5 Useful French Grammar Constructions

5 Useful French Grammar Constructions

French grammar constructions?  How dull, I hear you cry!  However, that grammar does have its uses, especially if you are trying to make your language more interesting – whether you are looking to impress your friends with some fancy phrases, or you are keen to get some of those extra exam marks for “complex grammar constructions”. 

Here are a few useful ways of saying things which should help to widen your vocabulary.  Many of these constructions can be used in a range of tenses, so I have given a couple of examples in each case.

 1.     Être en train de + infinitive – to be in the middle of doing something.

  • Je suis en train d’écrire un blog – I am in the middle of writing a blog. 
  • J’étais en train d’écrire un blog, quand j’ai vu un chat – I was in the middle of writing a blog when I saw a cat.

2.     Au lieu de + infinitive – instead of doing….

  • Au lieu d’écrire un blog, il faut faire mes devoirs – Instead of writing a blog, I must do my homework.
  • Au lieu de faire mes devoirs, j’ai regardé la télé – Instead of doing my homework I watched TV.

3.     Après avoir/être + past participle – after having done something. WATCH OUT!  Just like the present perfect tense, you need to take care of the être verbs…

  • Après avoir écrit mon blog, je vais prendre un thé – After having written my blog I am going to have a cup of tea.
  • Après être allée en ville, j’écrirai encore un blog ! – After having gone to town I will write another blog!

4.     Avant de + infinitive – before doing something

  • Avant de boire mon thé, je vais finir le blog – Before drinking my tea I am going to finish the blog.
  • Avant de finir le blog, je cherche d’autres exemples – Before finishing the blog, I look for other examples.

5.     Venir de + infinitive – to have just done something

  • Je venais de trouver un exemple, quand la téléphone a sonné – I had just found an example when the phone rang.
  • Je viens de finir mon blog. Youpi ! – I have just finished my blog.  Hurrah!


The author is a Surrey-based language tutor specialising in French, German and English as a Foreign Language.  She has many years of experience of trying to sound more interesting in French, especially with a view to boosting exam grades (whether for herself or others!).

Revising?  Get a schedule!

Revising? Get a schedule!

The GCSE and A Level exams are now approaching at a gallop.  It really is time to knuckle down and get a revision schedule sorted out so that you make sure you spend enough time on each subject and have a chance to look at all aspects of the curriculum.

Here are a few helpful tips to help you stay on the right path:

#1  Don’t revise for an exam within half a day of taking it.  Exam in the morning? Stop revising for it at lunchtime the day before.  Exam in the afternoon? Don’t revise for it that day. 

Revising at the last minute just leads to a lack of confidence as you convince yourself that you don’t know anything and will never get a good grade.  If you don’t know your stuff that close to the exam then spending the remaining hours cramming really won’t help!

#2  Little and often is key.  It can be really tempting to leave the final exams until much nearer the date.  However, after 4-5 weeks of exams you will be suffering from revision fatigue and you really won’t want to spend hours each day revising for the last one or two.  Besides, we can’t focus well for hours on end so that kind of revision is less effective anyway.  Schedule in a few revision sessions for those last exams earlier in the month so that you can keep things ticking over nicely.

#3  Take a break every 45 minutes or so.  There is a good reason why school lessons last 35-45 minutes – we cannot focus intensively for much longer than that.  Work hard and focus well for 45-50 minutes, then take a short break.  Not three hours of social media, but 5-10 minutes to walk around the house or garden, get a drink or something to eat, and stretch.  Then sit down for another session. 

#4  Vary your revision techniques. Reading and re-reading the same page again and again only works for a very small minority of people.  Try drawing mind-maps, thinking of acronyms to help you remember key info, summarising and re-summarising to get to the key points.  Get busy with the highlighter pens, add stickers to mark the important bits, see what works best for you. 

#5  Why not test yourself?  At the beginning of a topic, write yourself a quiz covering 5-10 key pieces of information.  When you think you have finished with that topic, try the quiz and see if you can remember the answers without looking in your notes.

#6  Tackle one or two past papers to check your timings.  Time management is an important exam technique as it is vital to leave enough time to tackle all of the questions on the paper.  Your teacher may give you some past papers, or you can usually find some on the website for the relevant exam board. 

#7  Successful multi-tasking is a bit of a myth.  If you are watching TV, listening to music, checking social media AND revising, then you aren’t concentrating properly on any of them.  Book time in your schedule to check email or messaging apps, tell your friends you are going off-line for a while, and allow yourself to really focus.

#8  Remember to leave some downtime in your revision schedule.  Not days or a whole weekend, but careful slots to allow you to exercise, meet friends, go to that party.

#9  Eat well.  Lots of fruit and veg, of course, but also proper good quality protein and carbs.  Yes to home-cooked stir fry, stew, bolognaise etc. Proceed with caution when it comes to doughnuts, chocolate and fast food.

#10  Sleep properly.  Although it can be tempting to revise late into the night you have to balance the likelihood of retaining something important read at midnight, with the probability of impaired thinking if you have been up that late!

Exam Tips – The Writing Exam

Exam Tips – The Writing Exam

Until this year (2018) the writing element of the GCSE language exams was essentially a memory test in the guise of a Controlled Assessment.  Students had a certain number of hours to prepare their answers in class time. Then the teacher would look at the answer and give some guidance, after which the student would take the text home and attempt to learn it by heart.  Finally, they would then try to regurgitate the text in a fixed period of time, under the supervision of their own teacher.  Being polite about it, this did not actually teach many people much about how to use the language they were learning.  It often benefitted those who were good at learning a script rather than showing who understood the language they were being tested on.  There was also quite a lot of scope for “confusion” about how much guidance a teacher could give.

Given these considerations, it perhaps unsurprising that the Government has returned to a “final exam” style of assessment.  However, there are a couple of points which are causing some stress to students (and their teachers!). The first of these is the return of the translation test.  At Foundation Level this is a number of short sentences to be translated individually.  Higher Level Candidates have a short paragraph written in English, to be translated into the target language.  “Return?” I hear you say, questioningly.  Yes – the return.  I am certainly showing my age but I remember this section from my own GCSE language exams.  Translation is a key element of being able to use a language – after all, most learners at this level are essentially translating everything in their heads anyway before they dare to say it in the target language – so why be daunted?

In addition, students are asked to write a range of different types of language in the same time period (i.e. during the exam).  You may, for example, be asked to write an article for a school newspaper, or it may be a letter (formal or informal).  Make sure you know how to set out each different type of writing, and remember to include your town, the date, a greeting and a closing if it is a letter!

Enough then about the differences between this new curriculum and the old one – how to score maximum marks is what is of most interest to us. One key point is to answer the correct number of questions!  For some questions you will have a choice of which question to answer.  Don’t try to answer them all as you will run out of time, and some of your answers will be ignored.  Try to pick the question for which you have the most ideas that you can express in your target language, and be sure to cover each bullet point.

In order to score well you should also show a range of grammar knowledge and constructions.  GCSE examiners are very keen to give out points – it’s a bit like Tinkerbell and fairy dust! Sadly, if there is nothing there to see, then the dust won’t stick.  Higher Level candidates should try to include as many of the following list as possible:

– A range of tenses (past, present and future as a minimum, but for a higher mark then present, perfect, imperfect, future, conditional and pluperfect if possible);

– Complex grammatical structures – e.g. um…zu for German, après avoir +infinitive and avant de +infinitive for French;

– A range of people doing the verbs (to show you can use correct endings);

– Opinions (3 different ways of showing what you think);

– Modal verbs (can, should, must);

– Word order: especially for German but also with French (adjective order);

– Correct endings depending on gender (and “case” for German);

– Time phrases – not just “at 12 o’clock” or “tomorrow” but also “rarely”, “often”, “never”, “always”, etc.;

– A negative or preferably two;

– A question where possible.


Additional things for all candidates to think about:

– NEVER leave an answer blank.  An intelligent guess is more likely to gain marks than a blank (which is guaranteed not to score at all!);

– Pay careful attention to the use of tenses in the translation section.  Past, present or future DOES make a difference and you should be able to recognise which one is needed;

– Watch out for the little words that can make all the difference. Words like “not”, “already”, “never” etc. can change the whole meaning of a sentence and provide the key information for answering the question successfully, especially in the case of the translation passage.


Teri Fleetwood is an experienced language tutor with over 10 years experience of tutoring to the GCSE and A Level curriculum.  For more information please look at the rest of the posts in this blog and also check our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/LanguageLearnersSurrey/  If you would like to discuss 1:1 or small group tuition, whether for exam preparation or pleasure, then do get in touch!  teri@language-learners.com

Exam Tips – The Reading Exam

Exam Tips – The Reading Exam

There are some ways that you can prepare yourself before you even read a word of the actual paper.  Make sure that you know how long each exam is. What are the requirements of that paper? What will you need to do for each section and how long should you spend on it? Which paper is to be taken on which day? Be sure to prepare for the right one!

Time management is key in exams.  Take your watch off and put it on the table in front of you. Make sure that you don’t get so involved in one section of the paper that you forget to leave enough time to do the rest!


So, now let’s look at the reading exam itself.  Extracting the important information from a text in your target language is a key skill and probably one of those that you will use most in real life – from menus to museum leaflets.  A few key tips could make a significant difference in the way you approach this part of the assessment and also in the score that you receive.

The reading paper presents a range of text types from picture-heavy “adverts” to extracts from works of literature.  One of the first things I would say is that you shouldn’t allow yourself to be intimidated by the literature component – the extracts have been chosen very carefully and the key parts will be using the vocabulary and grammar that you have already been taught.

The main hints that I have for the reading exam are these:

  • When it comes to the reading paper, make sure you read the questions BEFORE you read each text! It may sound odd, but the questions will give you a good idea of what the text is about. Then you can read the text and already have in mind which information is likely to be important.
  • NEVER leave an answer blank. An intelligent guess is more likely to gain marks than a blank, which is guaranteed not to score at all!
  • Watch out for the little words that can make all the difference. Words like “not”, “already”, “never” etc. can change the whole meaning of a sentence and provide the key information for answering the question successfully.
  • Check WHO is doing the action in the sentences. It is not uncommon to find that someone does the action mentioned in the question, but not necessarily the person you might think.  For example, if Jenny is talking about her weekend and says that her brother tidied his room, then tidying the room is NOT an activity that Jenny did!
  • Practise question words and question formation. Some of the tasks may be explained in your target language rather than in English, so do be sure that you can understand what you need to do.
  • Remember to answer the questions in the language in which they are set. So, if the question is written in English then answer in English.  If it is written in your target language, then answer in the target language.
  • Look carefully at the tenses! There will probably be occasions when an activity in the question is mentioned in the text, but in a different time frame.  For example, don’t get confused between what a character did last weekend and what they plan to do next week.
  • Likewise with the section which requires translation into English. The text itself is quite short but it will be full of little details which make all the difference.  Tenses are important again, as are negatives, time phrases and prepositions.  Try to fit in all the little bits of information in order to gain maximum marks.

Try to get as much practise of the reading paper skills as you can.  BBC Bitesize offers a range of resources to help you and there are also revision books that you can get which have the answers in the back so you can check how you are doing.  As with so many things, little and often is key, so start revising soon!


Teri Fleetwood is an experienced language tutor with over 10 years experience of tutoring to the GCSE and A Level curriculum.  For more information please look at the rest of the posts in this blog and also check our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/LanguageLearnersSurrey/  If you would like to discuss 1:1 or small group tuition, whether for exam preparation or pleasure, then do get in touch!  teri@language-learners.com