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