Skip to main content

The post CA era: what next?

So, the death knell has sounded for controlled assessments and it looks very likely that in the nearish future we shall see a return to terminal exams for GCSE. I have to say that as we approach our third and last year group doing CAs we have got used to them, students seem happy with the system and the marks they produce reflect their aptitude. My main reservation has concerned the importance of pure memorisation in the speaking tests. This was a step too far. The written CAs are very much like part of the old coursework format and allow all students to produce acceptable work.

Anyway, the wheel turns and there has been some discussion on the TES forum, mainly led by Martin Lapworth of Taskmagic fame, about what type of exam we should have for GCSE.

Here is my two penneth:

Firstly, tiering should be maintained to allow the examination to be a good test, but manageable by the relatively less able whom we are encouraging to keep languages going.

Secondly it should be fair but challenging test.

Thirdly, it should be as reliable as possible, marked externally.

Fourthly, the testing regime should resemble to a good degree the teaching regime.

And last, grading should be in line with other subjects, which will require some adjustment.

I would be happy enough to see a return to an equal balance of marks across the four skills. I would maintain separate tests for listening, reading, speaking and writing. There are good practical reasons for this: firstly, listening will still be carried out using a CD player or similar from the front and should take at least 30 minutes. If you add on a reading test of about 50 minutes this could make the exam too long.

I would not combine reading and writing for the same reason.


A mixture of conversation and announcements tested using test types such as matching, gap fill, multi-choice. I would allow greater use of English on the paper for Foundation Tier, but would favour avoiding English as far as possible at Higher Tier. The "backwash effect" is powerful and we would end up with course books filled with English and too little target language use in the classroom. Testing needs to resemble teaching.


A range of sources, some of them authentic or adapted from authentic sources. A range of test types including matching, multi-choice, gap fill etc. Again, I would discourage English on the paper at Higher Tier. The hardest questions could use multi-choice with good use of distractors. It makes sense to produce papers which can be marked quickly and cheaply, so multi-choice works well.


I would return to tiering. We need a balance of tasks which support the less able and stretch the most able. Role-play ensures a degree of spontaneity, traditional conversation allows for a good degree of prior learning (why not?) and a degree of improvisation if the guidelines are set correctly. I would not return to pre-learned presentations. Pictures for discussion are a possibility at Higher Tier. Foundation tier orals need not be shorter as less able candidates often speak more slowly and need more time, even if they have less to say. Orals would be recorded and marked externally.


Tiered again. This could be a one hour examination at Higher Tier, about 40 minutes at Foundation. The Foundation paper could include a simple grammar assessment (e.g. cloze) and a piece of connected writing based on English bullet points. A choice could be offered. The Higher paper could consist of a grammar task (e.g. cloze) and a piece of connected writing using English bullet points of increasing difficulty. Again, a choice of tasks could be offered. No dictionary (dictionaries vary so this they would make the grading less reliable).

You could argue that what I have laid out is unadventurous and traditional. Well, I could have gone more prehistoric by including picture essays, translation to and from the foreign language, more questions in English. I could have looked forward by suggesting a greater use of technology, such as video recordings for listening assessment or individual listening facilities as per A-level, but there are costs involved in this. I could have allowed for more creativity from students, but as soon as you allow students to produce coursework style pieces of writing, you are introducing an element of unreliability in the assessment because you cannot be sure how much other help has been received.

I hope OFQUAL and the exam boards are getting on to all this already so that whatever we get will have gone through a consultation with teachers. I hope they will look at models from other sources such as Asset Languages in the UK and overseas.


Popular posts from this blog

Tell stories


How can we make listening more enjoyable and effective for pupils? How can we turn it from a potential chore to something more memorable (and therefore more likely to stick in their long term memories)? I am of the opinion that since humans are "wired" to engage in personal listening and speaking (the expression "social brain" has been used in this context), they may be more interested and attentive when the message comes from a real person rather than a disembodied audio source. (This may or may not be relevant, but research has been carried out which demonstrates that babies pick up phonological patterns better when they listen to a caregiver rather than listen to a tape or watch a video - see here for summaries of research into this area by Patricia Kuhl.)

One easy way to make listening stimulating for pupils is to tell them easy stories in the target language. I was reminded of this while reading Penny Ur's book 100 Teaching Tips (reviewed here

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…

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)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
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. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

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…