Students to learn up to 1,700 frequently used words in language GCSEs

Students in England will be expected to learn up to 1,700 frequently used words in French, German and Spanish GCSEs, under approved reforms.

Exam boards will be given an extra year to develop the new French, German and Spanish GCSEs after feedback from the sector, the Department for Education (DfE) said.

The reformed GCSEs will be taught from September 2024, with first exams being held in 2026. 

It comes after organisations representing headteachers warned the ‘risky’ proposals could dissuade pupils from learning modern foreign languages at school. 

Pupils will be assessed on the basis of 1,200 ‘word families’ for the foundation tier, and a further 500 ‘word families’ for the higher tier, the DfE confirmed.

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Students in England will be expected to learn up to 1,700 frequently used words in French, German and Spanish GCSEs, under approved reforms (stock image)

An example of a word family, which refer to a group of words with the same root word, could be ‘manage’, ‘managed’ and ‘manages’.


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In March last year, the Government announced proposals to reform the modern foreign language GCSEs to make them ‘more accessible’.

But a group of nine organisations warned in November that the proposals could fail to boost student engagement.

The group of organisations, including unions, language associations and exam boards, called on the Government to rethink the reforms. 

A DfE consultation on the proposals, which received more than 1,600 responses, highlighted concerns around having a prescribed list of words.

Many respondents were worried ‘students would not be exposed to a large enough vocabulary throughout their GCSE course to be able to communicate effectively in the target language’.

Other respondents said the reforms could lead to ‘a narrowing of the curriculum’, would risk ‘encouraging rote learning’ and could ‘limit students’ curiosity’.

But the DfE consultation document argued: ‘The definition of word families is broader than that of individual words and, in practice, this change means the number of words on which students can be assessed is higher.’ 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: ‘It is disappointing that DfE and Ofqual have gone ahead with their proposals regardless of the consultation responses received or the constructive calls to pause, review and revise the proposals.

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The reformed GCSEs will be taught from September 2024, with first exams being held in 2026, the Department for Education said (stock image)

‘The responses to DfE’s content review don’t demonstrate clear levels of support for their approach and 50% of respondents actually disagreed with Ofqual’s proposed assessment objectives.

‘The planned schedule for development and implementation is too rapid and must be extended to ensure MFL teachers and leaders are at the heart of this process and enable the most positive outcomes for these reforms.’ 

While Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said he was ‘disappointed’ that the government would be going ahead with the reforms.

He said: ‘Whilst we acknowledge there have been some modest adjustments made to the content of the proposals, we are very disappointed the Government has decided to press ahead with these reforms to French, German and Spanish GCSEs, which largely overlook the widespread concerns of many language experts.

‘We fear that rather than encouraging the take-up of languages, a curriculum which mainly focuses on memorising a long list of words will alienate pupils and prove counter-productive.

‘At a time when pupils need to be enthused to learn languages, the Government has chosen to make GCSEs both prescriptive and grinding.

‘The idea that this will help it fulfil its target of 90% of pupils taking up these subjects is pure fantasy.’

Schools Minister Robin Walker added: ‘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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