The suggestion that culture is important in language learning is pretty uncontroversial – and that is a good thing. We can also express that idea the other way around – language is important in cultural learning. Both are true.
The cultural aspects of language learning are more valuable than ever. Evidence shows us that students are not persuaded by ideas that languages are important for business or national security. In the age of Global English and Google Translate we can’t rely on practical or economic benefits of languages to convince learners that MFL is “necessary”. It really just isn’t that convincing, and we need to be sympathetic to that. But virtually no other subject asserts itself on such purely practical terms, so nor should we.
But languages deliver so much more than their important practical communicative skills: they’re a new set of glasses through which we can see the world, a new set of tools with which to build things in that world and a new set of ideas with which to build relationships with people beyond our shores.
All lovely, warm words. So what does this look like in the curriculum – and what’s the next step?
Where we need to start
Where we might head
Objectives of language learning
MFL is about learning languages – and we can learn culture, too, on the way. Culture is important in language learning.
In the 21st century, MFL is about intercultural inquiry through learned languages. Culture is important in language learning, and culture is important in language-learning.
Lessons & materials
Lessons are designed to promote language acquisition, but we include cultural references wherever we can
MFL lessons are designed to promote intercultural learning and language acqusition as interdependent equals
The language feels challenging but we learn some interesting things about other cultures, people & places at the same time
The cultural and linguistic aspects of the course are equally challenging and thought-provoking
We learn lots about culture, people & places in the course, but in the exam we’re tested on language, and it’s language which is the most important at the end of the day
The exam reflects the valuable and challenging intercultural learning that students have negotiated, as well as their growing linguistic knowledge & skills
Languages are valuable because we can use them in our lives and careers
Languages are valuable because they teach us how to think critically and empathetically, and because they give us new practical means of communicating as equals.
Netflix’s hit series certainly isn’t short of tired French clichés which inevitably helped sell this series to international audiences. This is the France of beautiful Parisian boulevards, strong black coffee, croissants for breakfast, cigarettes in the office, glamourous women, hopeless romantics, hot tempers, and men with mistresses. But there is something a little more interesting going on in this series, too. It might tell us something about what France wants to be versus how it is. As with any hit movie, book or TV show, it’s a prism through which we can learn about our friends over the channel, and see ourselves in a different light, too. And wh
The setting of this series in an actors’ agency, at the beating heart of the French cinema industry, is not insignificant. In this show, French cinema thrives. It is a national cinema with its own stars, who in turn have their own capriciousness. It’s a country so wedded to its own cinematic representation that these very same stars appear in the show – as themselves. In the show, it’s an industry with more than enough intrigue and politics to rival any other in the world, and plenty of cash to splash on parties, festivals and glamour. Significantly, its stars covet recognition in the form of a César, not an Oscar, and the hottest tickets of the year are for Cannes, not for California. The old flame of French cinema continues to burn bright – under the affectionate tutelage of old-timers like agent Arlette Azémar (not to mention her pooch Jean Gabin), who sagely and without a hint of anxiety or déclinisme guides her colleagues to nurture the talent of tomorrow.
The idea of France wanting to do things differently – by itself, with a hint of largesse and broadly against the odds – is a familiar one. The series confronts this head-on. Hicham arrives back in Paris having made his millions in London – shorthand for the anglo-saxon world of ruthless wealth creation and business acumen. He wants to lecture his colleagues on how deals are done and profits secured in the land of private schools and plaggy commercial soundbites. He comes back to France with a distasteful lust of excess which fails to impress his own son, let alone his fellow Frenchwomen and Frenchmen. The Americans – referred to literally as such – are shown in a similarly unsympathetic light. They’re represented by two, highly capable upstarts from a global production company, with a reputation for their uncompromising and merciless approach to contracts, incapable to developing relationships beyond the commercial or legal spheres. They might be smart, but they’re outwitted by their French agents: Andréa and Gabriel curate the cunning and creativity of colleagues from across the hierarchy to outmanoeuvre the faces of corporate America. Their solution is downright ridiculous, but funny, French, heartfelt, hot-blooded and, of course, engineered by a namesake of the epitome of French cinema herself, Isabelle Hupert. London might be more successful, and the Americans more powerful, but France keeps the upper hand. It’s no surprise that hotshot agent Andréa Martel quickly loses interest in a promotion to New York, and prefers to stay in her beloved, somewhat dysfunctional Paris,
Les règles sont faites pour être transgressées
Part of the secret of Parisian flair, it seems, is to have an insistence for rules, and a readiness to break them. Rules, often arcane and archaic ones, seem to cast their shadow throughout the storylines. A man can readily claim parenting rights, but a second mother cannot; the Inland Revenue is a stickler for business expenses and company accounts; contracts restrict the free movement and blossoming of artistic talent; scripts get in the way of good films; marriage stands in the way of love; conventions conceal truths. But all virtually no rule or convention in the film stands the test of time, nor the test of Frenchness. If the characters in this series love one thing, it’s to recognise the rule, and break it anyway. In Britain we like to sneer at our continental friends for this: time after time the British press prints an angry story about how well-behaved Britain is, and how the French and Germans refuse to obey the rules that they themselves set within the EU. Of course, we in Britain write and read these stories as if we have discovered something about the French that they don’t know about themselves. This series reminds how naive we are, not to mention how much we love a rule in the first place.
De vieux préjugés, de vieux problèmes
But it’s not all rosy in the glam world of French cinema. We see a France struggling to deal with some long-term social hangovers. It’s a country which can’t help but sexualise young black women. Paris is a snobbish capital which sneers at its provinces. The regions are pure but simple places, the home of bad actresses and regretted romances. Sexual minorities are more visible but remain othered. And some men continue to wield destructive power on the standing and wellbeing of women. And the bougie world of French cinema in the first arrondissement seems irreconcilable with a more realistic, cross-sectional representation of urban France.
I’ve only just reached the end of series 3, so please forgive any omissions or hasty conclusions. Call My Agent! is perhaps no masterpiece, but it’s fun, watchable, and reminds me why I love being a linguist. I feel so lucky to be able to watch this through the medium of French, and to explore these thoughts in the context of what I’ve learned hitherto about the French-speaking world.
NB Scroll down to the bottom for a video if you’d rather watch instead of read
Vocabulary is the main driver of progress in language learning – more so than our command of phonics or grammmar. The more words we know, the more we can say, the more we can understand, the higher grades we get, and the easier it is to assimilate and use grammatical structures. This is borne out in research – for example a study by Lars Staehr, which finds that 72% of the variance of scores that students achieve in a reading test will be attributable to their vocabulary size. There’s also this chart, which shows the stark correlation between vocabulary size and the grades achieved in French A-level.
How many words should we learn?
Researchers generally agree that in French, German and Spanish (and English for that matter), we need around 2000 words to get anywhere close to becoming an “independent user”. Independent use has always been the goal of GCSE and this aligns with Level B1 in the Common European Framework (CEFR). If we learn fewer than 2000 words, our language proficiency is going to be very contrived and limited. 2000 words is the threshold at which independent use can start; genuine B1 level probably lies some distance beyond it.
It is also true that knowing the most common 2000 words or so of a language unlocks about 80% of the words in a given text – be it spoken or written (although not necessarily as much as 80% of the meaning). The most common 2000 words in these languages therefore form the bedrock of the majority of the language in common use.
So how do we get to 2000 words?
There are broadly two schools of thought here:
Learn words via topics and themes
Learn words in frequency order
In the UK until now, for GCSE, we have always followed option one – topics and themes. Words are introduced via key topics determined by exam boards and the DfE such as “free time” or “the environment”. We often repeat these topics every year – for example hobbies, holidays and home life will come up in most years of study between year 7 and year 11.
This approach has its critics. Researchers find that UK learners simply don’t learn enough words in this way (Milton, Tschichold). People like me don’t like how boring, repetitive and socially exclusive these topics are. And the non-academic MFL Pedagogy Review of 2016 made the following criticism:
[In topic-led curricula] the choice of vocabulary can be too specialised, teaching relatively rarely used words at the expense of common words which it is harder to plan for re-encountering later. A consequence of not attending to frequency of occurrence in vocabulary choice is pupils realising that they cannot say or understand basic things in the language
Bauckham et al, MFL Pedagogy Review, 2016
So if topics leave students unable to say basic things, we should teach words in frequency order instead?
This is indeed exactly the approach adopted by the National Centre of Excellence for Language Pedagogy, NCELP, soon to be rolled out in the form of a whole new GCSE MFL for England. In this new GCSE, we won’t learn topics any more, instead we will learn a set word list of 1750 ish words, based overwhelmingly on the most frequent words. Sounds good – after all, we know how important the most frequent words are (they represent up to 80% of normal text or speech), and without them, students can’t say basic things.
It all depends on what you think is basic. If your view of basic is that students should be able to say or understand any of the things below, then this idea of “frequent words first” doesn’t work – because these basic things all require students to go beyond the top 2000 words.
I am 16
I’d like a tube ticket
Where do I change trains?
Can I rent a car?
How much are these trousers?
A baguette, please
I go to college/school
My father is a nurse
I hate / love it!
He’s got a tempeorature
Where can I download it?
I need to plug my phone in
Can I get the bill please?
This is because high frequency words aren’t necessarily basic words or words that we might feel are important or useful in terms of our curriculum aims. Although language involves lots of high frequency words, it’s actually completely reliant on the content words – the less frequent words – to get its core message across. It’s the less frequent words which we use to say what we want, what the problem is, who we are, etc. It’s simply not the case that these content words are less important. They deliver the message.
Professor Milton, explains this here, in relation to a discussion of the Tricolore textbook series and why students learning with it appear to make slow progress:
Frequent words are essential to the development of a working lexicon so it might be thought that skewing input in the way would be desirable. However, a learner also needs exposure to infrequent words and it is by no means clear that there is enough exposure to these in this textbook material to allow the lexicon to grow in the infrequent ranges. Without these words the lexicon will be limited in size and the learner inevitably handicapped in terms of communicability and comprehension.
Milton, J (2010), THE ROLE OF CLASSROOM AND INFORMAL VOCABULARY INPUT IN GROWING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEXICON, JAL (26)
So do we need a topics approach after all?
Essentially, yes we do. This doesn’t mean we don’t learn high frequency words: we must, and we do. Whatever topics we teach, we will automatically be teaching the most common words. Why? By virtue of being high frequency, they will naturally occur anyway. If we teach via topics, we give our language natural coherence and we give our learners the words they need to actually talk/read/hear/write about something. As we teach different topics, they overlap on top of one another, and the most common words will be repeated more often. I’ve represented that below: each ‘leaf’ might represent a topic or unit of study. Each unit will involve a different profile of words, some overlapping. If we want to repeat more of the same words, we choose topics of greater similarity, and vice-versa.
So why doesn’t it work at the moment?
It is true that the topics approach used in England really doesn’t work well: UK learners of French know hugely fewer words than learners of French in other countries, even when you control for the amount of timetable time available. The reasons for this is thought to be that we don’t vary the topics and content enough: students’ vocabulary progression just stalls, particularly in year 8 and year 9, because there is very little new thematic (and, therefore, lexical) input. This has bene shown via analysis of student vocabulary sizes analysed alongside the rate at which new words are included in common textbooks (such as Tricolore and Studio).
So how do we make better progress towards independent use a reality?
There are three fundamentals which we have to remember when planning vocabulary learning with that 2000 word goal in mind:
Students can’t learn words they’ve never been taught or never seen.
If we keep teaching the same topics, then we are likely to be teaching the same words, so students won’t progress
Students won’t learn everything we teach them. Our input always exceeds their uptake.
It is thought that in a good language course, students will learn (i.e. acquire or uptake) about 50%, on average, of the words taught. There is lots and lots of evidence for this across studies in lots of countries (see Milton 2009, Measuring Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, chapter 4, for a summary). And in a good course, students generally acquire about 4-5 words per hour. (By the way that’s a great stat to take to your SLT: if we are aiming for 2000 words, you’ll need 400 hours on the curriculum, which works out as about 2.5 hours per week.). Professor Heather Hilton from Université Lyon 2, advising MFL teachers in France, therefore suggests that anyone aiming for the B1 level/>2000 words should be teaching/inputting 5000-6000 words – skip to minute 16 in this video to hear her say it.
The first conclusion is that if DfE goes ahead with their idea of a GCSE based on the most common 1750 words:
students will learn no more words than they do now, because students never learn every word that is taught
even if they did, they would be some way short of the level of words needed for independent use
if, as would be expected, the vocab list dominated teaching, there would be a “cap” on the vocabulary achieved by the very highest performing students, meaning that those with the highest grades would end up learning fewer than at present
students wouldn’t have the breadth of words to actually say or understand anything, because they wouldn’t have any of the crucial content vocabulary through which we actually communicate meaning
there is a risk that SLTs would further erode MFL curriculum time, because students would be clear proof that the full 2 hours per week isn’t needed (once you allow for cognates / ‘rapid progress’ policies, etc)
The second conclusion is that there is an opportunity to make much better progress in MFL, even within existing timetable constraints, if:
we have a richer and wider variety of thematic input
we reform exams accordingly
This would require us to:
have the courage of our convictions to agree what the purpose of MFL is
… and then to agree a menu of engaging, motivating thematic content that would follow from that
This is perhaps best summed up by this conclusion, made by Prof Jim Milton in his 2009 book on measuring vocabulary acquisition in second languages:
But hold on, if we teach via topics, isn’t there a risk that students miss out on learning some of the most frequent words?
On the one hand, no, because those frequent words will still come up.
On the other hand yes, but that’s inevitable, because students don’t learn everything that is taught. Even in the most successful courses, at very advanced levels (vocab size of 4000+ – i.e. beyond A-level, even) students don’t have 100% coverage of the most frequent word bands. Take a look at the vocab profile of highly proficient learners of English in Japan:
Here’s the same content – more or less – in video format.
For just over a year, the Government has been pulling together proposals for a new MFL GCSE. Well, it assembled a panel of people of its choosing and required them all to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs).
Anyway, it has become pretty much clear that there will be some significant changes in the new GCSE, which I suspect will launch in 2022 or 2023.
Familiar topics – holidays, hobbies, daily routine, jobs, school etc Often criticised for being unfair on lower-income learners. As well as for being boring and old-fashioned.
Vocab lists are suggested by exam boards but the exam contains lots of words not on the vocab lists.
There will be one set vocabulary list. ALL tasks in the exam will use words from this list. Anything additional will be glossed.
About 70% of the words on the vocab lists are from the “top 2000 most frequent words”.
Far more of the words on the list will be from the top 2000 – probably 90%+.
All sounds good, right? We’ll know exactly what students need to learn for the exam? And they’ll learn words which are more frequently used in the target language?
Sounds too good to be true, and in fact, it is too good to be true. Ruth – a Headteacher friend – and I had a pretty revealing chat to Prof Jim Milton, vocab expert extraordinaire, about the plans. This is what he had to say:
So there we have it. Professor Milton’s verdict:
There is no example anywhere in the world of a vocab list being used for an MFL qualification in this way. Because it doesn’t prepare students for the real world. In the real world, speakers don’t limit themselves to the top 2000 words.
Focusing so heavily on the most frequent words is nowhere near as helpful as it might sound. Because students will be totally lacking the “content” vocabulary that they need to actually say anything. More successful countries teach students a fuller range of words, across the frequency bands, so that they can say things which actually have meaning.
The number of words being proposed isn’t enough for students to feel able, communicative, confident. If Government were serious about students reaching the level that GCSE claims to be, they’d be upping the number of words.
So the online grammar exercises I’ve put in these cribs are NOT supposed to be amazing or innovative or faddish or trendy or anything approaching any particular emperor’s new clothes, BUT
They’re free – they cost you nothing, ever
No login or sign up or GDPR implications
They use a range of vocab – crucial for expanding students’ communicative ability
Because they’re from all sorts of authors and creators, they feature a whole range of methods and approaches, so there’s lots of variety.
Some are listening-based, some are reading-based, some are multi-choice, some require typing
They’re all self-marking: Students can do them online and get immediate feedback, or you could do them in a live lesson.
They’re not overly gamified or infantile. I.e. they are unashamedly about learning language, and students will feel like linguists when they do them. I think this is a good thing ‘cos young people like to be taken seriously and like to learn stuff.
I’ve only done verb tenses so far, but hope they’re useful. There is TONNES more where this came from on Le point du fle . Not all of it is great but there’s plenty of helpful stuff in there. I’ve just picked out some of it.
The Department for Education is due to launch a consultation on a new GCSE for MFL. Various individuals have been working on this new GCSE since November 2019. You may recognise that two panelists are the Co-Directors of NCELP. The Chair Ian Bauckham has a number of other roles relevant to MFL – and he chaired the 2016 Pedagogy Review.
Panelists were required to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) and therefore haven’t been able to discuss the proposals in public. But more information has now entered the public domain, and it looks fairly certain that the new GCSE will:
No longer feature specific topics (holidays, daily routine, hobbies etc)
Have a specified vocabulary list – according to which all tasks in the exam will be set. Evidence suggests the vocab list will be 1500-2000 words long in each language.
Consultations generally aren’t the beginning of a process of open dialogue, rather they are a formality which must be undertaken before decisions are finalised. So I’d like MFL practitioners to debate the vocabulary list issue in advance of the proposals being formally published for consultation. Here are my thoughts on the pros and cons of the idea of a “specified vocab list”.
Before I do this, let me briefly summarise what the proposal is likely to be:
1. GCSE will be driven by a specified list of approximately 1500-2000 words in each language.
2. All exams tasks will be set using words from within this list.
3. The list will be heavily informed by frequency – i.e. the vast majority (90%+) of these 2000 words will be from the “top 2000” most frequent words in each language, as published in ‘frequency dictionaries’, which in turn are based on a cross-section of written and spoken language. On the current AQA vocab list, approximately 68% of words are drawn from the top 2000 word families, so there will be a greater emphasis on frequency.
As a point of reference, research shows that an average GCSE French student knows about 850 words by the end of year 11, and there is some research which suggests that this has declined further (see Milton 2006 and subsequent publications).
It might be helpful to know what exactly students need to know if they want to do well in the exam
Students know that any words they learn might come up in the exam
Knowing what’s on the list allows us to take a text and replace less common words with more common ones
We could in theory teach whatever topics we like, as long as we’re mindful of what’s on the list (but for a major caveat, see below)
Language in the real world doesn’t occur like this; real language doesn’t obey the frequency lists. Language is always about something and therefore always involves words beyond the top 2000 – even simple things like road signs and ticket machines. If we restrict largely learning to the top 2000, we are not equipping students to actually say anything or comprehend anything in the real world. It is argued by experts that it is a lack of content-specific (i.e. less frequent) vocabulary which hampers learners as well as a lack of high-frequency words.
The real world doesn’t offer students the cosy reassurance that everything they hear or read will be from a specified list, and we should be teaching them to be able to cope with unknowns.
The approach is not supported by evidence – in fact the evidence (Milton 2010) contradicts it. Successful learners of French in other countries benefit from a broad, rich and varied input of vocab from across the frequency bands, way beyond the top 2000. In his influential book on vocab learning, Milton (2009: 216) even argues that 50% of input should be made up of infrequent words.
Will we become slaves to the list? Given that this list is very ambitious compared to what most learners currently achieve, is there any space left to go beyond the curriculum or to go off-piste? It’s nice to think we could, but the reality is that it’s a risk that will be hard to justify for many.
Although the size of the list looks ambitious, we know from research that students virtually never learn every word that they experience in the classroom, regardless of our pedagogy. Uptake is usually much less than 50% in British classrooms – so if we limit our teaching to this vocab list, our students will be even worse off in terms of vocab than they are now. There is no evidence to support the assertion that if we publish a vocab list, students will suddenly learn it.
The frequency lists themselves are problematic. Firstly, they are too static: ‘confinement’ and ‘vaccin’ aren’t in the top 2000, but they’re definitely common words this year. Secondly, they tend not to recognise the importance slang words (which by definition are common, especially for young people). Thirdly, they don’t reflect linguistic variation across nations (France vs Sénégal vs Suisse vs Québec), communities or indeed individuals (“église” is top 2000 but “mosquée” is not; “mariage” is but “pacs” and “homosexuel” are not; “marché” makes the but “banque alimentaire” would not). The lists are likely to reflect existing unequal power structures within our world – and if we immortalise them in GCSE specs, all we are doing is maintaining those power structures.
I don’t think it’s Government’s role to be dictating to me as a teacher which words my students should learn. This is centralised control-freakery in its purest and most extreme form. Not only does that stifle my creativity, but it also it prevents me from teaching things which I feel are important, or which will inspire my students. Sure, I guess I could rework texts and topics to shoe-horn in the “correct” vocabulary from the lists. But in doing so they become contrived and not remotely realistic or authentic. Inevitably it limits what I can teach. If I want to talk about the injustice of food poverty in modern France, I should be able to. If I want to talk about West African cuisine, I should be able to. If I want to teach a word because it is powerful or beautiful or expressive, I should be able to, regardless of whether it is on the Government-sanctioned list, and without feeling like I’m deviating from the “curriculum” and thereby taking risks at my students’ expense. And it sends a massive signal that the Government doesn’t trust MFL teachers, indeed wants to de-skill us.
Most importantly, this is being proposed despite it not having been trialed anywhere in the world; this approach has no track record, no evidence of success. Yet it’s about to drive all language learning in England. It seems highly risky to me. Literally no other country has MFL exams driven by specified vocab lists. And pretty much every country in the world is more successful at language learning than we are. Perhaps we should learn from them, not do the opposite to what they do?
I’ve tried to be balanced here. To be honest, once upon a time, I was seduced by the idea of a set vocab list. And it will sound appealing to many. But the more I’ve read up on this, and the more thinking I’ve done, the more worried I am. And I think preceding with this could be the final nail in the coffin for MFL in England. Believe me, I’d love to be wrong, and I’d love for there to be a renaissance of language-learning by whatever means. But I really don’t think this approach will take us there, and it’s a MASSIVE risk.
If you’re worried too, please consider writing to your MP. You can do so by using this website (be sure to scroll down to find your MP) or this one. You can copy and paste this text, if you like:
INSERT YOUR NAME, ADDRESS AND POSTCODE
DearINSERT MP NAME
I am aware that the DfE is proposing to go to consultation on a new GCSE in Modern Foreign Languages. The proposal is that we limit exams to a pre-specified word list based largely on the most common words.
Despite ostensibly making sense, this is actually a dangerous proposal and is not supported by any evidence of any merit. The risk that it will further weaken MFL in the UK is very high indeed.
In our high-stakes environment, it is likely that this list will dominate our teaching and learning. Such lists are a poor approach for use in the classroom because they do not prepare students for the real world, where uncommon words inevitably occur. Teaching in this way does not account for the important differences which we see in language both spatially and temporally. But most importantly, this approach flies in the face of all the research we have about what successful language learning does look like. Successful linguists are able to talk about specific things, and this requires a different balance of vocabulary.
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 halt and rethink its plans for MFL. The first step in doing so would be to talk properly to teachers like myself and to look in detail at successful curricula elsewhere in the world. The current proposals have been drawn-up by a panel of individuals, in a non-transparent process, who were all required to sign NDAs and whose work was not subject to public, professional or academic scrutiny.
Why am I linking NCELP’s teaching materials to their learning goals? I mean other than the fact that to claim the two are not closely linked is – frankly – churlish, here are a ‘mountain’, indeed a ‘mass’ of reasons why.
NCELP itself – its whole raison d’être – is based on the principle that there is a relationship between what is taught and what is learned. Hence the wholly unproblematic assertion that “vocabulary teaching is a core component of foreign language learning” [emphasis mine]. Ergo NCELP’s teaching materials, including its vocab lists, can be considered to be a core part of what the intended learning is. NCELP has that posh word for “teaching” in its name, but it’s vocabulary work is written in the context of what it thinks students need to know, i.e. learn (hence the business with Zipfian curves in its slide shows, hence the preoccupation with high frequency words, priority, etc etc). NCELP itself says that we need to teach in a certain way in order that students learn the things that NCELP thinks they should learn.
If Paul Nation and others can make a career out of the relationship between input and uptake, then I sure as hell can make a tweet out of it. I asserted that what is taught in the NCELP ‘method’ is heavily related to what is learned, and this was met with a certain (and not unpatronising) derision. Yet I think anyone with the faintest interest in SLA will be comfortable with the idea that input relates to uptake. In other words, teaching relates to learning. The irony here is that early career teachers might struggle with this distinction between the two insofar as students don’t learn everything we teach them, or learn something different (i.e. incorrect, or personal to them). It’s rarely a problem that a student leaves a lesson having learned far more vocabulary than we taught them. Anyway, let’s be logical for a moment.
The only ways what is learned can exceed what is taught in a UK ML classroom setting would realistically be: a) meaningful exposure to additional input outside of the classroom and directed homework tasks, or b) additional words that are learned through exposure / implicit learning in the classroom
…so let’s take those propositions in turn, in the light of the NCELP materials.
a)Does NCELP envisage significant meaningful exposure to additional input outside of the classroom/homeworks? I guess this is the world of Paul Nation – extensive reading programmes whereby students would consume huge amounts of non-taught input and make steady vocabulary gains. I’ve seldom – if ever – come across this in a mainstream UK secondary ML classroom. And it would be a pretty big deal if NCELP were to be advocating this. And they haven’t mentioned this anywhere, so we can safely assume that this isn’t what they have in mind.
So that leaves b) is it envisaged that students learn more than what is in the specified vocab lists, through exposure within the teaching materials If this were the case, I’d expect to see teaching materials – texts, slides, etc – which were lexically different – richer, more heavily loaded – than the vocab lists themselves. I can’t see evidence of that when I compare lesson materials with the vocab lists. I guess I’d also expect to hear NCELP refer to the crucial contribution to learning made by incidental exposure: How is it supposed to done? Which words are they supposed to be? How is it supposed to be sequenced and loaded? How am I supposed to know whether it’s happening? NCELP does present its work as a comprehensive methodology, after all, with claims of excellence and research-led integrity. (Whether it’s these rather bold claims that are the problem, btw, rather than the materials themselves, which are definitely no worse than the rest of what’s out there, is another matter, for another debate, another day)
So if it is indeed intended that students learn more than what’s in the vocab lists, then:
i) it isn’t apparent from the input itself ii) they don’t talk about it, so it isn’t clear how teachers are expected to make this assumption, or operationalise it, or create the conditions for it to happen
Given that there’s no trace of the intended incidental learning in the NCELP scripture, nor any obvious trace of it in the input itself, we can safely assume, for now, that the vocab lists are therefore a decent representation of the intended learning. These lists add up to less than 2000 words. On the “2k priority” principle (lest we forget, legacy input is criticised by NCELP for including rare words at the expense of more common ones), this would mean that learners should be learning no >2k words at all. But, I’m pleased to say, the vocab lists dofeature words beyond 2k after all – at about a rate of 1 in 10. Which leads me to the question: which ones, and why? Are they arbitrary? Random? Personal fave? We are heading towards a GCSE with a defined vocab list (with receptive skills papers testing only words on this list as to do anything else would be, in the words of the Chair of the review, “unfair”). So what’s on this list matters, as they (? NB overlap between NCELP and close advisors to HM Government) are making unilateral and – apparently evidenced – judgements about which words make the cut and which don’t. This is, of course, one of the myriad reasons why Governments and awarding bodies around the world avoid definitive lists in the first place, and rightly so. You’ll be aware of the debates surrounding the usefulness of the AWL. Anyway, what’s also interesting about this is that the very organisation which says we should be picking words on the basis of evidence appears to say one thing, but do something else: pick some extra words – 10% or so – as they choose. Oh and by the way, the NCELP vocab list isn’t that dissimilar in frequency profile to the vocab lists in the ML textbooks already out there. 70% ish K1 lemmas; 80-90% K2. So I’m not entirely sure how we’ve moved on anyway.
Enfin bref. There is, of course, an elephant in the room. What’s holding English ML learners back in their communicative ability – let’s be clear – is not the balance of words they’re learning, it’s the quantity. So much ink and airtime of NCELP’s vocab work is based on which words to choose. But the real factor driving communicative ability is how much students know.
NCELP often refers to the 852 figure as the number of words known by UK GCSE students of French. It’s way short of the golden 2000 and way, way, way behind continental teenagers learning LOTE. The figure dates from a 2006 study by J. Milton. There was a 2008 study by A. David which presented an even bleaker picture. In fairness, NCELP states some vocab learning goals – 360 odd per year – which are somewhat beyond what most UK students currently achieve, and this is a step forward. But as I have shown, this goal still leaves us some way short of the 2000 threshold generally accepted to be a marker of gist comprehension and flexible communicative ability. Let’s not forget that many/most learners will probably not learn all the 360 words per year. Although I’d like them to, of course.
If NCELP really wanted to make a difference to communicative ability through the vocab route – which I applaud, given the weight of evidence linking lexis to proficiency and acquisition – then they’d be making it crystal clear just how important it is to properly stare the necessary vocab goals in the eye and spell out what this means. I.e. they’d be making a loud and vociferous case for a much meatier vocab outcome by GCSE. In the UK we say that GCSE = B1 (Ofqual). But take a look at B1 overseas – and the research which links B1 to lexis – and the B1 descriptors – and you can clearly see that for B1 you really do need to be at 2k words.
2000 words by year 11? That means that students need 444 words per year , based on a 4.5 year GCSE course. That means more than 12 words per week, every week, for 36 weeks, from year y 7 to y11. That’s only allowing for a meagre 3 weeks of assessments / time off timetable. That’s a very tall order, even for schools with the luxury of 2hrs MFL per week from year 7, which is increasingly rare. To say this publicly would go down like a lead balloon – as NCELP would be basing its method on a model which just isn’t viable in so many UK schools. But they also can’t afford to set a goal of less than 2000, because that would mean Government making a very public, rather awkward admission that you can’t have the fluency, spontaneity & authenticity to which GCSE pretends to aspire on a more realistic vocab goal that would actually work in schools. And it would mean a [Conservative] Government very measurably and obviously lowering standards. Not politically viable. There is a mismatch between the standard we say the exam is, and the vocab we’re prepared to say needs to accompany it.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that NCELP isn’t more forthcoming about an explicit vocab goal. But for everyone’s benefit, they probably should be. And it would move us on from this convenient side-show about the top 2k. A side-show which will get us nowhere, fast.
As teachers, we’ve all had that sinking feeling in year 11: students don’t seem to know enough words to excel in the reading and listening papers, and are flummoxed by the grammar and sentence structure. Deep down we know that at least some of the marks they do gain are the fruit of guesswork. If you’ve ever felt anything like this, you’re not alone, and we see it in the marks that students score at GCSE. Take 2019 AQA GCSE French, for example, where average marks in the receptive (listening & reading) papers lagged considerably behind marks in papers testing the productive skills (speaking and writing).
AQA GCSE French Higher Tier
Average % score
Researchers have identified that there is indeed a vocab “gap” at GCSE: The official vocab list for AQA is about 1,400 lines, yet Milton (2006) identified that students sit the exam with only around 950 words under their belt; progress in acquiring new words stalls dramatically in years 8, 9 and 10. There is no data anywhere to suggest that this situation has improved or is improving. Milton also finds that as a country, we’re getting worse, not better.
So, where are we going wrong? Why can’t students read?
Perhaps the most dominant of all concepts in how we should teach reading in MFL today is that of ‘comprehensible input’. It dates back to Krashen’s core hypothesis that we can create the best conditions for L2 acquisition if we look at how we learn our mother tongue. Today as teachers, we are frequently told by commentators, trainers and people selling us resources that the texts we use in lessons should be 95-98% comprehensible – i.e. contain maximum 1 in 20 (and ideally fewer) new words. If we teach in this way, we are told, this helps students learn the words and structures we’re teaching them, and helps students be fluent. This is the defence given when people like me say that we should be reading more interesting and ambitious texts in the MFL classroom. No!, they say. Comprehensibility is king! The key is comprehensibility and repetition, and this is more important than giving students high quality texts – such is the received wisdom.
Most frequently, commentators refer to the work of Paul Nation to justify this assertion. The problem is, though, that’s not what Paul Nation said. Below I lay out the differences between Paul Nation’s work, and how it has been (mis-)construed in the UK teaching environment.
Paul Nation’s work in 2000 and 2006
The UK context today
The research finding
Nation found that texts need to be composed of 95-98% known words for students to be able to understand the text: he wanted to know “what percentage coverage of text is needed for unassisted reading pleasure”
The message has been distorted to say that Texts need to be composed of 95-98% known words for students to be able to learn new aspects of language. Comprehensible input is sold to us as a method which makes learners fluent: that’s not what Nation/Hu said.
Type and mode of reading
Nation was proposing that teachers adopt “extensive reading programmes” within their curricula: i.e. students should read a book every two weeks and read 4,200 words per week. He felt that only highly (95-98%) comprehensible texts would be suitable for this vast volume of reading as students couldn’t afford to be slowed down
We don’t do anything approaching “extensive reading” in UK classrooms: we read less than one quarter of that amount per week at best, and it is very rare to find MFL courses in schools where students are expected to read widely beyond lesson time
Nation’s research was based on undergraduate level learners of English who had already what we could consider a very advanced level of English – who were looking to acquire much rarer words and phrases. They already had the grammar under their belts.
Our students have only very basic knowledge of vocab and generally are still getting on top of core linguistic features such as tenses and negation. They’re looking to learn the first 1000-1500 words of the TL – not the 5000th, 6000th, 7000th words.
There was, has been and continues to be healthy academic debate about the validity of Nation’s assertions. Cobb (2007, 2008), for example, rejects the whole hypothesis of “extensive reading programmes” as a valuable and realistic component of a language course. Schmitt et al (2011) rejected the idea of a 95% “cut-off” and suggested that a larger range of texts have value, along a continuum, depending on context.
Nation’s work tends to be presented to us as irrefutable fact: it isn’t, and never was.
There are some other key flaws, though, specific to the UK classroom context which we need to be mindful of when we are considering the relevance of the 95-98% comprehensibility rule to UK classrooms:
Mixed ability classrooms. We know that, even in schools which set by ability, there is a huge variety of ability and proficiency among our 30 or so students. So we might design a text which is 95-98% comprehensible – but in reality…
for some it will be far too easy and their vocab won’t progress
for others it will be far too hard – and barely comprehensible at all (sub 75%, let’s say)
… so what this means is that by thinking too much about the text, we sometimes don’t think enough about individual learners and their experience of it.
A blunt measurement tool. Up until GCSE, most learners are really beginners, and they will struggle with all sorts of things beyond vocab: tense structures, irregular forms, idiomatic usage (e.g. the verb plaire à), unfamiliar word order and unfamiliar use of tense (e.g. depuis, venir de, absence of present continuous in FR). So measuring a text in terms of the number of unknown words is pretty simplistic – and doesn’t help us get a true sense of what might be difficult about a text. Remember, what’s often hard about a GCSE text is its unexpected twist in meaning, it’s distractors or its atypical ordering of information. None of this is picked up in the 95% comprehensibility test.
The GCSE itself. While people wanting to sell us their resources or training might want us to believe that comprehensible input is the silver bullet (after all, they need us to think that, otherwise we wouldn’t buy their stuff!), the writers of GCSE simply don’t sign up to this cosy consensus. The blunt truth is this: GCSE texts are nowhere near 95-98% comprehensible. Here’s an example from AQA French 2018 (higher tier):
Have a look at the vocab here: it’s tricky! It’s way beyond 95-98% comprehensible for a GCSE student and contains many words that aren’t on AQA’s own GCSE vocab list. A student who has been taught using highly comprehensible texts will flounder when they read this – as they need very good lexical inferencing skills (Nassaji and Hu 2012) or “morphological problem solving” skills (Anglin, quoted in Hu 2013) to make sense of what they see. Even if they can hazard a guess at the questions that AQA asks of this text, students will struggle to really understand it, and feel very uncertain of themselves. By the way, if you think this all boils down to GCSEs just getting harder and harder, have a look at this GCSE text from 1991:
Comprehensible input isn’t sufficient
So now for some maths – bear with me! Let’s assume the following: a) students receive a weekly average of 1000 words input (including reading & listening) in MFL lessons (based on typical textbook coverage, adding a bit for teacher TL use and homeworks) b) students are in lessons for 38 weeks per year c) students spend 4.5 years preparing for GCSE – allowing for absence, assessment weeks, missed lessons, etc d) students need to encounter a word at least 8 times before they really can learn and know it (this is a very optimistic figure – as Nation (2014) points out, the real number is probably much higherThis allows us to project how many words a student might work, through their exposure to comprehensible input, based on various scenarios.
– with an average of 98% comprehensible input, a student would learn 95 words per year and 438 over the whole course
– with an average of 95% comprehensible input, a student would learn 238 words per year and 1071 over the whole courseHow accurate are my projections? Well, Milton and Meara (1998) and Milton (2006) have done research to work out the average number of words that GCSE students have under their belt by testing students themselves – and their figure was approx 850. So my figures tally with theirs, and reflect a use of texts with comprehensibility of around 96% (or slightly higher, if we think students need fewer encounters with a word to learn it) across English schools.The problem with this? Well, AQA’s own GCSE French vocab list is 1359 items long – not to mention all the irregular verb forms. That’s a gap of significantly more than 20%. Using the same model, I also calculate that to reach the 1400 words needed for coverage of the specified vocab list, students would need to read considerably more than they currently do – which seems unrealistic given the limited lesson time we all have. Specifically, using the same assumptions:
– to learn 1400 words based on average 95% comprehensibility, students need an average 1310 words input per week during KS3 and KS4 (this would be very challenging at KS3!!)
– to learn 1400 words based on average 98% comprehensibility, students need a whopping 3275 words input per week during KS3 and KS4: this is palpably not achievable in the vast majority of settings.
So if comprehensible input is imperfect – perhaps flawed – what does the evidence say we need to do about it?
Comprehensible input is still valuable – but as a guiding principle it is flawed. The key point that research consistently makes is that learning languages is not all about repetition. That’s contrary to a lot of what we read or are told: games, hacks and tools which ‘trick’ students into repeating words or phrases over, and over, and over again are widely praised and shared (and sold). Yet the man who came up with the 95-98% comprehensibility test himself (Paul Nation, 2015) says that it is not the quantityof encounters with words that matters most, but the qualityof those encounters. He even says that the cognitive benefit of students stopping to read, looking up a word in the dictionary and finding its meaning outweighs the cost of any slowdown in pace of reading that this might incur (ibid.). MFL teaching in the UK really is behind the curve on this one. So if repetition isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, what else is important, according to the literature? 1.Content matters because it is the driver of motivation. If students are interested in reading what we give them, they will put more effort in, and learn more, as Hulstijn (1996) wrote:
“First and foremost, assign learners reading texts that are interesting and motivating. If the text does not alert their curiosity, learners will not be willing to devote the required mental effort to unfamiliar words”.
More recently than this, Macalister (2015) and Day et al (2002) insist that the natural and genuine purpose of reading must be preserved in the MFL classroom. In other words, we can’t just dish up any old bland nonsense because it fits our scheme of work – the text has to be worthy in and of itself: “the purpose of reading is usually related to pleasure, information and general understanding”. As Williams pithily put it in 1986, as his very first core principle of teaching using texts in MFL, “in the absence of interesting texts, very little is possible”. If the text we’re using in class is bland and boring, then getting them to learn is going to be like pushing a train up a hill. I like Haastrup’s (1989) quote below in Hulstijn’s (1996) work; some of it is a little anachronistic now, but is core assertion is right.
“‘Learners will always find out the meaning of words that are important to them’ (p43). If a desire to know a word’s meaning is the driving force, the mental elaboration required for acquisition will then come of its own accord. However it is the teacher’s and course designer’s task to provide learners with easily accessible glosses and learner-friendly, nontedious review opportunities”.
2.The type of task matters:we need to maximise deep cognitive engagement – in other words, get students thinking and working hard, not just quickly and superficially.
Nassaji and Hu (2012) found that tasks that enquire “deeper level of cognitive effort and attention enhance vocabulary learning”. They encourage teachers to maximise students’ “involvement” in the tasks they are doing, both motivationally and cognitively, and encourage teachers to design tasks with the following characteristics:
– motivation to read the text and understand what it says needs to be high – i.e. use engaging texts!
– effort needs to be involved in searching for the meaning of new words
– tasks need to involve evaluation of the topic and the words
Williams in 1986 indeed asserted that reading should be an interactive process, requiring students to respond and react to a text, not just comprehend it. His work is old now, but I don’t think it’s outdated. 3.Proficiency matters: Many researchers have found that more proficient students can cope with more unknown vocab and remember more of it more successfully (Sheffelbine 1990): so the 95-98% comprehensibility rule should be flexible – and definitely lower for our more able students. Frequent encounters and repetition matter more less able learners. 4.How we deal with new words matters: Hulstijn (1996) and others remind us of obne of the basics: Never leave new words to guesswork, always gloss them or insist on dictionary use always follow up new words with intentional, directed practice of words that students have seen whilst reading. If we do this well, we can cope with more unknown words. 5.We can tackle ‘harder’ texts: We can read things which are less than 95% comprehensible and still learn effectively (MacQuillan 2016, Schmitt et al 2011, Sanchez and Schmitt 2010). My hunch is that this isn’t an option if we want our students to get top grades – it’s an absolute must, and we need to adapt our teaching, differentiation and styles of tasks to make it possible. Should we make texts which are 85%, 90% comprehensible the mainstay of our classroom resources? Probably not, but they have to appear sometimes.
Milton (2011) openly advocates for faster progression in MFL vocab in the formative years of y8, y9 and y10. Finding that progress in these years almost grinds to a halt, he argues that this is a consequence of too little new vocab being introduced, too much thematic repetition and not enough inclusion of the less-frequent words which are actually necessary for any sense of communicative fluency. He argues that while for some, this repetition of topics and core vocab might be presented as a virtue, the other side of the coin is that it limits progress and makes for “demotivated learners”. He makes the case for a richer, more varied seam of themes and topics during the secondary year, a healthier balance of frequent and less frequent vocab.
OK so what does this mean for me as a teacher?
Firstly, despite all this, highly comprehensible texts still have an important role and they will still need to be a major tool in our toolkit. But they’re not the only one, and we need to think about how we deploy them.
how comprehensible – or not – is the text for each student in my class?
is everyone stretched and challenged in the right way?
is everyone making maximum progress?
if I can’t adapt each text for each student (almost definitely the case!), then do I use a variety of different grades of text so that each student has opportunities to surge ahead during a few weeks?
am I doing activities with the new words which guarantee a high return-on-investment, i.e. activities which are cognitively demanding?
Secondly, we need to acquaint students with tricky texts, right the way through the course, so that they are at ease with this when they sit their exam. This means teaching them lexical inferencing skills (Nassaji and Hu) like:
spotting key letter patterns and word families (chaud -> chaleur -> chaleureux etc)
contextual clues (Zahar 2001: does the text give a clue to the meaning of a word? what kind of clues might exist?)
good knowledge of the topics being taught
Thirdly, it is imperative to select texts which maximise students’ motivation and investment. Williams (1986) urged teachers to give a bunch of classroom texts to students to rate, and ask them to categorise them as “interesting”, “all right” or “boring”. I think we know what students would make of the vast majority of KS3 and KS4 resources. I try to apply these three questions each time I’m choosing or creating a resource:
1.Is this the best text I could use to teach this?
2.Are they going to want to read this?
3.What are they learning, beyond just the words?
So here’s a summary for you of what I hope this blog has suggested:
reading is a problem at KS3 and KS4
the original research into comprehensible input is quite different from how it is presented to us today
there are some drawbacks of comprehensible input and the volume of reading it requires when dealing with the English GCSE, or indeed mixed ability classrooms
that repetition of input isn’t the only important thing: the content of the text and the nature of the tasks associated with the text are more important
comprehensible input will always have a role, but we should make sure that we prepare students for the reality of GCSE by teaching students how to make sense of harder texts – and also find ways to teach which enable us to use harder texts where the potential gains are bigger
Do I say this because I care solely about getting students through the GCSE? Well, unsurprisingly, no. I also recognise that real life doesn’t deliver “comprehensible input” – even in things like restaurant menus, weather forecasts and ticket machines. More importantly, I want students to continue with their studies of MFL at A-level and beyond. Students will look at the A-level course spec and see that they have to read a book. Unless they’ve been shown and taught trickier texts throughout KS3 and KS4, and see themselves as skilled, perceptive readers, they will rightly balk at the idea of reading a book in Y12 or Y13. And they’ll think we’re crackers when we say that they’re going to have to read one.