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2021 GCSE Language exam changes: the lowdown

I feel for Year 11. Not only was their last school year disrupted, but there has been also much in the media about the changes to the GCSE exams in the summer and the speculation has been endless and is still ongoing.


Speaking: less formal testing

As far as languages go, I have been wondering if there is a general sigh of relief about there being no formal speaking exam in the summer. Having done countless speaking exams during my studies, I have no doubt that they are right up there in terms of nerves!

However, there is still a speaking hurdle to overcome in terms of a ‘speaking endorsement’, which will be reported separately to the overall GCSE grade. Details have just been announced and these endorsements will be graded with pass, merit or distinction, so the grade will appear on the certificate as ‘Grade 9 with distinction’ or ‘Grade 5 with merit’ etc. It will be up to the individual class teacher how they approach the endorsement – but it will be done in normal lessons or online in case of a lockdown where schools are not open. 


Your chance to shine

Hopefully this endorsement will not be as stressful as the formal exam. To get a distinction, teachers will be looking for a very good level of interaction, extended answers with opinions and justification, unusual vocabulary, a range of accurate tenses, complex structures, and very good pronunciation. So not much has changed there, really! is a good indication of how to do well in this component. Although more of a guide of teachers, it gives some pointers of how to shine in class and hopefully get that distinction!


Listening and reading 

Many people have said that the other exams of listening, reading and writing will be easier this year, but this is not necessarily the case. Each of these exams is now worth 33% rather than 25% and so I would argue that more is at stake in each question. 


However, the main advantage this year in the listening and reading exams is that the amount of non-core vocab has been very much reduced. My tip would be to ensure an extensive knowledge of the vocab in the exam board specifications (links below) as not that many words outside of this list will come up. I get my pupils to highlight all the words that they know in this list and then have a rigorous learning programme for the words that are left (see blogs on independent learning).


Words, words, words

So, which words will come up that are not in the specification? AQA says that a small number of basic vocabulary items’ not in the syllabus may be present in the exams (for example, primary colours, cognates/near cognates) and all the exam boards have said that they will have a glossary for any words that are not easily guessed. 


Sounds easy? Well, with over 1300 words to learn for a language GCSE, vocab learning is no mean feat. However, at the time of writing with around six months to go, even by learning a few words a week, your son or daughter can gain a significant advantage in terms of acquiring a good vocab base to do well in the summer. Starting now will alleviate stress later in the year.


Brush up on exam technique 

I guess you could argue that a lack of unknown vocab makes listening and reading easier this year, but it is also the exam technique needed to do well in these components that is key. 


Practising past papers is a must. I would recommend compiling a list of synonyms that are frequently used, as the one word you are listening for is not likely to be said in the later questions – it will be replaced by a synonym or described in another way!

I would also suggest compiling a list of positive and negative opinion words and words used to negate sentences, such as never or scarcely – many candidates concentrate on the word they see in the question and miss the opinion or negation that goes with it. By way of example in the listening exam, a question may state, ‘ A- Thomas plays football every weekend’. However, the speaker may say, ‘Thomas dislikes football’ or ‘Thomas never plays football at the weekend’. The fact that the word football or weekend is mentioned throws the candidate and they may simply mark A as the answer. Practice definitely makes perfect in listening and reading as does looking for these distractors, of which examiners are very fond!


With shorter sentences and questions being redesigned for candidates from 2021, hopefully the focus will be more on understanding, rather than memory in listening. Both listening and reading papers will have less inference questions, so they will be easier to access, which can only be good thing.  


Changes to the Writing paper

Finally, the writing paper, where are significant changes this year. There is likely to be more choice of questions, which I am sure will be very welcome. In AQA foundation tier, there will be 3 options for the last question and there will be 3 options in both writing questions in AQA higher tier. This means that there is a much higher possibility that your son or daughter’s favourite topic will come up! 


In Pearson Edexcel, the questions have been shortened and the reference to time frames and which tense to use is clearer. In all exam boards, the words for the translation question will be from the vocab list so another reason to get highlighting!


Little and often!

After so much disruption, I hope that the changes will benefit all students, no matter what they hope to achieve. I certainly welcome the changes to the exam components and, having seen the example papers (available on the websites), I believe that they are more streamlined and candidate friendly.


The motto now for your son or daughter should be ‘little and often’ – learning a few words a day or 10 minutes of listening or reading a day can make a significant impact to their grade in the summer. 


Best of luck to you all! 


For vocab lists, go to the French/German/Spanish specification at:

Lynette Ketchell has worked as an examiner for over 20 years and tutors German and French for