Insider Post: What the A-Level exams were really like

 As promised, this week the blog will shed a little light on exams in the school system and today I'm extremely honoured to present you with some notes from the front line! Tom Pandolfino has been sweating over this year's A-Levels and he's now one of millions of students anxious to receive their results tomorrow. In today's blog post, Tom lets us in on his thoughts about the last two years of language in the school system, and whether he thinks it was worth it.

International Readers: A-Levels are the UK's school leaving exams at 18, the senior high school is called "Sixth Form", and GCSE are the ones at about 16. They love exams in this country. 

Judgement day...? Perhaps for some!

For many young students, tomorrow is seen as the 'make it or break it day'. It’s already that time of year again in which we as students receive our A-level results. There is much pressure upon us to get those grades in order to go to the university of our choice or to go on with future life achieving the best possible results. I am sure that many finger nails will have been bitten to shreds! 

Transient

Having worked hard for the past two years and particularly hard in the last year, the summer time came around and it was time for my exams. Being stressed is an understatement as to how I felt. I can safely say that this was a shared feeling for the majority of my friends and other students. You really feel like your whole life depends on these exams, however sometimes you just need to remind yourself that it is not the end of the world and that there really are much worse and more serious things in life than writing on a piece of paper in timed conditions. 

In my own case, I feel nervous about the results tomorrow, but I maintain the mindset that it is all done now and I tried my best, so I cannot be tough upon myself, whatever is to happen. Yet at the same time I am very much looking forward to getting my results as I want to go on with the next stage of my life and start a new chapter at university! 

The beginning of the past two years...  

After my GCSEs, I personally decided to continue with my studies in the form of A-levels as I hoped to go on to study at university. Having been successful in both French and German at GCSE level, I decided to take the plunge and continue them both on as two of my A-level choices. 

Foreign languages had always intrigued me whilst I was at school, and I got so much satisfaction in communicating with others as there is so much to be learnt about our wonderful world! I still find it thrilling now talking in a different language as it allows you to see and feel the world in a different light. My other subjects that I decided to study for A-Level along with my languages were Economics and Government and Politics. These were subjects that I chose as I thought they would be relevant to and linked with languages, in a modern and inter-linked global world.

So what are these exams really like?

I spent my two years of sixth form working up to the A-Level exams, and after a total of 8 exams in the exam season just gone, I can happily say that I feel they all went well! Some of course were harder than others and there are always parts of the exam paper itself that were very difficult. You know that dreaded after thought of ‘wait...should I have written this instead?’ or ‘was it actually A and not B?’ Perhaps though as far as I am concerned the most difficult exams are the writing exams for the languages.

It is my belief that the speaking exams remain the most nerve-racking even though I feel that is where I am strongest. At the end of the day, my favourite part about language learning is using the language face to face and getting stuck in to conversation. In these exams, I noticed how much confidence I had gained in speaking the languages as I really pushed myself throughout my last year of A-levels to not just get an A-level grade in my languages but to actually try and be able to really USE them. It is such a shame in my opinion that many people will leave school, often having studied a language and sometimes even to a fairly advanced level, such as A-level standard, but will never use their skill. They will just let their knowledge fade away. 

Find out if it was worth the work

It really did soon become quite clear to me that having studied both French and German, I had reached quite a high level of proficiency from having done my A-levels. I can by no means claim that I speak them perfectly and I do not understand every single word that I hear or read, but I have achieved an intermediate or upper intermediate level in both languages. With the internet at my disposal I can log on and quite confidently have conversations in these languages about most subjects with people around the world. Of course once again I do not know every specific word related to fixing a car or to sky diving but I can make myself understood. For me that, is my goal: to make myself understood as best as I can. Of course I would hope that by doing this and learning from my mistakes my linguistic abilities will improve as time goes on. 

All in all, I would say that having taken languages as two of my subjects, I have had great fun. It is tough work whatever someone decides to do for their A-levels but languages in particular will require a lot of commitment to really try and get the best possible grades.

If anyone reading this is unsure whether to take a language or two or even three (I know someone who did this) for their A-levels, go for it! You will benefit so much from being able to understand and communicate even at a basic level and it is so much fun! It further shows that you are not afraid of a challenge! But to all those who get their results tomorrow I wish you all the best and I hope that you all get the grades that you want and can like me go on to the university of your choice! 

 You can follow Tom on YouTube, and please do leave a comment to wish the guy good luck for tomorrow!

Guest Post: It's language, Jim, but not as we know it

Welcome to a particularly exciting week for millions of young people here in the UK. It's A-Level results week! The rush for university places UCAS Clearing season is on and everyone's focusing on exams. In this week, we'll have a couple of guest posts from experts, starting with tutor Sally Holmwood. In this article, she revisits what it is that we are learning for: exams or life?

International Readers: A-Levels are the UK's school leaving exams at 18, and GCSE are the ones at about 16. They love exams in this country.

It’s Language, Jim, But Not As We Know It!

The things you leave school knowing – some dates and long division – so much of it has been of no use to me. Schools should teach the basics of cookery, first aid, how to look after your money and how to speak foreign languages – useful things.
— Jane Asher, actress

Jane Asher is right – languages are useful. Yet, as one BBC article illustrates, for some time there was a worrying decline in their take-up amongst pupils at GCSE. Another article written since then reports a change for the better. But the question remains: What could be dampening young people’s enthusiasm for learning languages? 

Lingo show picture ©bbc, exam pic © albertogp123  on Flickr

Lingo show picture ©bbc, exam pic ©albertogp123 on Flickr

Live, Love, Learn…

I think back fondly to my experience of learning languages at school as a time of great discovery. I went on excursions to Dieppe and the Moselle Valley (editor's note: hey look that's where I am from!) and took part in exchanges (like those you read about in my previous guest post). I was actively encouraged to venture beyond the confines of the language syllabus and spent time reading books and magazines and listening to German radio stations at home. The more opportunities I had to explore and to take control of my own learning, the more enthusiastic I became about languages.

Once a week, we had a conversation class with a native speaker.  There was an obligation to practise certain things in those lessons but spontaneity/fluidity of general conversation was important too. 

Conversation Killer?

Remembering those classes, when I began work as a private tutor myself, I did not hesitate to lead into lessons with a few minutes’ general conversation in the target language. The first lesson after a school holiday was the perfect opportunity to practise a variety of tenses and grammatical constructions with questions to engage my pupils. Following one half-term holiday, I began a general conversation with one of my pupils. “Was hast du letzte Woche gemacht? Wie war das Wetter? Was hast du am Liebsten gemacht? Was willst du während den nächsten Schulferien gern machen?”  

At first they looked confused. Then they thrust a piece of paper towards me in indignation: “I have not learnt those questions – I have learned these questions.” Once upon a time, even pupils who were less confident might have bravely attempted to answer such spontaneous questions. These days, however, the approach to modern language learning seems far more (painfully) formulaic.

Testing Times!

Many of my younger friends sat their GCSEs last year, studying hard until the bitter end and earning grades to be proud of! Yet some say that, even after years of learning a language, they still feel barely able to string sentences together in spontaneous foreign conversation! However, the paragraphs they had memorised in response to the set oral questions remain etched on their brains…

I do love the way that children’s television is embracing foreign languages with shows like the carefully researched “The Lingo Show” for its younger viewers. It is a great way to inspire young children to learn. As those youngsters move up through the education system, the pressure will be on their teachers not just to hit targets and climb league tables but to keep pupils’ interest in learning foreign languages alive! 

Less isn’t always more

If given more opportunities to engage in general conversation and to respond to general questions, rather than listening out for rote clues to rote answers, pupils will start to feel happier and more confident to use the languages that they are learning. They will get more enjoyment out of using those languages and feel inspired and motivated to continue learning them. 

Next time you come to practise your language skills, consider your reasons for learning the language. Are you listening out for specific phrases so that you can give the one reply that you've learned for them? Or do you hope to take the language you have learned and be able to adapt it for use in real-life situations? For if you do, then perhaps it’s time to look for a more flexible approach to your language-learning..

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: SherlockBonesThe Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who.

You have GOT to follow Sally on Twitter or Facebook, she is fab! And don't forget to check out her tutoring services at Indigo Languages.