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Testing, testing

We take a look at why the IGCSE is such a popular exam

As generally wealthy parents across the world move to enrol their children in English-medium international schools, other families still look to local private language schools to help their children compete. One popular solution is to have their children

sit the same English language exam as their international school peers: International English Language Testing System (IELTS) for university entrance and, for 14 to 16-year- olds, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) English as a Second Language.

An exam like IGCSE E2L often straddles the English language versus English-medium divide. Yet comments from school owners about the test focus on how different it seems from the main suite of Cambridge EFL exams.

“I get that a lot,” Peter Lucantoni, author of the best-selling course book IGCSE English as a Second Language (Cambridge University Press, 2018), says. “And, of course, it is different.”

Unlike Cambridge EFL exams, IGCSEs are offered in a wide range of school subjects. “Cambridge International offers 70-plus subjects,” says Peter, who has worked in EFL for over 40 years and previously owned a frontisteria, or language school, in Cyprus.

As well as Cambridge International, Pearson and Oxford AQA offer IGCSEs E2L (Scotland has a different education system, with an ESL qualification for this age group that it isn’t available internationally).

IGCSEs are based on GCSE exams taken by 15 and 16-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The international equivalents are aimed at those aged 14 to 16 wanting international qualifications. Conceived for non-native English speaker students at international schools, the E2L exams are widely used at UK boarding schools and accepted as a GCSE equivalent by many UK universities. They’re aligned with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The Cambridge IGCSE at grade C or above, for example, is equivalent to a B2 level of English.

It’s easy to see markets for such exams: Spanish kids in bilingual CLIL programmes, for example, or Chinese children in bilingual schools which switch out of the local curriculum into Western-style education after taking their national exams at 15. Many of the private schools in France, attended by 20% of French children, now offer them.

Although originally designed for L2 students in English-medium education, the exams are well-suited to those in bilingual programmes, for example CLIL programmes in Spain, or those who have studied English at private language schools.

In some countries they are increasingly popular with language-school students. “In Cyprus, IGCSEs in a variety of subjects are taken in international schools,” Peter says, “but IGCSE English as a Second Language is also used in the final year of frontisteria, so students take EFL exams up to B1 and then move over to IGCSE.”

The exams, which vary somewhat depending on which of the three of England’s exam boards they belong to, are all skills

“The exams are well-suited to those in bilingual programmes”

based, with no explicit grammar syllabus or word lists. They cover the normal range of general English topics – or ‘contexts’ – but also focus on the English used to talk about current and future studies, a subject mysteriously missing from many general English course books at secondary level.

As for teachers, do they need to be both EFL certified and a British state qualified teacher? Peter, whose current work as a professional learning and development manager keeps him in constant contact with classroom practitioners, does not think so.

“As long as a teacher is aware of the IGCSE examination syllabus requirements and objectives, they will be able to teach it,” he argues. “The Cambridge IGCSE in English as a Second Language is very much a skills-based assessment. There is no explicit assessment of language. Having said that, it is obviously important for students to demonstrate control and appropriate use of language.”

While some local language schools are moving into IGCSE, few of their counterparts in the UK seem to have taken note. Some of the chain-run boarding schools which offer the exams run Easter revision courses: David Game and Oxford International College, for example. International Study Centres, like Sherbourne International, are also moving into this short-course market. The UK’s booming private tuition sector – worth up to £6 billion a year, according to one recent report – is all over the IGCSE market. Perhaps It’s time for the UK’s language schools to dip their toe in the water.

Peter Lucantoni is Professional Learning and Development Manager at Cambridge University Press. He has worked globally in ELT for more than 40 years as a teacher, trainer, course book and materials writer, and as a school and training- centre owner. He works with teachers, at both school and university levels.

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