Creating a Curriculum for Excellence in Languages

This post is part of an ongoing series on how we are creating our own post-levels curriculum and assessment model from scratch.

The story so far:

This latest blog in the series was written by Lee Ferris, our Curriculum Team Leader for Internationalism, Language and Culture.

How does an MFL department at an 11-16 secondary school prepare for the rigours of a Curriculum for Excellence? Read on to find out.

What’s in a name?

Well, quite a lot actually. For a long time, I have been convinced that ‘Modern Foreign Languages’ is no longer fit for purpose as the name of a department whose work goes way beyond teaching languages. Of course, the idea that languages teachers instinctively and necessarily incorporate cultural awareness into their pedagogy is not a novel concept. Indeed, it formed a key tenet of my own teacher training at Durham University. Whether you call it ‘intercultural competence’ or ‘cultural awareness’, it is universally agreed that deeper language learning can only take place when the student has an appreciation for the people, traditions and culture of the Target Language country/countries. However, this is rarely formalised in Schemes of Work or Programmes of Study – when it is, it tends to be, frankly, inadequate for the needs of 21st-Century learners, instead paying lip service to a concept so indisputably crucial to the rounded, balanced curriculum we all aspire to provide for our students.
With that in mind, I submitted a proposal to the school’s SLT to change the name of our department from MFL to ILC – the Department of Internationalism, Language & Culture. The aims of the department would be:
• To be a ‘deliberate practice’ department, constantly seeking to improve Teaching and Learning through active research, collaboration and sharing of good practice.
• To promote academic excellence through cooperative, collaborative and independent learning.
• To be an ‘e-Learning department’ with a commitment to the full and natural integration of new technologies in Teaching and Learning.
• To promote contextualised linguistic spontaneity, creativity and, ultimately, fluency.
• To work with our partner schools, local, national and international cultural organisations (e.g. Tyneside Cinema, British Council, Goethe-Institut), as well as other departments within the school (e.g. Belmontvision with Performing Arts, Berlin Wall 25th Anniversary project with History) to promote knowledge and appreciation of the culture, history and people of the Target Language countries.
• To fully incorporate internationalism and culture into Schemes of Learning so that they are an integral element of language learning and not an ‘added extra’.
• To provide opportunities for students to gain experience of work and study in areas with an explicit international dimension.
• To raise aspiration and attainment in languages at GCSE level.

The SLT approved the name change and it was with renewed vigour that we proceeded to our intensive curriculum planning, beginning on 16th and 17th June.

The ‘Big Picture’

Before starting to think about what our ILC curriculum would look like and what we would want it to achieve for our students, I had been heavily involved with a ‘hub’ focussed on learning intentions – more specially, formulating suitably challenging learning intentions befitting a ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. I had also attended sessions in school on ‘assessment beyond levels’, at which Curriculum Team Leaders and others pooled ideas to come up with an assessment system that would reflect our overarching ambition to improve Teaching & Learning while effectively exploiting (in a positive sense) the national move away from National Curriculum levels. It was at these curriculum conferences that we discussed, as senior and middle leaders, what a ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ could and should look like.

The first activity the ILC department undertook in our curriculum planning sessions was an open discussion about ‘the big picture’ in our department. As we talked, openly and freely, about the role our department currently plays within school, I quoted almost ad verbatim what my colleagues had to say in the table below, avoiding the use of overtly formal language:

ILC1

The findings of our initial discussion on the context of our department. Click to enlarge.

A clear picture emerges from this discussion of a department with a united sense of ambition and a shared vision of the core purpose of language teaching. Clearly, the concept of broadening horizons is an umbrella intention with implications way beyond the simple transferral of linguistic knowledge. The table also betrays a unanimous desire to stretch, challenge and support our students to achieve beyond their expectations. It suggests a genuine will to facilitate sustained progress while ‘having fun with language’. In short, it gives an impression of a department with laudably lofty expectations of what it can achieve while maintaining a distinct person-centred humanity so essential in education.

The national circumstances

We spent a considerable amount of time as a department looking at the DfE’s published Programmes of Study for Languages at KS2/3, as well as the current guidelines for the new GCSE. From this, we deduced that the KS2 PoS looks like a recipe for potential chaos. A significant dilemma for secondary languages teachers in recent years has been taking account of the incredibly divergent prior knowledge among each Year 7 cohort, depending on the actual language covered at primary school, the amount of time (and effort) dedicated to it and the wild variations in content covered. However, what we gleaned from the PoS document is that these are the basic expectations of language (ancient or modern) teaching at KS2:

  • Describing and opining in writing and orally.
  • Writing phrases from memory.
  • Using authentic sources.
  • Actively engaging in the Target Language.
  • Communicating facts, ideas, needs and feelings.
  • Basic grammar: gender, high-frequency verbs, differences between the Target Language and English.
  • Phonics of cognates.

This struck us as being very ambitious indeed – not necessarily a bad thing in itself, as long as we can be certain that primary schools can and will deliver these elements adequately. To that end, a conversation with Dan Brinton, our Deputy Head Teacher, later in the day reaffirmed the need for solid collaboration and synchronisation with our feeder primary schools. This may, for example, take the form of a series of in-house conferences to train primary teachers in the delivery of the essential features of the KS2/3 PoS to ensure fluidity of transition in Year 7, as well as sustained progress building on prior knowledge, an ambition previously impossible to realise.

The department then decided that in the absence of specified content in the KS2 PoS, we would put together our own ‘wish list’ of linguistic content we would like our students to arrive at Belmont Community School equipped with at the start of Year 7:

  • Numbers 1-60
  • Days, months and birthdays
  • Simple greetings and introductions
  • Classroom objects
  • Alphabet and spelling
  • High-frequency verbs, including avoir and être
  • Awareness of gender of nouns
  • Colours
  • Simple adjectives with agreement
  • Animals
  • Weather
  • Likes/dislikes

Next, we cast our beady eyes over the KS3 PoS to pick out the core elements in preparation for curriculum planning. These turned out to be:

  • Communicating orally and in writing in a range of time frames
  • Give views and opinions on a range of topics
  • Transcription
  • English translation of short texts
  • Translation of short written text into the TL
  • Listening, speaking, reading, writing
  • Understand and communicate personal and factual information
  • Initiative to expand beyond minimum response
  • Literary texts in the language (stories, poems, songs and letters)
  • Deepening vocabulary
  • Increasing accuracy
  • Writing prose

Items shown in red above refer to skills and knowledge not present in previous PoS and skills which we would need to develop from KS3 into KS4. The links between the ‘new’ knowledge and skills and the outline of the new GCSE are clear:

ILC2

The requirements in Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing in the new GCSE. Click to enlarge.

Our organising concepts

We had already discussed in professional time meetings what we felt would be the measurable skills we would want to assess at KS3 in the post-NC level era. The ideas put on Padlet ranged from broad areas such as ‘comprehension’ to more specific, GCSE question types such as ‘Positive, Negative, Both’. In the end, we decided that our assessment skills would be identical to our key organising concepts for our curriculum. Therefore, our first task on our curriculum planning days was to discuss and agree on a maximum of six concepts around which our curriculum would be built. These turned out to be:

  1. Mechanics of Language (MoL)
  2. Communication (CMC)
  3. Comprehension (CMP)
  4. Culture (CUL)
  5. Internationalism (INT)

The thinking behind these concepts is relatively self-explanatory. When discussing our name change proposal as a department, one proviso expressed by a colleague was that any formalisation of internationalism and culture within our curriculum should in no way detract disproportionately from our core aim of achieving the best possible results for our students in whichever language they take up at GCSE. The core concepts above mean that the active and passive skills of language learning are both covered by Communication (CMC) and Comprehension (CMP), while knowledge of grammar and structures are explicitly assessed via the Mechanics of Language (MoL) concept. This will ensure rigour in the teaching of grammar, something which we all felt had diminished noticeably under the Listening/Speaking/Reading/Writing assessment model. The addition of Culture (CUL) and Internationalism (INT) means that we will have the means, via suitable Schemes of Learning and assessment mapping, to regularly evaluate the students’ development in this area.

The next stage involved looking more closely at each of the organising concepts and determining the knowledge and skills we would wish the students to acquire over the course of KS3, with Belmont’s new assessment threshold model (Establishing > Developing > Securing > Advancing > Excelling > Beyond) in mind. This led us to these conclusions:

ILC3

The core knowledge and skills for our organising concepts. Click to enlarge.

Threshold assessment

We then felt confident moving forward to determine what our threshold assessment descriptors would be in each context (NB we decided at this stage to move away from ‘concept’ as ‘Assessment Context’ seemed more appropriate). It was also at this point that we made the decision to combine Culture with Internationalism so that the two will be assessed together. We divided into pairs, each pair focussing on two of the Assessment Contexts and working back from Beyond to ensure that the most challenging, rigorous knowledge and skills were at the forefront of our planning. Reading through the descriptors, there is a clear route of progression from bottom to top – rigorous, geared towards excellence but infinitely achievable:

ILC4

Assessment Context 1: Mechanics of Language (MoL). Click to enlarge.

ILC5

Assessment Context 2: Communication (CMC). Click to enlarge.

ILC6

Assessment Context 3: Comprehension (CMP). Click to enlarge.

ILC7

Assessment Context 4: Culture and Internationalism (CUL/INT). Click to enlarge.

It is clear from the tables that Assessment Context 4 will require a cross-curricular delivery strategy. How to actively teach and promote ‘Culture and Internationalism’ formed the basis for one of our lengthier and most intense discussions. We envisage having greater organising input into Belmont’s ‘Challenge Days’. These are sporadic days in the year when the students are taken off timetable to focus on a particular strand of PSRE. We also foresee consistent collaboration with other departments in the school. Our recent Belmontvision event, organised and implemented in conjunction with our fantastic Performing Arts department, was proof positive of the innate possibilities in exploiting cross-curricular links to support tangible and practical culture and internationalism. We also plan to work with the Humanities department on specific strands of AC4. For example, this October, we will work with History to carry out a ‘Berlin Wall 25’ project, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The basic outline for the project? History will teach the students the factual information behind the history of the wall; we will exploit this knowledge to encourage the students to think (in German) about how they would have felt in a similar situation, using a range of feeling/emotion vocabulary with the conditional and connectives. Their thoughts will then be written on a reconstructed small-scale Berlin Wall. A simple yet incredibly powerful example of how AC4 could be delivered by fostering cross-curricular cooperation. Other avenues can – and will – be pursued.

Another ‘Eureka!’ moment during our discussion about the delivery of AC4 was centred on the potential power of ‘takeaway homework‘. We have been keen to implement this independent learning strategy since being introduced to it by Sam Bulmer from our English department at one of our ‘Magic Monday‘ T&L events earlier in the year. However, we have found it difficult to put together a suitably rich ‘offer’ in our specific curriculum area. We are now exploring the idea that takeaway homework can be used to fantastic effect as the stimulus for ongoing independent research on a range of culture and internationalism-related themes. This will involve the students choosing each week from a ‘menu’ of tasks of varying degrees of challenge, all of which involve independent research on a cultural/internationalist theme. Vivos will be awarded depending on the complexity of the task chosen from the menu and awards given out each half-term to the students who have collected the most Vivos. In doing this, the students will gradually build up a Culture and Internationalism portfolio. We are also looking into the use of QR codes to stimulate the students’ curiosity about the culture of Target Language countries. This may take the form of simply sticking a QR code into the students’ books when they are marked. When scanned, the code will take them to a Target Language music video or film trailer.

Schemes of Learning

Naturally, all of this planning is futile without effective Schemes of Learning which roadmap the year. Simon Thompson (Assistant CTL) and I looked at a range of resources designed to support the changes to the curriculum and finally identified one that we felt was suitably rigorous for our Curriculum for Excellence. The next stage in our planning involved piecing together a Teaching and Learning framework for Year 7 and 8, to include interleaving of topics, reference to our new Assessment Contexts and explicit links to Culture and Internationalism. This is still very much a work in progress – here is a sample:

ILC8

A sample of our developing Scheme of Work for Year 7 and 8. Click to enlarge.

As you can see, under ‘Skills and strategies’, the relevant AC has been identified, along with its ‘level’. So, CMP-D would indicate that this is a Comprehension skill at Developing level. Similarly, CUL-A signifies a Culture skill at Advancing level.

It is clear the tracking progress and reporting to parents will be much more transparent and meaningful in a system where you identify that a student is, for example, ‘Advancing in Communication’, rather than Level 4a in Writing. This can only be a positive development.

The way forward

Clearly, there is a long way to go in developing ILC’s ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. As has always been the case, a curriculum fit for purpose is one that is constantly reevaluated and adapted to the evolving needs of students. The next few weeks will be spent honing the Year 7 and 8 SoW so that we have a watertight plan for KS3, which incorporates elements of KS4 to allow students to go Beyond their expectations. Further consideration will be given to how we carry this momentum through KS4 so that the ever-present risk of Years 9-11 becoming a soulless exercise in dragging students through a GCSE is eliminated. Rather, we envisage a culture whereby students are independent, collaborate, culturally competent/curious and outward thinking learners with a sense of their own place in the world and the wealth of opportunities open to them.

It’s a grand vision. It’s a Belmont vision.

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