The Cambridge View on English

The Cambridge View on English

The study of English helps young people learn about themselves and others through engaging with the richness of language and literature. It allows learners to find a voice, challenge ideas, and become informed, independent thinkers, able to participate fully in the globalised, technological 21st century. 

Our vision for English qualifications for England is to develop a curriculum and assessment model that helps young people explore communication, culture and creativity, develop their critical and independent thinking and engage with the richness of our language and literary heritage. 

Previous attempts to combine English Language and Literature into a single qualification have been problematic, with concerns being raised about whether the examinations could validly assess deep understanding. We therefore believe that it is appropriate to have separate assessments for English Language and English Literature. However, we highlight that, in the curriculum, they are interlocked and there are interchangeable knowledge and skills in both. 

Literacy

Literacy must not be reduced to a basic set of competences or atomised skills. Research into literacy, and on high performing jurisdictions’ approach to it, combined with our extensive expertise, leads us to conclude that literacy can be assessed effectively within an integrated assessment model and that neither a hurdle nor a separate unit is appropriate. 

Speaking and Listening

Experts we have consulted, such as teachers, employers and Higher Education (HE), have emphasised that ‘Speaking and Listening’ is a fundamental part of the curriculum and should be fully integrated within it. Through learning about how spoken language works in different contexts, students can be taught to develop and adapt their ‘speaking and listening’ skills. They should therefore have the opportunity to speak and listen in a wide variety of contexts throughout the course. However we recognise that the effective assessment of these skills is challenging. After an extensive review of alternative models across high performing jurisdictions, we have concluded that a stand-alone ‘Speaking and Listening’ assessment, recognised through the award of a Certificate, is the best model for assessing these skills. 

Reading

Both English Literature and Language should encourage students to read and enjoy a range of high quality texts, including drama, prose, poetry, non-fiction and media texts. Through evaluating a wide range of texts they can explore how writers present ideas in different ways, and appreciate the significance of language and its effects. Students can also make connections between their reading and their own writing and speaking, developing an individual style and voice. We want students to focus on developing knowledge about language and effective communication skills in spoken and written texts. Our Literature syllabus will offer depth of study in literary heritage and contemporary prose, poetry and drama.

Writing

Both qualifications should also give students the opportunity to experiment by writing in a wide range of forms for different contexts, which increasingly enable them to express ideas with creativity, clarity and precision. They should be encouraged to make connections between their speaking, listening, reading and writing, and to talk about choices made in their own and others’ writing. Whenever possible, students should write for relevant purposes and real audiences, including beyond their school experience. 

Examination Aids

In our discussions with teachers and other English experts we have explored the advantages and disadvantages of closed and open book examinations. We have concluded that a varied approach is preferable, with the open or closed book ruling being decided as appropriate to the text, skills and knowledge being assessed. Reading of Shakespeare, for example, may benefit from open access to the text to encourage close, critical reading of the language. However students may respond in more depth to themes and ideas in a prose text under closed book conditions, having internalised some of the author’s language.

The use of dictionaries and thesauri should be restricted. 

Internal Assessment

Skills and abilities such as research, independent study, extended writing and proof-reading are an integral part of English. They are also skills strongly demanded by HE and employers. The demands of upper secondary education (A Level and equivalent) are such that they need to be assessed before students embark on these challenging courses. It is clear that validating these skills cannot solely be done through the relatively short externally examined essay. There is also pressure not to increase the burden of assessment which would be the implication of testing each skill externally. It follows, therefore, that internally assessed, externally moderated, coursework is the optimum way of assessing aspects of English.

Clearly, additional efforts would need to be made by exam boards to prevent the past challenges of coursework undermining the standard. As part of that process, we also recommend that coursework contribute a relatively low proportion of the total marks that make up the new 14-16 qualification. We believe 25% will suffice. 

English Literature and the Accountability system

We are concerned about the place of English Literature in any new accountability measures. Often perceived as being over challenging, it has been in steady decline over the past decade. This cannot all be ascribed to the availability of perceived ‘easier’ joint Language / Literature qualifications.

The accountability measures will need to guard against accidentally promoting English Language as a proxy for ‘literacy’ while placing Literature, which teaches many of the same skills, into an ‘Arts’ box accessible only to those who seek it out. Over-prescription is at the root of the challenge to English Literature and we caution against repeating old mistakes. 

As part of our on-going programme to develop reformed GCSEs we will continue to consult as widely as possible with teachers, learned societies and Higher Education. If you would like to share your views with us please email expertview@cambridgeassessment.org.uk 

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