L’oral d’anglais au bac

In a little over a month, all over France, students in their last year of lycée will be taking the written part of the baccalaureate exam. Right now most of them are taking their oral exams in English. I have been helping some of them with private lessons and recently I’ve received calls from others to help them prepare for the interview.

It is organized around four themes or “notions”: Myth and heroes, space and exchanges, places and power, the idea of progress. Throughout the year they have studied written and audio documents, as well as videos which relate to one or more of these themes. The day of the oral exam they will draw a slip of paper with one of the notions written on it. Then they will speak for five minutes about it before engaging in a conversation with the examiner. The goal of the interview is to evaluate their presentational skills as well as their ability to interact in English.

This particular type of exam has been used for at least three years now. It was intended to replace an older style which had the students studying documents and presenting an analysis of the document the day of the exam. Teachers chose the documents and spent all year telling students what they could say about the documents. The result was often a recitation of class notes which some students did not begin to understand. Although teachers are still choosing documents for their classes, students are free to use other documents if they wish. An opportunity that very few take advantage of. It was hoped that by focusing on notions rather than documents, the interview would be more open and spontaneous, a real exchange of ideas.

I fear that most students see it as a trap and are preparing for it as their older brothers and sisters did, by memorizing the notes they took in class. Or by memorizing the notes their friend took in class.

I’ve talked with several that are about to take the test and I understand their anxiety. They want to do well and have no confidence in their own ability to carry on a conversation with a “professeur” about an abstract notion. These are serious, hard-working students. Perhaps they haven’t always been, but today there is an important deadline staring at them and they’re ready to pull out all the stops. Their instinctive solution is to prepare (or borrow) a written text and then memorize it.

I’ve tried to convince them that instead of memorizing a page or two of written text, all they need to do is to memorize four questions. The day of the interview they answer the four questions.  This gives their presentation structure and a safety net for those moments of panic when their mind goes blank.

My four questions are based on the well-known essay generation technique: IDEA. It was originally explained to me many years ago by a young man from England. I = Identify. D = Describe. E = Explain. A = According to me. I modified it somewhat for my French students at that time. This is the old version:

I = Identify the document. What kind of document is it? Who wrote it? Where and when was it published?

D = Describe the document. Give a brief summary of the explicit content of the document.

E = Explain the document. Explain the implicit content. What does the document assume? What can we deduce? What is written between the lines?

A = Action/reaction. I didn’t want my students appearing pretentious by saying “According to me”. I asked them to react to the document, to say how it or the ideas it discussed touched them personally and to give a personal anecdote that was related to the subject. I considered this the most difficult, interesting and rewarding part of their presentation. For that reason I announced a grade scale based on the French system where grades are given over 20. I = 2 points. D = 4 points. E = 6 points. A = 8 points.

This form worked well for my students and I’ve been wondering how to adapt it to the slightly different conditions of today’s exam. This is what I came up with:

I = Interest. What is interesting to me about this notion/theme?  The students wanted to use the framework they would use for a written dissertation, beginning with a definition of the Theme. Now, how is a seventeen year old going to define “the idea of Progress” to a lycée professor? How boring can we get? I encourage them to leave the realm of memorized abstractions and make it personal, make it relevant. Why are they themselves interested in the idea of progress?

D = Document. What documents am I going to use to discuss this notion? The student gives a quick summary of the document or documents he wants to use.

E = Explain. What can we learn from these documents about the notion? Here the student discusses not what the documents say, but what they imply. He takes into consideration the context and possible bias on the part of the authors.

A = Action/reaction. What do I think about this? How does it touch me? Whenever possible the student should relate a personal experience which is relevant to the subject. Who is their own personal hero? What progress do they hope to see in their lifetime? Have they personally suffered from an abuse of power or witnessed an injustice? How do they interact and exchange with friends or strangers in other countries?

The students I have shown this framework to seemed to find it easy to grasp and left feeling empowered. I’m looking forward to seeing them next week and finding out how their interviews went. I’m convinced that their examiners will find them far more interesting than if they had gone in with their memorized texts. Examiners sometimes spend eight hours a day listening to students from the same class discuss the same documents and give the same arguments, and the interviews can last several days. I remember how grateful I was when a student came in and shared a few original ideas and we had a genuine conversation about something that interested them. A grateful examiner is always inclined to be generous.


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