Guest Post: CALL to MALL: OpenExam linking the Past to the Future in Languages

By Peter Smith, Secretary of OpenExam

Barack Obama’s recent speech at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was a potent reminder of the importance and power of language. Young people can be in no doubt that verbal communication skills have the power to change the course of history and can make an impact on their lives. Today’s students are keen to acquire language skills but are also worldly and quick to understand the barriers to competence and fluency in a foreign language. In the 21st century it is the job of language teachers to remove those barriers and put their students in the driving seat.

The Language Teacher’s role
Today’s students are often ahead of their teachers in the realm of technology, but their greater facility with technology is not exploited with many current teaching methodologies. The traditional classroom with the teacher as the ‘sage on the stage’ is in decline. Traditional hierarchical and authoritative education methods are on the wane, giving way to enlightened styles of instruction, such as the ‘flipped classroom’, and more constructive evaluation procedures, such as formative assessment. Teachers are increasingly adopting a more oblique, understated, yet supporting role as a guide and coach in their students’ education.

The Technology

MALL (Mobile Assisted Language Learning) is fast becoming as accepted today as its
predecessor, CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) in the 1980s and 90s.
Geographical and physical borders are being transcended by technology. Apps may replace textbooks at some point in the future.

Recognition of Achievement
Success or failure in language learning is no longer wholly dependent on vocabulary acquisition, grammar learning and classroom tests. Students can use language and cultural knowledge as a means to communicate at their own level with others around the globe. Student portfolios, for example, demonstrate success, and provide a means of assessment using an asset-based approach. This replaces the old models of evaluation based on student deficiencies. The emphasis in schools is moving away from achieving grades. It is more on learning processes and self-improvement. Frequent, ongoing assessment allows for the fine-tuning of instruction and student focus on progress. By helping students to improve their metacognitive awareness of how they learn, teachers can help them acquire the skills they need in a rapidly changing world.

The Transition
These changes will not occur overnight. Accepted practice in education has always evolved over long periods. Whilst methods of teaching, learning and classroom assessment are developing pragmatically to embrace the new technologies, government departments, educational institutions and examination boards will not necessarily keep pace. Traditional summative examinations and qualification procedures will remain. A proper match between new classroom policies, the criteria of the examination room, and the demands of employers may well become harder to maintain in the future.


OpenExam is a teacher-led association of educators aiming to provide a mechanism for
matching the changes offered by the new technologies to the demands of existing examinations and qualifications. It provides a base for formative assessment together with online versions of current examinations. Teachers and students have access to a useful library of language examination practice examination materials for French and Spanish. Materials are regularly updated to the latest question styles. There are clearly defined assessment levels, recognition and assessment of collaboration between students across borders, and conversion of qualifications such as AP/IB/GCSE/iGCSE/A Levels/PreU/
Matric/SSCE. Materials can be used on iPads, Android, a web browser, within Schoolshape’s Language Lab software or in a web browser. They also include automated assessment (except for speaking and ‘free form’ answers), performance tracking, integration of speaking, listening, reading and writing, video assessment as required for practical skills, and emphasis on flexibility, accessibility, adaptability, accuracy of assessment and availability on phones and tablets.

Access to OpenExam
If you would like more information about joining OpenExam  or contributing materials, you can register your interest here.

My links of the week

10 useful sources for researching ab initio language learning at university

Ab initio language learning provision is now widely offered at UK universities both for students following language degree programmes and those on language modules. The following is a selection of research publications, reports and conference papers which include discussion of the nature of provision, learning outcomes and the issues involved in motivating language learners on these programmes (it’s not an exhaustive list).

1 Baumann, U. (1999) Ab initio vs. A-level students of German: how does their performance compare? Language Learning Journal, 20, 1:8-14

Baumann looked at the experience of ab initio students of German on modern languages degrees at an English university. The research set out to measure the extent to which ab initio German students were able to reach the same standard as post A-level students. Results led Baumann to suggest that ab initio offers a successful model of provision because there are few disparities in final degree outcomes between ab initio and post A-level students.

2 Bavendiek, U. (2011) Motivational processes and practices in accelerated ab initio language learning, Subject Centre for Languages,Linguistics and Area Studies

This exploratory case study investigated practices in accelerated ab initio language learning at one university from the perspectives of students and teachers. Teaching practices and institutional policies were considered alongside the motivational challenges faced by students on ab initio courses. The research involved both individual and focus group interviews.

3 Bowker, D. & Stuart, S. (2005) Ab-initio language teaching at Scottish universities, Subject Centre for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies

Bowker and Stuart examined the ways in which ab initio students are eventually integrated into mainstream classes (i.e. post A-level and post Higher) in Scottish universities. They found that universities operated flexible entry requirements alongside a variety of teaching arrangements to support ab initio students. They concluded that ab initio provision is largely viewed as successful and is seen as a means of widening access and supporting the viability of language courses.

4 Davis, P. (2006) Report on ab-initio language teaching on UK language degree programmes, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

Davis conducted a survey to assess the extent of ab initio provision in UK universities and received responses from 26 universities. Ab initio provision was found to be very diverse with Spanish the language most commonly offered to beginners. Entry requirements were varied and ranged from two A-levels in other languages to evidence of language learning ability. Davis also reported on extra resources being offered to ab initio students.

5 Gallagher-Brett, A. (2006) Hard-going but worth it: a snapshot of attitudes to reading among languages undergraduates, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

In this questionnaire survey of attitudes to reading among languages undergraduates in seven universities, I found that ab initio students did not demonstrate less positive attitudes to reading overall than more experienced students. However, they they were less confident in all year groups (including final year) than students with prior knowledge of the target language. For more on researching attitudes to reading, see my earlier post:

6 Hotho, S. (1999) Motivation in an ab initio German classroom, Language Learning Journal  20:1, 37-44

Hotho reported on a pilot study in which she examined motivation among ab initio students as a dynamic that can change over time. Participants were undergraduates learning German on an institution-wide-language programme. Results showed that although students were motivated to learn German throughout, their motivation decreased over time as they reported finding it progressively difficult. Although this was a small study, the author raised the question as to whether greater encouragement might help learners.

7 Lewin-Jones, J. (2008) Student diversity and the assessment dilemma, Paper presented at the Languages in Higher Education Conference Transitions and Connections, 8-9 July 2008

Lewin-Jones considered the diversity of the student body in ML and described the results of a questionnaire survey conducted with students on a language module at a university language centre. Findings revealed that language classes consisted of disparate groups of learners, many of whom had no prior language learning experience. The language centre responded to this by introducing portfolio-based assessment, which was initially welcomed by students but which was subsequently found to result in a certain amount of anxiety.

8 Proudfoot, A. (2001) From zero to competence: ab-initio ad astra, Subject Centre Grammar Supplement: 15-16,Subject Centre for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies

Proudfoot described the experience of teaching ab initio Italian at an English university and suggested that ab initio students reach a higher level after four years than post A-level students. She proposed a variety of reasons for this and focused in this article on evidence that ab initio students do well if grammar is taught in context using a functional approach.

9 Siciliano Verrucio, E. (2011) Ab-initio language degree programmes in HE institutions in England and Scotland: a mapping survey and a case study, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

This report consists of an extensive mapping survey of ab initio provision in language degrees at universities in England and Scotland. It covers the range of languages on offer and the entry requirements. A detailed case study of Italian ab initio provision in one university is also provided.

10 Tamponi, A. (2004) Content and language integrated university course: a task-based approach, Paper presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference, 30 June-1 July 2004

Tamponi describes an experimental study with ab initio students of Italian at one university, which involved the introduction of a task-based approach to the study of literary texts. The rationale for the study was the author’s belief that ab initio students do not perceive there to be any connections between the study of language and content in their university courses.

Also useful are presentations from the Teaching languages ab-initio workshop held at SOAS on 12 November 2009, which can be downloaded

  • Getting started on grammar and progression, Enza Siciliano-Verruccio
  • The ab initio teaching experience, Patricia Romero de Mills
  • Building confidence and encouragement, Ulrike Bavendiek