Leaving Certificate language students still rely strongly on rote-learned material, say teachers who mark exams.
In a series of reports on student performance in language exams last June, chief examiners say students must learn how to adapt, instead of using learned-off answers.
The issues were most acute in the 2016 Leaving Certificate exams in Spanish, French, and Italian.
There are many positive aspects, particularly about the competencies of more able students of the six languages, which also included German, Japanese, and Russian.
But in oral exams, which are worth between 20% and 25% of marks in language subjects, a common concern is that students have prepared answers.
The Spanish Leaving Certificate examiner reported, for example, that a number of students had been taught in a “rote-learning” manner that prevented the natural flow of conversation.
“Many candidates had prepared a range of topics in the general conversation, but, when gently disengaged from rote-learned topics, found it difficult to communicate effectively in the target language,” the reports said.
The reports are published today by the State Examinations Commission (SEC), whose chief examiner in Leaving Certificate French said most students were well-prepared for the orals and had a high degree of proficiency and fluency.
However, at the other end of the scale, some of the 25,758 students examined in the subject had difficulty answering even simple questions.
“Other candidates were hesitant to venture beyond the comfort zone of their prepared material, and, instead, relied on long sections of learned-off material,” the report said.
“If the examiner intervened gently, in order to try to elicit a more authentic response, many candidates persisted with their prepared paragraphs, rather than genuinely trying to take part in a conversation.”
In some class groups, every student spoke about liking the same TV programme, school subject, film or book, and all repeated the same few lines about a school tour, or what they did at the weekend or during the Easter holidays.
“At times, they all presented a document on the same theme,” the report said.
“In such cases, candidates appeared to view the oral examination as a test of memory, rather than as a personal, individual conversation where the examiner... is able to determine his or her level of oral proficiency.”
Many higher-level French students relied heavily on learned-off material in the written communication element of the June exam, using generic statements, cliches, or proverbs which were often inaccurately written.
French teachers have been told by the chief examiner to advise students not to try memorising paragraphs or essays from books or notes, but to use words and phrases they know in answering questions.
Among more than 500 students who did Leaving Certificate Italian, the chief examiner said memorising something for a role play in the oral exam was a disadvantage to students who over-relied on such material. In the written exam, there was evidence that some had only read an English translation of a prescribed foreign-language novel, or that their answers were based on the film version, instead of the book itself.
Leaving Cert students faced a fair higher-level Spanish paper which most would have found manageable, according to Begoña de la Fuente, a Spanish teacher at the Institute of Education.
The most challenging part was an extract about an accident that occurred when someone was taking a selfie, said Ms de la Fuente.
“The vocabulary was quite specific and challenging here. A question on the theme of education and the recession in Spain, however, was nice and topical and the questions were clear and straightforward, with no surprises.”
Robbie Cronin, a teacher at Marian College in Ballsbridge said that the higher level paper was fair and that his students seemed to be happy enough with it.
“The highlight for me was a very interesting comprehension piece about the president of Uruguay and how he lived frugally rather than in a big palatial house. It was nicely pitched at a more idealistic age group,” said Mr Cronin, who is also a subject representative for the ASTI.
Both Mr Cronin and Ms de la Fuente said that the topics for the opinion pieces, including “life can be simple” and “we have to do more for other people” were nice and open and gave good scope to students.
“The opinion piece is always the hardest question and the one the students dread most,” said Mr Cronin. “They will have breathed a sigh of relief on seeing this.”
He agreed with Ms de la Fuente that the question on the selfie accident was too technical and difficult.
Ms de la Fuente said the dialogue piece contained predictable structures, the letter topics were current and accessible and the appearance of the subjunctive will have been welcomed by students as they always put a lot of work into preparing for it, she added.
The ordinary level paper started off with a very difficult topic and students may have been thrown by it, said Mr Cronin.
The Spanish word for “nightmare” in this question might have been unfamiliar to ordinary level students, while another question about manatees struck him as a strange choice.
An article about Madonna’s support of bullfighting touched on a topical issue, but Madonna may not have been the most relevant pop star for junior cycle students, Mr Cronin added.
TRY THIS AT HOME
Q. You are staying with a Spanish family in A Coruña for two weeks while doing a language course.
Leave a note in Spanish for your friend including all of the following points: Say that your phone isn’t working and you have to get it repaired today. You had planned to go to dance class this evening but will not be able to go. Ask if they can ring the dance teacher to tell him that you won’t be there. You hope to be home by 8.30pm.