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Good old days?

Oldies (and maybe younger colleagues) may be interested to take a peek at a 1959 O-Level French papers, posted at the Lawnswood School site. The papers I took in 1973 were not hugely dissimilar, though I seem to recall we had some listening comprehension in there somewhere.

It would be tempting to say that the grammatical difficulty level of those papers (not far away from modern A2 standard) means that standards have fallen over the years. This would be a huge simplification, however. French exams in those days were aimed at a small percentage of the school population and some of them would have found such papers hard. In addition, there was far more emphasis on translation and grammar at the expense of oral and aural work. Most modern students would barely tolerate the type of preparation which was required to perform well in exams of that type.

To do well on the prose translation and picture essay students would practise set phrases and techniques to gain marks (sound familiar?). The translation and comprehension questions would have required a solid knowledge of vocabulary and structure gained after many hours of practice in class and at home. To perform well, rote learning was not sufficient; you had to adapt your knowledge so in that sense the tasks were more intellectually demanding than those which contemporary students have to do. But the 1950s and 1960s student did relatively less oral and listening work, so those skills were less developed. I would hazard a guess that the average student in those days was more bored too - much would have depended on the teacher.

I was rather lucky. My teachers were enlightened enough to do lots of oral work in class and used French most of the time. They then primed us well for the needs of the O-level exam, which did not resemble what we did most of the time in class hitherto. My memory is that it was only in Year 11 (Fifth Form) that we focused on the exam.

Those old papers belong in a museum and we would not want exams like that these days, but they are revealing of a methodology which had certain merits. That methodology assumed that a strong foundation of grammar and vocabulary was at the root of competence and that the listening and speaking skill could emerge from this later. For some it worked, for many it was a nasty shock to have to cope orally in a foreign land.


  1. An interesting post, Steve. I was lucky to have a truly inspirational teacher for O'level. Yes, we were in the top group in an affluent area, but by the end of the 3rd year we had covered pretty much all the grammar needed for O'level. Our class results (this was 1985, AEB board) were 17 As, 12 Bs and a C. One of my best friends was on of the recipients of an A, but she refused to take French for A'level because she was certain she could not speak it. She was very good at writing it, and, when we spent 2 weeks in France together aged 20, she could understand most things.

  2. The significant element for me is "it was only in year 11 that we focused on the exam".


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