This month I am kicking off a series of blog posts on exam tips and techniques with the Oral exam.  GCSE Oral exams will be taking place in April, which leaves a scant three months of revision and preparation time.  This year it will be causing particular concern to some students, parents and teachers, as the recent curriculum changes (bringing in the 9-1 marking scheme) also saw the abolition of the Continuous Assessment (or “have as many goes as you need, with lots of preparation, until you get it right” option). 

So, if you have just 10-12 minutes or so to wow the examiner and get the best possible mark, what preparation can you do?

1.    Firstly, be sure to look at the specification for the exam board that you are doing.  They are all freely available online, and your teacher may have given you some information already.  In general, there will be a picture card section, a role play and a conversation – do you know how long each one lasts?  How long do you have to prepare?

2.    Use your preparation time wisely.  You will have a few minutes (10 or so) in a room with an invigilator.  During this time you won’t have access to a dictionary or smartphone.  The idea is that you look at the picture topic and prompts and plan the role play.  For the Edexcel board you are allowed to write notes on up to one side of A4 paper.  You must not read out full sentences from your notes, so use keywords only – maybe past participles or verbs to remind you to use them – even a simple list of the things to remember like tenses, adjectives, smile etc.

3.    Your teacher has probably given you a list of likely topics/questions. Ensure that you understand ALL of them and that you can recognise them quickly.  If you have been encouraged to write sample answers for each question then accept that you may not remember each answer in full – that’s like learning a script.  Instead, try to learn keywords for each area and if necessary be willing to stretch the truth in order to demonstrate your language skill, rather than stick rigidly to what you really think/did.  E.g. if you spent last weekend windsurfing in Cornwall but can’t remember how to say so, then tell the assessor that you went to the cinema with your friends to see a comedy!

4.    Your assessor will give you a chance to demonstrate past, present and future tenses. So make sure you recognise the clue in the question (ie “What did you do last weekend” = past, “What do you like to do at the weekend” = present, “What will you do next weekend” = future).

5.    Learn some panic vocabulary. Swapping from your target language into English to say “I don’t understand” will lose you marks – doing it in French/German/other target language will lose you fewer marks and may gain you some for effective communication!  Remember that for some parts of the exam the assessor is only allowed to repeat what they said, not to change the words at all.

6.     When it comes to the picture prompt, it is always a good idea to have practised a couple first.  Do remember to try to link your description of the photo to the topic where possible.  So if the topic is “Work” and you have a picture of a young man serving an elderly couple, try to include the words “waiter”, “restaurant” or “hotel” in your answer as well as describing what they are wearing/doing/eating.  Remember that the prompt words are there to give you an idea of what will be asked.  The assessor will not use those exact words during the conversation, but will formulate a question around each (from their script).

7.    Know how to formulate questions in your chosen language. For example, does the word order change when you make a question instead of a statement? What are the different question words and what do they mean? Can you recognize them all?  You will have to ask a question as part of the role play, so do practise relevant questions for each topic.

8.    Consider your choice of conversation topic carefully.  For example, for Edexcel you can choose one of the two topics and have a minute or so to talk about it before being asked questions on other themes in that topic.  You could select one of the themes you are LESS confident with so that you have the maximum amount of time possible to prepare, or you could just hope that it doesn’t come up in the exam and choose one that you know really well instead.

9.    Grammar!  In order to get higher marks you will have to demonstrate a range of grammar knowledge.  See how many of these you can include in your conversation…

– A range of tenses (past, present and future as a minimum, but for a higher grade add imperfect, 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 two

 10. Take time to take a deep breath or two as you go into your oral. Remember to smile. And when you run out of things to say, stop and smile confidently rather than trailing off in the middle of a sentence…

I hope that these tips are helpful.   For more hints and techniques, check out the rest of the blog series on exam preparation for GCSE, coming 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  If you would like to discuss 1:1 or small group tuition, whether for exam preparation or pleasure, then do get in touch!