Students in England will have to learn up to 1,700 words frequently used in French, German and Spanish GCSEs under the approved reforms.
The move comes after organizations representing school leaders warned that the government’s ‘risky’ proposals could reduce the number of pupils learning modern foreign languages at school.
A union of chefs said requiring students to memorize a list of words could ‘alienate’ learners, saying the reforms were ‘prescriptive and constraining’.
Examination boards will be given a further year to develop the new French, German and Spanish GCSEs following industry feedback, the Department for Education (DfE) has said.
Reformed GCSEs will be taught from September 2024, with the first exams taking place in 2026.
The idea that this will help him reach his goal of 90% of students taking these subjects is pure fantasy.
Pupils will be assessed on the basis of 1,200 “word families” for the basic level and an additional 500 “word families” for the higher level, the DfE said.
An example of a word family might be “manage”, “managed” and “manage”.
In March last year, the government announced proposals to reform modern foreign language GCSEs to make them ‘more accessible’.
But a group of nine organisations, including unions, language associations and examination boards, warned in November that the proposals may not boost student engagement, as they called on the government to rethink the reforms.
A DfE consultation on the proposals, which received more than 1,600 responses, highlighted concerns about having a prescribed list of words.
Many respondents were concerned that ‘students are not exposed to a wide enough vocabulary throughout their GCSE course to be able to communicate effectively in the target language’.
Other respondents said the list could lead to “curriculum shrinking”, risk “encouraging rote learning”, and could “limit student curiosity”.
But the DfE consultation document says: “The definition of word families is broader than that of individual words and, in practice, this change means that the number of words on which students can be assessed is higher.
The study of languages opens up a world of exciting new opportunities for people and is extremely important for a modern global economy.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “While we recognize that there have been modest adjustments to the content of the proposals, we are very disappointed that the government has decided to go moving forward with these reforms to the French, German and Spanish GCSEs, which largely ignore the widespread concerns of many language experts.
“We fear that instead of encouraging language learning, a curriculum that focuses primarily on memorizing a long list of words will alienate students and prove counterproductive.
“At a time when pupils need to be keen to learn languages, the government has chosen to make GCSEs both prescriptive and grinding.
“The idea that this will help him reach his goal of 90% of students taking these subjects is pure fantasy.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the headteachers’ union NAHT, said: “It is disappointing that DfE and Ofqual have followed through on their proposals, regardless of the consultation responses received or the constructive calls for a pause, review and revise proposals.
“Responses to the DfE content review do not demonstrate clear levels of support for their approach and 50% of respondents actually disagreed with Ofqual’s proposed assessment objectives.
This model will not give students the confidence in their language, both at exam level and as a life skill, to pursue their studies, careers and personal projects.
“The planned timeline for development and implementation is too fast and needs to be extended to ensure MFL teachers and leaders are at the heart of this process and enable the most positive outcomes for these reforms.”
Dr Simon Hyde, general secretary of the Heads of Schools Conference (HMC), which represents hundreds of leading private schools, said: ‘HMC members are concerned that the narrowness of these proposals confirmed today does not stop the decreasing number wishing to study languages.
“This model will not give students the confidence in their language, both at exam level and as a life skill, to pursue their studies, careers and personal projects.
“Essentially, these proposals will further widen the academic stage for students moving from GCSEs to A-level languages, which is already significant and may deter many students from studying A-level languages.”
Schools Minister Robin Walker said: “The study of languages opens up a world of exciting new opportunities for people and is hugely important to a modern global economy.
“That’s why we want more young people to take GCSEs in Modern Languages, and these evidence-based changes are precisely about making sure these qualifications are more comprehensive and accessible, and help more young people to love learn the languages.”