Skip to content

Blog post Part of special issue: Spotlight on language and literacy

A tale of two teachers: Reimagining GCSE modern languages

Sarah O'Neill, PGR Research Student at Queen's University Belfast

Qualifications in modern languages are changing. Qualifications and assessment reform is on the political agenda in England, Scotland and Wales; while in Northern Ireland, the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has been commissioned to review language qualification content and grading. As part of my PhD research into modern language education policy, I interviewed two teachers in vastly different circumstances, yet with a shared appetite for reimagining the current GCSE in modern languages.

Emma and Rachel [pseudonyms] are both French teachers in Northern Ireland who participated in an intervention study introducing Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) to their classrooms. Emma teaches in a non-selective, rural secondary school; while Rachel is a French teacher in an academically selective city grammar school. Teacher interview data and pre-intervention pupil questionnaires were collected in January–February 2022 as part of this researcher’s doctoral thesis entitled, ‘Developing CLIL-informed Policy and Practice in Language Education’ (O’Neill, in preparation).

Emma is a teacher with 23 years’ experience who feels that her current approach ‘is working’. This view is endorsed by her pupils in an anonymised questionnaire: 100 per cent of pupils (n=38) enjoy her lessons, and 74 per cent are ‘proud’ or ‘very proud’ of their progress in French. Based on a sum score of 15 Likert items measuring intrinsic and instrumental motivation, anxiety, self-efficacy and subject difficulty, Emma’s pupils report a stronger positive disposition towards languages than any other school in this study; yet every year, Emma runs one GCSE French class and has never had an A-level class.

Rachel is approaching her 20th year in teaching. Her pupils have twice the weekly hours of French as Emma’s, and access to digital technologies that are unavailable in Emma’s classroom: each pupil receives a school iPad, and before the holidays, learners were playing Minecraft in French using VR goggles. Nevertheless, Rachel’s pupils are less highly motivated than Emma’s: 54 per cent (n=52) enjoy their French lessons, and 38 per cent are ‘proud’ or ‘very proud’ of their progress. Fewer of Rachel’s pupils (17 per cent; n=9) intend to take GCSE French compared to Emma’s (34 per cent; n=13). Yet despite low numbers, Rachel’s school facilitates a GCSE and A-level class each year.

Both teachers desire reform to the current GCSE. Despite high motivation at key stage 3 (KS3), Emma is cautious when encouraging pupils to continue at GCSE. She finds her top-performing pupils achieve a C or C* (grade 4/5 equivalent) in French but do better in other subjects. In her words: ‘encouraging a youngster to do languages at the moment is something that you have to consider very seriously, because the exam is hugely challenging in comparison to other subjects … and I think it is killing the language.’

‘“Encouraging a youngster to do languages at the moment is something that you have to consider very seriously, because the exam is hugely challenging in comparison to other subjects … and I think it is killing the language.”’

Rachel describes the ‘fear of surrendering time’ to activities that her learners genuinely enjoy, such as group work and class projects: ‘That would be the dream, to be allowed to do those kinds of things.’ She blames the ‘dense curriculum’ at GCSE, which impacts on her KS3 teaching: ‘We ask ourselves the same question at A-level, are we valuing quantity over quality in terms of the volume of material that we’re providing?’

Deriving ‘enjoyment and benefit from language learning’ is the first aim of the 2017 (current) CCEA GCSE Specification in French, but for Emma, the ‘volume of material’ involved in the current GCSE is unsuitable for her enthusiastic and motivated leaners; while for Rachel it is a barrier to devoting time to activities her learners actually enjoy. Emma desires a GCSE continuation pathway in languages for her more ‘practically-minded’ learners, rather than a suite of alternative qualifications. The GCSE acts as an important performance measure for her school and a recognised standard for pupils. She sees potential for meaningfully integrating languages into the Leisure, Travel and Tourism, or Hospitality GCSEs. The CLIL approach offers teachers a pedagogical toolkit for combining other subject studies with language learning (Coyle et al., 2010; Mehisto & Ting, 2017).

Emma challenges decision-makers ‘to start looking much more imaginatively at what we’re doing’. The valuable perspectives of teachers such as Emma and Rachel have much to contribute to that reimagining.


Coyle, D., Hood, P., & Marsh, D. (2010). CLIL: Content and language integrated learning. Cambridge University Press.

Mehisto, P., & Ting, T.Y.L. (2017). CLIL essentials for secondary school teachers. Cambridge University Press.

O’Neill, S. (in preparation). Developing CLIL-informed policy and practice in language education. [Unpublished doctoral thesis, Queen’s University Belfast]