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Four proposals to better prepare for the Spanish HKDSE


Since 2012 Spanish together with German and French -as European languages- and Japanese, Hindu and Urdu, is offered by the Hong Kong Examination and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) as Category C subjects of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE).

That means that Spanish is an elective language that can replace Chinese for university admissions in case of students whose first language is not Chinese. However it cannot replace English as a core subject (Category A). Also many students and their parents have started to consider adding Spanish as an extra HKDSE subject, in order to gain a more competitive profile that better fits the university programme they want to be admitted to. That means that, apart from the 4 core subjects plus 1 or 2 elective subject(s) -the minimum requirements to enter university but do not guarantee entrance to a particular university or programme-, they add an extra Category C HKDSE exam. This represents a significant extra workload for the student.

If this is the reason why you ended up reading this blog entry please continue scrolling down, since this article’s goal is to shed some light on this matter.

Main features of the Spanish HKDSE

When the Hong Kong government first decided to offer the mentioned languages as Category C subjects, the main issue to tackle was the design of appropriate exams to test the proficiency of students when communicating in these particular foreign languages. In here we talk about Spanish, but many common things can be applied to French and German.

Being it the very beginning of such an experience, with few students expected to go for Spanish HKDSE in the first years and with no approved curriculum for Spanish along the Hong Kong secondary education, designing the evaluation process was challenging. But Hong Kong education system has inherited many aspects from the English one, also adapting many of them to the particular features of its community.

So this is probably the main reason why the AS level exam from Cambridge Assessment International Education was the way adopted to evaluate the students of Spanish as a HKDSE Category C subject, as well as for French and German. It was also decided that not any School Based Assessment (SBA) was going to be taken into account for the final grades, so these would depend only in the marks achieved in the final AS level exam.

Such decisions meant that the way to assess the students was clear and dependent on an external assessment institution. However, not any curriculum was specified to be taught during secondary education years, and no starting year was stated to begin studying Spanish or any other Category C subject. Finally, a clear way to assess the gradual acquisition of the language along the secondary school years was neither proposed. So although the final exam and the different papers structure was clear, many other important aspects were left behind.

On top of these, very few secondary schools in Hong Kong provide regular lessons for Spanish HKDSE, and in case they do so they offer them as extra curricular teaching hours. As we will discuss below, we find these hours are far from enough to face such a difficult exam.

Latest report from the HKEAA: What are the facts about the students taking the Spanish HKDSE until now?

From 2012 to 2021 the total number of students that have taken the Spanish HKDSE is 142, resulting on an average of 14 students a year, from the minimum number of candidates in 2015, 7, to the maximum of 21 in 2021. Year to year statistics show a (very) slight increase in the number of candidates. This contrasts with the decreasing trend of the other two European languages available in HKDSE Category C subjects, French and German. However, raw numbers are still higher for French compare to Spanish, what does not happened to be for German.

One advantage of the Spanish HKDSE being assessed externally by Cambridge Assessment International Education is that this institution provides a feedback based on the students performance. As a consequence, this is an important document to analyse in order to improve the students results in future cohorts. Some of the conclusions are reviewed here.

Last report mentioned that the “candidates spoke in a casual or disjointed manner”, so definitely (some of) the students were lacking a formal register when answering and expressing ideas. Also, they “made little attempt to engage the examiner […] in both conversations sections (of the oral exam)”, so the feedback also pointed that they lost some credit this way. This makes us think about the importance to learn some pragmatics and manners when communicating in a foreign language. It is clear now that languages imply particular codes of conduct that change from one language to another, so here the input of a native Spanish speaker is undoubtable. In the same direction the report asserts that students should make clear references to Hispanic culture and societies.

Another idea mentioned was the need for the students to “show competence in dealing with hypothetical and abstract situations as well as factual or descriptive areas”, what means having the ability to express not only facts but ideas and opinions in the target language. And this recalls us about transversal competences and skills that the students need to have when facing such an exam. A careful approach not only to language but also to cognitive aspects and youth mindset development is taken into account in the final outcome and grades. We will discuss this later in relation to what we think is the appropriate moment for the student to face the final exam.

What are the key aspects to succeed in the Spanish HKDSE?

1. When to start learning Spanish?

We cannot forget that AS level exam –the one used to assess the HKDSE- is designed in the English curriculum to be faced by year 12 or year 13 students after thoroughly preparing it along one to two courses. Before this, those same students had to pass I/GCSE (International/General Certificate of Secondary Education) in year 11, for what they started learning Spanish in year 7 or year 8 as late.

Therefore, the minimum number of courses studying Spanish before facing the AS exam is five, from year 8 to year 12. But at the same time, students that start studying Spanish in year 7 can learn it along seven years if they decide to face the final exam in year 13. So definitely there is quite a wide range of time depending on the school the student is attending, from five to seven years.

Our proposal #1: We have seen many parents deciding “last minute” they want their son or daughter to take Spanish HKDSE exam. But this is a decision that, given the characteristics of the exam, cannot be taken when the student is in secondary 3 or 4, since this would mean the student not enjoying enough time to prepare. Definitely, this goal should be better embraced soon in secondary 1 and never later than secondary 2.

2. How many total hours of Spanish teaching and learning are needed to achieve the Spanish AS level/HKDSE?

It is more or less obvious that the amount of years/courses to study Spanish before the AS exam is strictly related to the number of hours done per year/course. School starting later to teach the foreign language should take this into account to consequently increase the amount of hours per year/course, and the other way around.

In the following table we compare the hour load of Spanish lessons in a regular English school with that one offered by a local Hong Kong school. In the case of the English school, for calculating the hour load we have considered:

a) that out of the total of 39 weeks of the school calendar, only 35 weeks complete the total hours of teaching and learning, excluding then weeks dedicated to exams, feedback, etc.,

b) year 8 as the course for starting teaching Spanish, although it can be started as soon as year 7 adding extra total hours, and

b) an average amount of hours per year/course as follows:

2 hours per week for years 8 and 9,

2.5 hours per week for year 10,

3 hours per week for year 11, and

7 hours per week for years 12 and 13. It must be stressed that years 12 and 13 of English curriculum are very specialized courses when the students can take as little as three or four subjects only. As a consequence a big amount of hours per subject are taught every week.

In the case of a local Hong Kong school, Spanish is often offered as extra curricular hour load outside the regular school schedule. Based on common bids of local schools to propose a Spanish tender schedule, we have stated the total hours of teaching and learning along secondary 1 to secondary 6.

Our proposal #2: Observing the number of hours in the English school clearly let us know that what some local schools are offering in Hong Kong is not enough: 450 hours in local school versus 577.5 to 822.5 enjoyed by the English school students.

We also know that individual lessons we can offer in institutions like ours are more efficient than group lessons, but facing the Spanish AS level/HKDSE exam still needs a minimum amount of hours for learning and practicing. Please reflect first about the workload that the Spanish HKDSE can suppose to your son/daughter in order not to push him/her too much. We can help you when deciding about it!

3. What level of Spanish should the students achieve to succeed in the Spanish AS level/HKDSE exam?

As we said before, AS level/HKDSE is a Spanish as a foreign language subject assessed in year 12 or year 13 once the students have passed I/GCSE in year 11. It asks for a high level of language accompanied by knowledge on Spanish-speaking countries’ societies and culture.

The teaching and learning processes intrinsically involve evaluation and assessment procedures. These are moments when the students get conscious about their language acquisition, their weaknesses and aspects to improve as well as their strong points. More importantly, they are opportunities for the teacher to provide a feedback that boosts the students’ learning and confidence.

While in the English curriculum the AS level exam is only faced by previously I/GCSE students that were graded in year 11, HKDSE does not propose any halfway milestone and/or assessment. This feature can make students and teachers “get lost” in the achievement of the final skills and knowledge if not any sub-level assessment events take place before the final exam.

Our proposal #3: Spanish AS level/HKDSE is a long run and not just “a secondary” or easy HKDSE exam. Remember that it can be one out of three or four subjects for pre-university students in the English curriculum, so it has to be taken seriously. One practical suggestion is to state a mid-term goal, which can be facing I/GCSE or even DELE A2.

I/GCSE can be taken through the HKEAA. In this case it is not a certificate of level of language itself but an English curriculum subject assessment. On its side DELE A2 is managed by the Instituto Cervantes, an official institution by the Spanish Government, and is the only Spanish organization providing official certificates of level. If you consider we can guide you and your son/daughter to find the best way to secure his/her success in the Spanish HKDSE at the same time as getting a certificate of level.

4. When is the best moment for my son/daughter to take the Spanish HKDSE?

It has already been mentioned here that Spanish AS level/HKDSE requires the students to prove their knowledge about the realities of Spanish-speaking countries, their societies and culture. Also, they should be able to compare their own culture with those of the Hispanic world, reaching conclusions and widening their views of the human societies around the globe.

This demands the students the ability to manage and build abstract ideas, opinions and points of view that can be hardly developed and supported by young students. Moreover, managing this type of information can be challenging in the student’s mother tongue, so it’s even more difficult to do so in a foreign language.

Our proposal #4: We have observed that some parents want their son/daughter to take the Spanish AS level/HKDSE in secondary 5, so the students do not need to add an extra paper when facing the core subjects in secondary 6. But this decision has two main consequences. The first one is that in that situation the student has one year less to acquire the level of language, practice enough and get closer to the Spanish speaking world reality. Besides this we cannot forget that, as we describe before, in many cases the moment to start learning Spanish by the student is delayed until secondary 2 or 3, what generates an even narrower window of not enough years to prepare well the HKDSE Spanish exam.

Secondly, facing the Spanish AS level/HKDSE in secondary 5 suppose the student being one year younger than he/she could be, and therefore one year less mature and less ready to manage abstract ideas, build opinions and support his/her points of view. This definitely puts the student in secondary 6 in disadvantage when comparing to other candidates in secondary 6 or year 13 of the English curriculum.

As a summary, there are many important aspects to take into account when deciding our son/daughter to take the Spanish HKDSE. These aspects are indeed not widely discussed neither very well known by local Hong Kong schools and the government assessment authorities that are far from mastering the mysteries of teaching and learning European languages other than English. Here, with and in depth analysis of the Spanish HKDSE, the Hong Kong local teaching and learning reality and some specific proposals, we try to help you in taking such a decision. Do not hesitate to contact us for further help!

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