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Getting to Grips with Language GCSEs

As a parent myself I fully identify with that urge to help guide our offspring through the safest and straightest path to future happiness and to springboard them into their future career. We do all we can at every stage of their development – we nurture, we educate, we encourage – but at that moment when they themselves are on the cusp of adulthood, and they no doubt need our guidance all the more, it can just get that little bit harder, as their world becomes increasingly hard for us to decipher.

This has never been more so than now, with the apparently ever-shifting world of education. There have been so many changes recently in qualifications and exams, that it’s hard enough for teachers and pupils to keep up with it all, let alone poor frazzled parents trying their best to support them.

This year, modern languages, along with most other subjects, follow in the footsteps of Maths and English in switching to the new GCSEs, with the change in grading systems (1-9 with 9 the best score) alone causing much unease, and understandably so. Maybe it’s just because I’m a linguist, but I do think there’s something tangible, likeable even, about the old letter-based system: a “D” for “disappointing”, “C” for “comforting”, “B” for “Better”, “A” for “Awesome” and as for the stars, they speak for themselves.

If that were the only change, I suppose we’d all get used to it soon enough. However, there are other more fundamental changes to the format and content of the exam, that I feel you would benefit from understanding, at least in overview, so that you can better support your child.

The first thing to stress is to empathise with your child. The new language GCSE is definitely a lot harder than the old one, with a lot of the content coming from the old AS syllabus. However, the upside is that it makes for a better, more robust exam, and will mean they will come out at the end being able to use that foreign language in a useful way. This is in stark contrast to the old GCSE, where it was a case of teachers cramming in as many wonderful vocabulary and structures as possible, which were then learnt by rote and regurgitated on demand – that’s if the child was blessed with a good memory.

Now students have to understand and manipulate the language. This means there is much more emphasis on grammar. And no, grammar is not an ugly or scary word. It’s a great thing, which empowers the language learner to create their own language and really own what they say / write. Think of grammar as being clothes pegs upon which you hang different types of grammatical items e.g. nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, prepositions etc. The fun in a language is then choosing how to dress your speech and choosing which words to use and how they’re going to hang together with the others.

As well as grammar, which provides the linguistic framework, students also need to build up their vocabulary knowledge with both a passive and active understanding. There is a vocabulary booklet available on the exam board’s website and schools will often produce their own. Please encourage your child to learn their vocabulary in a regular and systematic manner. They cannot cram it all in the night before the exam. Help them by testing them, encourage them to create vocabulary cards, and allow them to put sticky notes throughout the house, in the bathroom, fridge door etc.

The language exam comes in 4 parts to mirror the 4 language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, all equally weighted, and they are all at the end of the GCSE course. The speaking will be held a bit earlier, from the end of April onwards, but the other 3 skills will be tested by means of exams, and whilst I unfortunately don’t have the space within this article to give you specific hints and tips for each exam, be reassured that learning and understanding grammar and vocabulary will already stand your child in very good stead.

The other important thing to remember is that a language is unique amongst academic subjects in that it is first and foremost a living thing and its primary purpose is to communicate with and in. Studying it in a classroom is unfortunately necessary but rather unnatural. Try to encourage your child to listen to it and to use it as much as possible. Even if you don’t understand it, ask them to speak to you in it and translate from and into English. Watch foreign films with them (with subtitles) - there’s a wealth of wonderful culture, rarely accessed by a British audience, because we don’t take well to watching foreign films at all, or if we do, then we expect them to be dubbed. And of course, there’s a whole plethora of natural authentic foreign language material out there to read or to listen to on the internet, as well as some very good language websites with interactive grammar and vocabulary exercises.

If you are considering tutoring, you may also wish to look at online lessons, as opposed to the more traditional face-to-face option. These are still given by qualified teachers and with the right tools, can be a very effective way or providing a personalised virtual classroom. Besides, students can sit in the comfort of their own homes at times which suit them, while parents are relieved of their taxiing service to and fro. Everyone’s a winner!

Please do remember learning a language is not just about doing well in an exam. It will open doors to foreign cultures and to careers, as well as many other life opportunities. Why not take advantage of this opportunity to support your child by learning or refreshing a language yourself? Or planning a holiday abroad to allow them (and you) to practise the newly-found skills?

Please do get in touch with me should you wish some advice, either for your child(ren) or indeed for yourself. Give me a call on 07899 655484 or email me at

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