The FTA welcomes the review of the Modern Foreign Languages Curriculum as it has been 25 years since the last review and many of the key recommendations of the latter, notably the introduction of an oral examination, have still not been put into place.
The world has changed so radically during these 25 years in terms of communication, travel and outlook that a review of the how Irish students encounter the learning of a foreign language is long overdue.
We welcome the increased emphasis on using the target language as the language of interaction and learning in the classroom. We also welcome the encouragement of teachers to use a wider range of teaching and learning methodologies including the many different digital and interactive media now available. We agree that more emphasis should be placed on acquiring a broader knowledge and appreciation of the peoples and cultures that use the target language in their everyday lives. A greater awareness of how language-learning takes place can only enhance the student’s language acquisition and help to make him more responsible for his own learning. The use of the CEFR (Common European Framework for Languages) with its can-do statements and goals will help the student to set targets and auto evaluate his own learning. The LLPs (Language Learning Portfolios) will allow a student to compile a portfolio of his work which will allow him to track his language-learning and take pride in his achievement. The new MFL Curriculum should link into both of these although not in a prescriptive way.
However, in line with majority of views expressed in all the different consultations that have taken place, we have to highlight the overwhelming shortcoming of the proposed MFL curriculum. Despite what appears to be unanimous agreement by the initial draft document, language experts, current research, teaching professionals, teachers’ representative bodies, schools of education and students, the question of the oral is again to be sidestepped. Instead of giving it its rightful place at the centre of the language teaching, learning and assessment experience, we understand that what did not happen in 1991 – an externally-based objective oral assessment of students – will not happen again in 2016.
The enthusiasm with which language teachers greeted the recent review of MFL was largely based on the introduction of same. We believe that this decision has been largely dictated by DES finances as there can be no ideological argument for again refusing to put it centre stage in the assessment process. We strongly feel that it will be very hard to persuade language teachers of the usefulness of this new curriculum if this issue is not addressed. Other Junior Cycle subjects have an externally-assessed practical component and justifiably so. In the same way as it would not make sense for a music student not to have his playing/singing objectively assessed, it makes no sense to award a state certificate of proficiency in a modern language to a student whose oral skills in that language have not been objectively and externally assessed. If we want to have some objective correlation for what is being learned by the language student, no amount of linking in with the CEFR will replace this external assessment.
It is proposed to have an oral component as one of the CBA (Classroom Based Assessments). However, as the ways in which this will be tested will vary substantially, and as many union members are currently prevented from participating in oral testing of their own students, the situation is extremely problematic and unlikely to produce anything of any real value. It should also be stated that the proposed times allocated to this as a CBA and the very nature of the classroom setting are further problems.
The commitment of students, parents, teachers and school administrations to the oral component of the MFL can only be assured by its forming part of the objectively-assessed state examination.
On behalf of the Second-Level French Teachers of Ireland, who are the key participants in the implementation of this programme, we urge the NCCA and DES to introduce an externally-based oral examination as part of the final state examination in Junior Cycle MFL.
The Aural component of the state examination is a central part of the assessment of a student’s linguistic attainment in Junior Cycle. Despite some discussions that this may not be retained, we urge the NCCA and DES to include this in a similar format to what already exists in the state examination of Junior Cycle. Again this request is in agreement with the views that have emerged from the various NCCA various consultation processes.
While this is not an issue peculiar to MFL, the other subjects being affected by this at Junior Cycle will not be taught and learned through the medium of another language. One of the objectives of the revised MFL curriculum is to make languages more accessible to all. Another is to increase the use of the target language in the classroom. If we are serious about including more students in language learning in Irish schools we need to allow them to achieve. Despite the numbers presenting for modern languages in Junior Cycle, many Junior Cycle students do not study a language at all, and some for only their first year in Secondary School. Many Junior Cycle students with learning difficulties are actively encouraged to drop MFL as it is felt by parents and school administration that they will not achieve here. While the less able student may survive in a common level subject classroom where all the interaction is in English, the situation changes dramatically when this is in another language. In order to allow less able students and students with learning difficulties to achieve in a MFL we would argue that a special case needs to be made for a subject in which the classroom language is not the mother tongue of the learner.
On the other hand we need to allow the more able student to be fully challenged in his language learning. The existence of a common curriculum will prove problematic for him, too, and may curtail what he could achieve. Anyone with experience of mixed-ability teaching will know of the difficulties of facilitating all the different levels of attainment possible in the class. If the 2 levels of assessment are maintained, this will allow the student to aim at the fulfilment of his chosen level. Otherwise the less able student knows that he can never attain a high grade and the more able student is not being assessed fully.
The implications of the common level for those continuing to Senior Cycle also need to be considered. If there is already a huge gap between the standard of Junior Cycle MFL Higher Level and Senior cycle, one wonders if the existence of a common level will increase this.
Undoubtedly, letter-writing and postcards are no longer a regular activity of the everyday lives of most of our Junior Cycle students. However, they do write in quite a lot of social media formats and as they grow older will need writing skills in MFL. Formats in which to write are constantly changing and therefore, should not necessarily be specified as they may then exist in the syllabus long after they have ceased to be a current form of communication (see references to faxes in Senior Cycle). Whatever the format, students need to be able to write in MFL and this needs to remain as part of the final state examination in Junior Cycle.
The FTA, as the representative of the second level teachers of French, is anxious that the Junior Cycle Review of MFL should be a success. We want it to provide the framework in which our young language learners will all fully engage in a process which will encourage them to love and attain in the chosen language. In common with the NCCA and the DES, we want the new curriculum to break down the prejudices and perceived barriers that prevent and remove many of our young learners from learning a MFL. We want these young learners to be orally proficient and to have this oral proficiency standardised so that it can truly be linked with the criteria of the CEFR. We urge you to consider the very real considerations outlined above and remind you that these are the key issues which have also emerged from all the other consultations that you have held.
We will continue to engage with the review of the Junior Cycle Reform of MFL and are available for further consultation at any time.
FTA National Executive
April 11th 2016