Oral Exams & Exam Boards

It is that time of year when all of my GCSE, AS and A2 students are clamouring for any spare time I might have in order to help them out with their oral examination practice. Next week I have the joy of conducting all three levels’ oral exams, starting with AS Spanish first thing on Tuesday. I decided to write a little bit about this for two reasons: 1) new specifications are in place at AS and on their way for A2 and GCSE and 2) the technology side of things.

Previously, in my school we have done Edexcel for languages, however, after careful consideration, the department has decided to move to AQA, which means that although we are still doing Edexcel for GCSE and A2 we have been teaching AQA for AS. Seeing as I am nearing the time when most of my exam groups will go on study leave, now is an appropriate time to reflect on the new specification AS.

Personally, I have found some of the topics to be a bit more engaging, especially the more modern elements such as popular culture and media. Pupils are able to learn about things that actually interest them (social networking, fashion, cinema, music etc) and therefore are more motivated to not only continue the subject at A2 level and beyond, but also to communicate in the target language as they actually have something they want to say. Next year’s A2 will be fairly similar topic-wise to what we have taught before, and I am intrigued by the cultural topic element. With Edexcel we have always opted for the written exam, and I have taught a literature book (Sin Noticias de Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza) and a colleague has taught the other topic (Como Agua Para Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and also the region of Catalonia).

With AQA it seems as though we can continue to teach these topics, however, it is how they will be assessed that will change. Pupils must still study two topics (literature, region etc) and they will have to talk about them in their A2 oral exam (something that we have never had to do before), but they will only have to write about ONE of them. Should this influence what we teach? Should this influence what we ask pupils to produce in the classroom? Should we still encourage them to write essays on both topics? I think that the answer to this should be yes. Not only does it then give them the opportunity to have a wider choice of possible questions to answer in the examination, but it will also prepare them more thoroughly for university study. My only concern is that the questions in the exam will be so broad that it will be very difficult to know how to teach them to write effective answers. Previously, literature essays and the like have been related directly to the particular set text whereas now the question will have to be one that could be applied to any literature book! I’m wondering whether it is worth putting trusty old Gurb to one side and looking at films or something…..

The oral exam at A2 has previously been along the lines of a debate, now, it seems to me, that the AS is more pro/con orientated in the writing exam, and fairly general in the speaking, allowing for opinions where necessary. We have previously always recorded our candidates onto cassette and we are a school that has an ailing languages lab, used mainly for the A Level listening exams and practice throughout the year. As someone who enjoys using technology in the classroom I am eagerly awaiting a snazzy languages lab to replace the old one and I was very pleased to learn that we can download the exam listening material on line. Furthermore, we can now conduct our listening exams and record them digitally, sending them to AQA electronically, via their Desk Top Tool (DTT). Over the last few months I have been sorting out the technical side of things with our IT crew, in order to ensure smooth sailing for both the recording of orals and the downloading of listening materials.

Last week I was VERY disappointed to find out from a colleague that AQA have pulled the DTT, asking centres to record onto cassette rather than straight onto the DTT. On further investigation it turned out the AQA had sent a letter to examiners (like my colleague) telling them that as some centres had been having problems with sending through the orals, they thought it best to ask everyone to do the same. Now, I do appreciate that AQA were trying to help centres by letting them know that some places were having problems, however, my school never received this letter – I had to ring them and get it faxed through to see for myself. As I read through it I breathed a short sigh of relief as I realised that actually they hadn’t pulled the DTT completely – they were just letting centres know about the possible problems that seemed to be occurring within certain LEAs (something to do with bandwidth and servers I believe). If a school had begun to use the DTT and were not having any problems, then the school could continue to do so. Phew. I therefore will go ahead and use the DTT as planned on Tuesday with the Spanish AS students. With only 5 candidates, and not being part of an LEA, there should be no major issue about sending the sound files through, but, if the worst case scenario happens, then I can pull the sound files off the computer, save to a CD or memory stick and send them through that way. Double phew.

Interestingly, with the new specification GCSE, I think that a tool such as the DTT will be very beneficial. Candidates will have to submit two tasks that they have completed throughout the GCSE course and I can foresee it being fairly easy to manage pupils’ entries electronically on the school system before uploading their best two tasks (out of say, 5 ). This will also work nicely for their coursework….urm, I mean controlled writing assessment. All we need now is the school system in place for all pupils to have an area to save school work, homework and coursework to, that is easily accessible by teachers. Would this by chance be a VLE? I’ll stop holding my breathe soon, I promise.