Cordero's Classroom

The thoughts, ideas and discoveries of an MFL teacher.

GCSE AQA Speaking Exams – considerations and T&L implications

It has been a while since proper speaking exams for the GCSE have taken place. AS isx such, this blog contains some information I have found useful in the past when conducting the speaking exams, and some classroom ideas.

Microphone, Boy, Studio, Screaming, Yelling, Sing

Intricacies of each section:

Each section can easily catch us out unknowingly and incur penalties on our students’ part. It is important to be aware of where we can accrue penalties for students. Below is a quick guide of key notes for conduct and some general advice.

Role play

Conduct: 

  • Students can read out notes that they prepare in the 12 minutes of preparation time.
  • The examiner must not stray away from the script – it must be adhered to. We have to be robotic in this section.
  • 2 minutes maximum
  • If a student completes an incorrect answer, this is the answer to the bullet point that must be considered when marking. Do not re-ask the question in this instance as it will not count.
  • If you catch a student giving a wrong answer mid-answer, you can interrupt by asking the same question again. If the student gets the answer right in this instance, full 2 marks for communication can be awarded.
  • Students can ask for a question to be repeated in the target language. If they do this in English the request will not gain any marks for communication.
  • If a student is short on details, you can probe for more details by asking: “¿algo más?”.
  • If a student completes a task and continues to develop response, best practice is to move onto the next question

Photo card

Conduct: 

  • 3 minutes maximum higher, 2 minutes maximum foundation.
  • Last question must be asked before 1:59 (foundation) 2:59) higher for the answer to be included when marking.
  • 2 surprise questions
  • Students can read notes prepared in the 12 minutes of preparation time.
  • Paraphrasing is allowed – but must not alter the nature of the question. Acceptable changes would be swapping ratos libres for tiempo libre. Unacceptable would be Qué piensas de las reglas en tu instituto for  te gustan las reglas en tu instituto as the second question can be answered with or no where as the first question cannot be, eliciting different information therefore altering the nature of the question.
  • Students must give 3 sentences containing verbs in 3 questions, and answer 2 questions clearly.
  • Students must give 1 opinion and 1 justification during the course of the photo card.
  • The opinion and the justification, if given through the form of a verb such as me gusta and porque es count as a tick.
  • Range and quality of language does not form a part of the marking criteria.

General conversation

  • 5 minutes maximum for both themes for foundation; 7 minutes maximum higher
  • Aim for 2 minutes per theme for foundation; 3 minutes per theme higher. This will land you comfortably within the time confines and won’t accrue any penalties for timing.
  • Students must ask a question – this can happen at any point during the exam. It must be related to one of the two themes discussed for it to count. If not, a one mark penalty for communication is incurred.
  • Monitor timings very carefully – 1 second short on either theme = 2 mark deduction
  • Press lap only when you start asking the first question of the second theme – changeover time counts as the first theme.
  • Monitor timing so question falls within the 5 minutes duration of general conversation for foundation or 7 minutes at higher tier
  • Students must refer to the past time frame and the future time frame. This can happen at any point during the two themes but both must be covered by the end of the general conversation. 
  • Spontaneity must be shown during the exam and that the conversation is not learned by rote.
  • Opinions and justifications must be given, as well as development of answers. This is done by additional verbs and clauses.

Teaching and learning implications:

Role-play:

  • Verse students to prepare only what is needed and to refrain from expanding answers.
  • Ensure students are versed with interrogatives and their meaning
  • Rephrasing of verbs from the 2nd person singular into the 1st person singular to aid with surprise questions.

Photo card:

  • Don’t over-egg the photo card. Three sentences containing en la foto hay is sufficient – PALMA will put unnecessary cognitive load onto students as quality and range of language is not assessed in this section.
  • Check rephrasing of questions to ensure question would be valid.

General conversation:

  • Aim for 3 minutes per theme higher and 2 minutes per theme foundation. This will help you to fall safely into the middle of the timings.
  • Practise manipulating verbs from the 2nd person into the 1st person.
  • Pick your easiest past timeframe and future time frame questions, especially for boarder line students and get these out of the way first. 
  • If a student gives you an opinion, show spontaneity very easily by asking: ¿por qué? if they do not automatically give a justification.
  • Consider easy ways of showing spontaneity. If students say that they like reading books and name Harry Potter books, ask: ¿Prefieres los libros de Harry Potter o las películas? as a follow up question to show natural spontaneity.
  • If students are lacking sophistication, try asking a question that lends itself to producing a modal verb response, for example, instead of asking: ¿Qué haces normalmente en verano? – which would probably elicit a regular present tense verb, I would ask: ¿Qué sueles hacer en verano? – which is more likely to elicit soler + infinitive.
  • Really get a feel for which questions students will perform well at and which ones students won’t.
  • Practice asking questions in class using interrogatives and get students to prepare one for each theme.

My tips for the higher writing exam

Following on from my post on the foundation writing exam for 8698/8658 AQA specifications, this post will centre on my tips for the higher tier exam. This will be my fifth round of teaching the higher tier exam for these specifications and will focus on what the mark scheme says, and strategies we can put in place to help students to get to grips with the higher tier writing paper and climb up the mark scheme. 

The importance of conjugation and applying conjugations to communicate meaning without ambiguity

Ambiguity, lapses and breakdown in communication are all key terms that appear in the mark scheme for paper 4, and pretty much all stem from poorly conjugated verbs in the exam causing the examiner confusion. If you are debating whether to enter a student for higher tier, I would suggest from experience that they need to know their basic regular verbs in the present, preterite and the future tenses, as well as key irregular verbs in these tenses, such as ir (to go), ser (to be), hacer (to make/to do); and for them to be able to apply them accurately in order to convey meaning. Many students entered for both tiers will be able to rote learn these conjugations; but higher tier students that cannot apply the conjugations correctly will very much struggle.

Before attempting any question

  1. Write down conjugation ending and translations into English: Before my students attempt the paper, I insist that they jot down regular conjugations for the present, preterite, imperfect, simple future and near future tenses on the first page. As I said before, it is all well and good them being able to thrash out these endings, but I also train students to do is to give the translations back into English, so students know when to use each tense when applying the conjugations, in order to help reduce the chance of ambiguity. The reason for students doing this is so they can check the endings and the uses that they have dumped down as they go as a handrail, and use them to check their work once they have completed the exam.
  2. Complete a LOTS diagram: LOTS is my go to acronym. There are a lot of acronyms out there, and some that go far above and beyond what students need to do, potentially unnecessarily fatiguing students in an exam situation. I use LOTS as it is simple, straight forward and covers only what students need to be able to do for the 90-word, and at higher tier, the 150-word, pieces. Linking words (building up complex sentences), opinions (got to be given at both levels), time frames (anticipating introducing and how to incorporate these into work), and finally, structures (things such as lo + adjective) to help add a layer of sophistication that students can easily refer to and pick off a phrase from during the exam.
An example of a student jotting down endings before completing a writing task.

Question 1 – 90-word piece (overlap question)

The first thing to state, more than anything, is that the mark schemes for the 2018 and 2019 series examinations for the 90-word question on higher and foundation were exactly the same; however, when speaking to examiners, there has been the suggestion that the higher tier paper is looked at through a slightly different lense to that of the foundation and that examiners would expect more. This became more apparent with the release of the November 2020 exam series mark schemes, that states that the criteria are different; but the difference does not appear in the wording of the criteria published, This, however, is not explicitly written down but is something to be aware of due to the aforementioned conversations as well as the wording of the 2020 exam mark schemes.

The overlap question can often cause students a lot of unnecessary grief. Distilled down into the most basic of terms, students need to be able to: 1) Write 90 words that communicate clearly and meet the 4 bullet points provided, 2) use the past, present and future time frames (this is to say that they do not need to use specific tenses – for instance I want to go to France would count as the future time frame), and 3) give two opinions. This seems a lot, but it’s actually quite simple for students to do well on this question so long as they don’t over complicate their answer and confuse the reader, mention all bullet points and have basic conjugations memorised and can apply them well. 

Common pitfalls: 

  • Students being too adventurous – as seen with question 2, students naturally want to include lots of information and make the exam about themselves; however, being too adventurous and not sticking with what they know works often can lead to ambiguities and the content mark falling.
  • Not using all three time frames – if a student uses only two of the three time frames, the maximum mark they can be awarded for quality of language is 4. Likewise, should they only use one time frame – the highest mark that can be awarded is 2 marks.  
  • Unfamiliarity with tenses – confusion between tenses, especially the present and preterite tenses, or the poor formation of the perfect tense, can often cost students in terms of communication and/or quality of language mark.
  • Not using enough opinions. The mark scheme requires two opinions to be given in order to access the full band of communication marks. If only one opinion is used, the mark is capped at 6 marks for communication. 
  • Missing out a bullet point – unlike the 40-word task, this has a huge cost in the 90-word piece. Miss out one bullet point and students are capped at 6 marks out of 10 for the content mark.

Useful classroom tips: 

  • Ensure students write down the paradigm of the preterite, present, and future – along with the translations into English. Doing this as step one will help students through all parts of the paper. Once they realise they can cross check these endings with their verbs, it will help accuracy of regular verb conjugation increase. Ensure that with each tense they write out the English translation, so as to aid the application of tenses.
  • Tú-ing and yo-ing. Ensuring students can manipulate from the 2nd person (which is used for the bullet points they must answer) into the 1st person is essential for when they come to answer the task to be relevant to the task and talk about themselves. For more on this, see this previous blog post: https://senorcordero.wordpress.com/2017/04/10/the-importance-of-tu-ing-and-yo-ing/
  • Regular verb tests that go from rote learning to applying. Again, the use of tense ‘crib sheets’ (or knowledge organisers) has aided me to go from getting students to rote learn the paradigm to then move towards doing a tense test that focuses on the application of the correct tense as well as the formation. For students to have their messages understood in the 90-word paragraph, it is essential that they can do this. Allowing students space to write notes helps them to get into the habit of writing paradigms out and cross-checking to aid them when applying conjugation endings.
  • Useful shortcuts for being successful with tenses. For low attaining groups, a quick and easy fix for sorting out the preterite tense in Spanish is by getting students to write out the word preterite. The 1stvowel (e) with an accent on is the 1st person of regular -ar verbs; and the other vowel (i) with an accent on is the regular ending for the 1st person of -er/-ir verbs. Especially useful for if we want to cut down cognitive load for certain students.
  • Use the bullet point given to start answers – quite a useful activity for students of all levels (at A Level for summaries, students need to change from the 1st person to the 3rd person, for instance), but essential for meeting the bullet points and guaranteeing that paragraphs are relevant. Practise turning these from the 2nd person to the 1st person and building on these starter phrases.
  • Use LOTS. There are a lot of acronyms out there, and some that go far above and beyond what students need to do, potentially unnecessarily fatiguing students in an exam situation. I use LOTS as it is simple, straight forward and covers only what students need to be able to do for the 90-word, and at higher tier, the 150-word, pieces. Linking words (building up complex sentences), opinions (got to be given at both levels), time frames (anticipating introducing and how to incorporate these into work), and finally, structures (things such as lo + adjective) to help add a layer of sophistication that students can easily refer to and pick off a phrase from during the exam.
Regular verb tests that focus on application help students to really engage with the formation of tenses and how different tenses convey different meanings.
Regular exposure to tenses and their conjugations is key. This do-now comes from an explanation I use and elicits the translation, as well as the endings

The 90-word scaffold that guides students through the process of writing a 90-words piece. It is essential, however, that we eventually wean students off the scaffold before the exam so that routines and drills become embedded.

Scaffolds can be very useful in the early days of tackling the 90-word piece. This is a scaffold I use lower down the school and with students who struggle with the 90-words to help scaffold their thinking. What is important with scaffolds, more than anything, is that gradually over time the metacognitive processes which scaffolds help put in place, are embedded in routine and that the scaffold is gradually removed to set students up for the exam – where they will have no access to such scaffold.

Question 2 – 150-word piece:

The 150-word question is where students need to show off more of what they can do and inject complexity into their work; whilst maintaining a high level of accuracy. A myth with this question is that students need to use all 3 time frames – they do not. AQA give 2 bullet points which generally only require the present tense and one other time frame. That said, introducing the remaining time frame during their answer, so long as it is relevant to the question and what they have said, is a good way to increase sophistication in their work. 

The first thing to notice is that there are now three sets of criteria that students are assessed against: content (does a student meet the word limit, does what they write meet the demands of the tasks and do they offer 2 opinions that are justified?), range of language (can students show variety and complexity in their writing?) and accuracy – is what they write grammatically accurate, and most importantly, are their tense formations secure?

Essentially, what students need to do is: 

  • Write 150 words or more
    • Give 2 justified opinions: (I like maths (opinionbecause it is fun (justification). 
    • Vary their use of adjectives, structures, tenses and vocabulary to not repeat themselves and to make their writing more interesting
    • Ensure they are as accurate as possible in what they write, focusing specifically on verbs and conjugation.

Common pitfalls: 

  • Complexity coming at the cost of communication and accuracy – students are expected to be more complex than what they are with question 1; however, if students are too experimental in this question, it can render what they say incomprehensible (affecting content mark) and inaccurate (affecting accuracy mark). 
  • Lack of variation and complexity – students who show a limited range of adjectives, structures, knowledge of tenses and vocabulary that produce quite a basic piece of writing lose out heavily on the range of language mark.
  • Missing out a bullet point – this will cap a student on their content mark at 12 marks. This can be done through not attempting the bullet point, or if what students write for a bullet point does not necessarily match the task at hand – such as for the task your opinion of your school and your subjects and a student writing about what facilities their school has, completely omitting an opinion of their school and not mentioning subjects.
  • Not spotting a bullet point with two parts – this is similar to the above point. If a student faces a task such as a day on holiday when you had problems and they describe a day on their holidays but fail to mention a problem that occurred on that day, they would be deemed to have not covered the bullet point. 
  • Not justifying opinions – students must say why they think a certain way. Should students give two opinions and fail to justify, their content mark is capped at 9 marks.  
  • Unfamiliarity with tenses – confusion between tenses, especially the present and preterite tenses, or the poor formation of the perfect tense, can cost students marks in the accuracy section, as well as in the content due to the ambiguities that this can cause.

Useful classroom tips: 

  • Ensure students refer back to their paradigm and LOTS list. Referring back as they write will ensure that (so long as the paradigm is correctly memorised!) they are accurate with most of their conjugations. Using LOTS will ensure that there is a variety of structures, connectives and opinions used in their work 
  • Splitting the question down into its component parts – by this I mean training students to look at a bullet point and realise if there are two parts to it and what they need to write about in order to fully meet that bullet point. Training with do-now activities of how to split down help reinforce this strategy. 
  • Manipulating bullet points into the 1st person – train students to use the task and manipulate it so that they can start their answer off based on the question. This almost guarantees whatever comes after will be relevant to the task, so no second guessing as to whether they are meeting the point or not!
  • Varying sentences – in class, we look at taking a sentence and expanding – both in front and after the sentence in order to help make writing less repetitive.
An example of breaking a 150-qord question down into its componen

Again, scaffolds can help in the classroom, but students need to be weaned off as scaffolds so that metacognitive strategies become embedded their routines and scaffolds won’t be available in the examination. 

Question 3 – Translation into Spanish

Students often fear the translation, and part of me thinks it is due to the fact that they view the translation as one task, rather than chunking it down and realising that each phrase is potentially worth a mark and that within the body of text, there will be sentences they can accurately translate and pick up marks.

Common pitfalls: 

  • Students giving up – some students simply look at the chunk of text they are presented with, and rather isolate phrases and realise there is a lot of the chunk of text that they can translate or can paraphrase, they simply write it off.
  • Poor application of conjugation – students being able to apply the correct ending to a verb to match the subject of a sentence and the tense that is required costs students severely in the translation.
  • Misreading the translation or missing out the ‘nasty’ words – students can fall down by not reading the original text closely enough to guarantee that they are using the correct tense or missing out the likes of ‘a lot, often, rarely, never’ in translations.

Useful classroom tips: 

  • Breaking down of the translation together. When my classes and I break down a translation, we always identify where the verbs are, the tenses needed and the infinitive of the verb. After this, students go ahead and conjugate the verbs. Doing it this way ensures that students read the text carefully and don’t lose marks for poor conjugations.
  • Multiple choice, low-stakes translations. As a starter, I will set up a grid for students, with possible translations. Students pick the correct answer, and the extension is to explain why the other options are wrong. This enables us to delve into the intricacies of tense, look at missing key words and explore answers in an in-depth way, whilst the activity being low stakes in nature. It is also key to interleave previously covered material so that vocabulary knowledge can be reactivated.
  • Regular revision of the paradigm. For each of the key tenses, I have created crib sheets. Students are introduced to these and expected to fill them in firstly; then be able to apply them. Doing this and focusing on the application allows students to focus on how the tense translates into English, enabling them to be able to pick which tense they need to use in the exam.
  • Show students how the translation is marked. As mentioned above, one of the biggest things that can hold students back is their own confidence and giving up prematurely when they might be able to score points by attempting a few words or phrases. Showing them the mark scheme and that if they can pick out and translate parts of sentences will build their confidence to have a go and accrue some marks across the translation. Self-belief and confidence is a constant feature of my Head of Learning Area briefings, and it serves its purpose when teaching students how to deal with the translation.
More practice of the the tenses and how to conjugate and apply.
Breaking a translation down – identifying tenses, infinitives and conjugations.

My tips for the foundation writing exam

This will be my fifth year of teaching the 8698/8658 AQA specifications. When the specification was first released, I remember there being a lot of angst surrounding the ‘radical’ changes from the previous specification, with changes featuring tasks such as describing a photograph, translation, and literary-based reading questions. Especially for the writing and speaking, goalposts changed drastically from what we were told by the exam board prior to the first 2018 examination to what we know now. This blog post is unforgivably based around exam technique and the strategies that I use in order to help students achieve the best they can do in the foundation tier exam.

Question 1 – The photocard 

The photocard is the section of the exam that would seem to be there to build up easy marks to take forward toward the exam total. That being said, students can be caught out in a number of ways in this section if they are not careful.

Common pitfalls: 

  • If students do not use a conjugated verb or ‘there is/there are’, they automatically lose one of the two marks available for communication. The same applies if the student leaves the verb in the infinitive. HOWEVER if students write their answer in the 1st person of the verb, such as: “I play football” – full credit can be awarded (which does seem a little strange!) according to the mark scheme.
  • Students writing too much. This matters for two reasons: firstly, if a student writes a sentence such as: “There is a girl and there is a boy” on one line, the exam board will count this as one sentence in spite of it having two verbs and two pieces of information. If the student were to split this into two separate sentences on two different lines, such as: “There is a boy.” Followed by: “There is a girl.” – the student would open themselves up to being awarded 4 marks rather than 2 marks for one sentence that contains essentially the same information. Secondly, if a student writes a longer sentence that has an erroneous verb conjugation in the second part (such as: “I see a girl and to see a boy” instead of “I see a girl and I see a boy”), the message would not be classed as clear, reducing their mark to 1 or 0 marks depending on the message communicated.
  • Students writing what is not in the photo. Plain and simple, students must only mention what is in the photo. Anything that isn’t in the photo that the student mentions fails to pick up any marks. 

Useful classroom tips: 

  1. Keep it simple. It sounds straight forward but teach students to keep their answers as straight forward as possible. In Spanish, teach students to start each sentence with hay or in French  Il y a – don’t even bother to teach them to say ‘In the photo’ at the beginning because they simply do not need it to get the mark and it fails to bring extra credit!
  2. Be clear in disassociating the technique for this question from the speaking exam photocard. This isn’t as obvious as it may seem, especially as question 1 on the foundation writing paper is also often referred to as the ‘photograph’, but by applying the technique of giving opinions and justifications and extending responses that is used in the speaking exam photocard section, students are going to tire themselves out prematurely and are more likely to make errors that will reduce their communication mark in this part of the exam.
  3. Regular practice. Setting this as a quick ‘do-now’ by printing out sheets for students to fill in on their desks serves as a settling task and also provides opportunities to get in some exposure to cultures outside of Europe.  
An example of a foundation question 1 writing ‘do-now’ activity. Based on a photo taken in Cuba, this allows for exposure to countries that speak the target language outside of Europe.

Question 2 –  40-word piece

The 40-word piece is designed to be a step up from the photograph and a step down from the 90-word piece. In this piece, students don’t need to use opinions or justifications; nor do they need to be able to write in another tense. That being said, being able to give opinions is a very easy way for students to make up the word count. 

Common pitfalls: 

  • Students miss out a bullet point – missing out a bullet point in this answer when responding to the question can cost the student 2 marks for communication, making the maximum mark for communication 8 marks, rather than 10 marks.
  • Students being too adventurous – again, students naturally want to include lots of information and make the exam about themselves; however, poor conjugation, such as not conjugating infinitives or contradicting themselves, such as “I like Spain because it’s boring” can cost students marks.
  • Repetition of the same sentence structure – Sometimes students can try and play exam technique but get it wrong. I once had an exam that had: “I like _____ because it is fun and it is amazing.” This did get the student to the word count, they did mention everything listed; however, the student did not show a range of language and variety, which cost them in the quality of language mark.   

Useful classroom tips: 

  1. Miss a line between each point. I get my students to miss an entire line between each point as a quick visual check to show that they have mentioned all four bullet points. Three paragraphs? You’re missing a point! 
  2. Expansion with minimal verbs. With foundation students, conjugation can often be quite taxing for them and can open them up to all sorts of inaccuracies, ultimately costing them marks. To expand without using a verb, I use: verb, what, where, when, with whom and why. For instance, if students get sports as one of their points, with this structure, they can start with: I play – sports – at school – everyday – with my friends – because it’s fun. By doing this, students only have to conjugate the 1stperson singular and use ‘it is’ for verbs, reducing the amount of serious errors that could occur with verbs.
  3. Don’t know? Give an opinion. If students don’t know a lexical item, get them to give a basic opinion – an example: The shopping centre is good. This helps to cover the point without necessarily having to know everything about the point. Students don’t need to provide equal coverage of each point.
An example of verb, what, where, when, with whom and why applied to a question 2 task. This way of expansion avoids using lots of verbs when expanding ideas, hopefully reducing the chance of serious errors in written work.

Question 3 – Translation into Spanish

The translation into Spanish, for some reason, seems to be the part of the exam that most students fear – due to the unpredictability of the text provided.

Common pitfalls: 

  • Students giving up – some students simply look at the sentences that they are given, and rather thinking in isolation of words that they know or thinking of similar words that might communicate the same idea.
  • Missing out the ‘nasty’ words – missing out the likes of ‘a lot, often, rarely, never’ in translations.
  • Poor knowledge of verbs – students not knowing how to manipulate verbs appropriately or how to conjugate the preterite tense.

Useful classroom tips: 

  1. Multiple choice, low-stakes translations. As a starter, I will set up a grid for students, with possible translations. Students pick the correct answer, and the extension is to explain why the other options are wrong. This enables us to delve into the intricacies of tense, look at missing key words and explore answers in an in-depth way, whilst the activity being low-stakes in nature. It is also key to interleave previously covered material so that vocabulary knowledge can be reactivated.
  2. Regular revision of the paradigm. For each of the key tenses, I have created crib sheets. Students are introduced to these and expected to fill them in firstly; then be able to apply them. Doing this and focusing on the application allows students to focus on how the tense translates into English, enabling them to be able to pick which tense they need to use in the exam.
  3. Show students how the translation is marked. As mentioned above, one of the biggest things that can hold students back is their own confidence and giving up prematurely when they might be able to score points by attempting a few words or phrases. Showing them the mark scheme and that if they can pick out and translate parts of sentences will build their confidence to have a go and accrue some marks across the translation. Self-belief and confidence is a constant feature of my Head of Learning Area briefings, and it serves its purpose when teaching students how to deal with the translation.
An example of a multiple choice translation activity to reinforce translation technique and vocabulary retrieval.

Question 4 – 90-word piece (overlap question)

The overlap question can often cause students a lot of unnecessary grief. Distilled down into the most basic of terms, students need to be able to: 1) Write 90 words that communicate clearly and meet the 4 bullet points provided, 2) use the past, present and future time frames (this is to say that they do not need to use specific tenses – for instance I want to go to France would count as the future time frame), and 3) give two opinions. This seems a lot, but it’s actually quite simple for students to do well on this question so long as they don’t over complicate their answer, mention all bullet points and have basic conjugations memorised and can apply them well. 

Common pitfalls: 

  • Students being too adventurous – as seen with question 2, students naturally want to include lots of information and make the exam about themselves; however, being too adventurous and not sticking with what they know works often can lead to ambiguities and the content mark falling.
  • Not using all three time frames – if a student uses only two of the three time frames, the maximum mark they can be awarded for quality of language is 4. Likewise, should they only use one time frame – the highest mark that can be awarded is 2 marks.  
  • Unfamiliarity with tenses – confusion between tenses, especially the present and preterite tenses, or the poor formation of the perfect tense, can often cost students in terms of communication and/or quality of language mark.
  • Not using enough opinions. The mark scheme requires two opinions to be given in order to access the full band of communication marks. If only one opinion is used, the mark is capped at 6 marks for communication. 
  • Missing out a bullet point – unlike the 40-word task, this has a huge cost in the 90-word piece. Miss out one bullet point and students are capped at 6 marks out of 10 for the content mark.

Useful classroom tips: 

  1. Before students write their response, get them to write out the paradigm. Doing this as step one will help students through all parts of the paper. Once they realise they can cross check these endings with their verbs, it will help accuracy of regular verb conjugation increase. Ensure that with each tense they write out the English translation, so as to aid the application of tenses.
  2. Tú-ing and yo-ing. Ensuring students can manipulate from the 2nd person (which is used for the bullet points they must answer) into the 1st person is essential for when they come to answer the task to be relevant to the task and talk about themselves. For more on this, see this previous blog post: https://senorcordero.wordpress.com/2017/04/10/the-importance-of-tu-ing-and-yo-ing/
  3. Regular verb tests that go from rote learning to applying. Again, the use of tense ‘crib sheets’ (or knowledge organisers) has aided me to go from getting students to rote learn the paradigm to then move towards doing a tense test that focuses on the application of the correct tense as well as the formation. For students to have their messages understood in the 90-word paragraph, it is essential that they can do this. Allowing students space to write notes helps them to get into the habit of writing paradigms out and cross-checking to aid them when applying conjugation endings.
  4. Useful shortcuts for being successful with tenses. For low attaining groups, a quick and easy fix for sorting out the preterite tense in Spanish is by getting students to write out the word preterite. The 1stvowel (e) with an accent on is the 1st person of regular -ar verbs; and the other vowel (i) with an accent on is the regular ending for the 1st person of -er/-ir verbs. Especially useful for if we want to cut down cognitive load for certain students.
  5. Use the bullet point given to start answers – quite a useful activity for students of all levels (at A Level for summaries, students need to change from the 1st person to the 3rd person, for instance), but essential for meeting the bullet points and guaranteeing that paragraphs are relevant. Practise turning these from the 2nd person to the 1st person and building on these starter phrases.
  6. Use LOTS. There are a lot of acronyms out there, and some that go far above and beyond what students need to do, potentially unnecessarily fatiguing students in an exam situation. I use LOTS as it is simple, straight forward and covers only what students need to be able to do for the 90-word, and at higher tier, the 150-word, pieces. Linking words (building up complex sentences), opinions (got to be given at both levels), time frames (anticipating introducing and how to incorporate these into work), and finally, structures (things such as lo + adjective) to help add a layer of sophistication that students can easily refer to and pick off a phrase from during the exam.

An example of the stages of verb testing, going from rote learning to being able to apply to a translation test.

A scaffold I use when starting out with 90-word pieces. The aim is to eventually embed the process with students, removing the need for scaffold.

The writing exam, in my opinion, is a funny one. It requires a lot of exam technique knowledge from ourselves and from our students. Once this is secure, it is a very manageable exam for students and often sees them do very well.

Literacy in MFL – Reading

Prior to moving to London, I worked in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. My step onto the TLR ladder was through taking up the post of Literacy Coordinator for my school. It was a job I loved and a job that I think often doesn’t get the time or the attention that it needs to be done properly – it certainly felt that way in my old school. The reasons why basic literacy and oracy are so important in my view are such: firstly, if a student cannot read a question, understand what it means and then what it actually is the question is actually asking them to do, they are highly unlikely to answer it successfully or give a response that matches the criteria laid out in the question itself. Secondly, we have to give students language with which they can express themselves, orally and in written form, and make themselves understood in the wider world out there. This is a little blog of ideas, which I use in my lessons, in order to help boost understanding and basic literacy in both English and the target language. 

Literacy is such a big remit, so in order to keep things condensed, I will look at ideas in the following areas: reading, writing, word types and speaking and listening. In this post, I will be focusing on reading – looking at ideas to facilitate building up confidence, understanding of texts and responding to different types of exam questions.

1. Teach specific parts of speech 

I am a firm believer in a solid teaching of parts of speech and it’s something we have instilled in our curriculum from day 1 of the study of a foreign language. So much hinges on a functioning knowledge of parts of speech – the amount of students that cannot distinguish between bien (well, adverb) or bueno (good, adjective) never ceases to amaze me.

During our latest curriculum CPD, we sat down and distilled the KS3 offering we have, and one thing we agreed as a team was that understanding of the parts of speech were pivotal for success. We believe in this to such an extent that parts of speech form an essential part of our knowledge organisers for Y7 and Y8 and they feature in every KO test students do. The rationale is two-fold: firstly it helps with understanding of the building blocks of language and how to build up sentence length when producing work in the target language, and secondly it can also can help students decode when reading. This is essential for helping students to locate in a text exactly where an answer is and how much additional information they need to extract in order to fully answer a question. For instance, locating a noun for a written response in a GCSE paper, especially at higher tier, is often not enough to secure the point for the question. If students are able to identify the rough meaning of the word through its spelling or how it sounds, if they have a functioning knowledge of parts of speech and concepts such as adjective order, students can then sandwich this with the noun in order to construct longer meaning and pick out all of the information that they need for a question. What was important was that we ensured our definitions were on point; rather than saying that an adjective is a describing word, we ensured the definition was that an adjective describes a noun. So many times students are taught an adjective is a describing word – when the same could be said about adverbs! This also helped keep our definitions consistent.

2. Consistently refer back to parts of speech in teaching

Having got the consistency in definition and explanation, students need to see this foundational knowledge in context. When exploiting a reading task, as a pre-read activity, I will often introduce by recapping the definitions of certain parts of speech, before asking students to extract examples of maybe two specific word types, such as adjectives or verbs. Routinely doing this means that students are constantly being reminded of the definition and are able to ensure that they are able to dissect the parts of language.  This is something I do from Key Stage 3 right the way to Key Stage 5 to ensure none of this basic knowledge is forgotten about and to ensure that students are aware of all of the building blocks of sentence construction, ready to decipher and extract as much information as the task in hand requires.

My take on a knowledge dump that forces students to engage with different word types

3. Deploy Quigley’s 7 strategies to explore unfamiliar vocab

Something I’ve spoken about time and time again and that I absolutely swear by is Alex Quigley’s 7 Strategies for exploring unfamiliar vocabulary (https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2018/04/7-strategies-to-explore-unfamiliar-vocabulary/). Both of his books, Closing the Reading Gap and Closing the Vocabulary Gap should be on every teacher’s reading lists. The premise of the 7 strategies are that they can help students work out unfamiliar vocabulary, focusing on: 

Exploring morphology with students
  • Morphology (the build up of words – des|hac|er – if broken down, we get des – meaning ‘un’, hac – related with doing, er – marker of an infinitive ‘to’ – giving us to undo)
  • Word families (related words – such as periódico (newspaper), periodista (journalist), periodismo (journalism))
  • Etymology – the history of words. For instance – izquierda (left) was borrowed from Basque as siniestram from Latin that should have been the historical root for the Spanish word for left was associated the devil.
  • Spelling
  • Multiple meanings – pointing out that tienda can mean shop or tent depending on the context
  • Synonyms and antonyms – pointing out for to use you can use usar or utilizar.
  • Context – what clues can you use to piece together the word

For a student-friendly video on how to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary that I’ve put together based on the above, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtgHJSXtVK0

4. Teach that common suffixes and prefixes can often contain information on the exact meaning of a word

A list of common suffixes in Spanish that I give to students. Not exhaustive but it gives a good grounding

Once understanding of parts of speech is cemented, I take it further by introducing common prefixes and suffixes and the meaning that they can inflect on a word. For example, -ista which can often indicate a job in Spanish. If I teach common suffixes and students having met periódico (newspaper), should students come across periodista – they would be able to associate the period root with news, combine it with -ista to know the word is a job and give them the chance to work out that periodista is a journalist. 

With older classes, I always make a point of running through associated words. For example, if we meet the word canté (I sang, preterite tense) in a text, I would make a point of questioning in the following way: 

  • What is the infinitive, to sing? cantar
  • If I said cantante, what would the word mean? (singer, -ante being one of the suffixes identifying a job)
  • If I said canción, what would the word mean? (song, -ción being indicator of a noun that isn’t a job)). 

This gets students to think in terms of decoding; in the same way you can reverse this questioning method in order to help expand vocabulary related to that word.

5. Pre-read as a class with simple comprehension questions 

This works a treat with lower attaining groups. We read a text together, with students taking turns to read aloud, giving me the chance to pick up on any pronunciation errors and delve into any unknown vocabulary. After every sentence or two ask some very basic comprehension questions in English to reinforce understanding of the text. This preps students up well as they have already been exposed to the text once for the main comprehension text that comes after.

6. Read the questions first – what is it that you are you looking for?

With my lower attaining and middling groups, they’d often fall into the trap of trying to read the full text before answering the questions. What I have done is retrained the classes to read the questions first, and before we go about answering them, we discuss what it is we are looking for: such as a personal quality, an age etc. and associated words that might point students in the right direction. This mini step before tackling the reading has boosted confidence in my lower attaining groups when facing written answers in the reading paper.  

7. Highlight the answer in the text

One thing that used to go through my head a lot of the time was: are students getting the wrong answer because they are falling down through a distractor, or is it a case that they know where the answer is but do not have the vocabulary to be able to decode the full meaning? When answering readings in an exam-style question or in a printed reading activity, I ask students to highlight where the answer is. This allows me to quickly diagnose whether the student is having issues with the identifying where the answer is; or whether it is the specifics of the answer that they are having issues with. 

8. Explore the text for vocabulary and insist they note it down

One of the most useful, and arguably one of the easiest to action, pieces of feedback from an observation was to insist on students writing down vocabulary I give to them. In the past, I would go through a text, annotate vocabulary and the majority of the class would write it down; but there’d always be a few who didn’t. By me not insisting that they write this vocabulary down as a record, I could be unknowingly opening up a gap in understanding. Now, once I give a piece of vocabulary, I will stand and watch for each student to copy down said piece of vocabulary.

9. Organise where students write down vocabulary you give them

Some people like to use the back of exercise books for vocabulary tests, some for homework and others as practice pages. For my classes, I use this as a space where they record any new vocabulary from a reading that we may encounter. Students know that all of the vocabulary that we have met in class, and that may not appear in glossaries, will be there. One thing I always get student to do is to write down infinitives here. For some reason, a lot of textbooks supply conjugated forms of verbs in their glossaries, but I insist my students know the infinitives. This builds on the way in which we teach grammar – we teach it explicitly and ensure that our students know their tenses, and how to use them. If we provide students with only conjugated forms, students will not be able to apply the conjugation process accurately. 

As a trial this year, I provided one of my classes with a new vocabulary booklet. This booklet was divided up. In the first column, students recorded the form that they met, such as salgo (I go out/leave, present tense). In the second column, students note down the infinitive salir, followed in the next column with the meaning of the infinitive. In the final column, there is space for any notes, such as for this verb, I would inform students that the 1st person singular has a ‘g’ in the stem, before conjugating as normal, and that the present subjunctive conjugates as salga, salgas, salga…

The vocabulary book trial – catering for nouns but also with the focus on looking at irregularities in conjugations

This vocabulary booklet proved very popular with this class and really aided in students working back to the infinitive form from conjugated verbs; a process I think is essential for languages students to be able to do in order to freely express themselves.

Concluding thoughts

Often the biggest barrier to success in reading in MFL is the level of literacy students have in English. I think that it is our duty as languages teachers not only to provide vocabulary in the target language, but to help develop reading skills simultaneously in the target language and in English.

The new MFL GCSE – my reflections on the DFE’s consultation questionnaire.

Having had two cohorts formally assessed using the 2016-specification, 2021 and the height of a pandemic make for a very illogical time for a new specification to be drawn up. To all intents and purposes, I had my worries when the current specification was introduced but having been a Head of Key Stage 4 and seen through 2 full cohorts of students (over 200) with very good outcomes for two years, I really felt that this specification that we are currently teaching has a lot of merits. The specification set students up well for A Level study, left them with a thorough grounding of grammar and a good basic vocabulary that would work well at A Level or even on the streets in Spain. Having looked at the DFE’s consultation questionnaire, these are my reflections on the proposal. My key worries: a lack of parity between languages caused by the use of the 2,000 most frequently occurring words in standard forms of the language; the lack of information on how the 2,000 most frequently occurring words will be sourced; the impact on the jump from GCSE to A Level and the fact that students will not be able to draw upon specific reading strategies, such as Quigley’s (2018) 7 strategies for dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary. 

The vocabulary section of the questionnaire focuses on the 2,000 most frequent words in the (for the purposes of this blog, I have used the Real Academia Española’s Corpus de Referencia del Español Actual’s 5000 most frequently occurring forms (which can be found here: http://corpus.rae.es/frec/5000_formas.TXT). All references to examples can be found in this document 

To highlight my reflections on the proposals, I will be making references taken from specific parts of the questionnaire. These will include the question followed by my reflection. 

Question 10. Do you agree with the requirement that 90% of words must be taken from the top 2,000 most frequently occurring words in the most widely spoken standard forms of the language? 

The subject content stipulates that at least 90% of words selected must be from the 2,000 most frequent words occurring in the most widely spoken standard forms of the language. Research indicates that a relatively small number of high-frequency words represent a large proportion of the total words in written text or speech and that the 2,000 most frequently occurring words represent around 80% of the words in any written text and upwards of 90% of words in informal conversation. (Department for Education, 2021)

My first issue, before I look into any of this question, is that either we haven’t been given access to the source of the 2,000 most frequently occurring words – or it has been well hidden so that we cannot find it. If we are to judge any ideas around this concept and be able to judge the validity of this argument, we should be granted access to this list readily in the questionnaire to look at this. The below points that I am making, therefore, are purely based on the Real Academia Española’s Corpus de Referencia del Español Actual’s 5000 most frequently occurring forms. This type of evidence should readily be available for consultation. 

Having addressed the issue of not being able to find the list of vocabulary, two things crossed my mind. Firstly, in terms of parity across languages, I would predict that there will be variation between French, Spanish and German. Secondly, looking at the RAE list (2021), inflectional forms of verbs, such as ven (imperative of the verb ‘to come’) appears; yet its infinitive venir (infinitive – to come) does not. For the imperative to feature and the infinitive not to, I believe this approach would potentially devalue the importance of the paradigm, which is essential core knowledge if student want to be successful at A Level; as well as remove critical vocabulary students will need in real life situations in Spain should they try and use their Spanish. Let’s face it – students use modal verbs plus infinitives frequently in their work to ease the cognitive pressure of having to conjugate verbs.

Furthermore, the ranking of the inflections of the verb decir (to say), for me, are another point of conention. The forms dijo (he/she/it said – 3rd person singular, preterite tense); digo (I say – 1st person singular, present tense); dije (I said – 1st person singular, preterite tense); fue (he/she/it was/went – 3rd person singular – preterite tense) and fui (I was/I went – 1st person singular – preterite tense) feature in the top 2,000 of the RAE corpus list; however, the 2nd person singular form of the preterite tense fuiste or the 2nd person plural form of the preterite tense fuiste do not appear. These 2nd person forms are essential for asking questions or for understanding questions. My worry is if this list of vocabulary list is taken literally, that this would place more focus on students understanding what others have said rather than putting focus on them being able to use the language for themselves. In my view – the whole paradigm needs to be taught for full understanding and use – receptively and for production.

What’s more – other key words, such as estación (station or season) – which is essential if you are travelling in Spain and need to get around, falls at number 2000 in the list provided by the RAE, as does the verb comprar – essential if you are shopping out an about in Spain. This reinforces my point that production seems to be of a lesser importance in a subject where what students are effectively learning is a skill that can be applied to real life contexts. Looking at vocabulary in this way and limiting it as such arguably removes the real-life application of the language which is one of the selling points, which have already been diminished following Brexit.

11. Do you agree with the requirement for foundation tier students to know no more that 1200 words and higher tier students to know no more than 1700 words? 

The subject content expects students to know 1200 lexical items for foundation tier (papers capped at grade 5), and a further 500 lexical items for higher tier (papers capped at grade 9). The ‘number of words known’ that has been documented by research usually reflects receptive (listening and reading) vocabulary knowledge, which is larger than productive (speaking and writing) knowledge. In the proposed new content, students will be required to demonstrate both receptive and productive knowledge of all words on the list. Given this, it was determined that it would not be helpful or motivating to require students to use more words productively than research has suggested can be known receptively for the top levels.

Coming back to the point about language being a useful tool we can use when travelling, there are key elements of vocabulary that are omitted from this list that students need to be able to use in order to successfully talk about themselves and express themselves in Spanish, such as películas (films), fui (I was/I went), serio (serious) – based on the top 1,700 most frequent forms according to the RAE corpus. 

More specifically with this question and a limiting of vocabulary to 1,500/ 1,700 words, I believe there would also have detrimental impact in terms of understanding. A lot of teachers look to strategies such as the 7 strategies for dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary (Quigley, A. 2018) to help build confidence with dealing with vocabulary passively and also to help expand active vocabulary. If we take the example using morphology and the word  cocina (kitchen) from the RAE corpus, this features at number 1,377. If we were to use morphology, teachers would previously have ensured that students know that -ar suffix indicates an infinitive of the verb which means ‘to’ do something; and students could therefore work out that cocinar means to cook. Teachers may also have taught the suffix -ero to imply a job, so students could therefore make the link and decipher that cocinero is a cook; however, neither of these words feature on the RAE corpus of the 2000 most used forms. Not having the need to provide students with strategies to practise decoding vocabulary, in my view, would detrimentally impact reading skills in Spanish in my opinion, especially further up at A Level.

12. Do you agree that the vocabulary lists proposed for GCSE should set out all content required for GCSE, even though in many cases some of this may have been learnt prior to the start of the GCSE course itself?

It cannot be assumed that everyone who enters a GCSE language course will be entering with a similar level of language proficiency. Additionally, scenarios can arise where a secondary school student might decide to take a language at GCSE, having not done it in previous years.

When I give my students verbs as vocabulary, they expect to receive the infinitive, or to be asked to work back to the infinitive. For me, manipulating infinitives and knowing the basic tenses in any language and how to use them is a non-negotiable of any language. I learned Russian and Czech in 4 years from an absolute beginner and graduated with a distinction in spoken Russian and spoken Czech, with the emphasis on years 1 and 2 of university study being on grammar and verbs; before padding out with nouns when appropriate and furthermore so on our year abroad. If students are just expected to know certain inflectional forms of verbs, I think providing lists of vocabulary for students to learn is detrimental to A Level study. I would agree on this point only on the condition that verbs are listed in the infinitive form so as to promote the teaching of grammar

13. Do you agree that cognate words (words which are very similar or the same in English and the assessed language) should be included and counted in the defined vocabulary in a way which reflects their frequency of occurrence in the assessed language?

In the revised subject content, the 1200 (foundation) and 1700 (higher) word lists will include cognates in a way which reflects their frequency of occurrence. This proposed change means that unspecified cognates will no longer be included in assessments with the expectation that students will be able to guess their meaning.

I believe this will not give us a clear understanding of the reading ability of the student in front of us. This is a key skill needed for A Level and ultimately if we do this, I think we are setting students, and our departments, up for a fail at Key Stage 5 study.

15. Do you agree with the proposal not to require overarching themes and specific topics in the revised subject content?

The overarching themes listed in the current content document are very broad. However, perhaps because they were not accompanied by specified vocabulary, there was a tendency still to design teaching and assessment around very specific thematic topics. This, in turn, encourages the teaching of topic-specific and specialised vocabulary, rather than the most important words for general communication and understanding. Students are most likely to recall and be able to use a word when they have encountered it in a number of different contexts, rather than in only one ‘topic’. Because of this, and because we are specifying the vocabulary to be taught and assessed, specific topics or overarching themes will not be listed in the revised subject content.

Thinking of my classes, the first thing they do when they tackle a listening paper is use the 5 minutes’ reading time to identify semantic fields and to try and anticipate vocabulary they might hear as part of their strategy to deal with the listening exam. By not requiring overarching themes, this could make it harder for students to identify semantic fields and reduce their likeliness to be able to perform well due to the less predictable nature of the questions. 

23. Do you consider the grammar annexes to be comprehensive, unambiguous and easy to understand?

GCSE students will be expected to develop and use their knowledge of grammar throughout their course. The grammar requirements for GCSE are set out in two tiers: foundation and higher. Students will be required to use their knowledge of grammar from the relevant lists, appropriate to the language studied and to the relevant tier of entry. Students entering higher tier assessments will be required to apply all grammar listed for foundation tier in addition to the grammar listed for higher tier. These lists describe grammatical features of the most widely used standard varieties. The lists are written from the point of view of English-speaking students of the language, and so include some reference to certain cross-linguistically complex relations with English. Students will be required to demonstrate both receptive and productive knowledge of the grammar from the list.

Once again, such annexes appear to not be available or not readily available if you are carrying out the questionnaire. However, going to my previous points regarding vocabulary (lexical items) and then this specific reference to grammar, I can see there being points where this will interfere with the RAE most frequent forms which would have implications with teaching. Do we teach the full paradigm, or do we just teach items in the preterite tense or the imperfect tense as lexical items without attaching the grammatical meaning and explanation to it, so that it can be more widely put into context? As a linguist, this does not sit right with me.

24. Do you consider the revised subject content to be unambiguous, clear and easy to understand?

As stated in my previous comment, only including vocabulary from the top 2,000 forms in the Spanish language and then specifying set grammar for me causes a contradiction. It would also see students learning a different list of vocabulary and topics for French/German etc. and would take away one of the big selling points of doing more than one language at GCSE/A Level: that one language will help out with another. There needs to be consistency across all languages for quality of teaching. We still are not sure where the vocabulary list will be specifically drawn from which is an issue too. A draft copy of this vocabulary would have been useful to see before putting out such a consultation. As is such I have used the RAE Corpus. We should not have been asked for our thoughts without being provided this.

Concluding thoughts: 

I do believe what we have works well. Is it perfect – by no means is it, but staff are accustomed to it, it has only had 2 examined cohorts go through it and I believe it still has shelf life in it. It produces linguists who can actually use the language and sets students up nicely for the journey ahead at A Level. The changes proposed appear contradictory in parts, and do not cater well enough for production in my view. Furthermore, I envisage the gap between GCSE and A Level study widening, possibly negatively affecting numbers which are already dwindling. It will ultimately do nothing to reverse the declining trend in language study at both GCSE and A Level study. 

For further reading on the changes: 

AQA Briefing Paper: https://filestore.aqa.org.uk/content/our-standards/AQA-GCSE-MFL-POLICY-BRIEFING-APRIL-2021.PDF

Helen Myers on the DFE proposals:  https://helenmyers.blogspot.com/2021/04/dfe-proposals-for-gcse-mfl-subject.html  

Mr E’s blog: https://whoteacheslanguages.blogspot.com

References: 

Department for Education. 2021 GCSE MFL Subject Content Review. As found at: https://consult.education.gov.uk/ebacc-and-arts-and-humanities-team/gcse-mfl-subject-content-review/consultation/intro/. Accessed: 3rd May 2021

Quigley, A. 2018: 7 Strategies to explore unfamiliar vocabulary. As found at: https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2018/04/7-strategies-to-explore-unfamiliar-vocabulary/ Accessed: 3rd May 2021.

Real Academia Española: Corpus de Referencia del Español Aactual (CREA) – Frecuencia 5000. As found at: http://corpus.rae.es/frec/5000_formas.TXT Accessed: 3rd May 2021

The speaking agenda

Speaking was one of the things I loved most about learning a language. I loved the feeling of success that I got when I was able successfully decode a message asked by a more proficient speaker, followed by carefully stringing together my response – thinking about the correct tense, endings and nuance of each word I chose to make up the sentence. Being understood made me feel liberated; realising I could actually put the language to a purposeful use and seeing the end result of rote learning many tenses, lexical items and structures. With speaking having been put somewhat on the back burner by the rollout of the speaking endorsement and the various limitations of remote learning; here are some ideas that I use to practise speaking in the classroom. In this post, I will look at some activities that can help with evidence gathering for the different parts of the endorsement, as well as practise GCSE speaking skills and promote classroom speaking in general.

Before starting with any activities – start with some tactical seating. 

So often seating plans are made so as to lend themselves to behaviour management – and by no means am I arguing against this; however, seating plan construction can really aid create a culture of productive speaking practice in the classroom. When creating your seating plan, think about those who need to be placed in certain locations within the classroom due to eyesight or behaviour needs first; then think about parings who would work together well and feel comfortable speaking with one another based on personality and prior attainment. After all, feeling comfortable with a person you are going to do a lot of paired work with will lend itself to building confidence, which is needed when undoubtably students will be making mistakes and feeling more exposed due to speaking in the target language. However, this feeling comfortable and student pairings should never come at compromise of your control over the classroom. 

Classroom ideas for practising speaking

Practising vocabulary and giving opinions

After a lot of drilling, I like students to further practise the vocabulary in pairs – especially in lower attaining groups. In order to do this, I will display the vocabulary on the board. Partner A picks a word or a phrase and writes on a mini whiteboard, and Partner B gets 3 goes at guessing the item that their partner has chosen before revealing it.

The vocabulary guessing game works with any set of new vocabulary so long as you list it and set it out for students

When Partner B begins guessing, they must start their answer with: pienso que es… (I think it is) diría que es… (I would say it is) creo que es… (I believe it is) me parece que es… (it seems to me that it is) in order to introduce their opinion of what word their partner has chosen. When Partner A hears this, they must respond in a full sentence, saying: sí, es (yes it is…) or no es… (it isn’t…). Nothing groundbreaking but a nice way to get some speaking and get around the room to check some pronunciation

Tú-ing and yo-ing.

I am a big believer in training students to manipulate bullet points from the second person to the first person – not just for relevance when giving a spoken response but also for starting answers to bullet points provided for the 90-word and 150-word written tasks. To start this training, I start by a process I call ‘tú-ing and yo-ing’. In this oral self-quizzing form, I give students a list of verbs in tenses they have met in a table. The first column is for the second-person singular form of the verb; the second column is for the first-person singular form of the verb. I each partner with a different sheet of verbs. Their partner peer assesses, marking those correct that are formed correctly; and for those that are not, they provide their partner with the correct form, and retest later on. You can also use it as a settling do-now activity in a written format by providing one of the forms, and removing its counterpart.  

Tú-ing and yo-ing training sheet. Each partner gets a different sheet and quizzes their partner, ticking the correct answers and providing the answers for incorrect answers – before retesting.

Photo card preparation scaffolds

One of the most difficult things to get students to do when dealing with the photo card is to unpick what it is the question wants of the student, then reply with a relevant answer. Building on the above tú-ing and yo-ing, this photo card scaffold helps students to: 1) identify what each question means; 2) manipulate the points into the first person so that they are being relevant when giving their answer and 3) ensure that they give extended response by giving three sentences. The final checklist also gets students to check back to see they’ve included opinions and justifications. AQA specify that in the photo card section, in order to be considered for full marks, students should: answer all 5 points; give 3 sentences per point for 3 of the 5 points; give 2 opinions and 2 justifications. This scaffold helps to ensure students do this. The important thing; however, is the embedding of this once the stablisers of a scaffold are taken away!

Photo card scaffold to help set students up to: be relevant, extend discourse as well as give and justify opinions

What? When? Where? With whom? 

In this activity, I give students a list of sentence starters that are basic activities with verbs – such as I play football. Partner A picks a sentence starter, and reads it aloud. Partner B then asks when? To which Partner A must reply by stating the sentence again and adding when they play football. After this, Partner B will then ask where? And Partner A must give the previous answer containing what and when, and then add where to it. Finally, Partner B would ask with whom? To which Partner A will give the what, when and where; before adding with whom. When students are more confident orally manipulating verbs, I ask Partner B to ask the full sentence question. The dialogue looks something like the below: 

Partner ANadoI swim.
Partner B¿Cuándo nadas?When do you swim?
Partner ANado todos los días.I swim everyday.
Partner B¿Dónde nadas? Where do you swim?
Partner ANado todos los días en la piscina.I swim every day in the swimming pool.
Partner B¿Con quién nadas? Who do you swim with?
Partner ANado todos los días en la piscina con mis amigas.I swim every day in the swimming pool with my friends
A sample dialogue practising what? when? where? with whom?

As simple as it looks, it gets students used to asking questions as well as developing answers. It is something very easy to implement, and can be done from right back in year 7 if they are trained to do this.

But why?

Why is one of my absolute favourite words. The number of times that students give a statement of an opinion and do not tell me why is unreal – even my A Level class fall into this trap. A simple turning around and asking why elicits students to give a justification of an action or an opinion, and is something we are readily permitted to do in the general conversation section of the GCSE speaking exam – so why not demonstrate some spontaneity and challenge with minimal effort by asking why! 

LOTS of good stuff

Everyone has their own acronyms – PALMA, avocados amongst others. One that is simple to remember and works well for me when students are practising speaking or writing is LOTS. It’s the only acronym I use but for the purposes of variety, extensions and giving opinions, it works well. LOTS stands for: linking words, opinions, time frames and structures. I get students to write it down large in their books and give 2 minutes to put down as many examples for each of the categories as they can. After the 2 minutes, they take a different colour of pen and pair up to combine answers and add any that they have missed off. We then come back together and share the best responses, which everyone must ensure that they have on their diagrams. This aids speaking as after doing an initial speaking activity, we turn to LOTS to redo our activity in order improve and extend our responses.

LOTS diagram that can be referred to after practising speaking in order to improve discourse length and include opinions.

Asking questions

This was an idea I found somewhere online – and whoever it was – thank you! Essentially it is a board game that involves students asking questions about the vocabulary items mentioned in the box – in order to simulate the question element of the role-play based as a snakes and ladders-style game. On the reverse, I put some model answers that students can refer to if they get stuck.

The questions board game. Works well in pairs or groups of 4 or less. On the back, for each of the stimulus items, I provide a model students can turn to if they get stuck.

Role-play scaffold

In the same way as we need to scaffold students for the photo card – we need to provide support for students when they prepare their initial role-plays. This role play scaffold allows students to do this by: asking students to translate the points into English; unpick what the bullet points want students to actually do (as these can sometimes be very ambiguous!) before writing their own version

The role-play scaffold is designed to get students to think about the ‘what does the bullet want me to actually say’ – which can often be ambiguous due to the design of the role-play tasks.

Role-play practice sheets

As with any scaffold, students will not be able to access these in the real exam. As is such, when the time comes to take off the stabilisers, in order to get students to prepare and practise in pairs, I devised the below role-play practice sheets.

Students fold the sheet in half. One student has the script (examiner) and the other student has the points to prepare

I give pairs of students two different role-plays at a time. Partner A prepares a different role-play to Partner B and they both prepare at the same time. Allow students the 5-6 minutes they would have in the real exam to prepare. Once time is up, they answer the role-plays and peer assess the answers given, using my guide of what should be said and a mark scheme to help.

Photo card practice sheets

In the same way as I have role-play practice sheets, I have devised a similar practice sheet for the photo card in order to get students to practise the unpredictable element. Each pair has 2 different photo cards that are foldable. I award the same time as they should ideally use in the exam (7/8 minutes to prepare) before getting students to practise in pairs.

These are by no means quick fixes, but are some ideas of what I do to practise speaking in the classroom and intertwine it with what is needed for the GCSE exam. In terms of 2021 Speaking Endorsement, these activities can all provide evidence – from the practising vocabulary guessing game providing evidence for pronunciation, to photo cards providing the opportunity for extended discourse and opinions/justifications.

Getting to grips with Excel – from the basics up to useful functions for creating tracking sheets.

Data trackers and Microsoft Excel can provide a lot of people with anxiety, and some people give up at the first hurdle. I am by no means a mathematical person (I leave that to my brother!) but at my current workplace, I’ve had to really engage with Excel as part of my role. It is something I’m very thankful for and I feel a lot more confident in its workings. In this blog, I will take you from the very basics to some useful functions should you wish to start setting up a tracking sheet.

THE BASICS

Cells, rows and columns

These are something that you will hear a lot about in Excel.

A cell is a single rectangle shape in Excel. You can type into these and insert a formula to carry out a calculation for you.

A row in Excel is all of the cells in a line going along in Excel. Each row is a number in Excel. For instance, all of the cells in row 2 are all in a straight line along from the number 2 at the side. 

Conversely, a column is a line of cells running up and down. These are lettered A-Z. Once the alphabet completes itself, the cells then start with AA, AB, AC and so on.

From rows and columns, you can create a cell reference by looking at the row and column on which a cell is located. The column (letter) is stated first, followed by the row (number). For instance, the cell highlighted would be cell B4. These ‘grid’ references are important later on when dealing with creating your own formulae.  

The importance of = when writing formulae

Before we get going, for any formula (or you might want to think of it as a calculation) to work in Excel, you must start your formula with the = sign. This tells Excel that you want to want the formula in that cell to carry out a task. If you simply put in 1+2 Excel will treat this as text and it won’t carry out its mathematical magic.

The four operations

The first thing that is useful to do is to be able to the basic operations of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. 

The first thing you need to know is that some of the symbols for the four operations are different:

+ add

– subtract

* multiply

/ divide

To start your basic formula (calculation), always start with an =. This tells Excel you want this cell to carry out a calculation. After this, it is simply a case of typing in your calculation, remembering to use * for multiplication, and / for divide and not to leave any spaces – write the whole formula out together.

Example: to get Excel to work out 3×2: 

The four operations using cell references

If you are creating a marksheet, typing out the actual calculation can be long and defeats the ease that Excel can create when used well. If you input some data in excel, you can very easily create a formula for the four operations. All you need to do is decide where you want the answer to appear. In that cell, start with the = sign. Then click the cell of the first number you want in your calculation. This will bring a cell reference up in your formula bar (at the top), such as =B4. To this, add the sign of the operation that you want to carry out, then simply click the cell of the second number you need to complete your calculation. Then press enter.

Example: multiply cell C4 by D4:

When working with cell references this way, you will notice if you click on the cell afterwards, the references will show up in different colours. These colours will also appear on the sheet, to show you where the cells are that you have put into your formula:

The good thing about this is, should the data change (say a child scores higher or lower in an exam) – the result formula will automatically carry out the calculation for you, meaning you have to do nothing to the formula. 

Adding multiple cells in a row or a column

This is a great trick. Rather than clicking on each cell as before and having to type in + between each cell reference (=C3+D3+E3); there is an easier way to get excel to add several cells in a row for you. Start your formula with =, followed SUM in capital letters and the opening of a set of brackets. This tells Excel you want it to tally several cells in one go. After the open bracket, insert the cell reference of the first cell you want to add, followed by : finishing with the final cell reference of the sequence you want to add. Round off by closing the brackets and pressing enter.

Example: add cells C3, D3, E3 together:

If you want to make this even quicker, after typing =SUM( – you can click and drag from the first cell to the last cell you want to add. This saves you having to type the cell reference out for the end cell. Again, like before, because we are using cell references, any changes in data will be calculated when they are inputted – meaning you don’t have to change anything. 

Average

It is very similar to the sum formula. 

Start with: 

=AVERAGE(

Click on the first cell you want to include in the average and drag to the last. Press enter and it will calculate your average.

Example: work out the average for C2 to C12:

Replication

Replication is a way of copying down a formula quickly. If we added cells C3, D3 and E3 together and I wanted to do the same operation for the row below, I could click on the cell where the formula is that counts up C3, D3 and E3, and a the cell would come up with a thick boarder around it and a little square in the bottom right corner of the boarder. If you click on the little square and drag down, it will repeat the formula for the row of data below. This time, it would add up C4, D4 and E4! 

Filters

Filters allow you to search for specific criteria and only display the results that match – for instance, you might want to only see the data for your class. To do this, click on the number of the row where the tiles are for the data sets, click on sort and filter, followed by filter. This will bring up some dropdown arrows. Simply click on the squares of the data you want to see and it will bring this up for you. 

Merging cells

Merging cells allows you to merge two cells into one – which is very useful for when you need to create titles. To do this: highlight the two or three cells you want to merge, right click and click on merge cells. If you use Excel on Mac, an option on the home tab will say ‘merge and centre’ – click this and it will merge the cell for you. 

Formatting cells for decimal points, currency and getting rid of decimal points

Sometimes, especially if you apply a scaling factor, your results will come up as decimal points, when you need to report a whole number; conversely you might want to do the opposite. To do this, simply highlight the results you want to change format (from decimal values to whole numbers; or from whole numbers to display the decimal point), right click and select format cell.

This will bring you a range of options. For decimal values (or to get rid of them), click number, and use the arrows to get to the result you want. If you want whole numbers, go to 0. This will automatically round up or down any decimal values for you.

For currency or time, simply select the relevant option and the format (the option) in which you want your results to appear.

Creating a new sheet

In your ‘workbook’ (the file), you might want to create another ‘sheet’ (or page) for another class. To do this, simply go to the very bottom where it says ‘sheet 1’. There will be a + icon – click on this and another sheet will appear. 

To give the sheet a name, for example a class name, right click where it says ‘sheet 1’ and then click on ‘rename’. Then, you can give the sheet any name you wish.

USEFUL FUNCTIONS FOR CREATING A TRACKING SHEET

Custom sorting

Building on from filters, custom sorting allows you to arrange your data in a specific way. To do, highlight the data and the titles that you want to sort out and then click on sort and filter, followed by custom sort.

It will say ‘sort by’ and underneath column, you will see dropdown options for each of the titles of your columns. You can then sort by different layers. 

If creating a tracker, I would sort by class first, so that your classes appear together, then sort by name, so that the names and data are arranged firstly in class, and then in alphabetical order within the class.  

BEFORE THE SORT – NAMES AND CLASSES MIXED UP
AFTER THE SORT – CLASSES IN NUMERICAL ORDER, AND NAMES WITHIN EACH CLASS IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER

It is really important you highlight all data and the titles, because if you miss some columns off, the data will not be rearranged with the student, mixing up scores and grades. 

Replication of formula, keeping one element the same

Sometimes you might want to replicate some elements of a formula, for instance a paper mark; but you might need to keep one element the same. For instance, you might want to multiply the total sum in cells F3, F4, F5 by cell H3, which is a scale factor of a paper. To do this, when doing looking at the formula, you will initially have something like this:

=F3*H3

If you replicate this, the formula will automatically change to: 

=F4*H4  – this will not include the right scale factor and will look at the cell below that of the cell that contains the scale factor and will keep moving down. To stop this, you need to add $ signs before the letter and the number of the cell reference you want to keep the same, giving you:

Conditional formatting

Conditional formatting is incredibly useful as it allows you to see when values meet a certain condition. A good example might be in a test, if you set a pass mark of 8 out of 10 marks, you can set conditional formatting to highlight any students that do not achieve at least 8 marks.

To do so, first, highlight the row or column in which the data you want to be scrutinised is placed. On the ‘home’ tab, click on ‘conditional formatting’. Next, click on ‘highlight cell rules’. This will give you a range of options, such as ‘greater than’, ‘equal to’, ‘less than’ and so on.

To highlight students who have achieved less than 8 marks, select ‘less than’. When you go along the options, in the value column, simply enter the number ‘8’. You can edit the colour the cell turns, but for less than I usually stick with red. Click on ‘ok’ and this rule will then be applied so any number 7 or less will turn red in the set of cells which you highlighted.

For greater than, repeat the same process, albeit selecting greater than as your option.

If you want to format the cells to include 8 in the pass marks, rather than selecting ‘greater than’ – click the drop down arrow and click ‘equal to or greater than’. This will then tell Excel to colour any cells in the range we selected containing 8 as well as those above 8 in the pass colour.

To do more than one row or column at a time, hold down CTRL whilst you select and the same rule will be applied to all the selected cells.

To change any of the highlighting rules – select the cells that contain the formatting that you want to edit, click on ‘conditional formatting’ – followed by ‘manage rules’. This will show you the rules you’ve applied for that section and will allow you to delete or edit.

To see all of the rules for the entire sheet, at the top of the dialogue box after opening ‘manage rules’ – select the drop down arrow and change from ‘current selection’ to ‘this worksheet’.

V Lookups

V lookups can appear to be frightening, and when they don’t work, they can cause a lot of hassle; but when they do work – they are brilliant. 

Essentially, what they do is look up a value in a vertical table, and bring you back the relevant answer. For instance, if you create a tracker, and after totalling the amound of marks from a paper, it will look at the total, then delve into a vertical table of results, and pick you the grade and put that in the cell where the formula is located. It can give exact matches or approximate matches.

The first thing you need to do, especially if you’re working with grades, is make a new sheet that lays out all of the possible amount of marks and plots what grade each individual mark is worth. This should start with 0 nearest the top, and the highest mark at the bottom. 

After you do this, you should define this table (in other words, give this group of cells a name). To do this, highlight your tables (grades and raw marks); right click and select ‘define name’. Enter a name, and do not forget to copy and paste this! This is important. I always paste the name directly below the table so I know what this is called. This will be important later on. I named mine BOUNDARIES2021. 

Now to go onto the Vlookup formula itself. First, select the cell where you would like the result to appear, in this case, the grade. 

Start your formula as following:

=VLOOKUP(

The first thing you want to put into the formula is the value you want to look up, in this case, the raw mark. Follow it by a comma:

=VLOOKUP(F2,

The next thing we need to do is tell the formula where it can find the result and the grade with which it matches. This is where defining our table is important (I named mine BOUNDARIES2021). After the comma following the value you want to look up, paste the name of the table you defined earlier:

 =VLOOKUP(F2,BOUNDARIES2021

Following this, we have to instruct the formula from which column of the table we want it to pick the result. I have arranged my table so that the raw marks are in the first column (column A) and the grades which we want it to retrieve, in the second column (column B). What is important to remember, and what confuses some people, is that the table is stand alone, so column 1 refers to the first column of the table – regardless of whether you put the table starting in column A or Z of your sheet!. 

My Raw marks are in the first column of my table, and my grades, which I want it to bring back are in column 2. So, to my formula, I follow the comma with 2 – so it brings be the value from the 2nd column rather than the first column: 

  =VLOOKUP(F2,BOUNDARIES2021,2,

The last part of the formula is range lookup. For this, if you want to look up an exact value, you must type false; if you want an approximate, it should be true. For looking up a grade, either will work and I usually go for true.

  =VLOOKUP(F2,BOUNDARIES2021,2,true)

Round off by closing with a close bracket and press enter.


After this, it’s a case of replicating down!

Finally:

This is by no means an extensive guide for what Excel can do, but I find these are the things that are really useful to me when dealing with creating, editing and finding issues in trackers that have been made.

Five tips for teaching literature in A Level MFL

An introduction to my five tips

Before I introduce my five tips for teaching literature as part of an A Level languages course, it is important to consider the different levels on which we can read, as these underpin the tips. There are two types of reading that are important to consider: micro-level reading (bottom-up reading) and macro-level reading (top-down reading). Firstly, micro-level, or bottom-up reading, is the piecing together meaning by looking at individual words to work out what a single sentence means. In contrast, macro-level, or top-down reading, is looking at the bigger picture to appreciate themes, infer meaning, identify elements of social/historical context in a novel, or the author’s own ideology/experiences.

There are various macro-level strategies, such as scanning for fact, skim reading for gist or extensively reading for pleasure; but before our students are able to use these strategies, we must get out students to read in a bottom-up fashion on a micro scale, through intensive reading of a text. But what’s more important before reading bottom-up is that we explicitly teach the social and historical context of the time to set the scene to give some clues as to what is going on, and to indicate possible semantic fields of vocabulary that might appear in the text.  Having an awareness of where in the process of reading you are with your class is key to help ensure understanding. 

Different level son which we read – important to consider when teaching a novel to A Level students

Here are some tips of mine for teaching literature as part of an A Level languages course.

Tip 1: Familiarise yourself with the social and historical context. 

For us as experts to fully understand the book, we need to know the historical context. Some tips:

  1. Be careful with the edition of the book you pick. Often, ‘edited’ versions contain key social and historical information about the author and the state of the country at the time that free, PDF versions online do not contain. These can really help to inform planning.
  2. Turn to the textbook. Looking at the modules that relate to the period in which your novel is set will help you to brush up on subject knowledge. This also pays dividends later on, as I will explain in tip 2.
  3. Look at reputable literary sources, that often have great articles that you can easily convert into A Level-style activities and exercises. Websites such as Cervantes Virtual, El País biografías and ZigZag can be of use to help inform you of context with some great articles. Simply take and marry with A Level reading-style questions to kill two birds with one stone – teaching the context whilst practising exam skills. 
Watch out for editions of novels with editorials includes – these are great for informing background knowledge!

Tip 2: Change the order of study to complement the novel’s context

Changing the order of modules and where they appear in the scheme of work can help students see the interrelatedness of what they are studying with the context of the Spanish/Hispanic society and can help you with your planning when teaching historical and social context. For instance, with Réquiem, the Spanish Civil War is the backdrop to the book. I can take bits from module 5 (dictatorships and monarchy), delve deeper with authentic resources in order to explore the context to the book more thoroughly. What is vital is to highlight to the link between this module of the textbook and the context to their book, so they are alert to this fact and realise that they can also apply their knowledge gained from the textbook to the literary element of their studies, too. 

Tip 3: Try three-stage teacher prereading. 

Knowing the novel inside out is key in order to deliver it with panache. We have to understand it ourselves as the ‘expert’ and we also have to understand it in the way that our novice learners, who are still developing their understanding of the language, will see it so that we can aim to deliver the content in a way that makes it accessible to the novices. To this end, I pre-read the novel three times:

Read 1: Read it top down for ourselves that we know the plot and key events ourselves on a macro level

Read 2: Read it bottom-up on micro level, in the same way in which our students will, so that we can anticipate common vocabulary/structures they might not recognize and plan to address this in our teaching.

Read 3: Read it again, highlighting key quotes and making notes on events that exemplify the historical/social context, themes or author’s ideology.

The reason for the three reads is: firstly, to pre-empt difficult gaps in knowledge that need to be filled to ensure understanding during a bottom-up read; secondly, to ensure I know where key events are and an pre-plan an explanation for a theme and how it relates to the bigger picture.

The three-stage teacher pre-read

Tip 4: Plan to read small, manageable chunks to aid bottom-up reading.

Reading intensively is draining from students. Asking them to read the full book in one go is going to be tough for them and completely demotivate them, losing any passion for the language they had. We need to make bottom-up reading for them as easy as we can to avoid building up a sense of resentment when reading a novel. To do this:

  • Aim to read small, digestable chunks – maybe one key scene at a time.
  • Supply vocabulary from your second read that you anticipate students won’t know. Give them a copy and get them to annotate it in their book.
  • Build in some simple comprehension questions in English to test that they’ve made sense of what they’ve read in the small chunk.
  • Build in some comprehension questions in Spanish that force students to reflect on the characters, what they have done/are feeling and key moments of action.
  • Supply possible answers so students can self-correct and can use it to revise if needs be.
Small chunks for intensive reading – 1) providing vocabulary; 2) comprehension questions; 3) model answers

Tip 5: Constantly reinforce the chronology of events, the main themes and key quotes.

Finally, we need students to be able to recall key scenes and quotes, marry them with the social context in order to evaluate and answer the question in hand. To do this, you could: 

– Have do now activities that require students to match dates to key events

  • Have students match quotes to the characters
  • Give students a list of quotes and examples and ask them to match them to one of three themes that they represent

These are just 5 small tips that have really aided me when teaching literature. They are by no means exhaustive, but I hope there’s something you can take away from this.

Applying The Variation Theory to MFL

Christmas has almost arrived, and I recently found myself having a catch -up call with my brother, who is currently training in the North East to become a maths teacher. He’s a maths graduate from Durham University, and he wanted to go through a lesson plan he had put together with me. During his lesson on inequalities, he was showing me several examples of inequalities he was going to use in his explanation phase. What he had pointed out, that had totally skipped my attention, was that all of the numbers and examples that he had used were very similar; the only thing that was noticeably changing was the inequalities sign. He had deliberately made it this way because he had the Variation Theory at the forefront of his thinking when he was planning this explanatory sequence, in order to focus his students’ attention on one specific part of a sequence that was changing – the inequalities sign. This got me thinking – how could I apply this theory to MFL teaching? Moreover, have I actually been doing it all along and just not put a name to it? 

The Variation Theory

The Variation Theory serves as a tool to channel student attention during explanatory sequences. As my brother had explained to me, and had shown me in his planning, the Variation Theory (Marton and Pang, 2013) suggests that ‘meanings are acquired from experiencing differences against a background of sameness, rather than experiencing sameness against background of difference.’  Barton (2018) builds on this by saying: ‘By holding everything else the same and varying one element, we can direct the students’ attention to that element so that they can predict and observe the effect it has on the answer.’ It made me think there are many times, especially when teaching grammar, when we really need to channel student attention onto minutiae to help really gain understanding – for instance when teaching the plusperfect tense in Spanish había comido (I had eaten) and how it is different to the perfect tense he comido (I have eaten). Below are some ways in which I believe applying the Variation Theory (plundered from maths!) can work in the MFL classroom.

Applying The Variation Theory in MFL

1. To help explain the subtle differences in tense formation that separate distinct tenses

If we go back to the case of the perfect tense and the plusperfect tense, they are very similar in formation in both English and in Spanish, but each tense has a nuance that separates the tenses based on firstly, when the action was completed; and secondly, the speaker’s intended message that they want to communicate with their choice of that tense. 

For the perfect tense, if we take the example of I have eaten (he comido) – the emphasis is on the fact that as of the present moment, the activity described by the verb has been completed, for now. It is formed with the present tense of the verb to have (haber), followed by a past participle.

If we now pass to the plusperfect tense in Spanish, using the example of I had eaten (había comído) – the emphasis of the action is now on the fact that the completed action has happened further in the past, before another action: había comido cuando volvió mi hermano (I had eaten when my brother returned). The only thing that differs in the formation of both tenses in Spanish is the use of the imperfect tense when conjugating haber – to have for the plusperfect tense, rather than using haber the present tense for the formation of the perfect tense. The same is true in English. 

The Variation Theory can help us to focus attention on this small, yet majorly important difference, by focusing in on two very similar examples, keeping the ‘background’ the same and putting real emphasis on the difference in the formation and how it alters the meaning. The example below is how I have delivered the two tenses before and testifies, in my eyes, to highlighting the subtle, yet major, differences between both tenses. This is something that we need to focus on in our explanation in order for our students to fully appreciate and understand when applying the tenses in spoken and written Spanish.

Explanation slides of the pluperfect and the perfect tenses in Spanish. Note – the only difference being the formation and the translation into English.

2. To help students navigate tense resources independently to revise the use and formation of different tenses.

One of the things we often get students to do is to rote learn endings for tense tests. I have done this many times in the past, then set a translation test and students have completely failed; in spite of the fact that once I start them on the paradigm endings, they know them by rote. As is such, I have set up tense crib sheets/knowledge organisers. The design is deliberate, and the examples are deliberate so as to help students to compartmentalise and block off in their heads when to use each tense and the associated endings that go with each one.

Firstly, each crib sheet starts off with an example sentence in English which is the ‘definition’ of when to use that tense. It is done with the same verb on purpose – to play, as well as the same person of the verb – 1stperson singular. It keeps the example verb consistent and, again, helps to really highlight what it is that denotes an example of that specific tense in English – such as: I have played (perfect tense), I played(preterite tense), I used to play/I was playing (imperfect tense). 

Secondly, the formation of each tense is listed. For those that require the removal of the infinitive, this is always done with the same three verbs to keep the explanation the same and to remove and background difference. The stems without the infinitive endings are always shown in exactly the same way, too, in order to display the same process is followed for regular verbs. 

Finally, the endings are listed underneath for regular verbs, and any irregular verbs are listed on the right-hand side. 

Two tense crib sheets set up, having a very similar layout and using the same verbs as examples.

Through this consistent set up, students are able to independently navigate their way around these crib sheets, but also have the differences, such as the endings, uses and their translations into English, highlighted to emphasise the differences between each tense. The marriage of both the fixed layout, consistent features and deliberate focusing of attention on set differences allows these to be given to students to learn at independently at home in order to reinforce and support the learning that goes on in the classroom. 

Closing thoughts

At the explanation stage, I see explaining and modelling with the Variation Theory in mind as serving as a scaffold to help clarify and compartmentalise the formation and the application of both tenses in students’ minds. Thinking of the bigger picture and ideal end result, I would see this as a way to eventually being able to remove any form scaffolding surrounding the use and the formation of tenses and students being able to use them autonomously and with the intended meaning they want to convey.

Further Reading:

Marton, F. and Pang, M. F. (2013) ‘Meanings are acquired from experiencing differences against a background of sameness, rather than from experiencing sameness from a background of difference: putting conjecture to the test by embedding it in a pedagogical tool’. Frontline Learning Research 1 (1) pp. 24-41. 

Barton, C. (2018) How I wish I’d taught maths. Woodbridge: John Catt 

Blind marking mocks – why I’ve changed my mind.

This year, our group of schools has opted to blind mark mock examinations in order to do everything possible to eliminate teacher bias from mock exam marking in case of having to generate Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) again for the 2021 summer exam season. I won’t lie, when I first heard this news, I was a bit uneasy – worried about giving my papers away to someone else to mark and having to place that trust in them to mark accurately. Having now gone through the process, my stance on blind marking has changed, and below is why.

Setting up blind marking


Before blind marking could take place, we had to make sure all staff were on a level playing field in terms of knowledge of exam specification and marking criteria, as well as not knowing who had completed the exams. To do this, firstly, the cover page of the exam needed to be changed. The initial idea we had was to have a fold-over flap where students wrote their names underneath; however, the pragmatics of stapling every single paper of the 210 students that sit languages papers at GCSE-level was too much in terms of workload; so instead, we opted for students writing their seat number on the front of the paper. This worked due to covid efforts forcing us to assign individual desks to students for the examinations, so we could deanonymize after the examination. Only the Key Stage lead had access to this spreadsheet, so nobody could look up who wrote a specific exam paper, keeping anonymity in order to help eliminate bias.

Initial design of the exam cover sheet with folded flap.

Having looked at the administration of how to go about blind marking, it was essential that all of the team were well versed in the marking criteria, and could apply the mark scheme appropriately and effectively so as to not over inflate grades or to be overly harsh when marking exams. As is such, we turned to the scripts and commentaries produced by AQA on scripts from the 2019 exam season in order to standardise. We all marked the exams individually first, then came together in order to discuss marks and share our rationale. After this, we then looked and compared with the AQA marks awarded and their rationale. This is what we usually do when it comes to standardisation, but what was different was that we looked for specific intricacies and patterns that AQA applied when marking, such as not giving credit for poor sequencing of tenses, that we would need to adhere to in order to mark as fairly as possibly. These were listed out in an email and sent around. Following on from standardisation was moderation, we could monitor the effectiveness of marking, comparing marks awarded to examination papers and agreeing on marks with reasoned justification, ensuring the team were on the same page.

The last consideration that was that staff teaching higher classes should only mark higher-tier examinations, as they would probably be more familiar with the higher tier mark scheme. The same idea was applied to those teachers who teach predominantly foundation-tier classes.

The benefits of blind marking

Some surprising outcomes have come about due to blind marking.

1. Increased sense of accountability to be as accurate as possible when marking. I will be the first person to admit that when I mark the work of my classes, I tend to verge on the edge of harshness so that: 1) students have room for improvement and do not get complacent with their performance; 2) so that my grades, hopefully, end up higher in the real examinations in the summer. However, when I am tasked with marking the exams of colleagues’ students that could potentially count towards CAG grades, I know I need to be more accurate. Other staff have echoed these sentiments and there is the drive to be as accurate as possible. 

2. Increased seeking of advice. Building on from the previous point, there has been a real mind-set shift in terms of asking for advice and asking for staff to read the work of a student when the examination may be difficult to mark. It has struck up professional conversations between the whole department and has helped to build subject knowledge and on-the-spot moderation of examinations.

3.  Sharing of class strengths/weaknesses. Staff, naturally, have been eager to find out how their classes have been getting on with the writing exams. Because of this want to find out how classes have done, teachers have naturally been giving general feedback, that if applied to a whole-class feedback sheet, will be invaluable for their classes and for informing practice of how to plan to plug and gaps in performance. 

The road ahead

Moving forward, even if we do not have to use CAGs next summer, I believe blind marking will see a fairer application of mark schemes of very subjective elements of the GCSE examination, such as the writing and speaking exams. Because of this, I believe that prediction accuracy, and tiering decisions, will be made to be more accurate than they have been in the past. However, to test this hypothesis, we will have to wait until the summer.