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The new A-level Individual Research project

As you maybe already know, one new aspect of the MFL A-levels, first teaching starting in September 2016, is the idea of the Individual Research Project. This will be done by students only at A-level, not AS-level, and will be assessed as part of the A-level speaking test. The chosen subject has to be firmly rooted in the culture of the target language country. It actually constitutes the majority of marks in the oral assessment and will be assessed by means of a presentation and discussion lasting about 10 minutes. (The rest of the oral will be topic discussion from a stimulus card.) Final details are still being hammered out between the exam boards and Ofqual.

In principle, it seems to be one of the better ideas to have emerged from the DfE/ALCAB. It resembles coursework which we used to do some years ago, where students had a free choice of subject, assessed, at that time, by an essay. Students get to develop their research skills and I recall students producing some really interesting and quite challenging work. In addition, the number of marks awarded in the oral test should encourage students to take the task very seriously and it should be a rewarding learning experience for both students and teachers.

There are, however, a few issues which the IRP raises.

The first is the reliability of the assessment. Oddly, as one teacher mentioned to me at a meeting, given that the new A-level is meant to be more rigorous and consistent across schools (notably owing to prescribed lists of films and books and the directive that topics all be based on the TL culture), the IRP does open up the distinct possibility, as with all coursework, that students may obtain unfair help from third parties, both with the research and the production of a presentation/discussion. This is bound to have some effect, even it be marginal, on the reliability of that part of the assessment.

Secondly, because most research will inevitably be done online, students will use a mixture of sources, both in English and the target language. Teachers will no doubt urge students to use TL sources, since these will further students' general language acquisition and provide a good source of recyclable language. But weaker students in particular will resort to some English language sources and do a degree of translation. This latter approach is not totally without merit, but it is clearly not advisable and goes against the spirit of the project.

Now, as part of the oral assessment, I believe students will have to make their sources clear (indeed, this may be something which is assessed in the mark scheme). This should encourage the use of appropriate TL sources. Even so, it is hard to imagine that students will not end up using some English websites and perhaps too many.

Thirdly, we have the well-worn issue of consistency across visiting examiners and between teacher-examiners. If teachers opt to do the tests themselves as many in small centres will have to, there will inevitably be varied practice. The exam boards will give detailed guidance on what is allowed, but it is a fact of life that some teachers will "over-prepare" their candidates which may work to their benefit or detriment (candidates who are allowed to parrot pre-learned information will lose marks).

Fourthly, giving a free choice of topic, within certain parameters, does invite a degree of inconsistency between centres and individual candidates. There is no way around that.
That's the problem with this type of assessment, which is, in other ways, very desirable. There will not be perfect consistency across students and schools. I do not see any way around this - it is part of the territory - but the issues are worth bearing in mind.

You can expect to see lots more information soon about the IRP on exam board websites.


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"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

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We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
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