Tips for the 9-1 MFL GCSE Speaking, Reading and Writing Exams – ‘Homestraight’ Part 2

This month we’re delighted to be welcoming back David Shanks with his second post about preparing for GCSE 9-1.

Have an effective and organised general approach

Measuring what works in education is a notoriously tricky business with so many variables acting upon the learning process.  However, advances in the world of cognitive science and educational research are indicating firmly that spaced repetition, retrieval practice, interleaving, elaboration and worked examples are some of the main strategies that have been shown to be effective in improving the teaching and learning cycle.  The excellent Learning Scientists website concisely summarises such research-backed strategies and even provides them in visual, student friendly language, as well as in other languages. Share these strategies explicitly with your students and incorporate them into your planning and teaching in the final run-up to the exams.  As well as telling students to revise, teach them how to revise and model the process.  As the language expert, how do you tackle learning unfamiliar vocabulary?  What are your thought processes as you complete a reading comprehension?  What exactly would you do during the listening exam preparation time?  Support them with a revision timetable of interleaved MFL topics across skills and grammar points.  Help them bridge the school and home learning environments more efficiently by collating resources in one place, either with a hard copy booklet or digitals tools: your school’s own VLE, Kerboodle (if you are using an OUP course) or other online resources like Padlet wall, Edmodo, Quizlet etc. It is important that students are having a regular diet of exam-style question practice to ensure they are familiar with the different question formats, the success criteria and target language rubrics.  Make the most of the range of exam board sample/additional assessment materials and bear in mind that the pre-2009 specification assessment materials may contain many useful questions in a format more similar to the 9-1 exams than the outgoing specification.

With us in the midst of speaking exams already and the remaining exams just a few short weeks away, find below my top 5 quick tips for each of new Speaking, Reading and Writing exams.  These are based on my experience with the AQA specification, but the ideas are transferable to all specifications.  You can find suggestions for listening in part one of this post.


The Speaking Exam

  1. Good organisation is obvious but particularly important during a time of change and our comparative unfamiliarity with the new specification. Read the exam board guidance thoroughly, check the materials and technology in advance of the exam, ensure all paperwork is in place and brief your invigilators well as there is an increased amount of documentation to navigate on the day.  Build gaps into your schedule after your first (few?) students to give you time to organise and fix any issues that come to light. A front-facing stopwatch (from the science department?) is ideal for timing the sections of the exam.  Have you a plan for what do if a student is absent or “forgets” to attend their exam?  Will students come to the exam “cold” or will they have time in a suitable waiting room or perhaps some last minute general conversation warm-up to get into target language mode?
  2. The 12 minute preparation period is key to success. I’m briefing students to automatically write down their emergency phrase (Sorry, can you repeat please?) and the register of address to be used for “you” at the top of their sheet.  The role play card bullet points aren’t numbered so I have students number each on their notes to help avoid any sequencing accidents, write “ASK” where they have to pose a question and to predict and prepare multiple short responses for the unprepared question.
  3. Get in and out on the role play. Communicating the required message carries the marks here, so encourage students to keep it short and sweet.  Interpreting the role play card will be the main challenge as a) it requires reading comprehension and b) some students fail to understand what the task is asking of them.  Mitigate against this through plentiful paired role-play practice, careful consideration and visualisation of the context and predicting the (very predictable) unprepared question.
  4. Avoid photo card description overkill. Whilst a new element of the exam to some, describing the photo itself is only one of five questions of a section worth approximately one third (depending on the board) of the speaking exam marks, which itself is worth a quarter of the GCSE!  During mock exams, I found many students ably described a picture, only to fall down on the following 4 questions.  I now describe the photo card to students as a springboard to a conversation on a theme and focus more on the follow-up questions. I have found PALMS (People, Action, Location, Mood, Season/Weather) a helpful mnemonic for describing the picture.  Specifically for French, I tell students “there is no am-ing, is-ing or are-ing” to avoid the dreaded “il est jouer au foot”.  Il/elle est en train de + infinitive can also get around this common mistake.
  5. The general conversation carries the lion’s share of marks, so factor this into the amount of time dedicated to it during preparation. Intensive work on the recognition of question words and forming answer stems in a variety of tenses from questions will be worthwhile.  This should help automatise the requisite switching from 2nd to 1st person pronouns and possessives, as well as aid the recycling of words from the question.    Encourage students to buddy-up with another student choosing the same theme.  Instructing them how to question and give feedback to one another will allow for more productive speaking work in lessons.  Above all, a well-rehearsed bank of transferrable structures for introducing time frames, narration, explanation and giving opinions will help students respond well across subthemes.


The Reading Exam

  1. Empower students by equipping them with comprehension strategies. Refer to these when modelling or group correcting and encourage students not just to give an answer, but to share exactly where in the text they found the it and explain how they worked it out. Discuss the question topic context, sentence-level context, cognates, grammar, negatives, etymology, prefixes, suffixes, tense indicators and conjugations.  The AQA specification documents have very good guidance on this.
  2. The inclusion of literary texts initially panicked many, but these can broadly be considered as any other reading stimulus. Again check the support material available from your exam board as there are some excellent resources available for free.  Some work on direct speech, identifying characters and annotating who is speaking could prove fruitful.
  3. Many exam questions are deliberately designed to contain distractors and words that change the meaning of a sentence. Some require degrees of inference to find the correct answer (I don’t eat meat -> Who is vegetarian?).  Encourage students to spot distractors, false friends and explicitly teach those words that often trip up students such as not (yet), never, neither…nor, but, whereas, however, only, except, or, otherwise and object pronouns.
  4. The translation into English will depend on having built up a solid bank of passive vocabulary over time (remember spaced repetition?) and the strategies outlined in point one above will serve students well as translation is ultimately an extension of reading comprehension. I strongly suggest you emphasise the final step of checking or whispering aloud to make sure the English makes sense!
  5. Exploit the input from reading practice and have students “magpie” language. Once you’ve finished correcting a question as a group, give students dedicated time to highlight and record new vocabulary, structures or chunks of language. They can then transfer these to their productive repertoire for adapting and incorporating into their speaking and writing work.

The Writing Exam

  1. Encourage students to write in roughly even paragraphs per bullet point. This is not a requirement but will inevitably lead to greater clarity and an easier application of the mark scheme by the examiner.
  2. Have students plan their extended writing before committing to writing their answer. Using target language they know should be at the forefront of their mind (not what they want to say in English!). Discuss how they might “unpack” a bullet into constituent parts that will allow them to show off a range of vocabulary, structures and tenses.  Where will they include opinions, explanations and insert their favourite, pre-learnt complex language structures? Provide a quality of language mnemonic such as AVOCADO or QuACNOTT for students to check off as they plan, write and then check their work to ensure the richest writing possible.
  3. Develop a portfolio of responses. Have students create their own collection of “template answers” for subtopics that they can revise from, adapt and embellish according to the eventual exam questions.  Many schools I work with do this effectively from year 9/10.
  4. Practise proof reading. You might provide students with deficient answers (e.g. repetition of vocabulary, lack of tense variety, omission of opinions or irrelevant content) or shorter incorrect sentences (wrong agreements, incorrect tense or common misconception / translation errors) to correct. Have them be the examiner and then walk through how you would mark the piece.  Instruct them leave time for methodical checking their own work in the exam.
  5. As well as testing pure vocabulary knowledge, the translation into the target language is designed to test a spread of common grammar features, so teach your students to identify and label the classic time markers, tense shifts, changes of subject pronouns, negatives, infinitive structures and so on, before starting to translate. The very popular “1 pencil 1 dice” is an engaging and competitive paired translation game, originating from Danièle Bourdais and Sue Finnie’s excellent Teaching Primary French book (lots of ideas adaptable to secondary in there too).  Parallel translation tasks can simultaneously build L1-to-L2 and L2-to-L1 skills.

The above are just a selection of ideas and there are many more being shared amongst @ALL4Language members and the #MFLTwitterati. Please do get involved, learn and share back mentioning @HFLanguages, @OxfordEdMFL and tagging #mflhomestraight.

All the very best to you and your students for the final push!

David works as Lead MFL Consultant, teaching and developing the MFL provision across the Harris Federation group of schools in London. He holds a PGCE in French from the Institute of Education and taught English in France and Maths/ICT in Norway before teaching French in London. He has delivered on MA, PGCE, TeachFirst and School Direct courses and leads the Harris ITE MFL Programme. He is a member of the Association for Language Learning Council 2017-2020, NALA, APPG for MFL, the British Council Language Liaison Group and KCL’s MA in Ed & Prof studies 2016-18 cohort. His main interests lie in creativity, technology, assessment and research-informed MFL practice. He tweets regularly as part of the #MFLTwitterati and can be contacted on @HFLanguages