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Thoughts about GCSE role plays

With the new GCSEs now approaching (first teaching from September 2016) we see the triumphant comeback of the role-play which, since 1987, had been an integral part of the speaking test. I imagine that the justification for their return is based on two things: firstly, they require a degree of spontaneous language on the part of candidates; secondly, they provide for some 'real life' situational tasks.

Role-plays are not without their issues. For example, producing authentic situations is not very easy. AQA, the only awarding body so far to have produced accredited exams, has adopted the approach of mixing up real-life situations with conversational style role-plays with friends. In their specimen Foundation Tier role-plays, for example, they include friends talking about school, talking with a waiter in a restaurant and an employee at a theatre (the latter is far-fetched for a teenager). I believe they are right to maintain an emphasis on conversational language with friends. this has the added benefit for teachers an students in that any preparation for conversation and photo cards also contributes to the role play test.

The second issue I have already blogged about concerns the fact that the Foundation role-plays have to have their prompts in the target language. This will cause problems for weaker students and calls into question the validity and reliability of the test.

Thirdly, it has always been hard to maintain the same level of difficulty across different questions. Old hands will remember feeling that some questions were always harder than others. Although the awarding bodies are aware of the issue, it remains a challenge to produce role-plays of the same standard.

Next comes another question which also calls into question the reliability of the role-play as a question type. Consider this AQA role-play question and possible script which might ensue. The candidate's responses are in bold and optional items are in brackets.

Tu parles du travail et des ambitions avec ton ami(e) français(e).
• Travail en ce moment (un détail).
• Emploi – préférence (un détail).
• !
• Habiter où dans le futur - raison.
• ? Petit job.

            Tu as un travail en ce moment ?
            Oui, (je travaille) dans un café.
            Quelle sorte de travail préfères-tu ?
            (Je préfère) (le travail) en plein air.
            Tu as fait un stage en entreprise au collège ?
            Oui, (j’ai travaillé) dans un bureau.
            Où est-ce que tu voudrais habiter à l’avenir ?
            (Je voudrais habiter) (en) Australie (parce qu’) il fait beau.

            Tu as un petit job ?

Now, the smart candidate who has been advised by their teacher to give the shortest answer possible to get the marks will provide the above responses without the redundant material in brackets. Remember that marks are for communicating messages unambiguously.

Many candidates, mixing up present and past tenses, will give responses such as:

Je travaillé (sic) dans un café or J'habité (sic) en Australie.

These responses will lose marks because the wrong verb form has introduced ambiguity. This type of issue is very familiar to teachers who have done role-plays before.

When the time comes for teachers to prepare students for these tests, they will need to thoroughly practise as many examples as possible and give advice on how to extract the best marks possible while saying as little as possible!

I seem to recall than when role-plays disappeared from GCSE assessment I was not unhappy, for some of the reasons mentioned above. Very good candidates lost marks by saying too much, whilst many situations seemed artificial and much time was spent in the classroom practising rather uninspiring material. However.... the new tests must be an improvement on controlled assessment!




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