Leaving Certificate language students ‘learning off’ exam answers

Leaving Certificate language students still rely strongly on rote-learned material, say teachers who mark exams.

In a series of reports on student performance in language exams last June, chief examiners say students must learn how to adapt, instead of using learned-off answers.

The issues were most acute in the 2016 Leaving Certificate exams in Spanish, French, and Italian.

There are many positive aspects, particularly about the competencies of more able students of the six languages, which also included German, Japanese, and Russian.

But in oral exams, which are worth between 20% and 25% of marks in language subjects, a common concern is that students have prepared answers.

The Spanish Leaving Certificate examiner reported, for example, that a number of students had been taught in a “rote-learning” manner that prevented the natural flow of conversation.

“Many candidates had prepared a range of topics in the general conversation, but, when gently disengaged from rote-learned topics, found it difficult to communicate effectively in the target language,” the reports said.

The reports are published today by the State Examinations Commission (SEC), whose chief examiner in Leaving Certificate French said most students were well-prepared for the orals and had a high degree of proficiency and fluency.

However, at the other end of the scale, some of the 25,758 students examined in the subject had difficulty answering even simple questions.

“Other candidates were hesitant to venture beyond the comfort zone of their prepared material, and, instead, relied on long sections of learned-off material,” the report said.

“If the examiner intervened gently, in order to try to elicit a more authentic response, many candidates persisted with their prepared paragraphs, rather than genuinely trying to take part in a conversation.”

In some class groups, every student spoke about liking the same TV programme, school subject, film or book, and all repeated the same few lines about a school tour, or what they did at the weekend or during the Easter holidays.

“At times, they all presented a document on the same theme,” the report said.

“In such cases, candidates appeared to view the oral examination as a test of memory, rather than as a personal, individual conversation where the examiner... is able to determine his or her level of oral proficiency.”

Many higher-level French students relied heavily on learned-off material in the written communication element of the June exam, using generic statements, cliches, or proverbs which were often inaccurately written.

French teachers have been told by the chief examiner to advise students not to try memorising paragraphs or essays from books or notes, but to use words and phrases they know in answering questions.

Among more than 500 students who did Leaving Certificate Italian, the chief examiner said memorising something for a role play in the oral exam was a disadvantage to students who over-relied on such material. In the written exam, there was evidence that some had only read an English translation of a prescribed foreign-language novel, or that their answers were based on the film version, instead of the book itself.

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