Skip to main content

How should we assess writing at GCSE?

Writing is the least useful skill for language learners and as internet translators become ever more sophisticated it is likely that the vast majority of learners will never have to construct written language in the foreign language at all. We should downgrade its importance at all levels, but especially at GCSE. The current allocation of 30% of marks for writing is inappropriate.

That said, we shall no doubt continue to teach and assess writing, largely to support the other skills and to provide useful classwork and homework tasks.

So how should we clear up the current mess which is assessment of writing at GCSE?

When it was decided that that exam boards would have to mark written GCSE assignments this issue came sharply into focus with hundreds of schools unhappy with grades. A thread on the TES MFL forum about problems with marking writing at GCSE has been running for over a year.

Mistakes in marking with essay based questions occur where the examiner is inexperienced, careless or just tired. Difficult to interpret mark schemes do not help.

One way around this would be to abandon the current, open-ended essay assessment format. This type of "direct assessment", although it allows for authentic communication and does not encourage undesirable backwash effects, is hard to score accurately. (In its current "controlled assessment" form it is also to easy to cheat and therefore unreliable.)

We could assess grammatical skill using "indirect assessment" such as multi-choice or cloze tests. These methods, although reliable, are not "authentic" or communicative in nature. The ability to construct sentences with correct syntax could be achieved by using translation sentences with a clear-cut mark scheme. The problem with this, however, would be that teachers would then be encouraged to do endless prose translation sentences in the run-up to exams, thereby undermining good MFL teaching methodology.

Is there a way of testing syntax and vocabulary which is both accurate, encourages good teaching methodology, is not open to excessive interpretation, which would reflect good classroom practice and not lead to undesirable "backwash" effects? The answer is probably no, but we need to find a good compromise which allows for the most accurate assessment and which promotes good methodology.

One compromise solution would be a very closely guided composition task with bullet points in English. Here are a couple of examples of tasks for a higher tier exam paper which might require about 120 words each. Glossaries could be provided - I would not favour use of dictionaries because it is not possible to provide the same dictionary to all candidates and, in any case, they encourage poor practice among weaker students.

1.    You are writing a Facebook message to your French friend about an upcoming exchange
  • Ask him/her how they are
  • Say how you are
  • Ask him/her what they have been doing recently
  • Say you have just been into town with your friends
  • Ask him/her when they are going to arrive
  • Explain that you will meet them at the school car park
  • Tell him/her to bring warm clothes because the weather forecast is not good
  • Explain THREE things you are going to do during the stay
  • Explain THREE things you did last weekend with your friends or family
  • Sign off
2.   You are writing an email to a camp site in France because you would like a summer job there
  • Explain who you are, your age and that you are looking for a summer job in France
  • Explain why you would like to work at the camp site
  • Tell them about yourself: mention THREE pastimes or interests
  • Describe a job you have done (e.g. as part of work experience)
  • Describe what aspects of your personality would make you a good candidate
  • Ask them how much money they would pay you
  • Ask them where you would stay
  • Ask them if you would have any free time 
  • Sign off
The mark scheme would reward COMMUNICATION, RANGE OF LANGUAGE and ACCURACY. Each bullet point could be assessed for communication (would a sympathetic native speaker understand it?). Then a global mark could be given for range and accuracy. Range would have to involve a subjective element, but accuracy could be quantified, with clear definitions of major and minor errors - this would be a counting exercise.

I would be tempted to impose a word limit to encourage sensible timing and to allow for fair comparison of accuracy between candidates. (Some candidates might write a lot, quite well, but make many mistakes.)

You will say, no doubt, that this format resembles one which was used in GCSE for a number of years. Yes, it does, and they had good reasons for doing it this way.

The above tasks remain difficult for the weakest students, though glossaries could mitigate this.

Some of  this may become, as the Americans say, moot, if 16+ exams disappear, but we shall always need to assess.


Popular posts from this blog

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

Three AQA A-level courses compared

I've put together my three reviews of worthy A-level courses which you might be considering for next September. They are all very useful courses, but with significant differences. The traditional Hodder and OUP book-based courses differ in that the former comes in one chunky two year book, whilst OUP's comes in two parts, the first for AS or the first year of an A-level course. The Attitudes16 course by Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri is based on an online platform from which you would download worksheets and share a logon with studenst who would do the interactive parts (Textivate and video work). The two text books are supported by interactive material (Kerboodle) or an e-text book.


An excellent resource which should be competing for your attention at the moment is the Attitudes16 course which writers Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri have been working on for some time. You can find it here at, along with his excellent resources for film and li…

Learning strategies (3)

This is the third in the mini-series of blogs about learning strategies. So far, we have looked at some (rather scant) research evidence for the effectiveness of strategies. Bear in mind that a lack of research evidence does not mean strategies do not work; if there is any consensus, it is that they are probably useful and probably best used when integrated into a normal teaching sequence. We then looked at a classification of different types of strategies.

In this blog Gianfanco and I look at how you might integrate strategies into your teaching. There is nothing revolutionary about this stuff! You may do a good deal of this type of thing already, but you may also be new to the concepts and applications of learning strategies.

Let's look at how you might use strategies, particularly with regard to the teaching of listening and reading. Remember: this is just about how you help students to use strategies to become better listeners and readers.

How to teach strategies 

The research …