Skip to main content

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.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

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…