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How to box clever

Multiple-choice questions at GCSE will demand new methods of coaching. Martin Buckby suggests some strategies.

At the heart of the new GCSE exams, as with the present ones, lies effective communication. This requires a wide range of appropriate vocabulary.

Communication strategies and dictionaries will not be an effective substitute for thorough and effective learning of words. Indeed, the new GCSE syllabuses require candidates to know more words and also to cope with more linguistic uncertainty and unpredictability.

As dictionaries will be of little use in the listening and speaking texts, all students will benefit from having a thorough and well-planned approach to learning vocabulary. The main features of a good scheme should be: * regular practice over a long period (all of key stage 4);

* students learning to use their brains actively and not just read the words: they will do things with the words which help them to understand and remember them;

* all students building up a repertoire of activities which they know help them to learn words and to place them firmly in their long-term memories.

One way to do this is for pupils to write any words they are finding difficult to learn, omitting all the vowels (eg cahier - chr; ramasser - rmssr). Then, looking only at these shorthand notes, they should write all the words in full.

Another way is to learn the key words for a topic, write the topic name in a circle and the key words around it, at the end of rays, (see diagram A). Get them to photograph this sum in their mind. Cover it up, wait two minutes, then try to write an exact copy of it.

In the listening tests, what is new is the ways candidates have to show their understanding. A common technique is multiple-choice questions using visuals, (see diagram B).

Students will perform better with these questions if they have practised using the questions and visuals to appreciate the target language words they will hear. This is the one time in listening tests when the dictionary can be useful.

Students will also need to understand fully the conventions of the new question types. For example, they should know that (1) next to a question is a clear indication that one piece of information is required in the answer, while (2) calls for two pieces of information, and so on.

They should know that Cochez la bonne case means tick only one box: two ticks will not double their chances but be given no mark.

The approach to reading can be similar to that for listening. In key stage 4, students should spend a lot of time listening to and reading material which is accessible and interesting. When reading, they should learn to use a dictionary as little as possible as overuse in the exam will slow them down and could prevent them from answering all the questions.

The future writing tests will make few new demands. It will, however, be even more important for candidates to be very familiar with the assessment criteria and their implications - for instance, that it is essential to refer to past, present and future wherever possible and to express opinions with justifications - even if this involves making grammatical errors.

One significant change in future speaking tests is that all candidates will have to cope with the unexpected. One very effective way to train all students to do this is to present them with examples - written and recorded - of native speakers overcoming unexpected problems, some more efficiently than others. They categorise these examples as good, bad or in the middle. They then listen again and work out why some were better than others: this produces "rules" of what (not) to do. They then apply their rules and practice coping with similar problems as effectively as possible.

An element in the oral given increased prominence is the requirement to discuss, in higher tier. This appears to be a demonstration of the demands for a grade A in the syllabus. An effective strategy for developing discussion skills consists of four steps:

* students meet and understand examples of native speakers taking part in appropriate discussions

* they practice imitating these examples

* they analyse the examples to work out how and why they work effectively * they use what they have learnt to express, and discuss, their own ideas.

To produce good language learning, the main point to remember is that students will learn to do best what they practice doing. To enjoy success in the new exams, students will also need to practice techniques, especially as these move away from the "authentic" towards the "technical" (multiple-choice, etc).

In order to make the best of it, the need to add specific exam coaching to language teaching will become increasingly important.

Mick Buckby is senior research fellow in the Language Teaching Centre of York University. He is currently developing materials to prepare students for the new GCSE, to be published by Heinemann.

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