‘Dumbing down’ row as GCSE language students to learn fewer words than five-year-olds

The Department for Education has become embroiled in a “dumbing down” row after asking GCSE foreign language students to learn fewer words than the average five-year-old.

Officials have announced reforms to the content of French, Spanish and German GCSEs, aimed at boosting the take-up of the subjects by making them appear “more accessible and attractive” to students.

The reformed qualifications stipulate that pupils will need to learn 1,200 words for a foundation tier GCSE or 1,700 words for the higher tier qualification.

But headteachers have criticised the move, saying this “largely overlook[s] the widespread concerns of many language experts”.

The Association of School and College Leaders said that pupils needed to have a “basic threshold” of at least 2,000 words after five years of learning a language “to feel like they are making progress in the target language and to be able to use it independently”.

They also warned that the low number of words now required from students “could lead to a drop in standards”.

A “school years toolkit”, published by the NHS, says that a child aged between four and five should have a vocabulary of around 1,500 words.

Students will ‘lack confidence’

Dr Simon Hyde, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents the country’s leading public schools including Eton and Harrow, also attacked the reforms.

"This model will not give students the confidence in their language, both at examination level and as a life skill, to take forward into further studies, careers and personal endeavours,” he said.

Ministers are keen to boost the take up of modern languages in schools – particularly French and German – which has gone into sharp decline in recent years.

They are concerned that the perception of the subjects as being more difficult than others is putting students off taking them, which is why their reforms are aimed at making the subjects more “accessible”.

There were 124,404 entries for French GCSE in 2020, down from 251,706 in 2005, according to the British Council’s most recent language trends report. Meanwhile, the number of pupils taking German has also declined significantly from 101,466 in 2005 to 40,748 over the same period.

Pupils favouring Spanish

Spanish, however, is on the ascent and will become the most popular language in British classrooms by 2026, figures suggest.

In 2020, there were 104,280 entries for Spanish GCSE, up from 57,731 in 2005. It took over from French as the most popular A-level language in 2019 and is now set to become the modern language of choice for GCSEs in the next five years.

Suzanne O’Farrell, ASCL’s modern languages consultant, said the changes to the qualifications will "dumb it down", adding the vocabulary list makes it "very prescriptive without being engaging".

"We feel the word lists aren’t going to give pupils enough confidence and interest and ability to be able to talk," she said.

"Some of the basic, important words are missing from the list. We can understand the Department for Education wants to make it more accessible but actually we think it will end up being very demotivating for pupils".

Ms O’Farrell added that the idea that this will increase the take up of the subjects and help the Government to meet its target for 90 per cent of pupils to take modern languages by 2025 is “fantasy.”

Robin Walker, the schools minister, said: “Studying languages opens up a world of new, exciting opportunities for people and is hugely important for a modern global economy.

“That’s why we want more young people to take up modern language GCSEs, and these evidence-based changes aim to do just that – making these qualifications more well-rounded and accessible, and helping more young people to enjoy learning languages.”

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