Whilst we have paused operations in Greece and are doing logistical planning for a possible deployment to Kurdistan, we continue reflecting on curriculum issues. We’re very grateful for the teachers who have been in touch giving us feedback. We have also held a mini summit in Cambridge so that we could discuss and reflect on a number of issues about the logic of various approaches to curriculum models, before we committed time to actually developing details.
We are using as our starting point, the widely known and recognised (CEFR) Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. All commercial courses are now benchmarked to these levels, so working to them ensures that we can properly benchmark what children are learning and what level they are actually at. The CEFR sets out 6 levels of language learning which are (in ascending order):
C2 Mastery (advanced
C1 Proficiency (Advanced)
B2 Vantage (Intermediate)
B1 Threshold (Intermediate)
A2 Waystage (Beginner)
A1 breakthrough (Beginner)
In terms of the English academic system an IGCSE in English (taken by 16 year olds) is pitched by Cambridge International Examinations so that C,D and E are benchmarked with CEFR level B2. The IGCSE for English as a second language is pitched so that grades A, B and C are benchmarked with CEFR level B2. Although there is an overlap between these qualifications there seems to be slightly lower English expectations in the ESOL equivalent grades as compared to the IGCSE for native speakers.
This is somewhat different to the national benchmarking for GCSEs in general, as they are supposed to be pitched so that grades A,B and C are benchmarked with C1. This pitching to C1 is also reflected in the fact that universities typically ask for language skills from non native speakers which are expressed in terms of IELTS, TOEFL or Cambridge English gradings which are themselves benchmarked to C1. This means that requiring English children to achieve a C grade at GCSE is broadly equivalent to the language requirements of non native speakers.
However there is considerable confusion when the levels of MFL (Modern Foreign Language) GCSEs is taken into account. French GCSE grade C, for example, seems to be benchmarked at A2 level (with the GCE A level in French benchmarked at B2 level instead).
As all GCSEs and IGCSEs are meant to be equivalent this tells us that a GCSE grade C is either an A2, B1, B2 or C1 level on the European scale - depending on who you ask. That isn’t a terribly illuminating conclusion, but it sums up clearly how very complicated it is trying to work out some of these curriculum issues.
If we look at the PISA tables of International comparisons which place average UK performance as broadly Internationally average, and if we take a C grade at GCSE as broadly average in the UK, then this tells us that broadly (and generalising) 16 year olds language skills are roughly around the B2/C1 mark across the OECD average. This is a very rough and ready comparison as there are a number of factors which undermine the comparability of the factors and scales, but it offers an impressionistic starting point for reflection.
This doesn’t necessarily tell us about the English skills necessary for accessing a Maths paper as a Maths paper is obviously not testing the same English skills as an English paper, otherwise there would be no point having separate exams. If an English GCSE is broadly in the B2/C1 range for its linguistic challenge, then a Maths paper should probably not be thought to be more demanding than the scale below, ie B1 to B2. Ensuring that students can access an IGCSE Maths paper therefore means ensuring that they can reach around B1 level.
The CEFR is roughly pitched so that every 200 hours of learning should take a learner up a level from A2. Taking into account the variability in the shape of an average school year, roughly 100 hours a year is equivalent to just under 3 hours per week of actual learning. So the 200 hours of a CEFR level is roughly speaking equivalent to a 2 year course.
This means that a student starting from scratch could expect to achieve A2 in two years (on up to 3 hours per week), and B1 in a further two years. If the pace of learning was doubled to around an hour a day then a learner could expect to fulfil the hours normally associated with a level of learning in half the time. This would mean that the hours associated with A2 could be achieved in 1 year and the hours associated with B1 in another year. Theoretically, this suggests that a course of English could take a learner from scratch to B1 (which we suggest is the target level for accessing a Maths IGCSE paper) in the two years which would be the normal duration for teaching the Maths element of an IGCSE course in Maths.
These considerations suggest to us that the ideal model for a course which we could use with children of different ages, including those working towards International exams, would be a course structure that is designed around 3 hours a week, over a minimum teaching period of 32 weeks, and which is structured in such a way that the 6 hours of 2 weeks teaching can be collapsed into a 5 lesson daily model when double pace is required.
When it comes to actually designing the content of the English that we need, we have taken advice from academics at one of the UK’s leading universities who have given us detailed analyses of the language which is actually used by learners at the different levels.
At a simplistic level we wanted to know the answer to questions like ‘how many words’ need to be learned at the different levels in order to gain the required skills. This question opens up the larger question of what is the actual vocabulary of a native speaker?
It seems that this question is phenomenally difficult to answer because the very concept of a word is unclear. Some single words have multiple meanings (like pen in the case of writing pen and sheep pen). Some concepts are expressed by multiple words like ‘hand bag’. Does knowing the meaning of ‘hand bag’ involve knowing the meaning of the two separate words ‘hand’ and ‘bag’ or is there a third ‘concept’ which we should loosely think of as knowing another ‘word’ when we think of putting the separate words together to make ‘hand bag’ ?
This kind of complexity means that estimates of the vocabulary which adults use and can recognise vary enormously. Some estimates suggest that an adult vocabularly is 10,000 words to 20,000 words for graduates. Other estimates suggest outcomes closer to 50,000 words. The Economist reports that a website vocabulary tester shows that the average across two million adults is around 20,000 to 35,000. But arguably, and even despite the large sample size, this is a potentially skewed sample of people who are interested enough in words to actually take the test.
A different way of approaching the issue of vocabulary is to ask how many words are there in general use in at the specific percentiles. Analysis of online document banks shows that 95% of written English can be understood with an operating vocabulary of 5000 words. 98% of the written language takes about 8000 words.
This suggests to us that there would be merit in pitching the vocabulary at each English level at around the 1000 word mark (over the 2 years of a level), as this would achieve 98% vocabulary comprehension of texts by the proficiency levels of C1 and then C2. This compares broadly similarly to other language courses in the UK. An analysis of French teaching in the UK suggests that the average A level student learns about 500 words of French per year. The OCR GCSE Latin word list is 475 words plus numbers and word derivatives (over two years).
The difficulty would arise if a course was taught at double pace, as that would effectively require the learning of 1000 words per year. That would equate to 32 words of new vocabulary per week at its most intense pace. That would certainly be challenging, but in the context of an hour per day of teaching it would be perfectly doable, if the course was structured properly and designed to reinforce learning. At normal pace the vocabulary learning would be 16 words per week.
It is a bit simplistic to think of a course in terms of vocabulary as there are significant grammatical components too, which need to be factored into thinking.
We have spent significant time reviewing the main commercial packages available and are still not finding what we need. In a surprising development, it is beginning to look as if some of the models which might work best for us are actually the older models. We think that it is important to develop pupils’ oral skills with English, and refugee children certainly need to be able to express their needs in oral English in camp contexts. But we also need a very strong emphasis on writing and written expression when we are using English as a curriculum vehicle for other subjects. Without that focus there is a very serious risk that pupils will not be able to access the wider curriculum properly. At the moment some of the most thought provoking models are certainly the older ones.