Sunday, 12 November 2017

Preparing for the new A-Levels

This weekend I had the pleasure of spending my Saturday with colleagues at a conference on preparing for the new A-Level hosted by the wonderful ALL Yorkshire, with Robert Pike and Rachel Tattersall presenting.  I can’t possibly do justice to everything that was presented, but below are some of the things that I took away from today, and the thoughts I had whilst listening to the presentations.  A lot of the comments below are specifically AQA, but the general gist will apply to any board.

1. Get the information from the exam board websites now! 

You need to get yourself familiar now with the exam structure, especially for the speaking exam.

It was news to me that for the A-Level, the candidates only have 5 minutes preparation time, and this is done in front of the examiner! Not only that, but although they only do one stimulus card, they have to ask 2 questions. The devil truly is in the detail!

The advice on conduct of the examinations is up on the website (e.g. ) so now is the time to trawl through the website to get what you need.

On the German A-level page there are the detailed instructions for the speaking test, and commentaries on sample answers for both the essay paper and the speaking test.

You should also have had an advisor assigned to your school for the Independent Research Project.  If you haven’t heard (I haven’t!), chase it up with your exams officer.

2. Preparation for the exams

IRP -  My students have started their research, and they are now beginning to look towards how to turn that into something which can be used for the exam.  Timings are going to be crucial – those 2 minutes of presentation can earn up to 5 marks for AO4, so it’s important for this to be structured well, but of course, not so crammed that the students rush and become unintelligible. A 9 minute discussion is a long time, and it’s going to be crucial that they have enough material and considered thoughts on this to last this amount of time.

The training prompted me to go home and look at the form for the IRP (also on the website).  There is room for between 2 and 10 headings for the discussion. The more headings used, the more control the candidate will have over the direction of the discussion.


It was commented on that a mark of 0/10 for the translation into the TL was not uncommon.  Lots of small mistakes evenly distributed would lead to this, so training our students to be confident with grammar, and to look carefully at what is required (singular /plural; definite article / indefinite article) is essential.

How can we help in class?

Lots of practice of changing and manipulating language.  The old adage of making maximum use of any text you do in class still applies.  Getting students used to finding verbs but then change tenses, changing 1st to 3rd person (especially with irregular verbs in German), spotting the change in role and therefore the change in case – these are all things that come with regular practice.


I was intrigued to find out that examiners do count the words for the summaries.  They do allow for a few additional words, and will mark up to 10 words over the word-limit, up to the first natural break.  That means that candidates must stick to the bullet points, and be guided by the number of points awarded.

Tips to improve summaries:

·         Avoid introductions and keep to the bullet points.

·         Make rough notes first before doing the final summary – it will make it more concise.

·         Answer the bullet points directly.

·         In class, practise transcribing, especially focusing on verb endings, article spellings etc.

The essay

Examiners look first a AO4 (critical response).  Students need to demonstrate accurate and detailed knowledge, evidence from the text, and develop arguments and draw conclusions.  The best essays are not the long essays – 350 words are more than enough. They need to be tight, relevant and varied.  Encouraging students to choose their examples and quotes carefully and write with control, needs a lot of practice.  Robert Pike talked about using ExExExEx to get students to think about structuring paragraphs.

·         Express your point

·         Explain

·         Example

·         Extend and develop – this the part which will give candidates access to the highest marks for AO4

Personally, I use a variation on PEEL, and use it in my marking.

·         P – point

·         Eg – Example

·         Ex – Explanation

·         Ev – Evaluation

·         L – link to the question

By using this in my marking, the students have been able to see more clearly whether they have been making too many descriptive points, rather than developing ideas.

3.  Developing the knowledge of society and making it stick

One of the big concerns for this new A-Level is whether students have a good understanding of the knowledge of society, and can they recall this information quickly.  There is a lot of key information to remember, and although they don’t need specific figures, they do need to know trends, rough comparisons and be able to talk and comment about these and examples from the TL countries.

We need to help our students to get control over this by getting them to do summarising activities at the end of the topic.  This should also mean that they have an easy overview of the whole topic.

Favourites that were mentioned were making a mind map, summary page of facts, doing a poster, doing a presentation to the class with a word-limit on the slide to stop the dreaded put-a-text-up-then-read-it-out disaster.  I have several students who hate mind maps and posters, and are definitely bullet-point people.  I insist on a second column beside the stats and facts which states what conclusions they can draw from them.

4.  Combining fluency and knowledge of society

Getting our students confident enough to speak is often one of our big tasks in Y12.  There are lots of good, short activities to support this:

·         Speaking from word cloud prompts reinforces key ideas.

·         Using prompt cards with key language and a key idea that they have to include builds up their level of language.

·         Just a minute

·         Hot seating

·         Rank ordering (diamond 9, for example) with justification of their placings.

There were all ideas I already used, but I came across a couple of new ones that I liked:

Connect 4 – but instead of providing a word, they have to be able to answer the question e.g. How has family changed since 1960s?

Beetle Drive – 1 question for each side of the dice.  Students have to answer the relevant question to be able to cross off that particular square.  BUT (and this is the bit I really liked) if they throw the same number again, they have to add to their answer.

5.  And finally…. questioning

All the way through the training session, it occurred to me again and again how crucial the questions we pose in class are.  One question I really need to consider for myself is whether I’m spending enough time asking higher order questions that give students the opportunity to evaluate, analyse and compare aspects of the TL country.

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