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Preparing for GCSE speaking: building a repertoire

As your Y11 classes start their final year of GCSE, one potential danger of moving from Controlled Assessment to terminal assessment of speaking is to believe that in this new regime there will be little place for the rote learning or memorisation of language. While it is true that the amount of learning by heart is likely to go down and that greater use of unrehearsed (spontaneous) should be encouraged, there are undoubtedly some good techniques to help your pupils perform well on the day.

I clearly recall, when I marked speaking tests for AQA 15-20 years ago, that schools whose candidates performed the best were often those who had prepared their students with ready-made short paragraphs of language. Candidates who didn't sound particularly like "natural linguists" (e.g. displaying poor accents) nevertheless got high marks. As far as an examiner is concerned is doesn't matter if every single candidate says that last weekend they went to the cinema, saw a James Bond movie, ate a pizza, drank coke and returned home by bus. As long as they have plenty to say and answer the questions they will score well. If they can do it accurately and with greater complexity they will score even better.

This is not an argument for sole use of memorisation, of course, but if your pupils have built up a degree of proficiency over four or five years, they can supplement this with pre-learned, rehearsed language. The combination of the two is very effective. And by the way, never feel guilty about getting classes to practise rote learning of this type - in other subjects memorisation is used effectively to produce results, so why not in languages? We should reward hard work and learning.

With this in mind, I'd like to suggest one technique for effective last-minute preparation for the conversation (and photo card) sections of the test.

Let's suppose you have prepared sets of questions for each theme, a selection of which you are likely to use in the test. In the weeks running up to the test in April or May you can devote time to modelling answers and practising them in pairs. (Pairs is more efficient than groups.) It can work like this: display a question on the board, give your modelled answer to to it, perhaps with written support if the class needs it, then give students a few minutes to practise their paragraph length answers. With weaker classes at Foundation Tier sentence length answers may be sufficient. Then ask the class if they had any particular problems or if there were things they wanted to say but couldn't. Give some feedback. Then move to the next question. The complexity of your modelling will depend on the class and you can urge your stronger students to go beyond your model. If the atmosphere in your class is suitable you could get a small number of strong pupils to speak back their paragraphs. Generally, though, at this age, you should treat that practice with caution.

This process build in variety and a change of perspective to the lesson, breaking it up into shortish chunks. You could even play a recorded example of a good response from the pupil in another class or A-level student - again, this adds a touch of variety. You can reinforce the same questions in subsequent lessons - we know how important recycling and spaced practice is so think about coming back to it a week later.

As this process advanced the hope is that each student will build up their repertoire. You can intersperse your lessons with quick references to the mark scheme to remind pupils precisely what they need to do to get the highest scores. Say to them; "Imagine you are the examiner; how would you grade this?" You might even get pairs to play examiner and candidate.

Now, it's important to add that, in addition to helping students get ready for the speaking test, this process also build up a repertoire of paragraphs which can be re-used in the Writing exam, an equally hard challenge, harder for many. Always stress that students should "use what they know" and not worry about telling the truth. (You might find this morally questionable, but I would respond that it may be more morally questionable not to provide your students with every means to do their best!) My line was "use what you know, not what you don't know". Say it often!

I hope some of you will find this suggestion useful. Feel free to leave any comments with other ideas.


  1. Excellent advice. I don't know why pupils try to say things they can't! Like the idea of a repertoire, sounds a bit like the idea of dance moves/dance routines here

    1. Hi Vincent. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I saw your dance moves. Nice idea.


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