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Learning French

Are you studying Advanced Higher French? Are you worried about your upcoming speaking exam and subsequent written exams? You’ve come to the right place – I got an A ((Band 2, but still an A!)) in the subject in 2009, and I’d like to pass on what I have learnt. Here is my advice on all things French:

Wilf’s Guide to Advanced Higher French

Advanced Higher Speaking

The format

This is how it works.

A couple of weeks before the exam, your teacher must send the SQA the topics which you would like to talk about. It’s normal to recommend 2 or 3 main topics. You will also need to speak about your work in the Extended Reading/Viewing Unit (that work which will end up in your folio).

For me, I chose the topics of the internet and immigration, and my folio contains a background essay about French cinema, and an essay on some poetry of Jacques Prévert, so I would have to speak about (at least one of) them too.

The speaking is worth 25% of your overall grade, that is 50 of 200 possible points. You are awarded points in steps of 10, starting at 0, then 10, 20, 30, then 40, with 50 the maximum score. This means you can’t get 45/50.

On the day, the examiner will arrive and introduce him/herself. There’s probably more than one of you in your class, and the examiner will have already decided the order of speaking – probably alphabetically. For me, that meant last. The examiner will prepare, and then ask the first speaker to join her.

The exam will take place in an empty room, ideally in a quiet area of the school, with just you and the examiner, along with the tape recorder. The examiner will probably introduce herself, in English, and will explain what I’m about to explain. She’ll confirm your choices of topic, but you can narrow them, reorder them, and probably even change them if you want.

After that, she will begin the exam which will go as follows:

  • The Icebreaker
    • The idea of the icebreaker is to relax you and to warm up your French for the main event coming next.
    • The icebreaker can go anywhere, and it only really ends when the conversation dries up. It will probably start with the examiner asking you about your subjects and school, your future plans, interests and so on – just like Standard Grade and Higher. After speaking French (nearly) effortlessly for several minutes, you will feel a lot more confident about the rest of the exam. And so you should.
    • It should last 2 to 5 minutes. The longer you make it last – by being interesting and perhaps asking questions yourself – the less time you will have to spend on the other (arguably more difficult) parts of the exam.
  • Main Topics
    • This section can really go anywhere, though it’s probably best to stick to the topic at least tangentially.
    • Your examiner will know which topics you want to discuss and in what order. After the icebreaker, she will launch straight into the first topic.
      • In my exam, she said something like “So, you said that you want to about the internet”,  followed by something as broad as “What interests you most about the internet”. From then, it really is yours for the taking.
    • In the rest of the Advanced Higher course, you will have studied various topics (immigration, environment, Europe etc.) – this is what you should be talking about. Anything which you learned here, any sentences that you wrote or opinions held – that’s what you should be talking about. You’ll know where you know the most.
    • If you want to, you could make this whole section about just one topic – just be as interesting as possible.
    • The main topics will last for the majority of the 20 minutes; It will take up whatever isn’t by the 2-5 minutes of the icebreaker and the 5 minutes of the final section, but if the examiner thinks you’re doing really well, it can last longer.
    • If your exam lasts longer than 20 minutes – great! It means you’re doing very well and the examiner is interested in what you’re saying. The examiner would not do so if your exam was a disaster, for your own sake.
  • Folio Pieces
    • You may or may not have written your folio essays yet.
      • If you have, it means you can talk about what is in the essay, and your thoughts will already have been formed.
      • If you haven’t, it means you can talk about what you intend to write in your essays, or you could use the opportunity to talk more generally and critically about the topics.
    • If you are writing about a book/play/poems/film, the examiner might ask you your opinions on the work, much like you’ll be writing about in your essay.
      • If find that it’s often easier to say that you don’t like something, because it’s easier to think of reasons and you are presenting opinoins that the examiner probably doesn’t often hear. The same might not be true for you.
    • If you have trouble finding things to say, broaden the discussion by talking about other things you have read in French, or compare the French literature (etc) with that which you studied in English.
    • If you are asked about your background essay, like I was, again just try and be as informative as you can and give opinions were possible.
    • This section should last about 5 minutes – which isn’t actually very long in the grand scheme of things; just 2:30 per essay. It’s comparable in length to the icebreaker.

The exam should last 20 minutes ((At least!)). Honestly, you won’t have trouble filling the time. I know you probably hear this all the time from your teacher, but I’ve been there: it flew by.

Once the tape stops, do what the hell you want: jump for joy, become an hero, ask the examiner for a bit of feedback (she probably won’t give you much if anything, thought she will tell your teacher more) and thank her. Then leave feeling so relieved to have that load taken off your shoulders.

How to make a good impression

Ideally your grade would depend solely on what you say and how you say it, but just perhaps the examiner will be more favourable towards you if she likes you. Here’s all I can think of:

  • Go in smiling
    • If nothing else, it will make you feel better.
  • Be enthusiastic
    • Show a genuine interest in French and what you talk about
    • Ask the examiner questions

What topics should you choose?

You know what topics you’ve learned, and you know which ones you know more about. I recommend that you pick the topics which most interest you, because preparing for the exam – thinking about these topics all the time – is hard enough as it is. You don’t want to be slitting your wrists a few days before the exam out of complete boredom. You will probably know more about the topics in which you’re interested, and have your own opinions, which will make it easier to say a lot in the exam.

How to lead the conversation

  • The thing to remember is that the examiner wants you to lead, she wants you to do your best and that means talking about the areas that you’re most comfortable with. However she can’t know what these are unless you tell her.
  • It’s really simple how to do this:
    • If the examiner asks what you want to talk about – tell her! (Though you must have already decided what it is you wish to talk about)
    • If the examiner starts to ask you about something that you don’t want to talk about, blatantly change the topic, for example say:
      • “Oui, je le trouve très interessant, mais je suis plus intéressé par…”

That’s it – if you want to change the topic, just let the examiner know

What to say when you’re stuck

You probably won’t get stuck. If you do, the examiner will be able to tell. You could choose to be honest and say that you’re stuck, or you could make up an excuse (might even win some extra points with some creativity)!

Here are some things you could say:

  • Could you repeat the question?
  • I don’t have anything else to say on this topic
  • I would actually really like to talk about…

How to prepare

  • Read over all your notes from Advanced Higher.
  • Make sure you know what you know.
    • That way when the topic turns to, say, environment, you know that you can turn about perhaps:
      • Renewable Energy
      • Recycling
      • Nuclear Power
  • Likewise, develop your opinions before the exam.
  • Listen to French to get your ear in.
  • When you’re ready, do complete exam run-throughs with your teacher. No English for the whole 20 minutes. (I found them really useful.)
  • Basically: practise practise practise.


  • The examiner is there to make sure you do the very best that you can
    • The natural assumption is that the examiner is trying to trip you up and force mistakes, but quite the opposite is true. She really does want to encourage you – if she notices struggling she will change the topic, she will be as general as possible to allow you to define the topic, and she will try and make you feel as comfortable as possible.
  • Make sure the tape is recording!
    • Perhaps the examiner will first test the tape by recording something onto it and then playing it back. If she doesn’t, you could ask her to. At the very least, make sure you can see the tape turning  There could be nothing worse than having to redo the exam.
  • Speak clearly
    • The examiner will choose your grade after listening to the tapes again; if she can’t hear you very well, it could adversely affect your grade. Don’t speak too quietly or mumbly, but also don’t shout into the microphone because that could cause distortion.
  • Don’t look at the clock
    • It will distract your focus and that can never be a good thing when you’re concentrating so hard. Time will go quickly enough, but you have too many things to worry about. Not having much to say should really be the least of your worries – you’ve been accumulating things you can talk about all year.
  • Take in a bottle of water
    • You’re probably not used to speaking for such an intense period of time, and your mouth could easily dry up. It also gives you an excuse to take a couple of seconds if you need some time to think.
  • Don’t be afraid to lie!
    • The main purpose of the exam is to see how well you can speak and converse in French. That’s what you should focus on: your pronunciation, your conjugations and so on, rather than the content. As long as you can understand the examiner and the examiner can understand you, you’re making sense, and you aren’t making horrendous mistakes, you will get a good result. Remember: it doesn’t have to be perfect.
    • Officially, you are also supposed to demonstrate that you have learned about France during your studies, and that you have developed some opinions, but they are not as important. Say things that you don’t agree with, present alternative points of view, even change the subject – as long as you have something to say. You can fake knowledge and opinions, but you can’t fake a good command of the language.
  • Ask questions of the examiner
    • It’s a discussion and not an interrogation. By asking questions, you will show that you’re in total control of yourself, that you understand what’s going on and what’s being said and that you’re engaged with the topics. It’s how conservation actually works, after all.
  • Reward yourself afterwards
    • Whether or not you feel it went well – and it most likely will have gone better than you think – you’ll have worked so hard for long preparing for this exam that you deserve a treat and some time to relax. The rest of your exams aren’t for another 2 months; you can afford the time.

Reading & Translation


  • In my opinion, the difficulty of these exams varies quite widely from year to year. If you get a really hard paper – don’t panic, as everyone will probably find it hard.
  • I like to read the passage through before answering questions, but others like to dive straight in. You need to find out which suits you best.
  • You don’t have to do the questions in numerical order!
    • Remember the last two questions – the translation and the evaluation – carry by far the most marks. It might even be a good idea to do them first – I made the mistake of leaving these till last and ended up losing a lot of marks as I did not manage to finish them.
  • Practise using a dictionary quickly, but more importantly, only use it sparingly. Most times your guess is right – only check it if you know you have the time. Time is short in this exam.
  • It’s like a Standard Grade English exam, which just happens to be in French – you can do it, right?
  • Do all of the past papers.

Listening & Writing


  • The thing I was struck by was, after all of my practise, how easy the listening was. Sometimes I find listening difficult, but when completely tuned in and in exam-mode, I felt that it was a lot easier to understand the tape compared with practises in the classroom, and a lot easier than I had expected.
  • Use your ears. Conditions will be perfect for your exam, so you should be able to hear the words perfectly; that means your only task is to understand them.
    • Don’t latch on to specific words and just use them as the answer. You have to listen to whole sentences to understand the necessary context to answer the questions.
  • Jot down single words when the tape is running but then make sure you make your final answers understandable to the marker, preferably in proper sentences if you can.
    • Don’t be afraid to spend as long as you need refining your answers after the listening and before moving on to the writing.
    • One word answers probably aren’t OK for Advanced Higher.
  • If you’ve prepared, the writing is then easy. Looking through past papers, you will see that the same topics come up every year (environment, immigration, internet etc), but the specifics change. If you end up getting a question on which you’ve already written an essay – great! Just use that one. If not, there will always be one which you’ve nearly answered, and many more that you’ll know enough to write about.
  • This is so important: ANSWER THE QUESTION.
    • If you don’t, you could get nothing. Do not bend an existing essay to fit a question if it just does not fit. Markers can tell, and would much prefer to see a decent stab at the actual question than an adjustment to an old, unrelated essay.
  • In your essay, remember what you learned about good writing when you did English.
    • Spell correctly
    • Use topic sentences to start paragraphs
    • Give the essay a clear structure
    • Give your opinions and include any relevant facts which show you know about – and are interested in – the topic.
  • All of this is useless without practise: do all of the past papers.

My Experiences

My feelings when doing Advanced Higher French

My feelings a few days before my Advanced Higher French Speaking Prelim:

I have to go in tomorrow to work on my speaking prelim which I will be doing on the 6th. I find speaking French words hard enough; thinking them up on the spot is absolutely impossible. I’ve been spending the day thinking up sentences which I could use tomorrow, but whether or not they’ll be useful… I don’t know.

My feelings after my official Advanced Higher French Speaking exam:

Well? Yes – I’m happy. Judging by how much I had to say, and the rappore between me and the examiner – as well as feedback from the examiner to my teacher – I think that it went about as well as it could have done.

The irony of it all, is that now I feel semi-confident speaking French, I now never have to formally do it again. If only I could have got to this level of competence some time again! Such is life.

How I worked and prepared

This won’t be interesting to you, so I have just one thing to say: I studied 4 Advanced Highers (Maths, Physics, Computing and French). French required by far more work and effort than any of my other subjects; I did more homework for French than all my other subjects combined. Perhaps that was just a reflection on me, or on my teachers, or maybe it’s because it really is hard to do well in a foreign language subject.

Either way, I put in the work that was required, and although it was hard and I often felt like giving up, I knew it would be worthwhile in the end. It really was rewarding.

Although my evidence is anecdotal, I still think this is true: if you don’t do the work, you won’t get the grade. And, more importantly, you won’t get the understanding of French that you’ll need if you’re actually going to use it in life.

Good study resources

  • My school used the Scholar system, and for French I found it very useful; particularly the listening exercises. If your school provides access to this, make sure you take advantage of it.
  • My teachers were very helpful in providing materials. Take full advantage of yours.
  • Although I had no need to find other resources, I’m sure that there are plenty of websites about Advanced Higher French which aim to help you through the course.

Although not particularly high quality, here are a few grammar notes which I made at school:

Some of my essays

Here are some of my essays from Advanced Higher French. Feel free to read them to get ideas, but please do not plagiarise them. I put a lot of hard work into them, but in doing so I learnt a lot. If you just plagiarise them, you might look good, but you won’t have learned a thing. Also, if you were to use these as essays in an exam or your folio, the SQA compares them with previously submitted essays, and they’ve become good at detecting plagiarism.

Why I think you should choose to study French

Here’s why I chose to continue to study French after Standard Grade:

My choice was this: pick chemistry which would quickly bore me once all the fun stuff is out of the way, and which I would never pursue as a career, or, I could pick French, and actually come out of a skill which I could use in my spare time to read French, on holiday, or to work in a different country such as France. I realised that French would broaden my horizons so much more than chemistry, and that is why I chose it.

I’m so glad I did, because now: I can speak French. After the exams I felt that all of my hard work paid off, and that was confirmed when my results came. If you work hard, you will do well, and you’ll be left with a skill which you can use for your whole life.


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