Ah! If only your GCSE French reading exam were as simple as reading a few passages from Jules Verne or Victor Hugo out loud!

Of course, reading aloud is pleasurable and will certainly help you practise intonation and fluency ahead of your French speaking test but reading to an audience doesn't prove that you fully grasp what you're reading. Becoming the voice to some past author's words doesn't signal that you grasp either the nuance or the context through which their story is woven.

Nor does it indicate that you get the difference in meaning between French words used in English, albeit with a different meaning than in French (abusif versus abusive, for instance).

With all of that and more taken into consideration, we have to conclude that the GCSE French reading exam is cleverly designed to test you on all aspects of reading comprehension, from distinguishing between near-similar words (cheveux/cheveaux) to teasing out the meaning behind phrases like jamais mal à l'aise (hint: it does not mean 'never bad').

What can you do to avoid these and other pitfalls? You must recognise...

Common reasons for exam point deductions
Master complex verb phrases, tenses and moods.
Beware of 'near-English' words that are spelled almost like words commonly used in English.
Watch for similar-to-English words whose meanings are different in French.
Don't interpret French double-negatives the same way you would in English.
Get familiar with French phrases whose meanings cannot be interpreted via word-for-word translation.

Let's talk about resources you can draw on to get GCSE French reading practice in; where to find them and how to use them to maximum effect.

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Notes on French Reading Comprehension

Besides reading your favourite French authors and anything else in French that you can get your hands on, striving for comprehension would be your best course of action. Not simply understanding individual words - translating them from French to English, but understanding how words in French connect together, changing their meaning along the way.

Take the 'jamais mal à l'aise' example from this article's introduction.

Understand the deeper meaning of French texts by learning their turns of phrase
French phraseology can sometimes put you mal a l'aise. Photo credit: paulbence on Visualhunt

It's common for English speakers to use such a double negative: "It's never bad to tell someone you love them.", for instance. In French, that sentence would read: "Ca fait jamais du mal..." See the difference? To understand 'jamais mal à l'aise', you have to know that 'mal à l'aise' is the phrase 'ill at ease' and 'jamais' is a qualifier.

Another excellent case in point is 'ma belle-fille.' Word for word, that means 'my pretty daughter' but the hyphen linking 'belle' and 'fille' indicates that, in this case, the adjective is a part of the noun, changing the word's meaning to '... my daughter-in-law' - who may well be very pretty.

This distinction is easier to make when reading about sons-in-law (mon beau-fils). Granted, sons can be 'beau' but it is far less common to refer to sons as pretty.

An essential rule of thumb to build reading comprehension in French is to read the sentence out loud and, if necessary, translate it into English. If that yields anything from contextual absurdity to outright gibberish, you've misconnected words somewhere along the line.

What do you do at that point? Should you stop reading to investigate or carry on reading so as to not interrupt the narrative flow?

The jury has been out on this question for a long time. Many advocate for highlighting the sentence in question, tucking it in the back of your mind and continuing - you might find the confusion will resolve itself if you continue reading. And if it doesn't? Having highlighted the bothersome phrase, you can always look it up later.

A final word about French reading comprehension, especially concerning your GCSE French reading ordeal: gravitate towards more current texts.

Although the French strongly resist influence from other languages and baulk at admitting foreign words into their vocabulary, a few select specimens have snuck past the safeties. 'Internet' and other tech-related words especially are guilty of this feat, and they cause French learners untold numbers of headaches.

To the unsuspecting eye, ' L'internat' has to be a typo, especially when used near 'section de l'école'. Indeed, many presume that sentence to mean 'a section of the school's internet page' or 'the school's internet section'. Don't let your eyes deceive you: an 'internat' is a boarding school.

You may need to add such misleading words to your GCSE French vocabulary list...

Translating Texts

A large part of your GCSE French reading ordeal entails you converting French to English; not as a formal exercise - although you will face one question that calls for you to translate some text.

Build your French reading skills in a study group
You might form a French reading study group to help build your French reading skills. Photo credit: jisc_infonet on VisualHunt.com

Surely, you know that the first part of your exam presents short texts in French but the questions and your responses will be in English (the second half is all in French). That means that you will constantly switch back and forth from French to English, so it's best to train your brain to do so as soon as possible.

One of the most challenging aspects of translating from French to English is the French language's sometimes convoluted verb constructions. How would you say 'There's no way around having to go to school' in French? Try: "il n’y a aucun moyen de ne pas avoir à aller à l’école".

If you ran across such a sentence while reading, would you be able to understand it?

We'll talk more about verbs in a mo but, for now, let's point out that the French language seems unusually fond of using negatives to underscore strong sentiment or make a particularly salient point.

The first negative in that sentence, 'Il n'y a aucun moyen' (There is no way) might suffice to communicate that escaping school is not possible. However, the second negative '... de ne pas avoir...' drives home the absolute futility of trying to avoid going to school.

In English, such double-negative usage would deliver a positive meaning - or, worse, if you tried to build an atrocity like 'There is no way to not not go to school.' By contrast, in French, double negatives feature often so, as you work on translating French texts, think twice about turning such expressions positive.

By this example, we see that grammar constructions play a significant part in French reading comprehension. After all, would you get the same sense of frantic insistence that school must be attended if the sentence above read simply: "Il faut aller à l'école"?

The French language uses elaborate grammatical constructions to convey feeling and set a narrative tone. As you translate from French to English, you should never consider any word a throwaway or a filler. Unlike other languages that use such particles to make their speech more fluent, French puts every single syllable to good use.

Whenever you see what looks like a particle - ne, a, pas, y, and others, consider them parts of speech and include them in your translation.

Before steering you to resources for GCSE French reading practice, let's touch on GCSE French verb tenses by examining this sentence: "Tu aurais eu la chance de gagner si tu étais enregistré."

Many students get the gist of this sentence - chances to win only come when one registers. However, when translating this sentence, they ignore the conditional perfect tense construction (aurais eu), rendering it as 'You could have won if you'd registered.'

Granted, that translation shows the main idea but it fails to acknowledge the grammar. As noted in the GCSE French reading Examiner's Report, such a failure will cost you.

The Examiner's Report is one of your best review resources to revise for your GCSE French exam; let's look at some others.

You can surely study alone but you'll get a better grasp of texts by studying with others occasionally
There's nothing wrong with reading French texts on your own but you could build better comprehension with someone to bandy ideas. Photo credit: pedrosimoes7 on Visualhunt

GCSE French Reading Resources

For most students - and no matter whether the school subscribes to AQA, Eduquas or Edexcel, past papers are the go-to resource for exam revision. We wholeheartedly agree that you couldn't do better than going over past papers and marking schemes; only we encourage you to also study the Examiners' Report.

These reports deliver an overview of what every student who sat that exam did well on and what many of them missed; it points to aspects of the curriculum that students should spend more time learning and discusses the reasons for specific mistakes.

Indeed, when writing this article, we relied heavily on that report.

Clearly, for us, the Examiners' Reports are the best revision resource. Others include:

  • past papers and marking schemes from sites like RevisionWorld or straight from the AQA website
  • BBC Bitesize
  • GCSE French reading practice materials on TES
  • ThoughtCo, particularly for their easy-to-understand breakdown of French verb tenses and moods
  • The Student Room: read past threads and ask your questions of your own
  • GCSE French study group
  • A French-language tutor

The last two resources are particularly valuable because they provide the feedback and guidance necessary for growing comprehension.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with revising on your own but how will you know that you fully understand French texts? With someone else - say, a Superprof French tutor to offer different interpretations, you will come to recognise passages' nuance, an ability that leads to a deeper understanding of what you read.

And, once you get in the habit of teasing out texts' deeper meaning, you'll never go back to being satisfied with just knowing the gist of things.

Now, discover everything you need to know about GCSE French 150-word question...

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.