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

BAS editor Helen Laurenson

In July 2014 the A-level Advisory Board (ALCAB) published the findings of its panel on the provision of both Modern and Classical languages at A-level.

Amongst a broad raft of recommendations and guiding principles for reform, the panel set out its stall regarding skills acquisition, commenting, ‘the panel believes that critical thinking should be developed alongside the linguistic skills’. It recommended that an Individual Research Project (IRP) form an integral part of the new specification: ‘an individually chosen and researched project should be required for A-level…sharply focused and related to a country where the language of study is an official or national language’. In addition, the recommendations state that ‘the subject matter should be challenging enough to allow for at least two sources to be studied and to allow a serious discussion to take place’. So, in summary, a need for a ‘grown-up’ and decidedly nuanced approach to both research skills, higher-order thinking and sophisticated expression in the spoken language. 

All A-level Spanish examination boards now require candidates to identify a key question or subject of interest on which to conduct individual research from a range of authentic sources, including the internet. The proportion of marks allocated to the IRP across all boards – Edexcel, AQA, Eduqas and OCR – is in the region of 15% of the total examination. All boards are clear in their objectives for this component, namely the development of students’ capacity for critical thinking.  The aim is to equip them with ‘transferable skills such as autonomy, resourcefulness, creativity and linguistic, cultural and cognitive flexibility that will enable them to proceed to further study or to employment’.  In addition, a pivotal function of the IRP within the speaking examination is to provide an opportunity for pupils to showcase language learning skills, ‘including communication strategies such as adjusting the message, circumlocution, self-correction and repair strategies’. 

Examination boards coincide in their approach and guidance regarding teacher input and any potential overlap with texts or films studied for the Cultural Topic component. Teachers may advise on titles and, in some cases, on sources, but should avoid ‘giving advice on language or correcting any work students may have written down’.  Teachers are encouraged to liaise wth the examination board and the subject officers to ensure that titles are suitable. A variety of administrative approaches are used to ensure that the independent nature of the project is ensured; no written or oral feedback is permitted during any mock examinations, and a pro-forma is submitted with bullet-point details for possible discussion and a number of sources.

Teachers can aim for a variety of innovative approaches to the preparation and practice of the IRP.  These include ‘mini-IRP’ practice, involving a practice ‘try-out’ on another topic, with comments from peers, or an IRP carousel powerpoint presentation to Year 11 pupils as part of an Autumn Term Modern Languages promotion ahead of A-level choices being made. The IRP section of the speaking examination covers all (or almost all) of the Assessment Objectives, with a focus on the quality of language, presentation, critical and analytical response, along with general accuracy. 

There are no hard and fast rules issued by examination boards as to the timing of the inputting, monitoring and preparation of the IRP, but many schools opt to have this in place ahead of the summer break at the end of Year 12. Whilst it is the intention of the examination boards that the syllabus subject topics act as a springboard for inspiration, many pupils choose a topic which dovetails with another of their A-level subjects or a degree programme to which they intend to apply. For example, an applicant for Medical School focused on Cuban medical internationalist missions, whilst an Economics pupil explored the reasons for inflation in Venezuela. Indeed, the Summer Term is an ideal juncture at which to explore such possibilities, as the research skills gained over the summer, along with a broadening of knowledge base in the pupil’s chosen field for Higher Education, can be included in the all-important UCAS personal statement.

The Individual Research Project is a really enjoyable part of the A-level Spanish suite of papers and skills. A successful execution of its intended objectives elicits a positive and dynamic approach on the part of pupils, teachers and foreign-language assistants. Here are some approaches which may be useful:

  • Explore and embed cultural inserts from the outset of Spanish teaching at GCSE and below, using the Summer Term to inculcate the skills of presentation and research.
  • Be explicit about higher-order thinking skills and how these might look within the context of IRP research.
  • Use your school library and librarians where available to access online resources, such as JStor. Oxbridge candidates may also want to look at Polyglot (Oxford) and Polyglossia (Cambridge) for some inspirational ideas and research methodology.
  • Provide some authentic supplementary material prompted by the topics at A-level; for example, in aspects of political life, instead of Franco, explore the Argentine guerra sucia. (Increasingly contracted timetables are an issue here but provide opportunities for independent reading and research over holiday periods.)
  • Make cross-curricular connections, liaising with colleagues in Art, Geography, History and Economics; if the Cuban Revolution is on the SoW, use some authentic materials in the target language to explore further.
  • Encourage pupils to set up current affairs clubs or film clubs to foster broader, supra-curricular interests.
  • Use Year 12 Languages Ambassadors to deliver mini-IRP presentations to the GCSE cohort.
  • Take a bespoke approach to the IRP of each individual pupil, considering their HE profile, employing FLAs too (where available) to explore areas of interest.
  • Finally, facilitate visits and talks by former pupils who went on to study languages.