GCSE students to face oral tests in French markets

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The Independent Online

Teenagers studying for their French GCSE exams will soon be tested on their oral skills during visits to shops or market places while on foreign exchange trips.

They will be tested on their speaking and comprehension skills as they purchase goods in a French street market or converse with the family with whom they are staying for the trip.

The move, part of a shake-up to the exam syllabus being introduced by one of the country's biggest exam boards – the Oxford and Cambridge and Royal Society of Art (OCR) – from September, is designed to sweep away the more formal setting currently in operation whereby they talk with their French teacher in a classroom.

Guidelines issued by the board state that, as part of the assessment procedures for the speaking unit of the exam, youngsters should "interact with other French speakers, expressing and justifying opinions where appropriate".

They add: "Speaking tasks can be completed outside the classroom for added real-life relevance."

Exam board officials cite, as an example, teachers recording their students interacting with local people in a market or shops during a foreign exchange trip.

Alternatively, students could be encouraged to video record a diary of their trip in French to be assessed by their teacher on their return to school.

The new approach could be introduced in other language exams, such as Spanish and German. Exam board officials hope it will bring language teaching up to date – and make the subject seem much more exciting to a modern generation of teenagers.

They are alarmed at a slump in take-up of the subject at GCSE since ministers decided the subject would be voluntary for pupils from the age of 14. In French, the number of children opting to study the subject at GCSE has dropped by around 50 per cent in the past decade.

The new approach, though, has not met with universal approval with accusations that it is "dumbing down" the subject.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, said: "We must encourage more students to study modern languages but the answer isn't to dumb down the system of assessment in this way. It would be almost impossible to have any credible way of allowing teachers to assess their pupils in overseas market places, and ideas such as this only serve to undermine the credibility of the system."

Mr Laws is also critical of the other methods of assessment of oral skills outlined in the guidelines, such as the use of video recordings by the student.

"Instead of testing a student's ability to understand and communicate in a modern language, they simply run the risk of rewarding 'parrot learning' and not real understanding," he added.

A spokeswoman for OCR said: "The benefit of allowing students to record their oral assessments outside of the classroom is that it takes the tests away from the artificial environment of staged examinations, and reduces stress for learners. These assessments allow students to do more authentic and realistic tasks."

She added that there would be controls over the assessment as in any non-written exam assignments. "Teachers must be present when all external clips are being recorded in order to counteract concerns about authenticity and plagiarism in students' work," she said.