Saturday, 11 April 2015

A close look at AQA's draft GCSE French specification

The exam boards have been posting this week their new specifications and specimen papers for GCSE for first teaching in September 2016 (first exam Summer 2018). I'm going to take a look at AQA's offer first. AQA is by some margin the most widely used awarding body for GCSE MFL.

As usual you can expect the differences between boards to be relatively marginal since they are working within a straitjacket imposed by the DfE and Ofqual, but many departments will be comparing to see if any one board meets their needs best.

There is a good deal to take on board when considering a specification. I'm going to examine topics, assessment, specimen papers and mark schemes.

The "at a glance" summary is here:

The specification is here:

I shall not look in detail at the vocabulary and grammar lists. Do not expect any nasty surprises. I note that this time the vocabulary list is bilingual (good, easily printable), but it lists nouns followed by definite articles (an odd choice, arguably more pupil friendly, arguably a bit patronising.


The three main themes for study are:

1. Identity and Culture

2. Local, national, international and global areas of interest

3. Current and future study and employment.

In passing, it is worth noting that at GCSE there is not the same focus on the target language culture as that being proposed for A-level. Is this consistent?

Within each of these three themes there are a range of topics which include relationships, mobile technology, home town and area, charitable/voluntary work, travel and tourism, poverty and homelessness, healthy living, music, cinema and TV, life at school and the environment.

Whilst there is considerable overlap with the current GCSE topics, there is a greater emphasis on more challenging social issues, ones which feature in A-level specifications. This should be welcomed by critics who have found GCSE in the past to be too trivial. AQA, it seems, have tried to balance students' personal interests and concerns with broader subjects.


There is equal weighting for the four skills, 25% each. This is a return to the norm and was imposed by Ofqual/DfE. I still believe this gives too much emphasis to writing. When you look at the specimen writing questions you soon see how hard it is to concoct authentic written tasks for teenagers.

Candidates may be entered for either Foundation or Higher Tier across all skills. You cannot "mix tiers" i.e. have a pupil do Higher Reading, but Foundation Writing. This will bother many teachers who recognise that students have varying skills and who often find Writing the hardest. We can only hope that the boards' mark schemes, mark scaling and grade allocations do not produce unfair anomalies. It remains to be seen how many schools play safe and enter too many candidates at Foundation Tier. Remember that a Foundation entry can only achieve a grade 5 out of 9. Higher papers are aimed at grades 4 to 9.

Listening (Paper 1)

Foundation: 35 minutes (including 5 minutes of reading time)
Higher: 45 minutes (including 5 minutes of reading time)

Speaking (Paper 2)

No more memorised controlled assessments, of course. The new emphasis is on greater spontaneity. This should mean greater challenge. the Foundation Speaking test last 7-9 minutes + preparation time. Higher lasts 10-12 minutes. Teachers will do the tests and the board will mark.

At both tiers there will be role play (15 marks), a photo card (15 marks) and general conversation (30 marks).

Reading (Paper 3)

Foundation: 45 minutes.
Higher: 1 hour.

Note that these papers are longer than now.

Writing (Paper 4)

Foundation: 1 hour - 4 questions - list task, short message, structured composition from bullet points (with choice) and translation into French.
Higher: 1 hour 15 minutes - 3 questions - two structured compositions from bullet points (with choice) and translation into French.

Specimen papers



Question types are answers in English, matching in English, multi choice (three options in English) and matching in French. There is an overlap section with Higher Tier. If I were to be picky, I detected slight technical deficiency in the multi-choice (two options looking similar in language, one different - questions 19 and 21). Best practice usually avoids this.

When I compare this paper with ones from the late 1980s and 1990s  it looks harder. There are fewer giveaway questions. In those days there were larger cohorts and more candidates of lower ability.


Question types are matching in English and multi-choice in English  (overlap questions), attitude spotting (P, N and P+N), gap fill in English (I thought this looked too predictable; you could guess plausible answers without listening), questions in English, multi-choice in English (again, I detected some poor wording - two options looking similar by starting with the same word), matching in French, gap fill in French (transcription). There are no French question answers, which surprised me a little.

Overall it is hard to say how tough these papers are, since only transcripts are available, not audio recordings. The papers do allow for largely objective marking (only one right answer). Exam boards like this and teachers should welcome it too.



Question types; matching French-English, sentence completion French-English, multi-choice in English (three options), questions in English, multi-choice in French and box completion in English. The layout of question 5 with its slanting lines could cause some confusion - maybe they couldn't do speech bubbles properly. The level of challenge looks reasonable.


There is overlap material from the Foundation paper. Question types are matching, questions and box completion in English, identifying true statements (two from four), multi-choice in English (three options), question-answer in French, putting correct words in boxes in a text (as used now) and multi-choice in French.

Finally, there is a brief translation into English, as dictated by Ofqual/DfE. It is worth 9 marks out of 60. Here it is:

Je vais souvent au jardin public près de l'école avec mes copains parce qu’on peut y jouer au foot. Hier c’était triste car nous avons vu des sans-abris. A l’avenir, j’aimerais les aider en donnant de la nourriture. Mais avant de faire ça, il faut que je passe mes examens.

The overall level of challenge looks good. It is certainly harder than the original specimens of the previous incarnation of GCSE.


This paper marks a significant change from the current assessment.

Role play

Pupils prepare their role plays in preparation time. They may make notes.

Foundation role plays invite 5 responses with prompts in English. There is one unexpected response (!). Responses require present tense only. This format is familiar to experienced teachers. The difficulty level is higher than than it used to be.

Higher role plays also have 5 responses including a surprise one (!). There is more complexity and some inclusion of past and/or future time. Challenge is appropriate. All role plays assume a simple conversation with a friend, using tu, nothing more formal.

Photo card

Students prepare their card in preparation time. They may make notes.


Students get a photo with three short questions in French to prepare. The first is always Qu'est-ce qu'il y a sur la photo? The the other two are general conversational ones based on the same theme. In the test the teacher adds two more unexpected ones. It is worth noting that weaker candidates may be floored by the prompts in French. Some reading skill is needed, so it is a mixed skill task. In essence, the photo card question is a conversation question.


As above, but with more stretching questions.


This lasts 3-5 minutes for Foundation and 5-7 minutes for Higher. There are two parts. The first is a topic chosen by the student from one of the three main GCSE themes). The second part is chosen by the teacher from the remaining two themes. The Teacher's Booklet does not specify what questions to ask. This would allow for prepared practice in class and, alas, potential collusion.

Overall, this new speaking test will present a serious challenge to weaker candidates and should suit able candidates well.



Question 1 is writing a list. This requires simple vocab retrieval (fruit and veg). Question 2 is simple QA in French, all in the present tense. Whole sentence answers are required.
Question 3 is translation of short sentences from English to French. Present tense only. How odd to see this type of question now!
Question 4 is a choice of two guided compositions in French, with bullet point prompts in English. Past and future time are needed. Students are asked to write about 90 words. It is noteworthy that a word limit is provided. this is sometimes avoided so that students do not waste time counting words. AQA have done well here to keep the bullet points approachable. Allowing choice helps a lot too.


Question 1 is an overlap question from Foundation (guided composition, bullet pounts in English, 90 words). Choice of two.
Question 2 requires about 150 word and is more discursive. "Write a leaflet" and "Send your comments to the European Youth Parliament" are stretching authenticity to the limit but what are the board to do? Teenagers do not write emails or letters, rarely write blogs and tend to do most writing at school. Social media messages barely fit the bill for an exam and use particular language anyway. This just reveals the over-emphasis we continue to place on productive writing in language learning.

Mark schemes

Most of the marking for Listening and Reading is objective so is not worth commenting on.

As for the Speaking mark schemes, the role play marks are awarded for communication and accuracy, with a correct emphasis on communication. It's a return to the pattern of the GCSE before the current one.

Photo card: this mark scheme just rewards communication. Interestingly, you get the impression tat candidates could be rewarded for saying almost anything vaguely relevant. It will be interesting how this one pans out in practice.


Foundation: marks are awarded for communication (10 marks), range/accuracy (10), pronunciation and intonation (5) and spontaneity and fluency (5). Reference to past and future time are needed to access top marks. The descriptors are detailed in the first two categories. There are useful references such as "gives two or more opinions". This will be useful to teachers and pupils.

Higher: the distribution of marks and categories is the same. Descriptors are detailed and should be an effective guide to teachers and examiners.


Foundation: the criteria for the guided composition are Content and Quality of Language. Level of response descriptors are detailed. The mark scheme does not look too punitive as far as accuracy is concerned. The translation sentences are marked in the traditional fashion with marks awarded for correct parts of the sentence. No errors are allowed, but there is leniency on accents.

Higher: the first guided composition is marked the same as for Foundation. The second is marked for Content, Range and Accuracy, with only a few marks for Accuracy. The translation sentences are marked as above.

So, there we are. What teachers and pupils will have from 2016 is better than what we have now. The new papers will be tough for weaker candidates and are certainly tougher than in the early days of GCSE back in then late 1980s. The relatively few marks for translation will, I hope, encourage teachers not to spend too much time on it. Translation is an anachronism in my view and should never have been included in the DfE's curriculum. Yet this is not a revolution, more like a return to previous ways, a stiffening of the challenge and a welcome encouragement to teachers to encourage greater spontaneity and less rote learning. The latter will still play a role in speaking and writing and that is as it should be. Why should students not be allowed to prepare for a test a they do in other subjects?

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