Exam Times: Languages


Packed full of expert, practical advice, this language special will help you develop effective study and revision techniques for your exams in June. Click here to download full supplement (7MB).

Browse our tabs below to read top tips from A1 students in English, Irish, French, German and Spanish:




Kathy McGrath, a student of The Institute of Education who achieved an A1 in her Leaving Cert Higher Level English exam last year explains how she got top marks:

“So many people give up on English because they think it’s a subject that you have to have some unattainable, innate ability for, and that there’s only so much study that can be done. So how did I get an A1 in English? I worked really hard. Preparation and practice are key to maximising your grade.

You’ve probably learned by now that the system doesn’t care whether you’re the next Shakespeare or Yeats if you can’t distill your skill within the time constraints of the two exams. Timing was always my Achilles’ heel, so I trained until I got better at it. As the year went on, I would give myself less and less time to get essays done until, leading up to the exams, I would practice under exam conditions. Have an hour to do some English study? Do a reading comprehension. Most of your study should involve actively writing – it’s the only way you’ll improve.

In paper one, I would sometimes struggle to think of what to write about (an exam hall is probably the place most devoid of inspiration imaginable). So for fear of suffering paralysing writer’s block, I collected ideas about different topics throughout the year. I read the newspaper whenever I got the chance, particularly the opinion pieces. Watching TED talks on youtube was a revelation – inspiration condensed into video format!

For paper two, what helped me most was knowing my texts really well. Steer clear of falling into the panicked trap of learning off pre-prepared answers. The chances of you being able to slot one of those into a question asked in the exam are slim to none. Understand your texts, know your quotes and you’ll be able to deal with anything. Also, answer what you’re asked! Focus in on key phrases in the question and structure your response in a way that answers every element. You won’t get marks for irrelevant waffle, no matter how eloquent it might be!

Finally, let your personality permeate what you write. Be different. This applies to paper two as well – have an unorthodox opinion about a character? As long as you can back it up, include it! If you can pique an examiner’s interest amidst their mountains of corrections by showing that you can form your own original thoughts and ideas about something, you’re on to a winner.

Good luck!”


Cian Murphy, a student of The Institute of Education who achieved an A1 in his Leaving Cert Higher Level Irish exam last year breaks down the paper section by section:

“Ná bí buartha! For me, a great deal of confidence and self-esteem came about having done the Irish oral. The aim of the game here is to keep talking! Even if you make a few grammatical/pronunciation errors over the course of the conversation, they won’t bear massively on your grade. Should you become aware that you’ve made a mistake, however, don’t be afraid to correct yourself. I would strongly advise knowing the 20 Sraith Pictiúr inside-out. Not only do they come at the beginning of the oral and get you off to a good start but they also provide you with vocabulary on various topics such as the economy and education/health systems, which can prove invaluable when attempting an essay, story or debate in the Ceapadóireacht section of Paper I in June.

The first of the written papers is, in my opinion, the easier of the two. The Cluaistuiscint takes place first so it gives you a real opportunity to settle down. How to practice? Bí ag éisteacht! Tuning in to RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta every couple of days really boosted my ability to listen to Irish speakers at a natural and fluent speed. This helped hugely in catching as much information as possible at the one time, as each track in the Cluaistuiscint is played only twice.

Next comes the the Ceapadóireacht. The most important thing to bear in mind when attepmting anything here is to maintain a ‘ceangal cinnte leanúnach’ (definite, continuous connection) with the title. I found that a good plan really contributed to any success in this section. You have two whole hours to complete the composition so make a solid foundation and show the examiner exactly where you’re going. Grammar wise, know where to use the séimhiú and úrú and make sure to give plenty of examples of the Tuiseal Ginideach and Briathar Saor.

Paper II involves two reading comprehensions as well as questions on studied literature. I found it useful to do the paper backwards, i.e. start with the literature questions and finish with the comprehensions. In that way, my time wasn’t consumed by looking for answers in the reading comprehensions. The most important thing with the literature questions is to have a a good basis on all pieces of prescribed prose and poetry and not hedge your bets on what came up last year!

Go n-éirí libh go léir!”


Edwina Hilton, a student of The Institute of Education who achieved an A1 in her Leaving Cert Higher Level French exam last year shares her insights:

“The most important advice I could possibly give to any student facing the Leaving Cert French Higher Level paper in June would be to immerse yourself in the language as much as is possible between now and then.

I attribute my grade primarily to all the extra work I did outside of class time and homework. French is a living language and one is not going to improve by simply devouring class notes.

The French exam is different in that literally any topic could come up across the any part of the paper from particular subjects and vocabulary in the listening comprehension to the titles of the own opinion questions. Therefore it is imperative that you have a good and confident command of the language so that you are able to think on your own feet if surprised with a question on the day, in either the oral or aural and written exam. This will not just enable you to understand the questions being asked and show off what you have learned, but it will also give your work an individual and original dynamic that is vital in order to achieve the top grade.

The Leaving Cert year is evidently really tough in terms of time management and the idea of going outside what is required of you can appear daunting and overwhelming. However, by simply watching French movies as a form of relaxation during study breaks, listening to French music or reading a book when travelling can dramatically improve your linguistic skills and fluency. Even if you find it difficult to understand, it is far from a waste of time!

In terms of literature, I started out with simple children’s books moving to well-known translations I had already read in the English language. I also had the opportunity to converse weekly on a one to one basis. Constant oral practice is really key to securing the A grade in the oral and even doing this with a friend is a really great habit to get into! If this resource is not available to you, reading your notes aloud can help as well as recording yourself and playing it back whenever you have a chance.”



Eleanor O’Riordain, a student of The Institute of Education who achieved an A1 in her Leaving Cert Higher Level German exam last year offers up her top tips:

“Languages are all about immersion. The more vocabulary you can cram into your head, the better the exam will go. Although practicing exam technique is a crucial part of German, it’s tough to get the motivation sometimes to complete endless comprehensions and letters. It’s really easy to underestimate the aural exam, but it’s worth twenty percent of your overall mark and could be the deciding factor of your final grade. You need to practice aural at least once a week, and try and write down as much information as possible for each question, and get as comfortable with the sometimes very difficult to interpret accents that are used in the tapes.

Speaking your oral vocabulary out loud is also an essential technique before your oral exam. Your marks will rise considerably the better you know your oral material, as topics that are common in the oral also have a habit of making an appearance in the written and aural exams, especially in the short note and letter .

The past and conditional tenses are really important topics, they are difficult to get to grips with, but if you can show a really good grasp of them, you’ll really impress the examiner and increase those all-important expression marks!. If you can arrange practice orals in your school, even just among your fellow students, you’ll become much more comfortable with speaking the language, especially as it’s likely you’ve never had the opportunity to speak German out loud before!

What really made the difference for me was downloading my favourite books in German. I got both the print version and the audiobook, and I would listen and follow along with the text. This really helped with several parts of the exam. Listening to the tape helped with extracting the meaning of large passages for the aural and helped improve my pronunciation for the oral. Reading the text shows you how to write realistically in German and also helps with the difficult vocabulary and grammar used in the first comprehension on the paper.

The main thing is to become as familiar as you can with the format of the paper and work out how much time there is available to complete each section of the paper, and as a last piece of advice, always ALWAYS remember to refer to your oral examiner in the polite form, and rehearse any greeting you will give them, a confident start will both impress them and calm your nerves before the real questions start. I wish you all of you the best of luck with your leaving cert German examination, and into the future!!”



Erika Cooper, a student of The Institute of Education who achieved an A1 in her Leaving Cert Higher Level Spanish exam last year spills her secrets of success:

“When studying any language, it is important to realise that consistency over a long period of time is key. Last minute cramming may have its place but it probably won’t save you and the stress isn’t worth it. That said, it’s never too late to start putting more work in. You can still make up for lost time with more quality-filled study time and I’m going to suggest a few ways that you can do it.

If you want to rise above the ordinary, it is essential that you can rely on a basic knowledge of Spanish as a given. You cannot afford to make straightforward grammatical mistakes as that is what may ultimately separate the A from the B student. So make sure you are confident about the fundamentals of the language. A strong vocabulary is also extremely important as it both enriches your written work and gives you a better chance of understanding the text in the exam paper. I found that learning a few new words a day, ideally along with a synonym in each case, and noting them daily in a dedicated notebook was a do-able approach to expanding my vocabulary. Tackling a manageable number of words daily makes the process less daunting and is a lot more productive time-wise.

Know the format of the exam papers inside out and do as many of them as you can. While practicing past papers, I highlighted words and phrases I didn’t understand; however, I only looked them up after I had tried to answer the questions in order to best replicate exam conditions. There are always likely to be words that you don’t understand in a paper but that’s to be expected: it’s how you cope with this situation that matters and you improve your chances of doing so by experiencing the sort of conditions you could encounter on exam-day. And when finally it comes to doing the ‘real’ written exam, stick to what you are asked: in my own case, while writing my opinion piece, I constantly re-read the question to ensure that I was not going off track in my answer (this of course applies to all aspects of the exam!).

With regard to the oral test, practice is crucial: talk aloud to yourself or to a friend as the more you speak, the more comfortable you will be. The key is to be as natural as possible – avoid learning passages off by heart so that you don’t risk a ‘trigger’ word from the examiner setting you off in the wrong direction, loosing marks in communication. While this sounds challenging, the focus is not to have perfect, complex Spanish but rather clear coherent language and engagement with the examiner. Remember also that you are in control of your response so try to steer it towards your interests, as long as it is relevant to the questions asked.

Finally, for the aural, I thoroughly studied the weather vocabulary as this comes up every year and so this is an opportunity to get (almost) guaranteed marks! You should aim to train your ear to familiarise yourself with different pace, intonation and accents, by watching films, TV series or other sources, including audio. And don’t panic if you don’t understand everything – that’s completely normal: just concentrate on getting the gist of things and try your best.”