Sunday, 11 December 2011

ALL French Online: Tips and Tricks for GCSE, Friday 10th December

The video conference was organised with Flashmeeting and was attended by Esther Mercier , Dominic McGladdery, Michelle Cairns  and my colleagues Alison Watkinson and Vanessa Parker from The Radclyffe School. The replay can be viewed here.
The exchanges referred to the two exam boards used across the schools represented, EDEXCEL and
AQA. Teachers across the land have had issues with both boards as regards the severity and the unpredictability of grading in Languages. EDEXCEL was also recently in the news as part of a governmental investigation into examination boards although this is not MFL-specific.   
Although Edexcel offers for MFL compares well with that of other examination boards, I pointed out that my perception had been irrevocably tainted by our school's bad experience with the Applied French in 2009.  
More recently, Edexcel caused a lot of disruption in schools by changing marking criteria for the Writing Controlled Assessment, which affected work already completed by Y10 and forced teachers to add more Controlled Assessment tasks in Y11 to redress the balance. There was also some confusion regarding the 200 words minimum for a C grade.
Our AQA examination analysis also highlighted  than more words than what was stated seemed to have been required for higher grades. As this is not currently a written rule, we all felt that more specific guidance in terms of minimum outcome was needed for different grades.
Predicted A* Students sitting the Edexcel GCSE also seem to be expected to use subjunctive, which is more than is required for AQA AS level... Although this is not explicitly stated, it appeared through the use of conditional perfect / subjunctive phrases in the higher grades corrected sample tasks.
Students are encountering difficulties with the AQA rule that "what is done at home stays at home" and "what is done at school stays at school". Meanwhile, Edexcel allows students to take preparation at home back and forth. Although this makes it more flexible for students and teachers, there are issues with the use of google translation, similarity of the work produced and the fact that teachers cannot be 100% sure it is students' own work even though they sign a form to say it is.
With AQA-they can do the stage 1 preparation at home in “bits” but this change as soon as the actual task is given to students (bullet points).
To prepare students for the speaking Controlled Assessment, using text-to-speech software such as or can be very useful as it makes the students more independent. Students can listen to the text-to-speech version to memorise it and it can be uploaded to the school's VLE. Students may also record themselves on their mobile phones to learn their answers.
As regards the preparation for writing, I feel strongly that getting students to memorise a possibly inaccurate stage 2 preparation in class is not the best use of class time. Although peer support is allowed and can help students to focus on their task, it can also be a great source of distraction.
I was interested to find out about differences between AQA and EDEXCEL as regards the use of  the Task Planning sheet: Up to 5 pictures are allowed for Edexcel as well as  30 words including conjugated verbs, whereas AQA allows 40 words with no pictures or other visuals and no conjugated verbs at all. A recent decision-see p14-to include past participle as well as infinitives will also make it challenging for students who already struggle with using the present perfect...
It was noted that memorisation of the tasks was found difficult even by the higher ability harder-working students. Memorisation was also affected by the students' ability to concentrate over what constitutes quite long periods of time, with the usual pattern of a decent  beginning that slowly deteriorates for both writing and Speaking assessments…
Speaking for 4 minutes minimum in a foreign language is extremely challenging and this is compounded for Edexcel by the fact students may have to do a one minute presentation and ask questions to be awarded the higher marks.  
I was surprised to find out that the format for the Speaking Assessment is NOT standard across the exam boards as there is an element of choice with Edexcel. There are 3 different possible types of tasks for Edexcel with different marking schemes applicable to them: picture-based task, presentation/ discussion and open interaction (conversation).
It was noted that there can be a strong negative impact on pronunciation and intonation if students speak too fast, hence the need to practise whith a version of their speaking task recorded at an appropriate pace.
How many tasks should we be doing?
This seemed to vary quite a lot, depending on the exam board used, the time allocated for languages and students' ability. Teachers aiming for 3 speaking and 3 writing tasks admitted that this took over their teaching time possibly at the expense of developing listening and reading skills. There were also issues with "back-to-back" speaking and writing Controlled Assessments on similar topics which narrow the range of the topics taught and can also affect performance in the Listening and Reading exams.
There are undoubtedly some communication problem with the boards when they decide to change or modify rules. Although the changes are usually mentioned on the exam boards' websites, it is unrealistic to expect language teachers to check large websites every week "just in case". Specific email alerts should be sent to all language teachers to inform them immediately when a change occurs. In addition, the fact that it is very difficult to enforce changes half way through a course means that boards should be very mindful of the implications of changes for classroom teachers and limit the publication of changes to certain times of the year e.g. January and June.

Can the board find out if you do the same topics for speaking and writing?
That question was asked many teachers on language teachers forums like MFL resources and although we all thought that it was unlikely that the exam boards would physically be able to check, we all agreed that this would lead to further narrowing of the syllabus and be detrimental to students in the long term.
AQA's recent changes for re-taking the writing were discussed-the title needs to be different and the outcome too. There should be no overlap of outcome between tasks as technically a student cannot be credited for overlapping  content.
For the Writing task, a healthy piece of advice was to not over-complicate the bullet points, leaving it to the more able to develop further. This makes all the more sense as the bullet points in the AQA Writing tasks are just for student support and not linked with the marking scheme.
Some schools are rumoured to mark the preparation before students learn it for stage 3. This constitutes malpractice and does not guarantee that students will still be able to remember accurately what they have learnt.   
Tenses are an issue: time lines can be given for the same verb for practice
AQA has compounded the problem with verb endings as the task planning sheet only allows verbs in the infinitive. Training students to use verb tables effectively is therefore essential to allow them to develop more independence and accuracy as students will not just rely on memory. Effective use of dictionary is very important at Stage 3-but it is as important to teach students when to use it as it is when not to use it
Sixth form issues were discussed as the current GCSE format does not encourage students to develop effective learning skills. 11-16 do not focus on skills enough and time pressures lead to a lot of spoon-feeding and rote learning of set phrases for the exam. Some students end up with no knowledge about tense formation and this makes effective transition to ALevel very difficult.
Writing frames can be used during preparation at stage 1 and at stage 2 as a reference but they need to be designed in a way to avoid students to all produce very similar outcomes. Writing frames need to be basic to allow students to add a lot of their own language and personalise the piece to an appropriate level.

There is a great difference of expectation for the writing-AQA writing is being marked NOT moderated hence stricter and sometimes unpredictable application of the marking scheme in some cases.

A lot of schools asked for re-marks in September 2011, a lot more than in the past-particularly for writing. Some scores went up but not always enough to make a difference overall, particularly for C/D candidates.
It may be worth considering entering Controlled Assessment marks early as the marks to UMS tend to be more generous for the smaller January co-hort. (need to check 40% rule for banking modules) 
More and more samples are being published on the AQA websites to be used for moderation but it can be difficult to find information and documents on the website and the same thing goes for the Edexcel website. Maybe the ALL French online group could use the ALL French online wiki to highlight documents of particular importance/ interest.
As note-taking and good organisation skills are essential for students to do well at Stage 2, the idea of students having an "exam book" or "big book" with all corrected work in it as well as useful handout seemed a very good idea. Students can also highlight phrases that they may like to use in their Controlled Assessment to help them find them quicker when they are doing their Stage 2 preparation. 
I also found Jen Turner’s idea of getting previous Year 11 to make virtual post-it notes for the new Year 10 very useful. Look at her "post-it walls" here for the Reading exams, here for the Listening exams and here for the Controlled Assessments.
I am also looking forward to Jen's session on how ICT can support students for Controlled Assessment at the ILILC2012 Conference at The University of Southampton in February 2012.
Last but not least Language World, ALL's National Conference will take place in Manchester from 29 to 31st March 2012 and I am also looking forward to meeting more languages teachers to discuss and find out more about topics like assessment at GCSE. 
You are not yet an ALL member? It is not too late to join! Join ALL and be part of the largest network of languages teachers in the UK.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

ALL French Online-Come and Share your GCSE experiences!

Are you a UK Languages teacher and NOT a member of ALL, the Association for Language Learning? If so, why not?

At a time when it is getting more and more crucial for langage teachers to take their own professional development in their own hand, ALL offers wonderful opportunities for formal CPD as well as informal peer-to-peer support.

If you are a teacher of French and, like the rest of us, you are still trying to grapple with the new GCSE,  come and share your experiences with ALL French Online in our first online meeting using Flashmeeting for Friday 9th December 8-9pm.

To support the group, I have also set up a wiki
You are all invited to join the wiki, edit it and add resources linked with our first Flashmeeting: Tips and Tricks for French GCSE.

If you are not familiar with Flashmeeting, do not worry as it is really easy to pick up. All you need is a microphone, a headset or a webcam. Do contact me if you want to try it before the meeting. To enter the meeting you just need to click on

You can register as a user-but please note that this does not automatically give you the right to set up meetings-or as a guest, but your name will not appear on the list of people present if you choose to enter as a guest. Some more information about flashmeeting can also be found at

To get us started, I suggest the following Agenda:

1. Quick introductions-please include whether you are currently teaching GCSE, what language you teach and what examination board you use
2. Lessons learnt from last year's GCSE co-hort
3. Useful activities to prepare students for the speaking and writing CAs
4. Tools and resources to help preparing for the  Listening and Reading exam

Looking forward to meeting you and thank you for checking here how else your subject association can suppport you.