The Scottish higher French exam is made up of two separate papers, which between them will cover everything from listening to speaking.

To ace the exam, it will require a multi-faceted approach to revision in which you factor in the different competencies and practice for each of them effectively.

If the day of the exam arrives and you still aren’t confident in your ability to speak French, it won’t matter how good your reading comprehension or listening skills are. Learning a foreign language has to be seen as a holistic process. Each activity you do needs to be a deliberate attempt to practice one or more of the four competencies.

If you’re scratching your head wondering how to pass higher French, or advanced higher French, don’t worry, in this guide we’ll fill you in on some of the best exercises and activities for each language competency. We’ll present what we believe are some of the best resources you can lean upon for optimal revision, and provide plenty of tips and tricks along the way.

While we will of course stress the importance of doing the sqa higher French past papers, there are many entertaining and engaging ways to improve your French and pass the exam.

Pigeons in front of the eiffel tower
Push any romantic images of the Eiffel Tower to the background for now, as it's time to focus on the approaching exam.
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Listening

The listening section of the sqa higher French exam will require you to listen to a few audio tracks, and answer a few questions based on what you heard.

The key part of this section of the exam isn’t that you are able to identify every word (though this certainly helps) but that you can pick out the important information. To be able to do this, you need to train your ear to identify the various sounds and pronunciations of French. 

With any language-learning journey, your first port of call should be pronunciation. This is true for both listening comprehension and your ability to speak the language coherently. Think about it: if you aren’t sure exactly how a certain letter or combination of letters is pronounced, it’s going to be very tricky to recognise individual words in a dialogue.

As such, we strongly suggest that you get to grips with the alphabet of French and take the time to figure out exactly how it sounds, and later when it comes to speaking, how it is formed with the mouth and tongue.

It can also be useful to learn about the cadence and rhythm of the romance language.

Every language has its own flow, and while every individual will talk differently, there are certain patterns you can pick up on to aid your listening comprehension.

For example, if one word typically flows into the next, then you need to know what that sounds like.

You should also pay close attention to intonation, which refers to the pitch of the voice. In English, we raise our voice towards the end when we ask a question. This rings true of French, too, with a higher pitch for the final syllable of every rhythmic group.

To practice both listening for pronunciation and rhythm, you can find a French podcast, switch the radio on, or even watch a TV show in French so that you can match the audio to the mouths of those speaking.

Reading

The reading portion of the exam requires you to read a short text, and then answer questions on it.

To pass this section of the higher French exam, you need to be able to extract the relevant information from the text to correctly answer the questions. Again, like the listening section, it would be ideal if you could recognise every word but this isn’t necessary.

It’s fine if you don’t understand a few words, provided that you can infer them from the context. To do this, you’ll need a sound knowledge of French vocabulary, but there are a few other tools you can rely upon.

If you aren’t familiar with the word cognate, now’s a good time to learn about what it is and how it can help on exam day.

A cognate is a word that shares linguistic roots with a word from another language. Fortunately for you as an English speaker, French has a lot of cognates you can take advantage of.

If you take the time to commit to memory some of the most common cognates, you will have a huge advantage in the exam. It almost seems too good to be true, but cognates are a real thing and they can be of great help.

We would suggest that you get familiar with the most common suffixes too. This way, if you come across new words, you can guess at their meaning based on whether you think they are an adjective, a verb, a noun or another part of speech.

open dictionary
This should become a familiar sight once you get deeply immersed in the French version of the 'Sorcerer's Stone'.

Writing

The higher French directed writing section of the exam requires you to choose a topic from several listed on the paper, and then write around 150-180 words about it. You can use a dictionary in this exam if you need to.

You definitely don’t want to lean on the dictionary for the writing portion of the exam, since this will cost you valuable time if you look up words every few minutes. However, knowing that you have one allows you to write without fear as you should be able to express exactly what you want to.

To practice for the writing section, the first place to start would of course be with the many past papers available online. Go through each past paper in turn, and do your best to write a detailed response to the prompt.

One of the most useful things about doing a past paper is it will tell you where your weak spots are. If you struggle to move your text outside of the present, then it’s tenses you should work on. If you find that you’re always missing the right word for the context, you should focus on building your vocabulary. If your mind just goes blank, then you need to work on your ability to produce writing.

For tenses, you’re probably best served drilling exercises in a text book and listening to natives have conversations in the past and/or future.

For vocabulary building, we recommend using a flash card app like Anki to remember the new words you come across. It relies on spaced repetition, prompting you to guess the word just as it’s on the verge of slipping from memory.

For addressing writer’s block, there’s no other remedy other than to write consistently. If you don’t like writing, pick an activity you enjoy and writer about that. For example, if you enjoy football you can write a match report, or if you just like watching Netflix you can write an episode review or character profile.

The idea is to write consistently until it becomes easier for you to do, so that when the exam day arrives your pen will start moving before your brain has a chance to hesitate.

Men talking on a bench
You don't have to find a wise native French speaker to flex your speaking skills.

Speaking

Speaking in any foreign language is difficult. It’s important to understand this, because it can be easy to think you’re the only one who struggles with it when this simply isn’t the case.

It can be so challenging because it not only requires you to have a sound grasp of the vocabulary and grammar of the target language, but also because you have to spontaneously produce sounds you’re unfamiliar with to make words, phrases, and sentences.

When you think about it, speaking a foreign language is nothing short of amazing.

To get your French speaking skills up to scratch, there are several things you should try.

Assuming you can’t get hold of native speakers, or you just don’t feel confident enough to approach them yet, you’re going to need to find a way to practice speaking on your own. This may seem impossible, but it isn’t.

You should try several things and see what works for you, including reading a text aloud to improve fluency and cut down on pronunciation errors, speaking to yourself and recording it, and singing or freestyle rapping to reduce your inhibitions while speaking French.

Of course, none of this is useful though if you still haven’t learnt the basics.

Pronunciation is absolutely crucial, so you need to spend as much time as necessary to get to grips with it. The best ways to do this are to watch videos online where native speakers will break down each letter of the alphabet, showing you the correct mouth and tongue positioning to produce each sound.

When you have a solid idea of what each letter should sound like, you should say them aloud and record them. Then, you can use a website like Forvo to hear native French speakers pronounce letters or words, and compare your recording to what you hear. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect, you just need to aim for something similar, since this will help your speaking confidence and fluidity immensely.

With any of the language competencies, you have to be patient and persistent. Practise a little every day, and in time you’ll notice significant improvements.

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Samuel

Sam is an English teaching assistant and freelance writer based in southern Spain. He enjoys exploring new places and cultures, and picking up languages along the way.