GCSEs: How to tackle MFL speaking and listening exams

GCSE speaking and listening exams are tough for pupils and teachers alike. One MFL teacher offers tips on how to prepare

Jennifer Beattie

How to tackle MFL speaking and listening GCSE

Any GCSE exam is bound to be stressful, but for many pupils, the thought of sitting a languages speaking or listening exam brings on a special kind of worry. These exams put candidates on the spot in a way that written exams simply do not.

What can MFL teachers do to take some of the worry out of speaking and listening? Here are my tips.

GCSE MFL listening

The listening exam is a source of stress not just for pupils, but for teachers, too. It has gained a reputation for being less about pupils demonstrating what they’ve just heard and understood, and more about them being aware of nuance, deliberate traps and inferring meaning. Admittedly, a true test of a pupil’s listening ability has to be something more demanding than working at vocabulary level, but must it be so cumbersome and confusing?

In all honesty, I can’t see the exam changing. So what can we do?

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Firstly, if you are doing lots of practice exam questions through one of the exam-board packages – stop. Pupils do not get better at listening by simply doing lots of past paper questions.

To improve their listening, you have to train them in how to listen. This means approaching it in ways that go above and beyond the standard comprehension-based tasks found in most GCSE course books. I use the following ideas (some I must credit to @gianfrancocont9) in my classroom. I still use the exam question sound files, but not in the usual way.

  • Complete the transcript
    This is an easy activity to set up. Provide a transcript of the listening file, with some words missing. Pupils then match sound-spelling links by writing the missing word that they have just heard. This helps them get better at hearing and understanding that words (especially in French) aren’t written how they’re said.

  • Dodgy transcript
    Give pupils a transcript with deliberate mistakes in it. As they listen, they must identify where what is written down doesn’t match what is being said.

  • Word Bingo
    My Year 11 classes love this one. Take an exam question and, before playing the recording, allow pupils to list words they predict may appear, based on the topic. They are not allowed to list "filler" words, such as "and", "but" or "also". When they listen to the recording for the first time, they should cross off any words on their list that they hear. Then, on the second listen, they should answer the question.
    Being able to tick off some of their "bingo" words when they hear them will make them feel more confident that they can understand more of the text.
    This activity can be done with lists of words in the target language or in English.

  • Fast note-taking
    This is one for those longer, multiple-choice questions that the higher-tier pupils get the pleasure of doing. Firstly, tell them to cover the question and possible answers. I find that when they have multiple choices, they stare at the options, hoping something will jump out at them and don’t listen fully. Pupils then listen to the recording for the first time and, really quickly, write down as much of the information (in note form) as they can. They can write things like “sister room shares hates annoying”. On the second listen, they should try to hear anything they missed. Only then should they look at the question and use their notes to answer it. This helps them to spot where the multiple choices had traps and they really do get better and faster at this with practice.



GCSE MFL speaking

When the reformed speaking exam was launched, I would say that a lot of teachers (myself included) were most concerned about the "general conversation" component . In response, a great many speaking booklets filled with conversation questions started circulating amongst the online resources.

This part of the exam presents a tricky situation: pupils aren’t to know what questions they’ll be asked, but you can’t exactly tell them not to prepare anything, either. It is not always easy being the teacher-examiner; you know your pupils and will want to show them in the best possible light.

Take heart, though: the best general conversation recordings that I’ve heard as an examiner are when the teacher asks a lot of short questions and there is natural development.

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So, rather than taking speaking back to the days of "parroted paragraphs" and rote learning that characterised the previous speaking exams, let’s begin as early as possible in getting pupils used to hearing questions and thinking on their feet in the target language. Here are some ideas:

  • Regular, short questions
    Use your lesson time to ask pupils (at random) short questions related to the topic you’re covering. Then, have other pupils say how their answer could be improved. This will help get pupils used to answering without written preparation.

  • Opinion questions
    During the general conversation component, make sure that you ask candidates plenty of opinion questions. Pupils often panic at the thought of being overloaded with questions they won’t be able to answer, but they seem to cope better with questions that relate to opinions. There are lots of spontaneous conversations that can come off the back of any question that begins along the lines of:  “Do you like….?”

  • Tense practice
    Remind pupils that during the conversation they will have to answer questions in different tenses. As a teacher-examiner, you’re going to want to show that your pupils can talk about events in three different time frames in order for them to gain as many marks as possible.

  • Use an exam board speaking booklet
    If you do still want to prepare pupils using a speaking booklet, it would make good sense to use the questions suggested by the exam board (or those found in past photo cards). Make sure that there is fair coverage of all the sub-topics within the three themes. Get your pupils really familiar and confident with talking about "meaty" sub-topics such as family, free time, holidays and school life. You will find there are always plenty of questions within these highly-relatable topics that pupils can answer spontaneously.

  • Follow-up questions
    Remember that if pupils sound too rehearsed and the teacher is unable to probe or ask follow-up questions, because the pupil is talking incessantly, this will limit their "spontaneity and fluency" mark. It is meant to be a conversation; support your pupils by always asking “Why?” and probing them on what they’ve just said.

  • Repeat the verb
    Train pupils in listening out for the verb used in a question and putting it into their answer. I do lots of choral repetition with phrases like “¿Te gusta? ¡Me gusta!” and “Tu aimes? J’aime!” to help pupils to link the question and answer verbs.

Jennifer Beattie is assistant headteacher at Emerson Park Academy in Essex

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Jennifer Beattie

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