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AQA controlled speaking assessments...

... or as we used to call them "orals".

We are in the process of having a first go at these with our end of Y10 students (15 year-olds). I've got the top set. They have learned their material on school very thoroughly and are performing well.

If you aren't familiar with the format we are using England and Wales, students are given a list of bullet points on a topic which they can prepare in advance in class. One of the bullet points is an exclamation mark which indicates that the teacher will ask a surprise question. Prior to this list being handed out the teacher will already have spent at least two weeks teaching to the topic and getting students to write exercises and so on on the theme. During the teaching sequence the teacher is allowed to correct students' errors. The children will have memorised their answers and practised them in pairs in class. They then do their 4-6 minute dialogue with teacher, with the aid of a sheet of notes (up to 40 words, no conjugated verbs), the oral being recorded digitally. You can do as many as you want and the best two marks are submitted for moderation.

What has struck me so far is that this form of test relies more than ever on effective memorisation. With about seven bullet points and a surprise question 6 minutes get filled easily, but the large majority of it is a memorised speech. The nature of the test makes this inevitable. Good students have always memorised language for orals, but with this format it feels more pre-learned than ever. This is because you are doing one topic only and the bullet points are all clearly decided on beforehand, so there is almost no scope (or time) for improvisation.

I do think this is a shame. It would be desirable to be able to add improvised follow-up questions after each bullet point. The dialogue would be more natural and candidates would have to think on their feet a bit more. This format gives weaker students a good chance and it allows the top ones to say a lot, but not to show how they have internalised grammar rules for creative language use.

Alternatively you could ditch the question-answer format and get candidates to talk about pictures or do an information gap task. I was not wild about the old role play tasks, but at least they had to be done on the spot and could not be memorised in advance.

There is no easy solution to the problem of how to assess oral proficiency. What we now have may take some pressure off students by letting them have several attempts to prove themselves. Or for some it may multiply the pressure as they try their very best each time. (That may be the case for some I teach, even though I try to play down the importance of the test.)

Incidentally the assessment format is open to all sorts of abuse. With the enormous pressure on teachers to churn out good results some will, regrettably, give unfair support to candidates, whilst some students will get more home support than others.

I am sure of this: teachers must not spend all their time teaching students to memorise chunks of language. With better students at least, they must continue to use classroom time to get students to listen a lot, develop grammatical skill and do genuinely creative communicative activities. What AQA have produced (courtesy of a higher body, no doubt) is profoundly uncreative. Students will be happy with the ultra-safe format, but the assessment system will not have done much to encourage real fluency. Pity.


  1. Yes, the emphasis is definitely on memorizing chunks of language.

    Apart from the unprepared question, which requires students to listen and respond spontaneously (although I'm sure that this question will be one of several questions for which students will have already prepared answers) the main things being tested are (a) memory and (b) pronunciation. Accuracy is pretty much irrelevant - that came into play when the students drew up their prepared statements (and there's plenty of scope for these statements to be corrected beforehand).

    Listening, another key component of speaking skills in most situations, is assessed separately - granted.

    But it's the spontaneity bit that isn't really tested. And I would argue that it is this - the ability to understand what is said to you and then formulate an appropriate response - that is the key component of speaking.

    But how do we test the spontaneity part of speaking? The recently dropped role-plays didn't do it either. The older style GCSE orals based on telling a story based on picture prompts were a good test for higher levels. And what about the O level oral - where the student could be asked all sorts of random questions, with nothing prepared in advance (and assessment by external examiners) - where the oral mark counted for much less (10% ?) of the overall mark.

    I wonder if we shouldn't have tried to follow the model used by the Cambridge exams to assess the level of spoken English of thousands of EFL learners all over the world. The exam format differs from level to level - and GCSE could be like PET.

    And while we're at it, why not have an actual grammar element to the exam, just as with the Cambridge EFL exams - "Use of English" is a test of grammar, vocabulary and usage.

  2. Maybe there's a case for tiered orals, with higher ability candidates having tasks which demand more spontaneity.

    I wonder to what extent this new format was pre-tested, as it were. I would also like to know how it evolved and to what extent AQA and the other boards have had to implement it reluctantly.

    Thanks for the comment, Martin.


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