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

What is the natural order hypothesis?

The natural order hypothesis states that all learners acquire the grammatical structures of a language in roughly the same order. This applies to both first and second language acquisition. This order is not dependent on the ease with which a particular language feature can be taught; in English, some features, such as third-person "-s" ("he runs") are easy to teach in a classroom setting, but are not typically fully acquired until the later stages of language acquisition. The hypothesis was based on morpheme studies by Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt, which found that certain morphemes were predictably learned before others during the course of second language acquisition. The hypothesis was picked up by Stephen Krashen who incorporated it in his very well known input model of second language learning. Furthermore, according to the natural order hypothesis, the order of acquisition remains the same regardless of the teacher's explicit instruction; in other words,

What is "Input Processing"?

Input Processing (IP) was proposed by Bill VanPatten, Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition from Michigan State University. Bill may be known to some of you from his podcast show Tea with BVP. He is one of those rare university academics who makes a specific effort to engage with practising teachers. IP was first proposed in a 1993 article (published with T. Cadierno in the Modern Language Journal) entitled "Input processing and second language acquisition: A role for instruction." My summary of it is based on an article "Input Processing and Processing Instruction: Definitions and Issues" (2013) by Hossein Hashemnezhad. IP is a little complicated to explain, but I'll do my best to summarise the key points before suggesting how it relates to other ways of looking at classroom language teaching. Is this actually any use to teachers? I apologise in advance for over-simplifying or misunderstanding. To paraphrase Dr Leonard McCoy from Star Trek &q

Pros and cons of pair and group work

Most teachers have made frequent use of pair and group work for many years, notably since the rise of communicative language teaching in the 1980s. Even before then it would have been common for pupils to work in pairs on simple role-play and dialogue tasks. So pair and group work is standard practice, if not universally supported by language teachers. It’s always worth evaluating, however, whether a practice works - whether, in this case, it helps students develop their proficiency. Pros Rod Ellis (2005) summarises the advantages of pair/group work (based on Jacobs, 1998) “1. The quantity of learner speech can increase. In teacher-fronted classrooms, the teacher typically speaks 80% of the time; in groupwork more students talk for more of the time. 2. The variety of speech acts can increase. In teacher-fronted classrooms, students are cast in a responsive role, but in groupwork they can perform a wide range of roles, including those involved in the negotiation of meaning. 3. There can

New MFL GCSE consultation

Updated on 7th April, with a few modifications to the original post written about a month earlier. ........................................................................... The DfE in England has recently published information about the proposed new GCSE exams, first teaching September 2023, first exams June 2025. There are two consultations going on, one regarding the subject content, and the other (much shorter) with respect to the assessment arrangements such as tiering.  The context is important here. DfE are worried about uptake in GCSE MFL, especially with their EBacc target of 90% uptake in mind. (This is highly unlikely to be achieved.) Therefore they would like an exam which makes the subject more attractive, both in terms of interesting content and accessibility (how easy it is thought to be). They are aware also of criticisms levelled at current papers that the exam is elitist, featuring too much subject matter which appeals to middle class students. Recall that MFL has be

An NCELP lesson resource analysed

NCELP (National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy) is the body set up and financed by the DfE in England. based at the University of York and headed by Emma Marsden and Rachel Hawkes. It works through a number of hub secondary schools which, in turn, work with a small group of other schools. Their mission is, broadly speaking, to spread the research findings and principles as laid out in the Teaching Schools Council (TSC) Review of MFL Pedagogy from 2016. By sharing a selected body of research, considered relevant to secondary MFL in England, and creating schemes of work and lesson resources across the hub schools, they hope to spread so-called best practice around the country. As I write this, schemes of learning and lesson resources have been written up to the third term of Y8 for French, German and Spanish. I've been watching with interest as these resources have been built up and in general my view has been that the research resources are very useful and informative (