Skip to main content

Thoughts about GCSE role plays

With the new GCSEs now approaching (first teaching from September 2016) we see the triumphant comeback of the role-play which, since 1987, had been an integral part of the speaking test. I imagine that the justification for their return is based on two things: firstly, they require a degree of spontaneous language on the part of candidates; secondly, they provide for some 'real life' situational tasks.

Role-plays are not without their issues. For example, producing authentic situations is not very easy. AQA, the only awarding body so far to have produced accredited exams, has adopted the approach of mixing up real-life situations with conversational style role-plays with friends. In their specimen Foundation Tier role-plays, for example, they include friends talking about school, talking with a waiter in a restaurant and an employee at a theatre (the latter is far-fetched for a teenager). I believe they are right to maintain an emphasis on conversational language with friends. this has the added benefit for teachers an students in that any preparation for conversation and photo cards also contributes to the role play test.

The second issue I have already blogged about concerns the fact that the Foundation role-plays have to have their prompts in the target language. This will cause problems for weaker students and calls into question the validity and reliability of the test.

Thirdly, it has always been hard to maintain the same level of difficulty across different questions. Old hands will remember feeling that some questions were always harder than others. Although the awarding bodies are aware of the issue, it remains a challenge to produce role-plays of the same standard.

Next comes another question which also calls into question the reliability of the role-play as a question type. Consider this AQA role-play question and possible script which might ensue. The candidate's responses are in bold and optional items are in brackets.

Tu parles du travail et des ambitions avec ton ami(e) français(e).
• Travail en ce moment (un détail).
• Emploi – préférence (un détail).
• !
• Habiter où dans le futur - raison.
• ? Petit job.

            Tu as un travail en ce moment ?
            Oui, (je travaille) dans un café.
            Quelle sorte de travail préfères-tu ?
            (Je préfère) (le travail) en plein air.
            Tu as fait un stage en entreprise au collège ?
            Oui, (j’ai travaillé) dans un bureau.
            Où est-ce que tu voudrais habiter à l’avenir ?
            (Je voudrais habiter) (en) Australie (parce qu’) il fait beau.

            Tu as un petit job ?

Now, the smart candidate who has been advised by their teacher to give the shortest answer possible to get the marks will provide the above responses without the redundant material in brackets. Remember that marks are for communicating messages unambiguously.

Many candidates, mixing up present and past tenses, will give responses such as:

Je travaillé (sic) dans un café or J'habité (sic) en Australie.

These responses will lose marks because the wrong verb form has introduced ambiguity. This type of issue is very familiar to teachers who have done role-plays before.

When the time comes for teachers to prepare students for these tests, they will need to thoroughly practise as many examples as possible and give advice on how to extract the best marks possible while saying as little as possible!

I seem to recall than when role-plays disappeared from GCSE assessment I was not unhappy, for some of the reasons mentioned above. Very good candidates lost marks by saying too much, whilst many situations seemed artificial and much time was spent in the classroom practising rather uninspiring material. However.... the new tests must be an improvement on controlled assessment!


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…

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…

Have a repertoire, lighten your workload (part one)

The next four blogs I'm going to post are the equivalent of one of those TV clip shows - you know, the ones where they need to fill a weekly slot by showing the best bits, or deleted scenes, from the series. But these four blogs have a theme. The clue is in the title. Like you, I worked hard when I was teaching, but I was pretty good at keeping things in proportion using a combination of economical planning, rapid marking and experience. The extra time those things created even allowed me to stay relaxed and have fun (most of the time) and to come up with the occasional innovative idea.

So, what I'm going to suggest here is that, if you have a little repertoire of go-to classroom activities, you can save yourself a lot of time and stress, and, what's more, all for the benefit of your classes. You see, I think (actually, I know) pupils like routines, but they also appreciate a bit of variety. So if you apply your repertoire of lesson/activity types sensibly you can satisfy b…

"Ask and move" task

This is a lesson plan using an idea from our book Breaking the Sound Barrier (Conti and Smith, 2019). It's a task-based lesson adapted from an idea from Paul Nation and Jonathan Newton. It is aimed at Y10-11 pupils aiming at Higher Tier GCSE, but is easily adaptable to other levels and languages, including A-level. This has been posted as a resource on

This type of lesson plan excites me more than many, because if it runs well, you get a classroom of busy communication when you can step back, monitor and occasionally intervene as students get on with listening, speaking and writing.

Filling the gaps

All teachers at some time make use of gap-fill activities. There are very good reasons for doing so, whether the focus is on careful listening with a transcript, grammatical awareness, vocabulary retrieval or general comprehension. I particularly liked them for scaffolding listening with classes, combining comprehension with phonics and grammar. A gap-fill really gets students listening intensively and supports the process of listening. If you are keen on the idea of Listening as Modelling (as described in our listening book) you may prefer this type of task to general comprehension exercises which can end up promoting guesswork.

You can use gap-full in all kinds of ways and with different aims in mind. As a little exercise I thought I’d make a list if all the types of gap-fill I could think of.  These are all with LISTENING in mind, more than reading. These could help you focus on the precise aim of the gap-fill or just provide you with some variations to make it more interesting for…