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British sign language GCSE: What schools need to know

Pupils to learn at least 750 core words, how to tell a story and have political discussions in new qualification

Pupils to learn at least 750 core words, how to tell a story and have political discussions in new qualification

21 Dec 2023, 11:55

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Children studying the long-awaited GCSE in British sign language will be expected to learn at least 750 core words, government papers have revealed.

The Department for Education announced today that it is aiming to approve exam board syllabuses so the subject can be taught from September 2025, and has published its subject content document following a much-delayed consultation.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said the qualification “will not only break down barriers and give young people valuable new skills, but also celebrate the history and rich culture of British sign language”.

Here’s what you need to know…

1. Pupils will learn at least 750 signs

The subject content document said courses will help children construct sentences and “recall, understand and produce a range of” commonly used words.

By the end of the GCSE, youngsters “are expected to know at least 750 signs from the established lexicon”.

The DfE has released an advisory vocabulary list for exam boards.

It contains a range of basic verbs, adjectives and adverbs, as well as words like clothing names, sports, countries, food and drink and animals.

It also includes words for months of the year, days of the week, cities in the UK, and phrases such as “good evening” and “what did you say?”.

However, “GCSE specifications in BSL…may use reasonable flexibility in their selection of vocabulary, topics and scenarios.

“Topics and scenarios should relate to those of social, cultural and personal relevance to students, taking into account the needs and interests of a wide range of students.”

2. Students will learn to have political discussions

Children taking the course “should develop their ability to communicate using BSL with other signers on a range of themes”.

The topics will have “social, cultural, political, work-related and personal relevance”.

Officials also want GCSE specifications to allow youngsters to demonstrate “the use of accurate non-manual features” through facial expressions, eye contact and body position.   

GCSE specifications must require teens to “follow and understand signs” and sentences by “applying their knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar”.

They will be expected to identify topics of discussion, infer “plausible meanings of single signs”, and understand and recognise “the relationship between past, ongoing and future events”.

3. …and be taught to ‘tell a story’ in British sign language

Teachers will show pupils how to construct sentences in BSL that can be understood by a proficient signer.

This will help them to communicate “simple sentences”, describe people, places and things, and tell a story “conveying past, ongoing and future events, as appropriate”.

“The narrative may be real or imagined but should enable students to demonstrate their ability to use BSL productively.”

Meanwhile, courses should equip children with the skills to interact in “structured and unstructured scenarios”.

4. History of British sign language to also feature

Subject content papers stated that GCSE specifications “must require students to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the development of BSL, from its origins and the first references to signing in Britain, to the present day”.

This includes learning how its use has evolved, the ways “new vocabulary enters BSL” and how it is “distinctive from, has influenced” and has been shaped by other languages.

5. GCSE exams won’t be tiered

Following a consultation earlier this year, Ofqual has decided to have “one set of assessments for all levels of attainment” in GCSE BSL. This means exams will not be tiered.

Tests will assess teens’ “receptive language skills and their knowledge and understanding of the history of BSL”. Combined, these will be worth 40 per cent of the total qualification marks.

The remaining 60 per cent will come from “non-exam assessments to assess students’ productive and interactive language skills”.

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One comment

  1. Sadie Thompson

    Really interesting to see the scope of the exam board specification here. Perhaps important to note where this will sit in the current curriculum offer – mindful that a BSL GCSE won’t likely count in those important EBACC numbers. Will this bring about an even sharper decline in MFL option numbers perhaps?