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AQA's new GCSE role plays

In a recent blog I looked at the Photo card question in the recently accredited AQA GCSE Speaking tests. This time, I'll review the role-plays.

The source for these is here:

Foundation tier

This is the format, the example taken from the AQA site:

Instructions to candidates 
Your teacher will play the part of your French friend and will speak first.
You should address your friend as tu.
When you see this – ! – you will have to respond to something you have not prepared.
When you see this – ? – you will have to ask a question.

Tu parles de ton collège avec ton ami(e) français(e). 
• Ton collège – description (deux détails).
• ! Sciences –ton opinion et une raison.
• Projet – septembre (un détail).
• ? Matière favorite.


This marks a return to a format we used to see at GCSE, with the notable difference that the cues for pupils are now in the target language. This was at the insistence of Ofqual/DfE and you can sure both teachers and exam boards will not be pleased with this. Experienced teachers and examiners are well aware that weaker students have difficulty interpreting instructions in the target language and, especially in a pressure situation, will get confused. In this case the test becomes a test not just of oral ability, but of reading and question interpretation. To a certain extent, this invalidates the question. AQA will have done their best to bear this problem in mind when designing questions.

In the example above the cue Projet - (septembre) would cause some pupils difficulty. "What am I meant to say?", some students will think. The challenge for pupils and their teachers will be to do exhaustive practice so that typical cues become familiar.

Look at this further example:

Tu parles avec ton ami(e) français(e) de la vie saine. 
• Manger – sain – quoi (un détail).
• ! Fast-food (ton opinion).
• Pour être en forme (deux activités).
• ? Cigarettes.

I think candidates would have trouble interpreting the first and fourth cues. I am slightly confused by the fourth cue myself. Am I supposed to ask "Do you like cigarettes?"

As for the content of the role play, it is very familiar and is, along with the photo card, often an extension of conversational language. In fact, when you look at the AQA Speaking test in its entirety you will see that all three parts (role-play, photo card and conversation) are mainly based on conversation so can be taught "in the round". This is a significant advantage with compared with draft Speaking tests I have seen form other boards where transactional/situational ("in the clothes shop") role plays are used.

As regards tense usage, the above example can be done using present tense only, although the third cue could elicit the future or near future. Other specimen examples appear to require the present tense only.

Higher tier

The instructions for the task are the same as those for Foundation tier.

Tu parles avec ton ami(e) français(e) de l’environnement. 
• Environnement – initiatives récentes dans ta ville (deux détails).
• Problèmes de circulation dans ta ville (un détail). • !
• Réduction de l’énergie à la maison (un détail).
• ? Action pour améliorer l’environnement.


Leaving to one side the almost comic artificiality of the exchange, my impression is that the level of challenge here is greater than it used to be in corresponding role plays. More than one time frame is required, as one would expect. To an extent, the same reservations apply regarding target language even though Higher tier candidates have less difficulty interpreting TL cues. Once again, it is worth stressing for teachers who are new to this format, that lots of practice will enable most pupils to cope reasonably well.

All in all, if you look at the full range of specimen role plays you will probably feel they are harder than what we used to have pre CAs and certainly a tougher challenge than the current rote-learned controlled assessments. I can recall, back in about 1988, when you could pick up marks in the Foundation role plays for saying "thank you" and "I live in England".

This raised level of challenge was the DfE's intention. To what extent this new format is a return to "spontaneity" is another issue. Students will certainly have to think on their feet a good deal more, but teachers will prepare their students for as many responses as possible. Memorising responses will not disappear completely. How this all pans out in real classrooms and exams we shall have to see.


  1. You make some good pints. But what is "daft" about situational role-plays? Isn't that part of the reason we are teaching Modern Languages - so that students can ask for things in shops and interact in a hospital or pharmacy?

  2. Hi Chris. I didn't use the word daft. The problem for me with some situational role plays is that the situations are implausible for teenage learners. I would ask how many adolescents are likely to speak in a clothes shop or at the dentist. I also believe these types of dialogues are pretty boring for pupils. I would sooner we focused on transferable language and langauge pupils are more likely to use with their peers abroad.

  3. I'm with you Steve. I always feel extremely apologetic having to train my pupils to say such artificial things. Boring, artificial. At least in the current CA system there was scope for creativity...

  4. Yes, CAs are not all bad. The main problems fro me were the total lack of spontaneity and the fact that it was less reliable as a test since pupils could get input from so many sources, including human. But it's true that pre-learned material is easier for less able pupils. Thanks for leaving a comment.


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