Skip to main content

Worried about the new GCSEs?

Twitter and MFL Facebook groups are replete with posts expressing concerns about the new GCSEs and, in particular, the difficulty of the exam, grades and tiers. I can only comment from a distance since I am no longer in the classroom, but I have been through a number of sea changes in assessment over the years so may have something useful to say.

Firstly, as far as general difficulty of papers is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the new assessment is harder (not necessarily in terms of grades though). This is particularly evident in the writing tasks and speaking test. Although it will still be possible to work in some memorised material in these parts of the exam, there is no doubt that weaker candidates will have more problems coping with the greater requirement for unrehearsed language. Past experience working with average to very able students tells me some, even those with reasonable attainment, will flounder on the written questions in the heat of the moment. Others will struggle interpreting questions in the target language. Lots of question practice will mitigate the problems, but expect many candidates to come a cropper in speaking and writing. Listening and reading marks may save the day for some.

With respect to grade predictions, because Ofqual will be implementing their “comparable outcomes” policy we can expect the spread of grades to be similar to before (notwithstanding the move to 9-1 grading). In case you didn’t know it, GCSE grade spreads are largely derived from KS2 performance scores. This won’t be much help when trying to relate raw marks on specimen questions used in mocks, but if you add up all your raw marks and make a percentage, you could then concoct some artificial grade boundaries which may be necessary to be in line with your school’s policies. We know from maths and English results in 2017 that low raw marks can still result in acceptable grades. Overall maths and English saw no significant change in the spread of grades. Could Ofqual even take this opportunity to address the MFL severe grading issue under cover, as it were, of 9-1?

With regard to tiering decisions I would be tempted to play safe where there are borderline decisions to be made, keeping strongly your school’s previous performance over the years. With candidates who would have previously been at the C or C/D borderline, then Foundation Tier might make sense. Don’t expect great changes between the mocks and the actual exam. These can happen, but they are exceptional. MFL is a hard subject to cram late in the day. You are the expert so treat student and parental input with great caution.

Overall, what advice could I offer in terms of effective preparation? Well, I may be speaking to the converted here, but here are some bullet points based on my own experience:

- Do plenty of practice tests. Research is clear that learners do better when they are familiar with the test type. Find specimens papers from all the exam boards ( I have made a few for
- Keep modelling high frequency language for the oral and writing tests. Ram home the message “Use what you know, not what you may want to say.” This applies less to very able candidates.
- Share mark schemes and show model answers. Get students to play examiner and examinee.
- For writing keep stressing to weaker students that simplicity and clarity are vital. Poor work can come from either a lack of writing or just producing semi-comprehensible sentences.
- Insist with weaker students that they stick to the point when writing answers.
- For speaking stress the importance of saying a lot. Quantity is more important than quality (accuracy).
- Supply practice oral questions and rehearse them repeatedly (e.g. speed dating, board games, teacher modelling, recording answers). Don’t worry if your students all produce similar answers. Some schools are much better at preparing pupils for orals than others. ( I know this as a former examiner.)
-Emphasise that pupils can reuse the same high frequency language in the speaking and writing tests.
- Remind pupils that the phrase “for example” is one of the best to keep using in speech and writing. It ensures answers are developed.
- In role plays teach students how to score marks by saying as little as possible, e.g. misusing a verb tense when the verb is not needed to get across the message will lose marks.
- For listening do as much intensive work on short extracts as possible. Focus on tasks such as gap-fill and transcription, less on general comprehension than you might normally. Train students to be careful listeners.
- Keep recycling high-frequency vocabulary and chunks, preferably with words used in context, not in isolated lists. Make sure all pupils have in their repertoire chunks such as “I play, I played, I’ll play, I watch, I watched, I go, I went etc etc.
- For the reading paper, as with listening, focus on working short texts intensively, e.g. using gap-fill, “find the French” and linking starts and ends of sentences. Use reading texts for follow-up listening practice or vice versa. Repetition = memory.
- Do a fair amount of instant translation tasks (both ways). Mini-whiteboards and board games are good for this. But lots of call and response teacher-led work can keep modelling high frequency language. Stick to high frequency language in varying contexts (recycling).
- Play fluency games like “Just a minute” to encourage more able pupils to speak at length without fearing error.
- Make sure all pupils know the intricacies of the mark scheme so that they don’t throw away marks by omitting to include certain elements, e.g. opinions or complex sentences with more than one clause.
- Teach a repertoire of “fab phrases” which pupils should try to include in any essay they write. Keep recycling these until they are used automatically.

I’m sure you can think of more.

In the end it’s the pupils who should be worrying, not you.

Good luck!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. This is really helpful for me especially I just signed up to be a tutor on Classes A to Z Thanks a lot!


Post a Comment

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,

Second language learning and acquisition

This is a long, referenced blog which combines all the posts in my earlier series entitled Conscious and Unconscious Language Learning. If you have already read those posts, you should look away now. Part 1 Throughout the history of the study of language learning and teaching reference has been made to two distinct types of language learning. The first could be characterised as "picking up" a language and normally involves the apparently unconscious acquisition of a language in an informal or natural setting. One thinks of the child who learns their native tongue, or the immigrant who learns the new language without recourse to formal study. The second type of language learning involves the practice of a language in a formal, systematic way, often in a classroom setting. This has frequently been termed conscious learning. Such a clear distinction may be controversial and you may already be thinking, quite reasonably, that both types of learning have a role. However, when

The 2026 GCSE subject content is published!

Two DfE documents were published today. The first was the response to the consultation about the proposed new GCSE (originally due in October 2021) and the second is the subject content document which, ultimately, is of most interest to MFL teachers in England. Here is the link  to the document.  We are talking about an exam to be done from 2026 (current Y7s). There is always a tendency for sceptical teachers to think that consultations are a bit of a sham and that the DfE will just go ahead and do what they want when it comes to exam reform. In this case, the responses to the original proposals were mixed, and most certainly hostile as far as exam boards and professional associations representing the MFL community, universities, head teachers and awarding bodies are concerned. What has emerged does reveal some significant changes which take account of a number of criticisms levelled at the proposals. As I read it, the most important changes relate to vocabulary and the issue of topics

What is skill acquisition theory?

For this post, I am drawing on a section from the excellent book by Rod Ellis and Natsuko Shintani called Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research (Routledge, 2014). Skill acquisition is one of several competing theories of how we learn new languages. It’s a theory based on the idea that skilled behaviour in any area can become routinised and even automatic under certain conditions through repeated pairing of stimuli and responses. When put like that, it looks a bit like the behaviourist view of stimulus-response learning which went out of fashion from the late 1950s. Skill acquisition draws on John Anderson’s ACT theory, which he called a cognitivist stimulus-response theory. ACT stands for Adaptive Control of Thought.  ACT theory distinguishes declarative knowledge (knowledge of facts and concepts, such as the fact that adjectives agree) from procedural knowledge (knowing how to do things in certain situations, such as understand and speak a language).

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