Top 4 take-aways from the 2019 MFL GCSE exams

MFL GCSE exam insight

Having read the examiners’ reports on GCSE Spanish, French and German, here are my key takeaways in terms of what to work on this year:


Revise basic vocabulary

It was disappointing to see that students seemed to have forgotten basic vocabulary; this was seen at both tiers. For example, students did not know the words for ‘600’ (German), ‘baker’ (French) and ‘pencil case’ (Spanish). This clearly ties in with the long-term retention focus of the new Ofsted framework. I am considering how to build this vocabulary back in during Key Stage 4, rather than taking it for granted because it was taught in Key Stage 3.

Give the right amount of information

Some exam questions include example answers on the page. Students need to be trained more on their use of the examples to gauge how much information to write. In some cases, giving too much information led to ambiguity and a loss of marks, whereas in others a lack of precision meant that the answer was not quite right.

Read all the information given

As well as the example answer, the contextual information at the beginning of each question will often give necessary clues and students should be trained to always read these details.

Rule out the incorrect answers

Students who were well trained in ruling out the incorrect options for multiple-choice questions got the answers correct more often. It is also important that students listen to the whole utterance before deciding their response.

Sound-spelling links

Mistakes were made when students didn’t recognise key sound differences, such as the difference between ‘residents’ and ‘residence’ in Spanish. Practice with these sounds would help students gain marks for questions requiring a written response.


One means one!

Students should be discouraged from writing extra information, especially when only one detail is requested. Marks were lost when giving extra information led to ambiguous answers. Also, when asked to write longer answers students really need to avoid copying chunks from the reading text, but any key language they do take from the text doesn’t need manipulating.

Learn key verbs from the specifications

Students should pay attention to learning key verbs included in the vocabulary lists in the GCSE specifications. Knowing key verbs will help students in all four skills: I’ll be paying more attention to this in my classes.

Read forwards and backwards

Students were often good at finding answers which came after the key words in reading texts, but not so good when answers came before the key words. Practicing finding answers that aren’t necessarily where they might expect to find them would be very useful.



Students did better when they only said exactly what was necessary; students who tried to give extended responses usually ended up losing marks.

As mentioned above, sound-spelling links are key as students struggled with certain words and lost marks for anglicised pronunciation which impeded communication. This is something we could be working on much more from the beginning of KS3.

Knowledge of question words also needs more practice in order for students to be as successful as possible in this task.

Photo card

Answers need to be fully relevant. The reports mention students giving photo descriptions that are too brief before moving on to a personal response that is no longer rooted in the photo. This has led me to reconsider how I teach the description task in order to emphasise this to the students.

General conversation

When students gave lots of pre-learnt responses this restricted students in terms of their marks for spontaneity as well as in the other mark bands. The key here seems to be that teacher-examiners need to ask natural mix of open and closed questions and regularly follow up on what students have said. Dialogue over monologue. This is something that will take a good deal of time and could be challenging to manage, especially for teachers with larger classes or those with less timetable hours.


Photo task

The key here was to keep it simple. Students who used a simple verb with an item of vocabulary that they could see in the photo did best. There is absolutely no need to teach students to do any more than this.

40 word task

Again, keeping it simple but accurate was key. There is no need for students to write more than 40 words and when they did it often resulted in a loss of accuracy. Quality wins over quantity.

90 word task

Students that covered all bullet points concisely and accurately did best here (do you notice a pattern?) The important things are: coverage of bullet points, development of some ideas, clarity of communication and inclusion of justified opinions. Range of language could be shown in many ways other than time frames; good synonyms and use of connectives and varied adjectives contributed towards marks here.

150 word task

Once again, tasks that were too long lost accuracy and therefore lost students marks, as did overambitious language for students who weren’t quite capable of it. If I’ve taken one thing from reading these reports it’s verb practice. Practice with a variety of people and tenses, all the time, so that students will be able to succeed on this task.


Avoid paraphrasing – as when this didn’t exactly convey the same message, marks were lost. The main things to practice are the little words and the high frequency words, especially near-cognates and KS3 vocabulary.

Top 4 takeaways:

  1. Exam technique – read all given information, eliminate wrong answers and match answers carefully to the examples given.
  2. Accuracy over quantity every time.
  3. Verbs, verbs, verbs!
  4. Sound/spelling links for listening and speaking.

Rebecca Nobes is Head of Spanish at The Boswells School in Chelmsford, Essex. She runs #MFLchat on Twitter on Monday evenings from 8.30pm-9.00pm She is a council member of the Chartered College of Teaching and was awarded Chartered Teacher status in July 2019. She can be found at @BexN91 on twitter or

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