Monday, 6 February 2017

Five ways to help your students prepare for the new GCSE Speaking Tests

So Controlled Assessments are on the way out and we essentially.return to the form of oral assessment which preceded them. From May 2018 pupils will do a role play, discuss a photo and have a conversation based on the prescribed topics or "sub-themes". This applies to both Foundation and Higher Tier.

What can teachers do to help pupils score well? I may have some useful ideas for you after many years of preparing pupils and a few years of marking oral exams for AQA during the previous regime.

1. Rote learning is still important

While it's true that CAs encouraged learning whole talks by heart (though it was never meant that way - unintended consequences), don't think for a moment that the learning by heart won't play a role in the new format. I recall very clearly, when I marked for AQA at least 15 years ago, listening to the candidates of one school who all produced very similar answers. For example, when asked to describe a recent meal every candidate had coincidentally eaten chicken and chips with ice cream for dessert. They all had plenty to say, with dubious accents, and scored very well. My feeling at the time was that these teachers had got some average candidates to perform very creditably by giving them lists of answers to memorise. I could only reward what I heard each candidate say.

So, my first point is this: whatever the ability profile or prior attainment of your students, give them lists of common questions with model answers which they can learn by rote or add to if they are smart enough. Remember that many of these answers will be usable in all three parts of the test, unless the role play happens to be a situational-style one. (AQA offers a mix of situational and conversational ones.) For weaker students give them short responses, for the most able give them as much as you want because they will devour it with relish.

As a young teacher I felt this sort of preparation went against my principles, but over time I compromised and did whatever would help to get those high grades.

2. Do fluency activities

Saying a lot still trumps (sorry) by far accuracy so anything you can do to help students maintain the flow is worthwhile. Fluency will stem from effective memory work and sound methodology (input and practice) over several years, but you can still exploit some handy task types in the run-up to oral exams.

"Just a minute" (mentioned in my previous blog) is one such activity. Along similar lines get pairs of students to time each other as they try to talk non-stop for chunks of time (say 30 seconds, one minute or more, depending on the class). Alternatively play speed-dating, changing pairs every two minutes. If you do this, I recommend you pause the lesson every ten minutes to model good answers yourself. This provides more useful input and adds variety of focus to the lesson.

3. Focus on tense

Jess Lund from Michaela Community School mentions this in a recent blog ( and provides an example of a learning sheet to help pupils with tenses. With weaker pupils focus on no more than past, present and future. Some pupils will have trouble doing any tense accurately.

In French, above all, try to train out of pupils the dreaded "je joué" hybrid tense which loses marks owing to the ambiguity of meaning it creates. This can be especially costly in the role plays (see below). Even excellent candidates can carelessly let this slip in.

With higher-attaining students make sure they pre-learn examples of other tenses (present conditional, imperfect and pluperfect) and modal verbs in different tenses.

4. Teach technique

Make sure you share the mark schemes with pupils stressing, above all, that you get the best marks by saying a lot. However, with the role play the opposite may be true. Some responses may require no more than a word or phrase to pick up all the marks. In French, for example, if the question is "Qu'est-que tu as acheté?" if a candidate says "poulet" this is likely to score higher than "J'acheté du poulet". The first answer is inaccurate but unambiguous, the second is ambiguous because of the verb error.

Practising the technique of producing minimalist answers will pay dividends. Even very good candidates lose marks carelessly by saying too much.

The photo card question needs some specific work on technique, notably the first question where a basic description of the picture is required.

5. Do lots of examples

The research is clear and chimes with common sense: students do better at assessment tasks when they are familiar with the test format. As I have blogged before, I favour leaving such practice reasonably late (during Y11). Why? Later practice will be better retained and since these assessment tasks are pretty boring why spend much time on them lower down the school?

I would use the specimens of your exam boards, plus those of other awarding bodies. You can then make up your own or find examples of materials online, including from my site. In the three weeks or so before the tests, do nothing else apart from oral practice. Give the practice as many twists as possible to make it enjoyable: change partners, get pairs to grade each other, model good responses, get students to model good answers, encourage pupils to record themselves, possibly sharing their work via digital platforms, display mark schemes or simplified versions thereof.

Give students written models of answers, matched to their abilities, to help them memorise.


Effective performance in the oral depends primarily on four or five years of good teaching and effort on the part of students, but you can help students achieve their potential through specific planning. Stress to students that all parts of the oral are interlinked. What's more, much of the oral practice will pay dividends in the writing paper students will do later.

If you are fortunate to have a language assistant perhaps you can get them to do practice tests just before their official test; this may help with nerves too. A-level students may be able to help with this too.

Assure your very weakest students that with good technique and a smallish repertoire of verbs and other vocab they can still do well. In addition, make sure you do all you can (within the rules) to help them on the day, with a smiling face, familiar question forms and encouraging students to extend answers where there are more marks for doing so. Don't feel bad if you hear many of the same answers repeated - this shows you and the pupils have both done your job.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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