Thursday, 16 April 2015

The new MFL GCSEs

Since this blog was first published only one exam board's sepcification has been accredited: AQA's.


For the sake of convenience I have put all my blog posts on the new MFL GCSEs in one place. There are five sections:

1. Challenges
2. Comparing exam boards - introduction
3. Comparing mark schemes
4. Comparing subject content
5. AQA specification close-up

I do not offer a strong view in favour of any board over another. I took a close look at the AQA spec because AQA are easily the biggest board for MFL. I would suggest that the four boards will offer comparable difficulty and content, but with some significant variations which may lead you to have a preference. Don't forget that the specs we have seen are in draft form and may undergo change. I'll look out for any changes when they are published.

1.  Challenges

Controlled assessment will be gone, good riddance, but many language teachers will be wary of a new GCSE syllabus they will have to teach from September 2016. What will the challenges be? Perhaps in the gained time of this summer departments will be discussing how they intend to handle this significant curriculum change, so here are my thoughts as a former head of department.

Firstly, no need to panic, of course. Teachers will continue to teach the language pretty much as before (assuming they have been doing it well). But the new exams will certainly require some adjustments and changes in emphasis. These changes concern mainly the approach to speaking and writing assessment, along with strategic decisions about tier entry.

Let's take tier entry first. Recall that under the new arrangements you cannot "mix and match" your tier entries - it's all Foundation or all Higher. You will be faced with many borderline candidates and have to make some key decisions. How might you go about this? Here are some possible steps:
  • Take a good look at specimen papers and be prepared to try them out on students.
  • Use older past papers too. I doubt if the standard will change that much because of Ofqual's "comparable outcomes" policy. There may be a slight toughening.
  • Look at your entries historically and use that as a general guide.
  • Don't let poor performance in writing guide your decisions too strongly; writing is only 25% of the mark and is bound to be a problem area for weaker candidates. It always was.
  • If getting C grades is a priority (grade 4 in the new system) then you may want to play safe first time round.
  • Consult with students, and possibly parents, but make clear that you know best.
  • Accept that you won't get it right for every student, especially first time round.

Speaking exam

All the exam boards have a broadly similar approach. In all cases the stress is on general conversation, even where a photo card stimulus is used in the test. If you choose AQA, general conversation is at the heart of every section: role play, photo card and conversation. This may be a good reason to go for AQA, rather than the boards which use situational dialogues in the role play or place a slightly higher emphasis on description for the photo card question.

The end of CAs will not mean an end to memory learning. You will need to practise topic conversations ad nauseam with masses of pair work practice and learned mini talks. I used to mark orals for AQA and it was clear which schools had prepared their candidates well in learned conversations. These schools did well.

You would be wise to offer models to learn, especially with weaker candidates. Where there is an element of choice in the conversation candidates will still be able to reel off some pre-learned material. I intend to produce in due course material like this for

If you practise conversation, the role play will tend to take care of itself (with AQA). With the other boards you will need to do situational dialogues (shop, ticket office etc) and learn some more set phrases.

Writing exam

Some teachers will feel that this is the major challenge. How can we get students to perform well in exam conditions, without a dictionary and with a time limit? How will students cope with translation into the target language?

Firstly, this is not a quick fix. Here are my thoughts:

  • Make sure students are writing compositional work throughout their course, from Y7 to Y11. Try to make sure they are writing at paragraph level at least once every two weeks. Homework is the best time for this. Provide as much scaffolding as necessary.
  • Give them plenty of timed practice in class. Include timed writing of compositional work in end of unit tests.
  • Do not go overboard on translation - it is worth only 20% of the marks for writing. If you do too much you will neglect target language work which pays off in the listening and reading papers. If students have been doing composition for five years they should be okay with translation. However, I would do plenty of sentence translation practice in Y11. Students often like the security and analytical nature of this type of activity. Why not occasionally do bits of translation in KS3?
  • Provide model essays and spend time on modelling good practice with students, explaining how they get he best marks.
  • Provide lists of phrases and structures to include in compositions.
  • Adopt a cross-skill approach. e.g. do dictation/transcription and gap-fill work which doubles develops listening, reading and writing skill all at the same time.
  • Do question-answer oral work during which pupils make notes to write up in composition work.
  • Get students to pre-learn short paragraphs on set topics as for the oral. Weaker students will benefit from this. Remember that material learned for the oral may be reused in the writing paper and vice versa.
  • Getting students to keep target language blogs is a good way to encourage free writing.
  • Always stress the primacy of content, communication and range of language. These are worth far more marks than accuracy. In the past the weakest candidates struggled most because they wrote so little.
Listening and reading

Students will need to get used any rubrics and question types.


2.  Comparing exam boards - introduction

All the awarding bodies, or exam boards, as teachers usually call them, have now published their draft specs along with specimen papers. I shall not look in great detail at each specification and the specimen papers, but the aim of this blog is to pick out any significant differences between the boards.

It should be pointed out at the outset that teachers should not expect great variation between the specs and papers since exam boards are severely constrained by what the DfE and Ofqual have imposed upon them. In general, all the specs feature changes over the existing exams.

Don't forget that these are only drafts and Ofqual may make adjustments between now and June 2015. So what's new?

  • New subject matter (themes)

  • Balanced allocation of marks for each of the four skills (25% each)

  • Translation into L2

  • Translation into L1

  • Inclusion of some literary sources

  • Greater use of authentic sources

  • Greater spontaneity required in speaking and writing

  • Role plays in speaking tests

Translation into L1 is very brief and features in the Reading papers and receives few marks. Translation into L2 features in the Writing paper and is worth 20% of the marks in that paper (therefore 5% of the overall GCSE grade).

As for variations between exam boards, I have noted the following key points. Note that the largest variations occur in Speaking and, to a lesser extent, in Writing, so I shall not deal with Listening and Reading where you can expect the usual range of question types (matching, multi-choice in English or TL, choosing true sentences, questions in English, note completion, gap fill etc).


Conducted by teacher, marked by exam board. 50% of marks are awarded for the conversation part of the test, the remainder split between role play and photocard, or each role play in the case of Eduqas (WJEC).


Role plays (F) are all in the context of a conversation with a friend and
resemble general conversation. 5 responses, one unprepared. All present tense. Notes allowed.

Role plays (H) Conversation with friend. 5 responses, one unprepared,
including some past or future. Notes allowed.

Photo card (F): 5 responses, 2 unprepared, only 1 question about the photo itself. Notes allowed. (2 mins)

Photo card (H): 5 responses, 2 unprepared, only 1 about the photo, but harder. Notes allowed. (3 mins)

Conversation (F): 3-5 minutes, 1 theme nominated by student, plus 1
chosen by teacher from card.

Conversation (H): 5-7 minutes, 1 theme nominated by student, plus 1
chosen by teacher from card.


Role plays (F) with a friend, 5 responses, one unprepared. All present tense. 2-3 mins. Notes allowed.

Role plays (H) with adults in various positions of responsibility. 5 responses, one unprepared including past or future tense. Notes allowed.  The Higher RPs seem unlikely scenarios for teenage students.

Photo card (F): 5 questions all about the card, including past and future (2-3 mins). Notes allowed.

Photo card (H): 7 questions, 5 of which are about the card, 2 general.
Notes allowed.

Conversation (F): Mini presentation (with cue card) + follow-up (2 mins) and conversation (2 mins).

Conversation (H): Mini presentation (with cue card) + follow-up questions (3 mins) and conversation (3 mins)

Pearson Edexcel

Role plays (F): situational - shop, cinema, school, friend - adult or
younger interlocutor, 5 responses, 1 unprepared. All present tense.
Notes allowed.

Role plays (H): situational - adult interlocutors - 6 responses, 2
unprepared - some past or future. Notes allowed. As with OCR the
situations are unlikely to be encountered by students.

Photo card (F): 4 questions. 2 on photo, 2 general (1 in past tense).
All prepared. Notes allowed.

Photo card (H): 4 questions, 2 on photo, 2 general (1 in past tense).
All prepared. Notes allowed.

Conversation (F): as AQA.

Conversation (H): as AQA.

Eduqas (WJEC) 

Role plays (F): 2 role plays - 5 responses each - 1 situational, 1 with friend - 1 unexpected element in second one - all present tense.

Role plays (H): 2 role plays - 5 responses each - both with a friend - 1 unexpected element in second one - some past or future. 2 mins for each role play, total 4 mins.

No photo card

Conversation (F):  3-5 minutes. One conversation covering at least 2 sub-themes from the spec not covered in the role plays. Candidate
may nominate one.

Conversation (H): 5-7 minutes. One conversation covering at least 2
sub-themes from the spec not covered in the role plays. Candidate may
nominate one.



Foundation 1 hour

Listing question, 9 sentence message, translation sentences into L2,
structured composition (choice of two) - 90 words.

Higher 1 hour 15 mins

Structured writing task (choice of two) - 90 words)

Open-ended writing task (4 bullet points, choice of two, c150 words)

Translation into L2 - short passage. points based mark scheme - I like

this for its objectivity. Compare with Edexcel Pearson.


Foundation 1 hour

Task 1 Part A - write 2 sentences based on 2 pictures

        Part B - 3 sentences from a prompt in English

        Part C - 40 word message based on a prompt in English

(Possible confusion over interpretation of photos in specimen paper.
Note: simple vocab listing as in AQA)

Task 2 - 90 word guided composition based on 4 English bullet points

Task 3 - 5 sentences to translate into L2 (mainly present tense)

Higher 1 hour 15 mins

Task 1. 115-125 words, structured composition based on 5 bullet points
in English.

Task 2. Choice of two titles. 150-200 words. Composition based on 3
English bullet points. (Quite open-ended)

Task 3 - Translation of 7 sentences into L2. Points-based mark scheme,
similar to AQA.

Pearson Edexcel

Foundation 1 hour

Listing task based on simple pictures and two sentences to write from
English prompts, short description based on a photo, a message based
on 4 English bullet points (no word limit), choice of 2 guided compositions
from 4 English bullet points and minimal glossing of French vocabulary
(a prompt). Lastly 5 sentences to translate, mainly present tense.

Higher 1 hour 15 mins

2 questions, each with choice of two. Question 1: overlap with Foundation, guided composition. Question 2: open-ended composition (samples feature
a film review and persuasive writing based on personal information). No
word limit. Translation of a short passage into L2 (marked globally, not
phrase by phrase).

I would be a little concerned at the quite open-ended nature of the second
task. Some teachers may see this as an advantage. I also question the
decision to use a performance level mark scheme for the translation.
This is less objective than a traditional points-based scheme.

Eduqas (WJEC)

Foundation 1 hour

Listing task, sentence/short paragraph writing (specimen paper has 8 sentences based on pictures + eight tweets based on English prompts) , structured composition (closely guided from English bullet points - 100-120 words) and translation into TL (6 sentences).

Higher 1 hour 30 mins (longer than the other boards)

Structured composition (100-120 words - overlap), shorter piece of message writing, composition (specimen has response to one of two job adverts - choice- with bullet points in English for guidance, translation of a message into L2 (specimen has an email).

To finish this section, I'm not going to say which board I prefer. In any case, as I
mentioned, the differences are relatively minor. I do have a preference
for AQA's role plays - they seem more authentic to me. How many
students will be buying train tickets or talking to a shop assistant about
clothes? Eduqas use one of their two role plays at Foundation for situational task, but neither at Higher - an interesting distinction, offering weaker candidates an "in the shop" style role play.

I wonder if it is wise of Pearson Edexcel to make some of the
Higher Writing quite so open-ended. AQA's questions look less
challenging and more like what we see now - is that challenging
enough? I think so. OCR's Higher Writing also looks more challenging
than AQA's - somewhat like current AS level essay material. I wonder
if Ofqual will accept this apparent variation in difficulty between the

I have a slight preference for the length of the Eduqas Higher
Writing - candidates may feel they have to rush less - but I am less keen on the Eduqas final writing composition task as there is little or no choice.

I prefer the AQA and OCR translation mark schemes for their
reliability. AQA's is more rigid than OCR's.

You'll notice that I have not mentioned mark schemes very much.
I have not studied these, but understand that examiners will place
much higher value on communication than accuracy. This is good.
Marking of translation will focus more on accuracy.


3. Mark schemes

If you are bored by the nitty-gritty of mark schemes, look away now.

Context first: there are essentially two types of mark scheme, a points-based one which tends to be most objective (i.e. one correct response gets one point, with little or no room for ambiguity) and a level of performance mark scheme, used typically in MFL to assess conversation or written composition. The latter is bound to be somewhat subjective, even when exam boards do their utmost to make each level as explicit as possible. There are some quite technical issues here, in fact. Let's say you have a maximum mark of 15/15 for a task. Research shows that marking is affected not just by level descriptors, but by how you split up the marks e.g 13-15, 10-12, 6-9 etc. The placement of these gaps may have an influence on how examiners choose a mark - they might be reluctant to give a full mark of 15/15, for example or choose the middle mark of three options.

Awarding bodies are getting smarter about this type of thing so we would hope that they have taken into account such issues when they design their schemes.

OK, with that said, I'm going to attempt to compare the level of performance mark schemes for Foundation Speaking. In another blog I shall look at Writing. I shall make the assumption that the more objective point-based schemes, used mainly in Listening and Reading and not worth going into. Are there significant differences between awarding bodies?

SPEAKING (Foundation)


30 marks (50% of Speaking marks)

Comm 10       Range/Acc  10        Pron/Int   5        Spont/Flu   5

Pearson Edexcel

30 marks (50% of Speaking marks)

Comm/content   10    Interaction/Spont  10   Linguistic Knowledge/Acc  10


20 marks (still 50% of Speaking marks)

Comm  10        Language  10


30 marks (50% of Speaking marks)

Comm/Interaction  10    Range  10    Knowledg/Acc   5   Pron/Int  5


Pearson Edexcel marks pronunciation and intonation as part of Communication. I understand this, but have to say I like to give a separate mark for quality of pronunciation (AQA and Eduqas do so). I have heard many candidates from centres who communicate a lot in a poor accent. On balance, I still like to reward a good accent if I hear it, but I do see the opposing argument. Communication should be the key factor.

Let's compare specific level descriptors towards the middle of the range for Conversation (5-6 marks out of 10). I have marked in bold certain phrases for comparison

OCR's Language mark for 5-6/10

Simple language is generally accurate. Errors occasionally impede communication. Some variety of vocabulary and structures, appropriately used in places. Repetition evident. Limited attempt at rephrasing and repair strategies
Pronunciation and intonation impede communication in places

AQA's Range and Accuracy descriptor for 5-6/10 is:

Basic conversational language which uses simple structures and vocabulary and may often be repetitive. There is little or no success in making reference to past or future events. There are likely to be frequent errors, which sometimes impede communication.

Is OCR's descriptor tougher? Does the reference to past and future in AQA's descriptor make it easier to assess a candidate and for teachers to prepare them?

In the case of Eduqas Range and Accuracy/Knowledge are marked separately. For 5-6/10 mark for range:

Is able to use a limited range of vocabulary 
Is able to substitute words or phrases and occasionally uses a past or future tense

For Accuracy/Knowledge 3/5:

Shows some knowledge of grammar
Manages to convey some messages despite error

As a teacher marking conversations I find those descriptors too short and vague. Some knowledge? "...despite error" - how much? In general I would have some issues with the Eduqas descriptors. They make a lot of use of the word "spontaneity". How easy is this to identify when most answers are pre-learned anyway, especially by weaker candidates?  Have a look for your self here (p.116). Compare with AQA'a descriptors here (p.94). I would find AQA'a easier to apply. Fortunately, examiners will be doing the job from 2018!

OCR's mark scheme is here (p.33). Pearson Edexcel's is here (p.126).

The Pearson Edexcel Linguistic Knowledge/Accuracy (same as Range/Acc) for 5-7 marks out of 10.:

Uses a narrow range of high frequency vocabulary and grammatical structures Some accurate language but with many basic errors Attempts to use tenses and time frames to refer to past, present, and future events with a little success

I have marked in bold points where you may compare with the descriptors above. Pearson Edexcel refer specifically to past and future tense (not or, as with AQA and Eduqas). This may imply AQA's and Eduqas's are marginally easier. OCR require past, present and future for 7-8 marks - this is inconsistent with the others and slightly harder.

Now, many teachers may find the differences I am pointing out as quite minor ones and that, in any case, once exams have been marked, grades are later fixed at meetings, with Ofqual overseeing similarity of standard setting between boards. So any conclusions about relative difficulty may be somewhat moot.

Ofqual will be looking at these issues, going through this material with a fine tooth comb to ensure comparability and clarity, so there may be changes made to these drafts. Ofqual have been known to reject draft specs, but the exam boards will have done their best to avoid this happening.

Ultimately, when departments make a choice of exam board they should be pretty confident that there is broad similarity in standards and content, but enough subtle difference to provide some genuine options.

Now I shall look at the mark schemes for the Higher Writing question. You'll know that the marking of Writing controlled assessments has been a bone of contention ever since they were introduced, so will the new marks schemes lead to fairer and more consistent grading?






Here is how the awarding bodies allocate marks for the second composition (non-overlap):

AQA  32 marks out of 60

Content 15    Range  12    Accuracy 5

Pearson Edexcel   28 marks out of 60

Communication/Content   14     Knowledge/Accuracy  14

OCR   24 marks out of 60

Content  12   Language  12

Eduqas   30 marks out of 60 (unlike the other boards this is the overlap question)

Communication 16    Knowledge/Accuracy   7     Range    7

Note that the Eduqas Communication mark is awarded differently to that of the other boards. They say:

The candidate will be required to give ten responses to the question set. Each response will be assessed for Communication according to the following criteria: 2 Response is complete, appropriate and without ambiguity. 1 Response is partially complete or with some ambiguity. 0 Inappropriate, incomprehensible, or no response. 

This has the potential to be more objective than the other mark schemes, but also gives the examiner less leeway to reward an excellent candidate who may miss a point or two.


There is some significant variation in approach here in relation to range and accuracy. All boards allocate about half the marks for appropriate content. Pearson Edexcel and OCR incorporate accuracy and range, whilst AQA and Eduqas separate out accuracy. My own preference would be to mark range and accuracy separately. If you don't this can cause issues with candidates who write plenty of information, with a good range of vocabulary, but inaccurately. Conversely, some may play safe by being accurate but with a narrower range.

Next I'm going to have a look at descriptors just below the middle of the mark range for Language/Range/Accuracy - direct comparisons are not easy because of the different approaches adopted by each awarding body. I shall mark in bold interesting points of comparison.


Range (4-6/12)

Some variety of appropriate vocabulary and structures used. Longer sentences are attempted, using appropriate linking words, often successfully

Accuracy (2/5)

More accurate than inaccurate. The intended meaning is generally clear. Verb and tense formations are sometimes correct

Pearson Edexcel

Knowledge/Accuracy 6-8/14

Uses familiar and predictable vocabulary and grammatical structures. There may be the occasional use of a complex item. Uses tenses and time frames, with some success, with reference to past, present, and future events, as appropriate to the task. Some evidence of manipulation of language to produce sentences but this is not sustained. Generally accurate in using straightforward language, but there are major errors with verbs and tenses 


Language 4-6/12

Simple language is mostly accurate. Errors do not impede communication. A good variety of vocabulary, appropriately used in places. A good variety of structures; simple structures used appropriately. Reference to past, present and future events. Language is generally fluent and generally manipulated well 


Knowledge/Accuracy  3/7

Errors in simple structures sometimes impede meaning. A large number of inaccuracies. 

Range 3/7

A limited range of vocabulary and structures is produced. Language for the most part is simple and use is made of uncomplicated structures, although not always accurately.


Compare OCR and Eduqas - for similar marks Eduqas expect "limited range" whilst OCR expect "good variety". This makes OCR look harder.

Compare Pearson/OCR with AQA/Eduqas - the former expect past, present and future (with some error). AQA make no reference to tense, though marks would clearly be lost for Content if subject matter were not communicated in the right tense. I like to see tense referred to explicitly.

I like the fact that Pearson Edexcel's descriptor is more detailed.

I've also looked at the top of the mark range in the range/accuracy grids. I have marked in bold interesting points of comparison. Bear in mind there is less wiggle room in the Eduqas grid.


Range (10-12/12)

Very good variety of appropriate vocabulary and structures used. More complex sentences are handled with confidence, producing a fluent piece of coherent writing.

Accuracy (5/5)

Accurate, although there may be a few errors especially in attempts at more complex structures. Verbs and tense formations are secure.

Pearson Edexcel

Knowledge/Accuracy  12-14/14

Uses wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures, including effective use of complex items. Uses tenses and time frames successfully with reference to past, present, and future events, as appropriate to the task. Clear ability to manipulate language to produce longer, fluent sentences with ease. Very accurate with only isolated minor errors e.g. spellings, genders and agreements.


Language (10-12/12)

Language is almost fully accurate. Complex language is mostly accurate. A very good variety of vocabulary, used entirely appropriately. A variety of complex structures, used appropriately. Complex tenses are used. Language is highly fluent and creatively and independently manipulated.


Knowledge/Accuracy (7/7)

Writing is mostly accurate with few mistakes. Verbs and time references are secure. Principles of grammar are sound.

Range (7/7)

A fluid and fluent style is developing. Appropriate style and register is always maintained. The language is sophisticated. Uses a wide variety of tenses, vocabulary and structures. Language is almost always totally correct.*


There is clearly broad similarity here.

*I find it odd that Eduqas include a reference to accuracy in their Range descriptor. Do they mean accurate? Or appropriate? is there a mismatch between "mostly accurate" and "almost always totally correct"? I find this a bit sloppy.

AQA's reference to "a few errors" may be a little vague, but at standardisation a numerical figure may be put on this to help examiners. Pearson's "isolated minor errors" seems a little tougher. It would be useful to know what AQA mean by "more complex sentences" - will we see a return to what we used to use i.e. the need for subordinate clauses to indicate complexity? This was useful.

I find OCR's descriptor a little confusing. "Language is almost fully accurate". But then "complex language is mostly accurate". ??? Did they mean "Simple language is almost fully accurate"? I dislike the use of "creatively" and "independently". An examiner cannot know for sure if something has been pre-learned and reproduced or if it is the result of creative or independent thought. If it's good, you reward it. There is nothing wrong with pre-learning for an exam.

Well, you can be nit-picking with these things, but they are actually very important. My department and I found the AQA's CA Writing mark schemes too loose and they may have contributed to inconsistent marks from examiners (the other boards too, no doubt).

I like to see detailed descriptors with useful items to latch on to. "At least three subordinate clauses", "past, present and future", at least 4 adjectives and adverbs, at least 3 linking words etc. This may be too much for a general mark scheme and you may fear that it would confine candidates too much, but I imagine examiners would find this type of thing useful when moderating/standardising. In this way we may remove some of the subjectivity which inevitably arises when marking compositions.

Ultimately there will be problems with marking compositions, but the new system will be more reliable than the existing one, partly because all candidates will be doing the same questions.

Finally, just for fun: here is a go at a top Language mark descriptor based on work I have read over the years:

Very accurate, with no more than ten minor errors and two major errors. Use of past, present and future time frames. Much complex language, with at least 5 complex sentences (subordinate clauses), five or more adjectives and adverbs, three linking words and two modal verbs. Wide range of vocabulary and Higher Tier linguistic structures.

And a mid range descriptor:

Between 5-8 major errors and frequent minor errors. At least five successful attempts at different time frames. At least three linking words and one subordinate clause. At least one adjective and adverb. Meaning nearly always clear to a sympathetic native speaker.


4.  Subject content

In this section I'm going to compare the subject content of the four boards. To my mind this is the least interesting area to compare, since the three general strands imposed by DfE/Ofqual are the same across the boards.

They are:
  • Identity and culture 
  • Local, national, international and global areas of interest
  • Current and future study and employment 

However, individual boards do have some freedom to choose within these strands. In addition, I always feel that the language is the core of any specification and much of it is transferable across subject matter. Teachers have some freedom in the classroom to teach what they like as long as the language is transferable. I wonder if some forget this.

This is how each board lays out its major themes, followed by the sub-themes or topics within each theme:


Identity and culture 

Me, my family and friends
Relationships with family and friends
Technology in everyday life
Social media
Mobile technology
Free-time activities
Cinema and TV
Food and eating out
Customs and festivals in French-speaking countries/communities

Local, national, international and global areas of interest

Home, town, neighbourhood and region
Social issues
Charity/voluntary work
Healthy/unhealthy living
Global issues
The environment
Travel and tourism

Current and future study and employment 

My studies
Life at school/college
Education post-16
Career choices and ambitions

Pearson Edexcel

Pearson are the only board not to use the precise nomenclature of the themes handed down from DfE/Ofqual.

Identity and culture

Who am I?: relationships; when I was younger; what my friends and family are like; what makes a good friend; interests; socialising with friends and family; role models
Daily life: customs and everyday life; food and drink; shopping; social media and technology (use of, advantages and disadvantages)
Cultural life: celebrations and festivals; reading; music; sport; film and television

Local area, holiday, travel

Holidays: preferences, experiences and destinations
Travel and tourist transactions: travel and accommodation; asking for help and dealing with problems; directions; eating out; shopping
Town, region and country: weather; places to see; things to do


What school is like: school types; school day; subjects; rules and pressures; celebrating success
School activities: school trips, events and exchange

Future aspirations, study and work

Using languages beyond the classroom: forming relationships; travel; employment
Ambitions: further study; volunteering; training
Work: jobs, careers and professions

International and global dimension

Bringing the world together: sports events; music events; campaigns and good causes
Environmental issues: being ‘green’; access to natural resources


Identity and culture 

Personal identity within the context of family, friends and the wider community
Relationships and family activities
Friendships and social groups
Youth culture, leisure activities (sport, music, hobbies) and use of technology
Typical lifestyles, daily routines and activities, food preparation and mealtimes, holidays in home and target-language countries and cultures

Local, national, international and global areas of interest

Festivals, traditions, memorable events, sporting events in target language countries and cultures, (e.g. Le Tour de France, Karneval, La Tomatina), and global events, (e.g. the Olympics and UN world days, such as World Water Day)
Charity-related activities, initiatives such as fair trade, food miles, global poverty, fundraising events at school, in the local area and nationality
Key features and activities of a region or town in your own country and target language countries

Current and future study and employment 

Studying at school and beyond, school routine and activities, plans for after GCSEs and beyond
Preparing for work and employment, work experience, voluntary work, importance of life and language skills in the workplace
World of work, part-time jobs, school/work/life balance, jobs in the future


Identity and culture 

Youth Culture:
Self and relationships
Technology and social media
Health and lifestyle
Sport and fitness
Entertainment and leisure
Customs and Traditions 
Food and festivals

Local, national, international and global areas of interest

Travel and transport
Buying tickets
Making journeys

Holidays and tourism (home and abroad)
Characteristics of different holiday regions
Local area and tourist attractions


Current and future study and employment 

School / College Life 
School life
School subjects

Work Experience and Part-time Jobs 
Personal qualities

Jobs and Future Plans 
Job adverts

So, there you have it. Can we detect any significant differences between these offers?

I observe that the Eduqas list is briefer and less informative. Do we need to see "buying tickets" in there not far from "climate"? In addition, it seems a much more parochial list of topics compared with the others, particularly when compared with AQA and OCR. On the face of it it is a poor preparation for A-level. Is the Eduqas list just not very well thought through and prepared?

The AQA list also lacks detail but its topics cover large areas e.g. social issues, global issues, the environment. There is considerable similarity with current AS level and GCSE topics. I like the inclusion of the "worthy" issue poverty/homelessness.

OCR's list is impressive and, again, I am happy to see the inclusion of topics such as fair trade, food miles, Water Day, global poverty and fund-raising. OCR's offer appears much more grown up than Eduqas's.

Pearson's list is relatively parochial, but does include "campaigns and good causes". I am astonished that climate change does not appear whereas "access to natural resources" does.

Now, we don't know if these lists of themes and topics translate into very different examination material, but they should affect the text books which are published ion conjunction with exam boards.

From what I read here, I believe AQA and OCR have the more challenging and interesting set of topics overall, whilst Eduqas should have done better. Ofqual may yet require changes from awarding bodies. If I were them I would want some more meat from Eduqas.

Here are the links to the four specifications:


Pearson Edexcel


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.


5.  The AQA specification in close-up

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.


  1. Thanks so much for doing this Steve. A really good post! If you have time to do a critique of the mark schemes some time that would be great. On the last round, it was the mark scheme which swayed my mind about the best board to go for. I'd be looking for absolute transparency and clarity.

  2. That's a good idea. I'll have a look at that.

  3. Thanks very much for doing this, Steve. I too would really appreciate something on the mark schemes.

  4. I have since done two more blogs on mark schemes, concentrating on Foundation Speaking and Higher Writing. Thanks for leaving a comment, Jane.

  5. Thank you so much for your work on this Steve. We are discussing in our department the examination boards and which one will be best for our students, Edexcel, Eduqas? A tricky one!

  6. Really useful, thank you. Are there any major changes since the exams have now been passed by OFQUAL?

  7. Hi Melissa. As I write, the only accredited spec is AQA's. Check out my more recent blogs on the AQA's specification. The main changes concern the speaking test.