If you’re a book fiend and love cheap resources, you’ll share my excitement for bargainous budget language guides for students taking school exams like GCSE French, German and Spanish. But you’ll be even more excited to learn that there’s a way to get this thematic, graded content for free.
Enter the humble exam specification document. All exam boards, like AQA and Edexcel in the UK, publish specifications for the qualifications they award. These PDF documents list all of the material students are expected to know in order to possess that competence, and serve as a checklist for teachers preparing students for exams. For foreign languages, that includes core vocabulary and structures, as well as cultural background information. Core vocab is frequently in glossary format, making it the stuff of dreams for systematic learners.
So where to find these little treasure troves of free learning? The first thing is to identify national exam boards that offer foreign language qualifications. I chose the GCSE as it’s the gold standard first stage school leaver certificate in England and Wales; change this as appropriate for whatever local qualification you are more familiar with. Google which boards run those qualifications, then mine their sites for subject pages, where you should find spec docs as downloadable PDFs. Check out AQA Spanish and Edexcel German for great examples.
When you drill down into these documents, you’ll find super-handy lists of topic-related words. But you can also find some really handy crib lists that aren’t simply lists of nouns under topic headings. What I find particularly useful are the round-ups of important function words, which you don’t often see in one place in a course book. Looking for a quick cheat sheet for connectives and sentence-builders in your target language? Bingo!
Roadmaps – to Plenty of Places!
Obviously, there is some limitation in terms of languages, with an obvious bias for mainstream school languages like French, German and Spanish. You simply don’t find many schools that are teaching Croatian, Swahili or Uzbek. But between AQA and Edexcel, I also counted Chinese, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Panjabi, Polish and Russian, so the choice is more impressive than you might fear.
Certainly, these spec docs are no comprehensive textbooks. For vocabulary, they can be a one-stop shop. But for grammar, you’re more likely to get a summary of features students should know, such as essential irregular verbs, or key tenses listed by name, but not fleshed out. That said, there is still huge value in that; see it as a kind of manifesto for what you, yourself, should be focusing on in the early stages of language learning. In this way, GCSE specs can supplement other learning materials as a kind of roadmap.
The Exam Spec Yardstick
As well as providing handy ‘how to’ guides for languages, there’s another benefit. It’s actually quite helpful to gauge your own competence against a national qualification. It gives you the confidence that you are performing in that language at a particular level. Many specs include links to wider levelling tools like CEFR (the A1-C2 scale) too, which is practically the currency of the polyglot community.
But specs can also provide the encouragement you need to seek accreditation yourself. If you have the knowledge and skills for GCSE French under your belt, why not sit GCSE French? There are plenty of further ed organisations that offer language GCSEs for adult learners – check your local colleges and universities to see what’s available.
It’s out there, waiting for you – a bunch of comprehensive, expertly curated resources to download for free. What gems have you found amongst the specs? Let us know in the comments!