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Where truth has no place ...;Subject of the week;Modern Languages

Tony Elston offers 10 tried and tested strategies to get borderline CD candidates through the conversation part of their oral exam

Turn your grade Cs into Ds," promised a recent flyer advertising a new languages course. However reassuring it is to know that even proof-readers make mistakes, errors that prevent effective communication in languages exams cost candidates dear. Conversely, candidates who communicate effectively do well. Though this may seem obvious, many candidates struggle in what should be the easiest GCSE component of all: the conversation part of the oral exam. "Easiest" because what other subject effectively allows pupils to know their exam questions years in advance?

Nevertheless, when the grade criteria for the new syllabuses were published, many of us wondered how our borderline candidates could successfully talk about past, present and future events to achieve a C grade. My department is getting the conversation part of the exam preparation down to a fine art, so helping borderline candidates achieve an overall grade C.

Oral mark schemes for most exam boards now give far more weight to the conversationpresentation part of the oral exam than they do to the role-plays. This means that candidates who are correctly entered for foundation level listening, reading and writing may still be capable of higher level speaking. (NEAB's grade boundaries for last year's French higher speaking exam meant that candidates who had performed well in the conversationpresentation component were able to achieve an overall grade B on their oral exam, even if they had scored no marks in the role-play component.) Not surprisingly, the biggest determinant of our pupils' success in their oral conversation is departmental planning. Here are 10 tried and tested strategies: 1 From Year 7, build up topic banks of conversation questions taken from speaking assignments. Stick to the question format pupils know best. Don't try and catch them out by changing, for example, the word order. After all, exams are designed to show what pupils can do.

2 Introduce and reinforce tenses through classroom target language. A pupil who has known "Ich habe mein Heft vergessen" since Year 7 has a head start when it comes to making sense of the perfect tense.

3 Keep it simple. Rather than try and teach all parts of a verb in different tenses, start by showing how the first person changes: je joue, j'ai joue, je vais jouer. Gradually introduce other verb parts according to pupils' greatest needs: nous jouons, nous avons joue, nous allons jouer.

4 The minute your pupils begin to think about tenses, stress how important these are for level 5 of the national curriculum and for a high grade at GCSE.

5 Encourage pupils to say from memory five things they have done, five things they do and five things they are going to do. Help learners find a mnemonic which will instantly throw up a handful of verbs (FREJA: Le weekend prochain je vais Faire mes devoirs, Regarder la tele, couter de la musique, Jouer au tennis et Aller au cinema). Once they can say five things, encourage them to learn 10, and to link phrases: "I went to the cinema where I saw a good film which is called..."

6 Keep emphasising how a high grade in the oral depends ultimately on pupils' ability to answer three questions well: What did you do? What do you do? What are you going to do? Careful preparation can mean key responses which suit a variety of contexts. For example, the responses "I played football with my friends" and "I read some magazines" could apply to the topics of free time, school or holidays.

7 Teach and use a concise list of time phrases in questions. Encourage pupils to repeat these at the start of their responses. This enables them to concentrate their thoughts on the tense and to speak more target language, while providing valuable thinking time:

"And last night, what did you do?" "Last night, I..."

8 Give the banks of questions to pupils as early as possible in key stage 4. One way is to give out the relevant bank of questions whenever you start a new topic. Provide model answers and, if you have a language assistant, record the questions and model answers on to cassette. Encourage pupils to copy this and use it to practise for periodic speaking tests. (Tell parents the cassette exists so they can remind pupils, too.) 9 If you can, set up a "holding room" for candidates on the days you hold oral exams. Staff it with any language assistants and student teachers you can find, to converse in the target language with pupils for at least an hour before their exam: it makes a real difference to pupil performance.

10 Finally, I am constantly amazed that some pupils who are not unduly concerned with truth in other aspects of school life are determined to tell me the exact style, shade and texture of their siblings' hair, even if this means going into English. We must remind pupils that, sadly, truth has no part to play in their oral exam: all we ask is for an answer that makes sense.

Tony Elston is head of French at Stretford High School, Manchester, and co-author with Pat McLagan of the key stage 3 French course 'Genial' (OUP). 'Up, up and away', his ResourceFile on using classroom target language to help pupils manipulate and extend their own language, will soon beavailable from CILT

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