The DP Coordinators view: language level placement II

Originally posted on June 8, 2020 @ 9:12 am

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.

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