Wednesday, 25 January 2017

At what point should you start practising exam-style tasks?

The latest version of GCSE MFL features a number of quite specific test types, two of which we haven't seen before. The first is the "photo card" test which forms part of the speaking assessment; the second is the translation into target language, marking a very watered-down return to O-level-style assessment. When should teachers prepare their pupils for these questions?

I see from social media that some teachers are beginning to work on photo cards, as well as role-plays (which have previously featured in GCSE) from Y7. Others are spending a good deal more time on translation into the target language than they did before. Are they right to be doing this?

On the one hand we know from research that being familiar with a test type and practising it in advance will help you achieve better results. Pupils will learn certain techniques, know how the mark scheme works and generally know what to expect. They will even be able to predict to some degree what language will come up. This clearly means that teachers would be wise to give pupils plenty of practice at photo cards, role-play and translation.

On the other hand, we also know that in an ideal world question types would mirror the type of activity you would like to do in class anyway. A good exam would feature questions which reflect sound methodology. So, if you take the view that, in general, translating is not the best way to spend valuable class time, then matching classroom tasks to the exam will involve a degree of compromise. (I would have very rarely done translation at A-level had it not been in the exam.)

How much actual practice is needed? As far as the photo card is concerned, there is not a great deal of technique involved since most of the task is just an extension of the general conversation pupils will have prepared anyway. (Only the first question asks about the content of the photo.)

The role-play does require a bit more technique, notably involving simplifying answers as much as possible to avoid errors which cause ambiguity. Some role-plays are, as with the photo-card, an extension of general conversation, others are more based on alleged real-life situations. The specimen examples are quite unrealistic, in fact, in terms of when a teenager might use their language in another country.

As for translation, yes, a good deal of practice and modelling from the teacher will yield better results as pupils come to anticipate the common traps and favoured grammatical structures.

But when should all this practice be started? My own view is that you could leave the role-play and photo card until quite late in the day, say at some point in Year 11. These tasks are not inherently interesting and there are many more stimulating, input-focused things you can do in lessons.

Translation may be worth touching on from an earlier stage, at the very least because it can reinforce grammatical accuracy and because many pupils enjoy doing it. Even so, I would not work on it systematically until Y11. Remember too that not many marks are allocated to translation, so you may feel that it should not be a priority. Just think: every 20 minutes spent translating is time which could be used developing listening, reading, written composition and speaking skills.

So my gut feeling is that some teachers may be giving in too easily to the "backwash effect" where the test type dictates the teaching. I would suggest sticking to your methodological principles, whatever they may be, and do not be panicked into doing activities just because they are in the exam.


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