highest attainers at 1700 words – leaving them well behind their peers in other countries (those learning Languages other than English [LOTE], not just those learning English as a compulsory core subject). In the current system, the most motivated students will learn beyond the obvious words for each topic because we/they know that they might well come up – just like they might come up in real life. In the new system, this won’t be the case. They could learn an infrequent word, like infirmier (which isn’t a high frequency word) and immediately know that there is nil chance of being credited for knowing it. So where is the incentive?

Welcome, readers, to the rabbit hole of word lists down which MFL in England has disappeared.

A compromise?

A respectable language exam should require students to negotiate some unknown words. Ideally these should be words whose meaning can be deduced via the normal sensible strategies: looking at context, cognates, part of speech, etc. If a student can’t do this, then they are lacking a certain lingusitic skill and they should arguably get a lower mark. If they know the word or can work it out, then they should get a higher mark. Because languages are things we use in life, not in exams. This is not Latin.

Where a word can’t be reasonably guessed or worked out, but where it remains crucial for understanding a text, then fair enough, gloss it. But if a text contains lots of words that need glossing? Then the text probably isn’t appropriate for an exam in the first place.

Exam boards could say that a certain percentage of marks would be available if candidates know a smaller core word list. But then for the other marks, candidates would be encouraged to learn words in the given topics or themes being tested, and these words might not be defined. This would simulate real life and maintain the incentive to learn as many words as possible. This would also help schools defend and expand curriculum time. The exam would then have some unglossed words, some glossed words, and lots of words that are in a pre-released list.

As a concluding thought, whether we gloss all known words in an MFL exam seems to depend on two things:

1. Is deducing the meaning of words from context / through analysis of the word a linguistic skill or not? If we think it is, or if we think it is a significant one, then we should probably assess it. Otherwise we are giving someone top grades without knowing whether they can do something which we think is important in our subject.

2. What is the purpose of the exam? If it’s to measure diligence, then we should gloss all words not in a pre-determined list. But if the exam is supposed to show how good we are at using the language, then candidates who know more words should probably get higher marks than candidates who know fewer words. Given that word lists are artificial (no-one speaks to us using word lists), then it’s not an accurate measure of how good someone is at the real language if they’re only tested on things they knew about in advance.