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Preparing students for their GCSE speaking exam

 Following on from my previous post – Developing speaking skills and oracy at KS3, this post will be focussing on my approach to the preparation for GCSE speaking examination, the practice and the support of oral skills at KS4 level.

Building students confidence in speaking is crucial for successful communication! 

I am a firm believer that if we practise and expose our learners to oral skills consistently from the ‘get go’ when they start with their language learning journey in year 7, we will nurture and ‘mould’ more confident speakers for the GCSE course and beyond.

It is inevitable that at KS4 I, like any other language teacher, have to  prepare my students for their GCSE examinations. It is my responsibility to ensure they have the skills and techniques needed to succeed, reach and maximise their potential in their examinations. 

Unfortunately, the way the GCSE exam system is designed, is not always the best way to support the natural communications skills and linguistic competence. Students often have to demonstrate they can use key grammatical structures, such as variety of tenses, justified opinions, subjunctive, comparatives, superlatives etc…, thus often resulting in structures and language that can be artificial, decontextualized and unnatural with little relevance or value for acquiring productive, linguistic competence (i.e. in German using future tense where native speaker would use naturally present tense, amongst others).

In the past 3-4 years we were fortunate enough at my school to start our GCSE course in year 9, which meant that we have had enough time to focus on the productive skills of speaking and writing at the exam level in more detail. 

The meaningful and collaborative design of our SOW and lesson planning as well as having sufficient time gave us the opportunity to teach 3 units per year ensuring that deeper knowledge is embedded in LM.

First half term of each term, we dedicate to teaching and drilling of the key vocabulary, grammatical structures, practising and developing receptive skills and recalling and/or restudying previous knowledge from KS3 that might have been forgotten. 

This forgetting is the main reason, that we have been focussing so much on embedding effective Retrieval Practice into our teaching from KS3!

Naturally, speaking and writing skills are also an integral part of these lessons. Some of the activities mentioned in my previous post are also used at KS4 especially, various board games. However, having this time in our KS4 curriculum enabled us to dedicate the second half term of each term specifically to speaking and writing practise with the focus on the preparation for the GCSE exam.

In year 11 we provide our students with a revision folder containing revision timetable, roleplay cards, photo cards, a list with possible conversation questions, translation booklet, KOs as well as a link to a Padlet with additional resources such as Quizlet links, websites and apps. We also explicitly teach our students revision skills. For more detail, please see my previous post on Metacognition, self-regulated learning and revision

On the first glance, many of my students find the Roleplays and Picture-based tasks confusing and disconcerting, so here is how we unpick them together, with clear modelling and step by step approach led by the teacher.

Roleplay (RP)

Firstly, on the white board I display the student version of the RP and we analyse it together – we look at what each symbol means, we translate the prompts (any new vocabulary will be noted and learnt – students will notice as we go over more RP cards that the vocabulary can be rather repetitive), predict what questions they could be asked for each prompt – we do this in L1 and practise the possible answers in L2. 

After the initial modelling, I show the students the teacher version of the card and we look at how close we were with our predictions. I think it is essential to do this with our students as the prompts on the cards can be ambiguous and our learners should be taught some strategies on how to tackle the task. 

Only after this modelling stage students are given their own set of RP cards with a copy of the student version on one side and teacher version on the other side. They use the student version to prepare (I suggest they spend only cca. 3 minutes of their preparation time on RP and dedicate the remaining time to the PT preparation as it is worth more marks). 

In pairs they then practice taking turns in being a student or a teacher. I strongly discourage students to write their answers down (I have noticed that when they wrote the answers down, they were then more likely to read them back to me rather then answer them spontaneously from the memory). 

In the next stage, I practise with them myself, I cold call students and only ask one question each student. I don’t conduct the entire RP just with one of them. This way all students are involved (no opting out) as they don’t know who will be asked/called to answer a question and it also adds an element of unpredictability. 

You might ask: ‘What about the less confident or weaker students?’

My classes are all mixed ability, so like many, I will have in my class a student with a target of 3 and a student with target of 9. However, I believe, we know our students and in order to build their confidence we always have the option to ask the appropriate question based on the ability of the student, thus ensuring differentiation happens in our classes. We can nurture their confidence, allow them to give a shorter answer and show them how to make it better without causing cognitive overload. The modelling stage also gives opportunities to address any gaps in knowledge, i.e. if students are unsure how to build questions, we can go over the process together.

Nurturing a learning environment where students feel safe, understand the metacognition (how it can support them in improving their learning) and are reassured that making mistakes and not knowing ‘yet’ is acceptable  – as long as they use this knowledge to further their learning, is the key to success and will have a positive impact on their motivation too!

Picture-based task (PT)

We approach the PT the same way we tackle the RP. 

When analysing the PT, I encourage my students to make a note of the grammatical structure that is required for each bullet point as well as to jot some key ideas they would like to talk about. I explicitly teach them how to develop and extend their answers, especially if they say I don’t like something, teaching them (once they answered the question) how to steer the conversation to ‘ but I like …, I do this … or my friend/sister …’ to expand on their thoughts, as well as ensuring they link their thoughts and ideas using linking words.

Please note that if a student gets stuck, they always have the option to say ” I don’t know the answer yet.”, at that point I would ask another student to provide the answer, but make sure that at some stage in the lesson I will go back to the original student and ask the same question again. All students are aware of this – so they are not “off the hook” and the “going back” ensures students are listening, paying attention and learning from one another!

Modelling of the task:

First bullet point – describing the picture – we use PALMW or if some students struggle to remember the acronym, they use dual coding instead.

Second bullet point – expressing an opinion – we brainstorm some opinion phrases – simple ones to begin with and look at how we can improve and develop them (using justifications, specific connectives such as ‘weil, dass, wenn, als, obwohl, da…)

Third bullet point – using past tense – we use retrieval practice to check whether there are any gaps in forming the past tense – perfect and imperfect tense, as well as some key past participles.

Fourth bullet point – using future tense – similar approach as with the past tense – I often use the ‘Catch the dog’ game mentioned in my previous post when retrieving and practising tenses.

Fifth bullet point – expressing an opinion.

The complexity of the language depends on the tier (foundation or higher). In my view practice is detrimental to performance!

Before Covid we would have roundtable oral practice every time, especially in year 11 once all content was covered. Pre-Covid my students would be seated in groups of four, for our roundtable we would join tables together so on each side of the classroom I would have a foundation roundtable (on the left) and higher roundtable (on the right). As students have extensively practised since year 9, at this stage of their journey, they were confident to answer most questions, complete any RP and PT on the spot, which visitors often found amazing (especially as students didn’t read their answers or even relied on notes)! 

I suppose, we were practising retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving without consciously being aware of it. Here, the saying: ‘Practice makes permanent!’ really applies!

Being part of the roundtable gave also confidence to the quieter or more anxious students as the rules of the table were that the members supported anyone who got stuck, coaching them and providing some simple ideas. As students listened to each other’s responses they were also learning from each other! 

I would be circulating between the tables and listen to students practising, picking up a card and asking students question each, listening to their responses and giving immediate feedback, addressing any mistakes/pronunciation issues, but often also asking students in the group to give peer feedback as well: What was good about the answer? How could it be improved/extended? 

General Conversation

For General Conversation, I provide students with a list of some possible questions – these would be tiered (foundation and higher), in preparation students complete these in writing as they prove useful not just for their oral exam but also writing exam and can be often interconnected. 

I model some examples on the board or under a visualiser – asking the students to give me examples of some very simple sentences first. We look at how we can extend them within using TMP (time, manner, place), justifying them using variety of connectives, change them into different tenses or a sentence using a modal verb. 

This provides scaffolding for my weaker students and demonstrates how to tackle the task, step by step.

Students also practise more complex structures, “wow phrases” and idioms. Idioms are important for the top grades, but it is essential that students use them in the right context. As an examiner I have seen many pieces of writing where an idiom has been put in just to tick a box without it making sense!

Unfortunately, we do not have a foreign speaking teaching assistant and we haven’t had one for many years now due to the costs, so all of the practise is really on the class teacher. However, I have been lucky that some of our students who went on to study languages further at the university, have come back to do some work experience with us as well as having associate teachers who can support some of our students for one to one practise when needed.

There are also opportunities to use Blended Learning and sites such as Flipgrid, Qwiqr or TEAMs to set oral presentations as homework, but I personally am wary of using them too much as I can never be sure if students are reading or responding spontaneously from the memory, especially as we have to give them the option of hiding their faces with stickers. They are great for students to practise if done correctly, but they do not replace real face to face conversation – dialogue.

In conclusion, I was really disappointed last year that after all of the hard work, students didn’t get a chance to demonstrate their speaking skills in their GCSE exam and feel the same way this year. I understand that many felt relieved they don’t have to conduct them, but I believe that the main purpose of learning a language is the ability to speak it! For me at the heart of language learning is communication which is in most instances conducted verbally!

I would be very interested to hear what other strategies colleagues use to prepare their students for their GCSE  examination, so please get in touch.

@j_st_88 has created and shared amazing speaking booklets in Spanish, with his permission I have adapted them to German. There are available for download here or on my resource page.

Speaking Booklet Foundation here.

Speaking Booklet Higher here.


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