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York research centre plays key role in new reforms to GCSE Languages

Posted on 14 January 2022

Experts from a University of York research centre have played a key role behind major changes to the way GCSE languages are taught.

A student learning languagesStudents will study the reformed GCSEs from 2024.

The new changes are designed to encourage more pupils to take up a GCSE in Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) and mean students will be assessed on the most common vocabulary used in the language, as well as grammar and pronunciation.

The new-look GCSEs are designed to increase clarity for teachers and improve the practical benefits for students.

The changes, announced by the Department of Education on 14 January, following a public consultation, involved close collaboration with the directors of the University of York’s National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy (NCELP) and significant input from NCELP’s resource developers and researchers. 

Research suggests that a focus on the ‘building blocks’ of the most commonly-used vocabulary, alongside pronunciation and grammar, enables students to more clearly see progress in their ability to understand and use the language, and in turn grow in confidence and motivation. 

Students will study the reformed GCSEs from 2024.


The changes are based on recommendations from an expert panel which included Professor Emma Marsden, from York’s Department of Education and Director of NCELP. 

Dr Rachel Hawkes (Co-director of NCELP, CamTrust schools) also played a pivotal role in the GCSE reforms.

Professor Marsden said: "The rationales for studying a language remain the same - to communicate meaning and interact, to become familiar with the countries, communities, and cultures which use the language, and to gain an interest in learning languages to prepare for future study.

"What has changed now is that the language content is more clearly defined to help teachers and students know where the goalposts are. This will include a list of vocabulary (informed by research into the usefulness and frequency of the words in the language) alongside reduced but more precise content relating to grammar and sounds of the language.

"The vast majority of 16 year-olds usually only have about 450 hours of lessons at secondary school before they take their GCSE. Over the last couple of years, we have worked with the subject content review panel, the DfE, Ofqual, and the Awarding Organisations, to inform proposals about an amount and type of content that is more realistic and appropriate for these students to learn well, in meaningful ways."


NCELP has also provided training to awarding organisations (such as AQA, Edexcel and WJEC) to help them prepare for the changes, and continues to offer support and resources for the creation and rollout of the GCSE exams. Researchers at NCELP have provided detailed analyses of the current GCSEs and A Levels, demonstrating that these proposed changes are much needed and feasible. The new word lists should provide better preparation for both GCSEs and A-level exam papers. 

Additionally, NCELP will offer Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses designed for those new to NCELP approaches, and for those who want to develop their understanding further (such as teachers who have already adopted NCELP Schemes of Work and resources).


For the first time, a vocabulary list will be provided for the GCSE, and the vocabulary taught will be informed by how frequently the words are used in the language, with the majority of words (85%) needing to be the most generally useful words. 

This has been made possible by NCELP’s MultiLingProfiler tool - the first tool of its kind to allow people to determine which words in a text are the most frequent, in French, German, and Spanish.

Other changes include:

  • Exam boards will be able to select topics and themes to inform the selection of key vocabulary, as opposed to being prescribed in the subject content.
  • Teachers' knowledge about what kinds of words are likely to be useful or of interest to young teenagers can also inform the creation of new word lists.
  • Grammar will be informed by evidence about what is most likely to be learnable at this early stage of language learning, with the previous vague and highly complex grammar removed from the content.
  • A list of phonics (sound-spelling relations) will be included to ensure that learners can read unfamiliar words and spell words that they hear. So, dictation and reading aloud (with comprehension) will be assessed, in addition to comprehension, speaking, and writing, as before.

Exciting opportunities

Even though approximately a quarter of a million children take a GCSE in these languages every year, this only amounts to around 50% of all 16-year olds. One aim of these changes to the GCSE is to increase the number of language students, which, it is hoped, will feed into increased language study at later stages of life.

Schools Minister Robin Walker said: "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."


Further information:

The National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy (NCELP) was set up in December 2018 to work in partnership with university researchers, teacher educators and expert practitioners, and Specialist Teachers in Leading Schools across the country acting as language hubs, to improve language curriculum design and pedagogy, leading to a higher take-up and greater success at GCSE.

The NCELP is funded by the Department for Education (DfE) and co-directed by The University of York and The Cam Academy Trust.

Their substantial package of support includes professional development tools, teaching resources, and workshops, and takes forward the recommendations made in the Teaching Schools Council’s Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review led by headteacher and linguist Ian Bauckham, and ensures they are achievable and effective in schools.

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