Guest blog by Rebecca Harwood, Head of Languages.
From the positive attention my recent “Keep Cool” display board generated on my departmental Twitter account, I am sure I am not the only teacher feeling ever so slightly anxious about her cohort’s summer 2018 MFL exam results, considering we have the new grading system AND a new exam specification to contend with all in the same exam series. I am also sure I won’t be the only one who was pleasantly surprised at how her cohort performed in recent mock examinations as we know there has definitely been a step up in what the examination boards are expecting of the 2018 linguists compared with previous years and the legacy specification. However, I also know from having marked the mocks that there is still a way to go if the students are to be truly successful in the summer and it has nothing to do with drilling vocab or conjugating over three time frames.
I wouldn’t say I enjoyed marking my students’ mock exam papers per se, but it definitely gave me an interesting insight into not only what individual students are still struggling with, but what the cohort as a whole found difficult. Aside from the silly mistakes students always make (no matter how many times we drill it into them that they must not answer 1a AND 1b and that they MUST answer section B of the reading paper en español), there were overarching exam strategies that my students had just not grasped by the time they sat the practice exams. Sure, they were revising vocabulary and grammar to hit the content, communication, knowledge about language and accuracy marks but sometimes, actually accessing and/or approaching the actual questions and meeting the demands of the tasks was what was holding them back from exam success. Many times this resulted in very stressed out and anxious students who had revised thoroughly but hadn’t come out with the marks they felt they deserved in relation to the amount of effort they had put in over the Christmas break.
With my school’s Social, Emotional, Mental Health and Wellbeing focus and our Resilience strategy in mind, the idea for my “Keep Cool” board came about. Instead of simply lecturing my Year 11s about how they should have approached the individual exams or the rubric within them, I felt they needed something they could access regularly with their personal strengths and weaknesses in mind after each practice paper we’ll doubtless do between now and May.
I split the board into the five skills – listening, speaking, reading, writing and translation and used their mock papers to consider five strategies within each which I felt would help the students better access the papers and come out with higher marks. It has made me much more aware of how much I had taken for granted the students would “just cope” with the exams and that they would innately know to revise exam strategy as well as vocabulary and grammar. Had I ever made it obvious to them that we spent so much time discussing how to approach a task in class because I wanted them to apply that to the exams? Probably not. Year 10 have mocks coming up later on this term, with Year 9 sitting theirs later this academic year and for my department, exam strategy will be as high up on the agenda as vocabulary building, repair strategies and those pesky tenses.
Rebecca Harwood is Head of Languages at a comprehensive school in North Yorkshire. She teaches Spanish and is on Twitter as @gcseespanolshs.