Skip to main content

When to do past practice papers

With the stakes so high in the English and Welsh exam system teachers obviously want students to be as well prepared as possible. With this in mind I would assume that all teachers use past exam papers to help their students succeed. But when and how should they be used?

If students have to do a "mock" or trial exam in December or January, what the French call an "examen blanc", it makes sense to use a past paper and possibly one before the paper for practice. I say "possibly" mainly because past papers take away time for more interesting, communicative work, but students like to have the reassurance of having seen the exam format.

It is possible to concoct an exam paper similar in style to a past paper, but made easier to reflect the students' stage of progress. However, there is a lot to be said for letting students have a sight of the final goal, both for motivation and to make sure they are realistic about where they stand. It can provide a needed kick up the rear (whilst also being demotivating for the weakest students).

After mock exams I would personally leave past papers alone until quite late in the day, say after Easter. I'll explain why.

Firstly, do we want to keep students in a permanent stage of exam stress? Secondly, are past papers, in methodological terms, the best practice to be doing? Their content is often bland and exercise types not always the best to maximise motivation and acquisition. Thirdly, is it not better to have students engaged with communicative, stimulating, target language material as much as possible? Lastly, once you begin past papers in earnest after Easter (often after orals are out of the way), you can really focus on technique and build a momentum as students take on numerous papers and, usually, see improvements in scores.

Students enjoy this repetition, seeing results improve whilst benefitting from short term reinforcement of effective technique. A real momentum can be generated. Students can become greedy for more. Furthermore, in the summer term they may be highly motivated to perform well on exam-style tasks.

I have heard it argued that it is a good idea to use individual questions from papers at various points of the year, but I would not favour this approach. Why? Well, once again, exam material is often dull, and if you do occasional practice in this form, technique develops less effectively. I would not rule it out, especially if there happens to be an excellent text which supports the topic you are studying at the time.

If we move to a two year linear A-level from September 2016, it will be possible to leave past papers quite late. I welcome that. Schools may still choose, as they often did in the past, to set a past paper at the end of Lower Sixth and for a mock exam in January of the Upper Sixth. On balance, I would prefer to set a non past paper in Lower Sixth, since students are not really ready for it.


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…

Five great advanced level French listening sites

If your A-level students would like opportunities to practise listening there are plenty of sources you can recommend for accessible, largely comprehensible and interesting material. Here are some I have come across while searching for resources over recent years.

Daily Geek Show

I love this site. It's fresh, youthful and full of really interesting material. They have an archive of videos, both short and long, from various sources, grouped under a range of themes: insolite (weird news items), science, discovery, technology, ecology and lifestyle. There should be something there to interest all your students while adding to their broader education. Here is one I enjoyed (I shall seriously think about buying tomatoes in winter now):




France Bienvenue

This site has been around for years and is the work of a university team in Marseilles. You get a mixture of audio and video material complete with transcripts and explanations.This is much more about the personal lives of the students …

Responsive teaching

Dylan Wiliam, the academic most associated with Assessment for Learning (AfL), aka formative assessment, has stated that these labels have not been the most helpful to teachers. He believes that they have been partly responsible for poor implementation of AfL and the fact that AfL has not led to the improved outcomes originally intended.

Wiliam wrote on Twitter in 2013:

“Example of really big mistake: calling formative assessment formative assessment rather than something like "responsive teaching".”

For the record he subsequently added:

“The point I was making—years ago now—is that it would have been much easier if we had called formative assessment "responsive teaching". However, I now realize that this wouldn't have helped since it would have given many people the idea that it was all about the teacher's role.”

I suspect he’s right about the appellation and its consequences. As a teacher I found it hard to get my head around the terms AfL and formative assess…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…