The DP Coordinators view: language level placement II

I am not a language teacher.

This post continues from last weeks where I asked questions surrounding the language profile of hypothetical students.

In addition to the subject guides for language A and B, The IB has produced a range of publications surrounding the issues of language learning that support discussions of language placement. These, in addition to DP Programme: From Principles into Practice (PP), include:

  • Developing academic literacy in IB programmes
  • Language and Learning in IB programmes
  • Learning in a language other than mother tongue in IB programmes
  • Benchmarking selected International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme language courses to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

These can all be found on the PRC at the time of writing.

It is important to note that the IB makes no definitive prescriptions about which language level placement is appropriate for which students. This is evidenced by the following quotes from the language guides:

Students enter language acquisition courses with varying degrees of exposure to the target language(s).
It is, therefore, important that students are placed into a course that is most suited to their language
development needs and that will provide them with an appropriate academic challenge
[my emphasis]. ….
Further placement guidance can be drawn from the study Benchmarking Selected IB Diploma Programme
Language Courses to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This study suggests that
students already at CEFR A2 or B1 in the target language can comfortably take language B SL. Students
already at CEFR B1 or B2 can comfortably take language B HL.

Excerpt from the Language B guide (first exams 2020)

Language ab initio is a language acquisition course designed for students with no prior experience of the
target language, or for those students with very limited previous exposure. ….
Because of the inherent difficulty of defining what constitutes “very limited exposure” to a language, it is not
possible to list specific conditions such as the number of hours or the nature of previous language instruction
[my emphasis];
however, it is important to note that any student who is already able to understand and respond to spoken and
written language on a range of common topics is not to be placed in language ab initio as this would not provide
an appropriate academic challenge
[my emphasis], nor is it fair for those students who are genuine beginners of the language.

Excerpt from the ab initio guide (first exams 2020)

This is a matter that schools need to decide internally, and the IB provides guidance on how to approach. Indeed, PP makes this clear:

Because language demographics vary widely, each school is required to develop a language policy to address these issues…

Access can be broadened when a school fully understands and supports the needs of students for whom the language of instruction in the school is not their best or first language. Teachers of all subjects need to understand their role in supporting student language development…..

Many DP students complete their Diploma in a language that is not their best language for academic work. A powerful feature of the DP is the policy of mother-tongue entitlement that promotes respect for the literary heritage of the language a student uses at home.

IB Diploma Programme: From Principles to Practice (2015)

While offering SSST Language A: Literature SL may well resolve some of the issues raised in last weeks post, it doesn’t always.

Clearly there are logistical and financing implications for schools and the families impacted but what seems to unconsidered by the IB, is that it may well be the case that a student who has not formally studied in their mother tongue, and only used this language at home, may not be equipped to take the SSST course.

If the school is small and perhaps doesn’t offer their mother tongue language in group 2, then what can this student do?

This was the idea I was puzzling over that inspired me to write these posts and interesting some of the replies to last weeks post, indicate that I am not alone in thinking this way.

In their video “Language domains in the continuum” (on the PRC), the IB references the following graphic to explain ways to think about language use in educational programmes.

Language domains in the continuum

This model builds on the work of Jim Cummins, which I have addressed elsewhere on this blog, and provides a clear bridge between that work and the problems of placement.

I would argue that it is possible for a mother tongue language learner to not have the language skills much beyond the BICS category and perhaps not fully CALPS. For example a student could be mother tongue in, say Spanish with Mexican heritage but raised in China for much of their life. If they attend a small school that doesn’t offer Spanish from the primary years up, they will have a problem when they come to the Diploma.

They are going to have a real struggle to undertake literary criticism and analysis in their mother tongue. This will make the SSST course unsuitable but without the facility to self study Language B HL they will, most likely be forced to not taking up their mother tongue.

Currently, the IB doesn’t explicitly allow self study of Language B. This is a shame. To rub the salt in, the only online provider of IB courses, Pamoja education, doesn’t provide a vast range of languages either.

Additionally, as outlined last week, there can be cases where a student doesn’t make the progress we would expect in their mother tongue after being placed erroneously into an acquisition course. Of course this type of thing shouldn’t happen but when it does, teachers views of student can become entrenched which makes it harder to make the case for a child to switch into the correct stream. Of course, their language skills haven’t developed and kept up with other native speakers, they haven’t been challenged appropriately.

Whats the problem with these scenarios? Why not just swap onto the right course in the DP? To understand I think it is important to understand the different demands of the language courses.

A good way, I submit, to look at the demands of the language courses is in terms of the complex conceptual demands of analysing a text. I am well aware that I am a novice here, and discussing issues outside of my subject specialism, but I am eager to learn and discuss.

I suggest that the more novels a course contains then the higher degree of abstract analysis and discussion of texts will need to take place, drawing on deeper cultural understanding. I don’t write this to knock language acquisition – learning a language is a challenge in its own right and for different reasons – but just to provide a metric when thinking about the different courses.

The IB appears to have aligned its language courses so that now there is a continuum of exceptions from language ab initio all the way to language A: literature HL and we can see this in the literature requirements of each of the courses.

ab initio courses have no literature component and neither does language B SL.

Language B HL requires students to study 2 novels:

The use of literary works to develop students’ receptive and productive skills is encouraged at all levels of
language acquisition in the DP; however, in terms of formal requirements of the syllabus and assessment
outline, the study of two literary works originally written in the target language is a requirement at
HL in language B. HL students are expected to understand fundamental elements of the literary works
studied, such as themes, plot and characters. It must be emphasized that literary criticism is not an objective

Excerpt from the Language B guide (first exams 2020)

In group 1 or Language A we have two routes: Language & Literature or Literature.

So what is involved with the two different Language A courses:

Language A: literature—in this course, the focus is directed towards developing an understanding of the techniques involved in literary criticism and promoting the ability to form independent literary judgments.

Language A: language and literature—in this course, the focus is directed towards developing an understanding of the constructed nature of meanings generated by language, and the function of context in this process.

Excerpt from the IB DP Assessment procedures 2020 document found on the PRC

The tables below show us that L&L SL requires student students to study 4 works of literature, while HL requires you to study 6 works of literature. Lit SL requires 9 works of literature and HL requires 13 works of literature.But all group 1 SL course and HL course should be the same difficulty.

Details of the Language A: Language & Literature course
Details of the Language A: Literature course

What does all this mean for language placement for students who have complex language profiles?

First there needs to be a clear policy that articulates the progression of mother tongue learning and acquisition language learning in school, that ensures that students are not left in the position that the teachers of the only two languages they could study in the Diploma are all recommending that they only take language B. All students need to have an A language and if this can’t be their mother tongue then the school has a duty to prepare them as best possible in another language to enable them to take one of those languages in group A, where possible.

Secondly mother tongue needs to be provided for where possible so that students and their families understand the options and the routes available to them as they move through the school. Where the school cannot provide for the teaching of the mother tongue directly, conversations need to take place with the parents about how provision can be made for a student to keep up to some extent with their home language.

Thirdly, when working out placements, it is important to provide testing of the students level and ability in all their languages, not just the ones that the school provides for. A school can provide the means for a language test to be taken by an external assessor if necessary, to help the school and families work out what pathway may be in the best interests of the student.

Testing can allow a quick comparison between the CEFR and IB programmes as outlined in the 2016 report “Benchmarking selected International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme language courses to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages” available on the PRC. The summary of that report contains this graphic which shows how the grades for each course map onto the CEFR.

Fourthly, where possible the school should work with the IB and the family to enable access to a language where possible. This may include getting permission from the IB to deliver group 2 language with an external teacher, if possible or providing financial support to families who need to hire in an additional tutor, either through fee reductions or bursaries.

What do you think? How can schools work to get language level placement right for students? Please comment below.


The DP Coordinators view: language level placement I

I am not a language teacher. In this post I want to share some scenarios surrounding language level placement in the IB DP and I would love to hear feedback to the questions raised.

In my experience, one of the most murky, opaque areas of the Diploma Programme is language placement in the group 1 and 2 subjects.

Having worked as a university guidance counselor and diploma programme coordinator for around five years in total (at the time of writing), I have been involved in the discussions around this topic in two schools on two continents.

It can be a highly contentious issue it seems; lots of people want to give their view, including me!

So whats the issue? Surely if a student is a native speaker they should take the language at group 1 and if non-native then they should take it at group 2, right?

Well, no. It isn’t that simple.

International schools can be very complex places and students language profiles are no exception to this. Add to the fact, that schools may have a medium of instruction that is different to the host country language as well as first language of the majority of students in the school, who may come from a country other than the host country or any country that uses the medium of instruction.

Let’s imagine a student. This student lives and attends school in country X where the local language is language Xphone but the schools medium of instruction is Zphone. This students family speak neither of these languages but students parents moved to country X from country Y for work 8 years ago.

The family speak Yphone. At home this student speaks Yphone every evening, but at school they are taught in Zphone for all their academic subjects and studying Xphone as the host country language is mandatory. Ever since this student was in upper primary they have studied at school primarily in Zphone and but also have had lessons in Xphone.

To make matters more challenging this student has been in the langugae aquisition stream for both language X and Z since upper primary and, whilst their language use of both language is strong, they are not fluent or at the level of a native speaker in either of the languages.

How should a student in this scenario be treated when undertaking their choices for the IB DP? None of the language teachers feel that they are strong enough for Language A courses and all recommend Language B HL. Should this student not be allowed to take the full IB DP because they can’t “do” a language A course?

The student in question wants to take school supported self taught literature A in Yphone. Should they be allowed to do this? What if they do not have the requisite skills to analyse literature in that language? They may have been speaking it at home all their life but they have not formally studied in it or with it for many years and so their reading and writing skills in this language skills are somewhat reduced.

What do you recommend? How should we approach this scenario as DP Coordinators?

Let’s imagine another student. This student holds a passport for country C because they were born there but their parents are from country D and moved back soon after this student was born. The family speaks Dphone at home. The school is located in host country D but teaches in language Cphone for most of its academic subjects.

Because of a quirk in the admissions process, despite being a mother tongue D speaker, this student was placed in D acquisition classes in upper primary and has stayed in these classes all the way through secondary. The teachers cite his slow progress in the acquisition class for language D and the fact that he holds a passport from country C as reasons that he has never moved into the main language D classes.

Now it comes to IB subject selections and the student is in acquisition classes for both language D and language C but cannot take both as group 2 subjects – one must be in group 1 but which one?

How do you decide which course would be most appropriate for a student? What would you do to resolve these issues if you were presented with them?

In next weeks post I hope to provide some thoughts of my own.


The DP Coordinators view: Language orals

I am not a language teacher.

I am a biology teacher by training but being diploma coordinator requires me to become a generalist in other subjects. In this post I want to summarise my understanding of the coursework requirements of these courses, so as to better understand their placement in an assessment calendar.

The changes in the International Baccalaureate group 1 and 2 courses in the last couple of years appear to have been positively received by the educators I have spoken to.

Aside from the exams at the end of the courses coursework components for these courses has been streamlined, a positive change for both teachers and students a like.

In group 1 subjects HL students will have an externally assessed essay to complete, which replaces the written task. At the time of writing, I suspect that this essay will be submitted as an early component. SL and HL group 1 students will have to complete an oral.

In group 2 subjects HL and SL students need to complete an oral.

The guide for group one subjects recommends that orals for these subjects are placed at the end of year 1 or the beginning of year 2 of the programme.

Teachers and experienced coordinators that I have spoken to recommend that group 2 orals are placed as close to the IA upload deadlines as possible, as this will give students the greatest chance to demonstrate fully developed speaking and listening skills, which makes sense for a language aquisition subject.

Therefore for my assessment calendar, in addition to blocking the internal assessment for the maths courses to occur at the same point in the year, I recommend:

  • Placing group 1 orals in June of DP 1
  • Students taking 2 group 1 subjects they can opt to take one or both subjects at this time or one of their subjects in a second slot in September of DP 2
  • HL essays to be completed between October and February of DP2. There is a potential conflict here, affecting HL group 1 students, with the TOK essay which also needs to be submitted in the early deadline
  • Placing group 2 orals in the middle to end of March of DP 2 allowing 2 to 3 weeks of processing and uploading to the IB eCoursework system.

Thinking about it, while all coursework needs to be checked for authenticity, language orals are the closest in likeness of an exam in terms of the conditions that they are held under. They are less likely to be affected by academic integrity issues.

Are you a IB language teacher? What do you think? I would love to hear from you.


Quality Assurance?

“I’m talking about quality assurance not quality control, they are two different things”

Yes, perhaps. But your insistence on checking every teachers work down to the exams they are setting for the end of the year is not only a MASSIVE waste of valuable time with a syzygetic opportunity cost but will only serve to undermine quality, long term, in the educational programs you are trying to assure.

Teachers are generally a hard working lot, who care about what they do. Yes, I have encountered one or two who genuinely were out for what they could get but that is not the modus operandi of most of the professionals I have met.

And I refuse to base management decision based on a few bad apples.

Subjecting colleagues to a work scrutiny is patronising at best and at worst sends the message that we don’t trust you. If I am a hard working colleague trying to balance a quizillion other work tasks alongside regular teaching this scrutiny is going to demotivate me, not inspire me to deliver my best.

Yes, I can think of reasons why you say we should do it too, but they are baloney compared to the long term impact it has on morale and therefore the quality of our educational product.

Of course, staff need to be held accountable but we need to allow them the space to make mistakes so that they can formatively develop. There is a difference between supporting someones development as a professional and operating on the assumption they can’t be trusted to get it right.

To my mind this way of thinking goes in the bin alongside, making personalised exam timetables for students for their mock exams: A massive waste of leadership time and a massive learning opportunity cost for the kids.

Coordination Personal Resources

NPQSL project: IBDP Curriculum Coherence

In January 2019, after starting a new job in China in September 2018, I began my NPQSL through UCL IOE’s Beijing Cluster. I guess I am a glutton for punishment. Not only had we uprooted the family and moved from Switzerland to China with our two daughters, to a new continent, city, house and jobs, I just had to undertake a large CPD project!

My job was a new role for me, and, while I felt very prepared for it, the challenges of adjusting professionally and personally to a whole new culture were significant. Reflecting now, going through my project and thinking about everything I achieved last academic year, despite such challenges, I am proud and that somewhat alleviates the shame I have been feeling this week over being made redundant.

Anyway, as I was scouting around for ideas for my NPQSL project, I could not find or connect with another IBDP Coordinator who had done the training, which is a UK qualification but open to (some) international schools too. Therefore I have decided to share a version of it on my TES shop for free (like all my resources that are slowly being populated to the site).

You can find my NPQSL project and appendices through the link below and you will also find my assessors feedback to go with it. I scored 20/28 which is the passing mark. Not the best score I have ever achieved, but I am pleased to have made it through despite all the other things going on in my work and personal life at the time.

I hope that it can help someone else when they are struggling with their own project.