Pupils in England will be expected to learn a set of up to 1,700 frequently used words in French, German and Spanish GCSEs, under approved reforms.

The decision comes after organisations representing headteachers had warned that the Government’s “risky” proposals could decrease the take-up of pupils learning modern foreign languages at school.

A heads’ union has said requiring students to memorise a list of words could “alienate” learners, saying the reforms were “prescriptive and grinding”.

Exam boards will be given an additional year to develop the new French, German and Spanish GCSEs following feedback from the sector, the Department for Education (DfE) has said.

The reformed GCSEs will be taught from September 2024, with first exams being held in 2026.

Pupils will be assessed on the basis of 1,200 “word families” for the foundation tier, and a further 500 “word families” for the higher tier, the DfE has said.

An example of a word family could be “manage”, “managed” and “manages”.

In March last year the Government announced proposals to reform the modern foreign language GCSEs to make them “more accessible”.

But a group of nine organisations, including unions, language associations and exam boards, warned in November that the proposals could fail to boost student engagement, as they called on the Government to rethink the reforms.

A DfE consultation on the proposals, which received more than 1,600 responses, highlighted concerns around having a prescribed list of words.

Many respondents were worried that “students would not be exposed to a large enough vocabulary throughout their GCSE course to be able to communicate effectively in the target language”.

Other respondents said the list could lead to “a narrowing of the curriculum”, it risked “encouraging rote learning” and it could “limit students’ curiosity”.

But the DfE consultation document argues: “The definition of word families is broader than that of individual words and, in practice, this change means the number of words on which students can be assessed is higher.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Whilst we acknowledge there have been some modest adjustments made to the content of the proposals, we are very disappointed the Government has decided to press ahead with these reforms to French, German and Spanish GCSEs, which largely overlook the widespread concerns of many language experts.

“We fear that rather than encouraging the take-up of languages, a curriculum which mainly focuses on memorising a long list of words will alienate pupils and prove counter-productive.

“At a time when pupils need to be enthused to learn languages, the Government has chosen to make GCSEs both prescriptive and grinding.

“The idea that this will help it fulfil its target of 90% of pupils taking up these subjects is pure fantasy.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is disappointing that DfE and Ofqual have gone ahead with their proposals regardless of the consultation responses received or the constructive calls to pause, review and revise the proposals.

“The responses to DfE’s content review don’t demonstrate clear levels of support for their approach and 50% of respondents actually disagreed with Ofqual’s proposed assessment objectives.

“The planned schedule for development and implementation is too rapid and must be extended to ensure MFL teachers and leaders are at the heart of this process and enable the most positive outcomes for these reforms.”

Dr Simon Hyde, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents hundreds of leading private schools, said: “HMC members fear that the narrow focus of these proposals confirmed today will not arrest the declining numbers wishing to study languages.

“This model will not give students the confidence in their language, both at examination level and as a life skill, to take forward into further studies, careers and personal endeavours.

“Crucially, these proposals will further widen the academic step up for students moving from GCSE to A-level languages, which is already significant and may deter many students from studying languages at A-level .”

Schools Minister Robin Walker said: “Studying languages opens up a world of new, exciting opportunities for people and is hugely important for a modern global economy.

“That’s why we want more young people to take up modern language GCSEs, and these evidence-based changes aim to do just that – making these qualifications more well-rounded and accessible, and helping more young people to enjoy learning languages.”