The IRP in Spanish A-level: the student’s perspective

By Alexander Evers, new undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford, reading Spanish and Portuguese.

The Independent Research Project, or IRP for short, is an exciting opportunity for Year 13 (school-leaving) students such as myself to further their interests in Hispanic culture and develop independent research skills – something that I found hugely rewarding.

Early on in the research process I decided that I wanted to explore an aspect of Latin American culture, as this had been my primary focus in my Oxford application which I was working on in tandem with my IRP. Soon after, I decided that researching a film would be of most interest, as I had already enjoyed studying Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver as part of my A-level course, and wanted to develop the film analysis skills that I had picked up in class.

After watching a few films, I was immediately captivated by Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical 2018 Netflix film Roma, and began to explore it in greater depth. 

Before choosing an exact title for my project I found it useful to read online articles and film reviews in order to better grasp Roma’s key concepts and themes, so that I could then choose a balanced and well evidenced question that I also found interesting.

The most striking element of the film for me was Cuarón’s social commentary on 1970s Mexico, which led me to settle on the final question: ‘To what extent can it be considered that Roma accurately portrays social inequality in Mexican society?’ There was a vast amount of information online about this facet of the film, with some praising Cuarón’s exploration of the class divide in Mexico, while others felt that he had looked at it through a ‘white saviour’ lens, and did not do the Mexican indigenous community justice. For this reason, I wanted to delve deeper into the two opposing arguments and draw my own conclusions. 

In the end, I concluded that Cuarón sensitively and accurately depicted the class divide in Mexico in the 1970s, and offered a bold political statement about the Mexican government at the time – the most eye-opening moment for me being his detailed portrayal of the 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre – a clear act of unjust political suppression that Cuarón highlights in this film that many of the audience, including myself, had not heard of before.

However, Cuarón’s portrayal of the indigenous community struck me as underdeveloped in places.  Although the film centred around an indigenous woman named Cleo, it featured relatively little dialogue from indigenous characters, which unfortunately meant that their role in the film was lessened, as their opinions regarding the social climate of 1970s Mexico were not particularly addressed. 

The next step was preparing a spoken presentation for the examiner to last no longer than 2 minutes. This was a harder task than expected, as this 2-minute presentation formed the basis for 10 minutes of spontaneous questions from the examiner.  Therefore I had to include enough information about my chosen question, without making it too broad.  After this was completed, it was essential to memorise the presentation. I would highly recommend doing this early on in the process, as the pressure of the exam environment can make it harder to remember the presentation, so knowing it by heart is a huge help. 

The experience of the speaking exam was in some ways very different to any other A-level exam due to the fast-paced and spontaneous nature of the questions. Despite this, it was possible to prepare for many of the questions, as while the wording was not the same as the ones I had planned for, the themes that they dealt with were similar. This allowed me to draw upon knowledge from answers that I had previously planned, and made the exam less intimidating than I had expected. 

Another challenge of the speaking exam is using enough high-register language and complex grammatical structures, as these are essential for reaching the top marks, yet are often tricky to think of on the spot. What I found particularly helpful was pre-preparing a set of transferable phrases about the film that I would likely be able to use in the exam without too much effort, as I was confident knowing when and where it would be appropriate to use these structures as a result of trial and error from speaking practice. 

On reflection, the IRP is an element of the A-level course that I am very grateful for – the research skills and additional knowledge that I gained were invaluable, and are some of the many benefits of choosing to study languages at A level!

Further analysis of ‘Roma’ features on p14 of our February 2021 edition – available via the Past Editions tab above.