Leaving Cert language students ‘struggle with basic vocabulary’

State examiners criticise the decision of some secondary pupils to take higher-level exams

A lack of the basics in Spanish prevented many candidates achieving a high grade last year, the State Examinations Commission has said. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Many students are opting to take higher level Leaving Cert exams in European languages even though they are struggling with basic vocabulary, according to examiners.

The comments are contained in reports by the State Examinations Commission into how students fared across key language papers in last year's exams.

In Spanish, for example, examiners noted that the number of students taking higher level have more than doubled in recent years, up from just in excess of 2,000 in 2010 to more than 4,400 last year.

But the proportion of students securing high grades has been falling, while there has been a big rise in D grades.


The proportion who received an E or F grade has more than doubled from 1.3 per cent in 2012 to 2.8 per cent last year.

“It was evident that there were quite a number of candidates, approximately 380 candidates, who attempted the higher level paper but who would have been better served taking the ordinary level paper,” the report finds.

Many of these candidates did not attempt key written answers and did not fully understand key topics.

Even with some good candidates, a lack of the basics in Spanish – such as numbers, days, dates, weather, basic tenses, correct gender – prevented them achieving a high grade.

Thorough revision

Examiners suggested that a thorough revision of Junior Cert vocabulary and grammar would be useful in preparation for the Leaving Cert exam, as a knowledge of basic Spanish is essential in order to participate successfully at this level.

The report also warned against resorting to rote learning of vocabulary, phrases and sentences, many of which students clearly did not understand.

In French, examiners found the majority of candidates were well prepared, with many achieving a high degree of proficiency and fluency.

At the other end of the scale, however, there were those who had difficulty in answering even simple questions.

In German, examiners found a broad range of ability and performance, from weak to excellent.

In oral exams, there were instances, however, where candidates, even those with a good command of the language, had difficulty in dealing with relevant deviations from or in-depth discussions of the topic in question.

‘Learned-off sentences’

“An over-reliance on learned-off sentences was often evident. This is both regrettable and unnecessary,” the examiners’ report found.

In writing, gaps in knowledge of vocabulary became evident as candidates were asked to give the finer details of comprehension texts and to try to piece them all together.

In other parts of the papers it also became evident that candidates found question words challenging.

Most candidates were able to write enough text to gain a reasonable mark in the written section, showing that they had a wide knowledge of many topics on the syllabus.

Some found it difficult, however, to score highly as it became apparent that they found expressing their opinion in a convincing way a challenge.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent