Recently I have been conducting some personal research into language teaching and learning methodologies from a global perspective due to my increasing frustration as a teacher of Welsh in an English medium school and my apparent failure to produce learners who are able to communicate in Welsh following 5 years of study at secondary level.
This frustration has been growing over a period of years and I have worked hard to address it. During my career I have been open to adapting my teaching approaches and experimented with different methodologies. I have attended many courses, undertaken additional qualifications and enjoyed personal reading about teaching and learning and language. I always seek to engage students in the learning process and value reflection and critical input from others. In short, I have always been pro-active in addressing my frustration and strived to improve my abilities and skills as a Welsh teacher in order to solve the soul destroying realisation that all my work and effort seems to be for nothing.
It is quite easy to apportion blame on the many factors that contribute to this situation such as the lack of status of the language in my locality, the lack of time offered in the curriculum, the unrealistic expectations and demands of the examination and the futility of our data driven measurement of everything in the classroom. We could also add to this that Welsh is also a very difficult subject for our students to learn and there are very negative attitudes toward it for a variety of reasons. However, many of these factors are outside of my control and although I wrestle with them constantly (and talked about them here) I am not yet ready to give it all up as a lost cause and wish to find ways to improve upon the ever gloomy picture that we face.
Wales is going though a massive process of change to a new curriculum following the adoption of all the recommendations of Professor Donaldson’s Successful Futures. This will see Welsh continue as a compulsory subject for all students. So what is going to be different from what we have now?
Qualifications Wales have just produced a survey about the new GCSE. There will no longer be a Short Course option so all students will follow a full GCSE in Welsh. I have not completed the survey yet as I am still coming to terms with my disappointment at the direction the survey is taking. The process of developing this new GCSE has been going on for about a year and this will be the first time that I will have been given an opportunity to share my views on it or have any input. At this point it seems that most of the decisions have already been made and we are being asked to comment on the minor changes to the specification and assessment of the qualification. However, there is obviously a complete lack of attention to methodology and approaches to language learning in the process and in my opinion, we have already missed the opportunity to address the failures of Cymraeg Ail-Iaith of the past.
In order to achieve the continuum mentioned in Donaldson’s report, it would appear we will now turn to the European Framework for Languages (CEFR). This would then seek to place English medium as Independent Users (B1 and B2) and Welsh medium as Proficient Users (C1 and C2) which corresponds to Advanced Low, Advanced Mid, Advanced High and Superior on the ACTFL framework – another useful and global framework. It can only be a positive step forward to align the subject with a Common Language Framework; however the manual is 250+ pages long and unfamiliar to me at present. Without fully understanding the framework and how it will be used in designing the new qualification, how can teachers comment meaningfully?
The survey then seeks comments on the aims, derivation and content of the new specification. Naturally the specification will focus on listening, speaking, reading and writing and this is nothing new apart from listening as an entity will be re-introduced. With respect to the derivation, I cannot see anything different from the current specification apart from the range of listening sources. In terms of the content, there is some development again with respect to listening and using authentic sources. In short, continue as we are but re-introduce listening.
‘Trawsieithu’ has been thrown into the survey and seeks comments about introducing this specific skill into the specification and examination. This is where the students will be expected to respond in Welsh to a written source in English and is also an aspect of A-level study. The survey points out that this is important so students demonstrate they can work with both languages. The impact of this will be that from Year 7, teachers will need to develop this particular skill. However, the survey does not fully explain why this skill is important. There is no research attached to give a meaningful response as to whether it is important in terms of acquiring language – which is a focus mentioned previously in the survey. I find it difficult to see where this skill would be useful unless translating as a profession and I am not convinced it has any benefit linguistically. However, the survey suggests it should be included.
Next, we have been asked to comment on the weighting of skills for assessment and the suggestion is 25% each for listening, speaking, reading and writing. This is no different from the current specification apart from listening being assessed as a skill. 50% speaking and listening, 25% reading and 25% writing. The survey begins with bold statements about the focus on enabling students to develop their speaking skills and ability to communicate in a range of unprepared situations. Does this weighting reflect that desire? There will also be 15% of the marks for listening assessed through an exam. I can only assume the other 10% will be assessed in a different way, but no information is provided.
The survey then throws in another bombshell with regard to Controlled Assessments. The wording has been changed but we are now going to increase the assessment outside of exams from 40% to 50%. There is a lot of controversy amongst teachers with regard to controlled assessments in terms of bending the rules to improve outcomes and the time it takes to complete them. They have turned into memory tests and have been prepared before hand. The survey does not make it clear how and what the assessments will be so how can a meaningful response be given and how will teachers’ concerns be addressed? This suggestion means that there will be more internal assessment and less external assessment and only increases the current concerns regarding controlled assessments.
The next section of the survey then asks us to consider whether the examinations should be tiered and should mixed tier entry be allowed for the different examinations. This is no different from current arrangements.
Finally, the survey asks whether the examination should be linear or modular with the suggestion being we adopt a linear approach. This is a change from the current procedures and must be an attempt in my view to free up some time to focus on the assessment not through examinations (Controlled Assessments). Again, I feel that not enough information is given in the survey to respond meaningfully. What external exams will there be at the end of the course?
In conclusion, I am concerned about the direction we are going. The GCSE assessment procedures will form how the subject is taught in the classroom. There will be huge pressure on teachers to attain A*-C particularly in light of the reports referred to in the survey and the current failures. It would therefore make sense to address the whole approach to how we are teaching the language and what we actually want the students to be able to do. Do we want to create speakers or students who pass examinations because I cannot see any real meaningful difference in this survey to the current situation. In fact, my initial feelings are that this new GCSE will be more problematic than the current one. There is also a suggestion in the introduction to the survey that with the dawning of the new curriculum, the specification may change again for teaching in 2021. If this is indeed the case, then it would be more sensible to start from a point of looking at what the desired outcome of the new curriculum would be and begin to develop along that road now with this possibly interim GCSE being proposed; as Y6 students will start the new curriculum. If this is an attempt to bridge the gap between what we have now and what the new curriculum for Wales will bring, then we cannot expect any change from the current failures addressed in the reports mentioned.
If we want to create speakers and students who are able to use Welsh when they leave school, then we need to take a long hard look at how we are teaching in class. We need to look at the global picture (see here) and learn from the many lessons that can be learned about bilingualism or have we just reached the twelfth hour for Welsh in English Medium School?