Top 4 MFL GCSE 9-1 exam preparation tips for teachers – ‘Home straight’ Part 1

With exams looming on the horizon, David Shanks is back to share his top 4 exam preparation tips for teachers…

With just six short weeks remaining until the speaking examination window opens, we are firmly in the ‘home straight’ as we head towards the first sittings of the long-anticipated “more challenging” 9-1 MFL GCSE exams in French, Spanish and German. It’s the time of year when exam panic tends to set in and secondary schools will be prioritising their Year 11 students’ final exam preparation. So, without further ado, below are some ideas covering various aspects of the new GCSEs that I hope will prove useful in supporting you to help your students succeed and realise their linguistic potential.

1.Don’t panic!

Perhaps more than for any other reformed GCSE subject, the new MFL exams are more similar to their predecessors than they are different. The content and themes are virtually identical and large amounts of resources, activities and lesson plans can be usefully recycled. French is still French, Spanish is still Spanish and German is still German. It is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The majority of your tried-and-tested methods done well over time, along with some tweaks and changes for the new specification, will allow students to succeed. Reading and listening exams are broadly similar and ideas for approaching the new elements are covered below and in Part 2 of this post. The more fundamental challenge for most teachers and students will likely lie in the shift away from controlled assessment to linear exams (as is the case for all new GCSEs). However, this will not completely remove the need for students to memorise chunks of language and prepare broad answers in advance. Yes, the exams are “tougher”, but attainment will not fall off a cliff edge (even if raw marks might). Whilst a direct comparison can’t be drawn, it is of interest to note that just 17.5% on a higher Maths paper in 2017[1] was sufficient to achieve a pass grade.

2. Place 9-1 grades to one side

This may be easier said than done, especially in the context of (understandably) data-hungry senior leadership teams. However, excessive time spent by MFL teachers on estimating 9-1 unit grade boundaries, crunching spreadsheet data and marking written work using 9-1 grades, is time that could be better spent on more impactful, language-related work and strategies. The examinations system is in a state of flux, will take time to settle and outcomes are referenced to each cohort’s KS2 data. This renders any talk of 9-1 predictions unhelpful as it will involve substantial guesswork. Stick to raw scores per question, percentages and quality formative feedback that discusses features of languages and concrete next steps for improvement. This will ultimately have a bigger impact on student achievement. Remember that outcomes will be comparable, so the same percentage of students who previously achieved a C or above will achieve a new grade 4 or above.

3. Logistics and admin

With any new qualification comes a new set of rules and regulations for schools, exams officers, heads of department, teachers and students to get their heads around. The first port of call is of course the Joint Council for Qualifications and your exam board’s conduct of exams/specification documentation, which should be read thoroughly. All exam boards have published a considerable amount of free teaching, assessment and FAQ materials on their websites and it would be wise to peruse the resources of boards other than the one you are following.

Compared to the old controlled assessment system, the new speaking exam is more complex and challenging to conduct as it now involves the role-play, photo card, general conversation and invigilated preparation time. It is important to brief MFL teachers, exams officers, invigilators, parents and students of the exact arrangements, and to conduct your mocks as they will be done on the day. Send a letter to parents explaining the format of the MFL exams, stressing the importance of timely attendance of real and mock speaking exams. Emphasise the parity of the speaking exam with other exam hall GCSE exams.

I suggest it would be sensible to timetable speaking exams in the order French, Spanish, German as this is the order the remaining units are assessed. Group your Foundation and Higher students together to limit the range of different paperwork to be accessed in any one speaking exam sitting (i.e. stimulus cards, candidate order tables and mark schemes). An upright stopwatch can help with timing the different sections of the exam. Arrange the role-play, photo cards and general conversation themes per student in advance of the exam and talk your invigilator(s) through the process. Having a “runner” member of staff available in the event a student doesn’t turn up on time can help avoid disruption and have a plan in place for what do if a student is absent from the exam.

Tier selection has proven to be a particular headache for MFL teachers, especially now that they cannot be “mixed and matched” per skill in MFL. Although the words “Higher” and “Foundation” remain, they now represent something different – Foundation will now include students who may previously have sat and achieved lower-end scores on the Higher paper. You may want to use the Ofqual postcard guidance for rough grade conversions and have students sit Higher/Foundation crossover questions to inform tier entry decisions. It is useful to know a “parachute” grade 3 has been introduced for the Higher tier.

Equally useful, is knowing that national entries by schools for the Maths 9-1 last year were 53:47% for higher:foundation and this decision was shown to be justified in the results. Previously under the A*-G system in 2016, Maths entries were 76:24% higher:foundation.[2]

4. Teach listening skills

Many students I teach often find this the most challenging and intimidating skill. I know from my own previous teaching practice, as well as many lesson observations, that it is also often one of the most neglected by MFL teachers. If the relative importance of listening has numerically increased (from 20% to 25%), and it is a skill your students struggle with, account for this in how you allocate time in your lessons and support sessions.

Exploit listening activities to model language (e.g. for speaking or writing) and use the process to teach listening skills rather than simply test comprehension. It can potentially be demoralising for students just to pluck an odd key word amongst what may be, to them, a soup of target language and this can lead to them simply opting out of trying a question and lead to demotivation. Complete pre- and post-listening tasks to scaffold student understanding, making extensive use of transcripts and try some of Gianfranco Conti’s micro-listening enhancers.

If using digital audio files, reduce the playback speed (e.g. on VLC Player) to facilitate a fuller student comprehension and help them gain confidence, before incrementally upping the speed again. When completing listening questions, it can also be useful to use a generic answer grid similar to the one below:

Question My answer after 1st listen My answer
after 2nd listen
Notes / extra detail My answer – 3rd
listen with transcript
Teacher answer


Such a grid serves a number of useful purposes:

  1. It conveys the importance of listening to each repetition of the audio and checking against previous comprehension.
  2. It is differentiated, inviting students to capture additional detail, as well as to take notes.
  3. It links phonemes to graphemes through a third listen and gives time to read and track with the transcript.
  4. It provides more useful and accurate feedback for teachers when looking at answers, as you can discern at what stage each student understood.
  5. It’s also less susceptible to cheating as otherwise it’s easy (and tempting!) to swap or change a single answer.

The use of target language rubrics and the expectation of answering a small number of questions in the target language should not pose students any insurmountable challenges. Answers in the target language are assessed only on communication and regular practice of exam–style questions will minimise any difficulties your students may have. The standardised target language rubrics can be found in the specification documentation and can be taught as any other set of vocabulary would be taught.

Coming soon – Home straight Part 2

In Part 2 of this post, I will look at effective, research-backed learning strategies such as spaced repetition and retrieval practice, as well as considering how we might support students in the speaking, reading and writing papers of the new qualification. In the meantime, share your own ‘home straight’ exam preparation suggestions for the new GCSE in the comments below or tweet @HFLanguages using #homestraight

[1] AQA Raw mark grade boundary tables for Reformed GCSEs June 2017

[2] Ofqual Infographic: GCSE results 2017

About the author:

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