AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 5

So, we’ve worked our way through the reading section of Paper 1 on the 8700 specification, and now it’s time to take a look at an overview and some tips for Question 5.

So far in the series, you’ve had:

Today, we’re going to take a look at the writing question.

As you may know, on Paper 1, you have a choice of two questions.

There will always be a photograph that is loosely related to the text in some way.

You may be asked to describe, and you may be asked to narrate.

The two questions are most likely to be one describe and one narrate, but they won’t always be so and there will be years where there will be two descriptions or two stories. In other words, don’t only prepare for one!

You could find that the task related to the photo is to describe, but it could also be to narrate.

There are 40 marks available for Question 5, and they are divided into 24 marks for content & organisation, with 16 marks for technical accuracy. You’re going to want to spend around 45 – 50 minutes on this task.

Like questions 2 to 4 on the reading section, the marks are split into four levels. For content & organisation, those four levels are divided into sub-levels, ‘upper’ and ‘lower’. So level 2 goes from 7 – 12 marks out of 24, and is divided lower level 2 (7-9 marks) and upper level 2 (10-12 marks).

Let’s look at what is assessed on each strand:

Content and organisation:

  1. Is the way you’re writing matched to the audience?
  2. Is what you’re writing a clear narrative or clear description?
  3. How effective is your vocabulary, phrasing and use of language features?
  4. How clearly is your writing structured?
  5. Is the writing engaging? Are the ideas clearly connected?
  6. Are the paragraphs clearly linked and well-organised?

Technical accuracy:

  1. Is the sentence demarcation accurate?
  2. Is there a range of punctuation? Is it accurate?
  3. Are there a range of sentence forms?
  4. Is the language and grammar secure?
  5. How accurate is the spelling?
  6. How broad is the vocabulary?

As you can see, there are a lot of things to assess for those 40 marks.

Some of these, however, are quick to learn and sharpen. Others are lifelong projects. For instance, it’s easy to learn how to use different types of punctuation or sentences for effect. It’s not so easy to pick up a wide range of vocabulary and make sure your spelling is excellent. You can learn and practise good quality language features, picking up on the awkward phrasing. Structural features are also easy to learn and to do yourself.

For that reason, I’m going to focus the next five posts on things that will really make a difference in your narrative or descriptive writing:

  • advice and guidance for planning and writing descriptive writing
  • advice and guidance for planning and writing narrative writing
  • improving your structure
  • improving your range of sentence forms
  • polishing your punctuation

Okay… onto some bad advice floating around the internet. Let’s get the rumours and the really poor advice out of the way…

  1. Do not regurgitate the text in the Reading section! Although the tasks will be related by theme/idea, don’t think that a loosely rehashed version of the reading text will pass muster. Firstly, your examiners mark Q1 – 4 and know very well which combinations of words or ideas come up there, and secondly, plagarism is cheating! I’ve had a good number of my clients tell me they have seen advice to do this on Youtube or on the internet. Not worth it. Seriously. It’s a risk you don’t want to make with your marks.
  2. Avoid jubilant adulations. Another thing I know some students had been told to do – cram a load of words in there. If your work reads poorly because you have misused vocabulary in an attempt to impress, you won’t find yourself moving much beyond the middle mark. Now I was guilty of this – I did it right up to A level in fact. I had a thesaurus and I had no idea how to use it. I’d dip in, find some word I didn’t know the meaning of, and use that instead. Finally, I got such a poor grade because of it that I saw sense and didn’t do it any more. If I see anything that reads ‘it was a lugubrious and opaque morning.’ or ‘it was a tenebrous, crepuscular and night’, I’m finding myself stretched to the limits of my tolerance. I call these ‘jubilant adulations’ after a very poor episode of mine with a thesaurus. No Jubilant Adulations, please!
  3. There is no logical reason for you to only study description or narrative. If you only prepare for one, you may find that it doesn’t come up on the paper.
  4. Descriptive writing is not in some way implicitly superior or easier. Indeed, many of the top level scripts are narratives.
  5. Description is less easy in many ways (and you don’t get extra credit for choosing it) because we just don’t read as much description. We are surrounded by narratives from our earliest reading, listening and watching. Adverts, television, movies, novels, computer games… we live and breathe narratives. We just don’t have the same exposure to description.
  6. That’s not to say ‘don’t do the descriptive task’, but it IS to say it can be harder to do, harder to pull off and harder to get right unless you feel comfortable with it.
  7. Description doesn’t involve the five senses. We humans are visual creatures, relying mostly on sight and sound with occasional reference to smell. We may mention texture but as soon as I read about characters having to eat something just to describe it, it seems forced and laboured. Please don’t try to cover all of the senses. If you write about taste, it’s going to be pretty ‘ouchy’, I promise.
  8. If you’re describing, probably 80-90% will be visual, 10-15% will be sound, and you may find yourself mentioning a smell IF APPROPRIATE.
  9. Description CAN have dialogue in it. It reminds me of one of the chief examiners of years gone by saying how dialogue can ‘lift’ description. Description can have people in it too.
  10. Narrative is not something to bypass just because you want a 7, 8 or 9. Narrative can start with action, dialogue or description. I’m not sure you’d want to disagree with Ted Hughes’ narrative poem Bayonet Charge that starts in the thick of it… but narrative MAY have a bit of action, description and dialogue in there.

Overall, quality of writing is the most important aspect of content/organisation. One of the things that really impairs writing is the ‘ouch factor’. I’m going to give you an example from a very bad book I started to read and then put down because it hurt my English teacher sensibilities to read. The guy was trying to go for the Jack Reacher ‘lone wolf’ kind of character and it just made me cringe to read. When I started teaching back in the day in West Lancashire, the popular slang for this kind of writing was “fair cheesy” – and I still think that being “fair cheesy” is the best way to describe this kind of writing.

Here’s some fine examples of fair cheesy writing:

In an effort at stealth, the music volume had been turned down. Still, the thud-thud rhythm sounded like the heartbeat of a predator coiling for the death lunge. 

Fair cheesy. It sounds like that man who reads the previews for movies

Anything that sound like it should be read in the Preview Man Voice qualifies as Fair Cheesy.

I mean, what does ‘coiling for the death lunge’ even mean? Is he talking about a snake? Do snakes have noisy heartbeats? What’s a noisy snake got in common with the music in the car? It’s just needlessly melodramatic.

Staring down the barrel of a SIG is enough to motivate most men. He was surprisingly sprightly when offered the correct form of stimulation.

Sprightly describes old people. It doesn’t describe a teenage thug in a noisy car. In fact, the first search on Google says ‘especially of an old person’. It’s as ouchy as saying “he was unusually zippy”, or “he was playfully peppy”. Just ouch. Nothing is more ouchy than accidental (or purposeful!) alliteration drawing attention to misused words. Also, did you hear me reading the first sentence like Preview Man?

I knew what was going through the big guy’s head. He thought that the ignominious alley was where he was going to end his days. 

Ouch to the ignominious. If you swapped it with ‘disgraceful’, you can see it’s just as ouchy. It doesn’t go with the tone of the narration about a hard man thug – they don’t use words like ‘ignominious’ – in fact WHO uses words like ignominious?! Nobody. It sounds forced and yet again sounds like it’s been chosen for showing off rather than because it was the right word.

We’re all about the right word. Even ‘dirty’ would have been better. Dirty alley, muddy alley, grimy alley, filthy alley, dark alley… sure… befouled alley, feculent alley, unhygienic alley… just no. That’s what horribly ouchy language is like. Sure, befouled is a posher word than dirty, and ignominious is probably ‘sophisticated’ were it used correctly. But it isn’t. It’s inappropriate and unhelpful, and I’d be hovering around a mark of 13 out of 24 with vocabulary like that.

Terrible similes also fit into the ‘ouch’ category.

Her eyes were peeled like oranges

Ears that looked like pork scratchings

They were as solitary as oysters

You can find some more here

And yet a further collection here

Please, please respect your tired old examiner and refrain from ALL images of predators. No ‘like lions chasing giraffes’. No ‘as stealthy as cheetahs with their prey’. Definitely no ‘as stealthy as cheaters with their pray’. No hawks with prey. No sharks with prey.

The only reasons that you would use a simile like this are:

a) you think you need to use a simile because you haven’t used one yet, but you can’t think of a good one

b) you want to give the person marking your essay a good old chuckle and then find them hovering between ‘some use of (conscious) linguistic devices’ for 10-12 marks out of 24, or ‘appropriate use of linguistic devices’ for 13-15.

In fact, I’d always stick to 10-12 for fair cheesy similes that make me laugh or don’t work, and the same with ‘ouchy’ mis-used vocabulary. It’s conscious, yes. The person writing has clearly tried to do something rather than just having words spill out. But it’s not successful and it’s not clear. It’s not appropriate. This habit of vocabulary and feature-stuffing is not one to follow if you want to get a grade 5 or above.

So there you have it…. things you’re being marked on… things to avoid… and a rough idea of what will be up next (to be read in Preview Man’s Movie Voiceover Style).

Coming soon… A blog with a mission. A blog to guide you. A blog to eliminate all the competition. Learn to wield your punctuation like a weapon. Find out how to use your similes like a hunter on the trail of a jaguar. Structure your stories like Freytag and his Marvellous Pyramid…

And in non-cheesy summative style, that equates to:

  • advice and guidance for planning and writing descriptive writing
  • advice and guidance for planning and writing narrative writing
  • improving your structure
  • improving your range of sentence forms
  • polishing your punctuation

Have fun!


Sample essays for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 4

Last time, I was having a look at a sample text for Question 4, the essay question on AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 1, exploring how to annotate and how to plan your response. That followed a post about the mechanics of the question and the markscheme to help you understand what it is all about. Today, it’s all about looking at how to improve your answer using examples with 8 marks, 13 marks and 18 marks.

So far in the series, you’ve had:

To summarise what I’ve explored so far on Question 4:

  • Question 4 is the longest comprehension question and you should treat it with respect. It shouldn’t be the same length as Q2 or Q3. If it is, you’re either over-answering Q2 and 3 or you’re under-answering Q4.
  • It’s a 20 mark question
  • You should spend about 20-25 minutes answering it
  • It gives you a statement and asks you to find evidence to support (or disprove) the statement, giving your opinions.
  • It asks you to explore HOW the writer does something.
  • You need to use a range of select, embedded quotations.
  • You should be writing explanations of how the writer’s language works
  • You need to write about writer’s methods
  • Writer’s methods includes any single thing the writer has done, from figurative language through to viewpoint and perspective. If you want to write about sentence length or type, you can do so with safety here (although I’m not sure it’s necessary – and it’s certainly not compulsory!)
  • Really, we don’t care less if you agree, if you disagree, if you are making a balanced argument. This is not a question that is asking you to make an argument (that’s a writing task). It’s asking you to respond to a statement, find evidence to support or contradict that statement, and then explain what the writer is up to. That ‘to what extent do you agree?’ is a bit of a dead end. It suggests it should be an argument, but really it’s just a way to get you to respond to the statement.
  • Do two read-throughs: one to identify all possible quotes to help you respond to the question, and one to narrow in on a smaller, select number that will answer the question.
  • Use diffferent colours for different parts of the response
  • You’re looking to write between 3 – 6 paragraphs in the time available to you
  • You will need to refer to the text shared on the previous post, as well as the question there to see how this response gains the marks available.

Focus this part of your answer on the second half of the source from line 23 to the end. 

A reader said, ‘This part of the story, where the woman uncovers the skull, is very mysterious, and it sounds as if she is compelled to continue digging’.

To what extent do you agree?

In your response you could:
* consider the reasons why the woman keeps digging
* evaluate how the writer creates a sense of mystery
* support your response with references to the text

If you remember, there are four strands you are being marked on: your use of references, your exploration of the writer’s methods, your response to the statement and your comments on the effects achieved by the writer. I’ll be highlighting bits of these in the answers given.

So, what does an 8-mark response look like?

Of the four strands, it’s most likely to have some references and some comment on those as well as a little response to the statement. There may not be much by way of comment on ‘how’ the writer has achieved particular effects.

I agree with this statement. I agree that it is mysterious because she finds a human skull and she doesn’t know if it is “a child’s skull” or how long it had been buried there. This could suggest to us that she doesn’t know anything about the skull, how old it is or who it belongs to or even how long it was there. It’s also mysterious because she only finds a few bones and not the whole skeleton “she could find no more of the bones than a dozen or so random bones” so she gives up digging.
The writer creates a sense of mystery by using the rhetorical questions about the skull and by giving up at the end. 
We also think it’s mysterious because the woman doesn’t give up even though she was hot “panting in the overhead sun.” which makes us realise how hot it is and the fact that she keeps on digging anyway. It creates tension because we don’t know where the rest of the bones are. 

So, what we have here are… some response to the statement, some appropriate references to the text, a tiny bit of method and some comment on the language/method. 

It has done some of the Level 2 criteria and therefore gets a mark of 8. It has partially responded to the statement and hasn’t really considered writer’s methods in any great detail.

To improve further, the response needs to deal with the second part of the statement about being “compelled”, include more relevant quotations (because they’re not all particularly mysterious) and to focus more on what the writer is doing, and how they are doing it.

And let’s have a look at a 13 mark response

I agree with the statement made because we see throughout that she feels driven to keep going, which makes the reader want to find out what it is she has found.
Firstly, at the beginning of the section, the writer says the woman couldn’t do anything but keep going. “She had no choice, then, did she?” This gives us the impression that she could only do one thing, which was to try and find out where the strange noise was coming from and that she didn’t have an option to just leave it and ignore it. 
As the text continues, we can see that “she must trace the sound to its origin.” The imperative verb “must” means that she feels she like she needs to find it, like it’s essential. It’s also described with the adjective “awkward” which makes it sound difficult. So we can see that she is almost forced to find where the sound is coming from. 
Furthermore, the skull is described as mysterious, not only because of the strange “mewing” sound that it is making and how it seems to be calling to her, but also because we wonder what it is doing there. The questions “Unnamed?” and “Unknown” make us think that there are many questions to be answered. It makes the reader wonder who placed the bones there and why they were making a noise. 
Finally at the end, we are left with a cliff-hanger, because we expect the woman to find some answers to these questions, but she doesn’t find anything. “She could find no more of the skeleton than a dozen or so random bones”. This suggests there is still a lot of the mystery to be uncovered. 

So, what we have here… a clear response to the statement that is fairly detailed, some relevant references to the text which are embedded in the response, clearer methods though it doesn’t really talk about the effects of those methods, and some clear comments on the language and its effects. 

You can also see that the response and the comments overlap. They are both responding to the statement and making clear comments showing clear understanding about the language.

To improve further, I’d want a closer focus on the effects of the language chosen, a clearer understanding of how the writer has made the text sound mysterious, and a more detailed exploration of why it sounds like she is compelled to find the skull. Better responses may have a sense of the overview or shift of ideas through the passage and track a strand through. Quotation will be used to justify comments made rather than just ‘here’s my evidence’ and there will be some analysis of methods.

Okay, so I’m going to have a go myself – bearing in mind I’m always good at detailed and not so good at perceptive! I’ll update with a couple of my students’ responses who do perceptive particularly well. What I love most about their work is that they are dyslexic and they find reading hard going – but it doesn’t prohibit them from getting into the top level. It’s important to remember that brevity can get you into the top bands too.

I did the following response in twenty-five minutes, and my typing is clumsy, I know, so hopefully it’s an adequate handicap.

The first way in which the writer makes the discovery of the bones seem mysterious is in the use of the “mewing” cry which compels the woman to keep digging. Neither the reader nor the main character know what the “cry” was, or why it should come from the ground. The writer describes it as if the woman feels some kind of connection with the cry, as if it is calling to her, and the way that she speaks to it reveals a mysterious connection. It sounds as if the woman is on a rescue mission. The writer describes other sounds as well, in the “brief flurry of scratching”, but it is the silence that is mysterious, making us wonder why it has gone silent, and whether the woman is too late.

It is also mysterious because the writer creates a substantial delay using time and action to make it seem as if a lot of time elapses between the “brief flurry of scratching” and the “pleading cry” which comes at the end of a long paragraph. With the early emphasis on all the action, the digging, spading, raking, “deepening and broadening the hole”, it creates the impression of a long time elapsing, and a lot of effort going into finding whatever the “origin” of the noise is. The character must surely think either the creature has escaped, disappeared or died with the lack of noise. The use of temporal markers, “for some time… then… at last” seems to make the passage drag out, which makes us wait to find out the source of this mysterious buried noise.

When the woman finally discovers the skull, the “kind of knowledge” that “passed between her and these eyes” is also mysterious: it sounds as if the woman has some kind of strange connection to the skull, or who it once was. This said, it is stranger still that she would not know whose skull it was, for surely there cannot be many children buried in the family home, or even many children who went missing or died in her past. The use of the violent images of the hole seeming like “a wound” and the earthworms “cut cruelly in two” also adds to the mystery, as it has a sense of foreshadowing, perhaps, that the creature has met a violent end already.

What makes it sound as if the woman is compelled to keep digging is the way the writer suggests the level of effort that the woman has put into digging. At first, it sounds as if she is on a rescue mission to save some poor, trapped animal, since “mewing” is animalistic, along with the scratches. The effort put into digging away the “sinewy weeds and vines” and the list of all the other vegetation she has to clear just to reach the earth makes it sound as if that in itself takes a lot of effort. These make it sound as if she has been driven on to find the “origin” of the sound – otherwise she would have given up, given the hot day and the effort she needs to put in. It also sounds as if she is compelled because of the actions: “She dug. She spaded, and raked. She dug again.” which make it seem as if she is active for a long period of time. It does not sound easy because of the “jungle-like vegetation”, and so we understand that she is driven on by unknown motivation, perhaps to save the source of the “mewing” as well as to satisfy her urge to know what it is. When the writer uses the word “pleading” to describe the cry, we understand that it is the noise itself which is driving the woman on, it is as if it is begging her to be found and released.

Although she stops for a while to think about the skull, she continues for “several fevered hours”, and it is the word “fevered” which shows her drive and determination, which is now frantic. Of course, she is also hot, but the word gives us a sense of her desperate desire to uncover more of the bones. Because she is “panting” in the “overhead sun”, we know she has been at it for hours and that she must be exhausted: we can see her need to find more of the bones through her behaviour. She keeps going until she could find no more of the bones, despite the size of the hole that she has dug.

Overall, the writer creates a sense of mystery surrounding the skull, firstly in that we do not know what it is making the noise, then in its silence, just before its “pleading cry” preceding its discovery. We also may find it mysterious how the writer has described the connection between the woman and the remains. The compulsion she feels to discover the bones seems supernatural: we know that the bones cannot have made these sounds, that they were not really “pleading” for release, but even so, she works until she feels she has discovered as many of the bones as she can.

As I write, I’m trying to track through the mysterious elements in one half, before changing to focus on her compulsion in the second half. I’m going through roughly chronologically. I’m trying to pick out what the writer is doing to make it sound mysterious/compelling, and explaining what they are doing, and how that makes it mysterious or compelling. I finish off with a loose summary of my ideas and add a little bit – the notion of the supernatural. Conclusions should do that – they are not just a summary of your essay – they should build on it and extend it.

Once my lovely students have had a go at this paper, I’ll be sure to add some examples into this post so that you can get a feel for the different ways you can arrive at different marks.

Next time, Question 5!

Tips to help you with AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 4

Last time, I was having a look at the mechanics of Question 4, the essay question on AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 1, and today it’s time to have a look at how you can best prepare to answer.

So far in the series, you’ve had:

And today, I’ll be looking at Question 4 once again. This is the same reading approach that you saw for Question 2, and it’s very much about your reading, annotation of the passage and your planning time. You may find it helpful to go back and re-read those on Question 2 if you haven’t already.

To summarise the previous post:

  • Question 4 is the longest comprehension question and you should treat it with respect. It shouldn’t be the same length as Q2 or Q3. If it is, you’re either over-answering Q2 and 3 or you’re under-answering Q4.
  • It’s a 20 mark question
  • You should spend about 20-25 minutes answering it
  • It gives you a statement and asks you to find evidence to support (or disprove) the statement, giving your opinions.
  • It asks you to explore HOW the writer does something.
  • You need to use a range of select, embedded quotations.
  • You should be writing explanations of how the writer’s language works
  • You need to write about writer’s methods
  • Writer’s methods includes any single thing the writer has done, from figurative language through to viewpoint and perspective. If you want to write about sentence length or type, you can do so with safety here (although I’m not sure it’s necessary – and it’s certainly not compulsory!)
  • Really, we don’t care less if you agree, if you disagree, if you are making a balanced argument. This is not a question that is asking you to make an argument (that’s a writing task). It’s asking you to respond to a statement, find evidence to support or contradict that statement, and then explain what the writer is up to. That ‘to what extent do you agree?’ is a bit of a dead end. It suggests it should be an argument, but really it’s just a way to get you to respond to the statement.

When you get to what we’re doing today, you’ll have already looked at the statement and picked out the key words. For this, I’m going to give general reading advice based on a slightly-adapted extract from Joyce Carol Oates. It’s not perfect but you have seriously no idea how hard it is to find things that work perfectly. I picked it because it’s a little similar to the November 2017 paper. I could have wasted hours looking for something that works. Plus, It’s a big extract to deal with and there are a variety of different types of questions that we’ve seen so far.

The extract I’ll be working with over the next two posts is taken from a short story called “The Temple” by Joyce Carol Oates (with a few abridged moments).

THERE, again, the vexing, mysterious sound! – a faint mewing cry followed by a
muffled scratching, as of something being raked by nails, or claws. At first the woman believed the sound must be coming from somewhere inside the house, a small animal, perhaps a squirrel, trapped in the attic beneath the eaves, or in a remote corner of the earthen-floored cellar; after she searched the house thoroughly, she had to conclude that it came from somewhere outside, at the bottom of the old garden, perhaps. It was far more distinct at certain times than at others, depending upon the direction and power of the wind.

She had no choice, then, did she? – She must trace the sound to its origin. She set
about the task calmly enough one morning, stepping out into unexpectedly bright,
warm sunshine, and making her way into the lush tangle of vegetation that had been her mother’s garden of thirty years before. The mewing sound, the scratching — it seemed to be issuing from the very bottom of the garden, close by a stained concrete drainage ditch that marked the end of the property. As soon as she listened for it, however, it ceased.

Out of the old garage, that had once been a stable, the woman got a shovel, a
spade, a rake, these implements festooned in cobwebs and dust, and began to dig. It was awkward work and her soft hands ached after only minutes, so she returned to the garage to fetch gardening gloves-these too covered in cobwebs and dust, and stiffened with dirt. The mid-morning sun was ablaze so she located an old straw hat of her mother’s: it fitted her head oddly, as if its band had been sweated through and dried, stiffened asymmetrically

So she set again to work. First, she dug away sinewy weeds and vines, chicory,
wild mustard, tall grasses, in the area out of which the cry had emanated; she
managed to uncover the earth, which was rich with compost, very dark, moist. Almost beneath her feet, the plaintive mewing sounded!

“Yes. Yes. I’m here,” she whispered.

She paused, very excited; she heard a brief flurry of scratching, then silence. “I’m
here, now.” She grunted as she pushed the shovel into the earth, urging it downward with her weight, her foot. 

She dug. She spaded, and raked. She dug again, deepening and broadening the
hole which was like a wound in the jungle-like vegetation. Chips and shards of aged brick, glass, stones were uncovered, striking the shovel. Beetles scurried away, their shells glinting darkly in the sunshine. Earthworms squirmed, some of them cut cruelly in two. For some time the woman worked in silence, hearing only her quickened heartbeat and a roaring pulse in her ears; then, distinctly, with the impact of a shout, there came the pleading cry again, so close she nearly dropped the shovel.

At last, covered in sweat, her hands shaking, the woman struck something solid.
She dropped to her knees and groped in the moist dark earth and lifted something
round and hollow — a human skull? But it was small, hardly half the size of an adult’s skull.

“My God!” the woman whispered.

Squatting then above the jagged hole, turning the skull in her fingers. How light it
was! The color of parchment badly stained from the soil. She brushed bits of damp
earth away, marveling at the subtle contours of the cranium. Not a hair remained. The delicate bone was cracked in several places and its texture minutely scarified, like a ceramic glaze. A few of the teeth were missing, but most appeared to be intact, though caked with dirt. The perfectly formed jaws, the slope of the cheekbones! The empty eye sockets, so round… The woman lifted the skull to stare into the sockets as if staring into mirror-eyes, eyes of an eerie transparency. A kind of knowledge passed between her and these eyes yet she did not know: was this a child’s skull? had a child been buried here, it must have been decades ago, on her family’s property? Unnamed, unmarked? Unacknowledged? Unknown?

For several fevered hours the woman dug deeper into the earth. She was panting
in the overhead sun, which seemed to penetrate the straw hat as if it were made of
gauze; her sturdy body was clammy with sweat. She discovered a number of scattered bones — a slender forearm, curving ribs, part of a hand, fingers — these too parchment-colored, child-sized. What small, graceful fingers! How they had 
scratched, clawed, for release! Following this morning, forever, the finger bones
would be at peace.

By early afternoon, the woman gave up her digging. She could find no more of the
skeleton than a dozen or so random bones.

I picked this one because it’s kind of similar to the ‘Alice’ text and it works for a similar type of question. So, you know that Question 4 is less usual than Q2 or 3, but it follows a regular format, year upon year. First, it will specify a part of the text for you to focus on.

Focus this part of your answer on the second half of the source from line 23 to the end. 

For the sake of this, which has no lines, I’m going from ‘So she again set to work’.

You already know there is a little bit of a difference from Q1 and Q2, in which you absolutely must write from the lines mentioned. In this you must ‘focus’, which means you will be spending the majority – if not all – of your time looking at those lines. It doesn’t, however, mean that if you refer to bits from lines 1-22 to support what you are saying about lines 23 to the end, that we can’t mark it.

Then you have a statement:

A reader said, ‘This part of the story, where the woman uncovers the skull, is very mysterious, and it sounds as if she is compelled to continue digging’.

To what extent do you agree?

In your response you could:
* consider the reasons why the woman keeps digging
* evaluate how the writer creates a sense of mystery
* support your response with references to the text

This is probably harder than the question (and the text!) you’d find on the paper as that word ‘compelled’ would be a challenge for candidates working at the lower grades. That said, it’s going to be okay for us to work through Levels 2 – 4 from 6 to 20 marks next time in examples.

So where do you start?

Similarly to Question 2, what you want is to do two quick read-throughs. On your first, use two colours. Underline or highlight everything that is related to ‘mysterious’ in one, and everything that is related to ‘compelled to keep digging’ in the other. There may be some cross-over!

So you can see how this ensures I’m going to be answering both bits of the question and that I have more than enough to say. You aren’t going to use broad brushstrokes to answer, but it’s kind of how middle-ability candidates go about selecting.

Then you do the precision, detail work that better candidates do. You appraise all of those quotes and you decide which to narrow down on.

For Question 2, you were really looking for 4 – 6 quotes to give you enough to write about. Here, you’ve got a little more flexibility, and two parts of the question, so you may find yourself looking for around 12 – 15 mini-quotes. That means grouping similar quotes together. There are level 4 20 mark answers that use 3 quotes, 6 quotes and 20 quotes, so it’s not about number, it’s about what you do with it. Even so, a narrowing down is important.

Narrowing down helps you pinpoint the useful, evaluate what is essential and assess the value and validity of your quotes. Those are all important skills that point to ‘judicious’ quotations. More importantly, what you say should be absolutely rooted in the the text, and this approach helps you do that.

So circle or underline a more precise selection:

And I may even narrow down once more if I felt I had too much for a 25-minute essay. Personally, I like to run quotes together and focus on a couple of words in each groups so this selection works for me. I know equally though that there will be candidates who will go straight for 2 or 3 quotes in each colour and that will be fantastic.

Why this approach helps you get a level 4 is in two ways. Firstly, going from broad brushstrokes to narrowing in helps to stop the ‘scattergun’ effect where you just pick out hundreds of target quotes and there is no real sense that you have evaluated them or appraised their value. Secondly, for those who normally go straight for the sniper approach of ‘boom – boom – boom’, putting in the step before helps you ensure you’re not missing anything. Two read-throughs is never, ever a bad thing even for candidates who can slamdunk 20/20 time after time.

What I do then is I begin to shift these into my plan.

I’ve got four paragraphs. Two on mystery. Two on why she seems compelled.

My first paragraph is about the mysterious noise and how the writer makes it sound mysterious – ‘vexing… faint… muffled… distinct at certain times’, how it ‘seemed to be issuing from the very bottom of the garden’, then how ‘it ceased’ and then came again with ‘the impact of a shout’ when the woman finds the skull.

My second paragraph is about the mystery of the skull and all the questions, ‘unnamed? Unmarked? Unacknowledged? Unknown?’

My third paragraph is about how she is compelled to dig, how she searched ‘thoroughly’, the question, ‘she had no choice, then, did she?’ and that word ‘must’.

My fourth paragraph is about how her efforts show how she was compelled to dig, to unearth all the bones, the repetition of ‘she dug’, the way the writer says ‘She dug. She spaded and raked.’ and ‘deepening and broadening’ the hole until she ends up ‘panting’ and her activity is described as ‘fevered’.

Here, all I’m doing is grouping them together. Four paragraphs is a lot for 25 minutes, but if I aimed for 2 in 8-10 minues, this should not be a stretch. It’s a nice even number that allows me to address both of the key words in the statement twice.

I just wanted to stop a minute and remind you that you can really see here that I’m not thinking whether I agree or not with the statement. I’m just trying to find evidence of the statement. Then I’ve got some nice language and structural features I can comment on in both strands.

To summarise then:

  • Read through the statement.
  • Highlight key words and identify if you’ve more than one part of the question that you need to refer to
  • Use as many colours as you have key words, finding evidence and colour-coding as you go
  • Use broad brushstrokes and underline everything that may be useful
  • Then refine and narrow down
  • Aim to have anywhere between 5 and 15 quotes but don’t worry too much if you are such a sniper that you start with 3 or such a scattergun shooter that you end up with 20
  • Once you have your quotes, group them
  • You need roughly two groups per strand
  • Start to identify the main things the writer is doing in your plan, or summarise the main things that are happening

When you’ve done this, you’re ready to move on to answering.

Next time, I’ll take you through an 8 mark answer, a 13 mark answer and a 20 mark answer so that you can see what they look like, and how you move from one to another.



How to answer Paper 1 Question 4 for AQA English Language GCSE 8700

So far, we’ve had posts on answering:

And today, I’ll be looking at Question 4. I’m going to cover some general guidance about the question itself and the way that you’re being assessed on this question. In truth, it’s going to pick up lots of things from Question 2, so you need to go back and re-read if you haven’t already. I’ll give you some tips on how to select details next time, as well as how to plan a great answer. The post after that, I’ll look at some sample responses and explain how the marks are applied.

So, to the question and the mechanics of Question 4.

It is the longest comprehension response on the GCSE English Language papers, worth 20 marks.

You should therefore treat it as if it is a mini-essay. It doesn’t need to be double or triple the length of Question 2 or 3, but if you’re writing a side, you need to consider if you’ve responded in enough depth.

In terms of time, you should be thinking of around 25 minutes. Again, that’s suggesting 2-3 sides of normal-sized handwriting. This question is designed to stretch you! And whilst there won’t be much difference in marks for Question 1-3 between someone who gets Grade 4 and someone who gets Grade 8, this is where better candidates can ‘open up the lead’ so to speak.

Unlike Question 1 which is largely predictable based on the first paragraph and finding information, or Q2 and 3 which won’t change, Question 4 has some bits that stay the same and other bits that will change.

Let’s have a look at an example, from the sample assessment materials available on AQA’s website – the paper I’m calling the ‘Mary’ paper.

Focus this part of your answer on the second part of the Source from line 19 to the

Question 4 is going to ask you to refer to the later section of the text. If Q1 refers to paragraph 1, Q2 refers to paragraph 2, Q3 asks you to refer to the organisation of the ideas in the whole text, Q4 pinpoints back in again now that you have an overview of the whole paper.

The questions build on each other, which is why it’s a good idea to do them in the order given. I’ve seen advice to do them backwards, which is just pointless, to be honest. By the time you get to Q4, you want to know the passage fairly well. You’ll have read it through once before answering, read parts of it twice for Q1 and 2, read some of it three times by Q3 and it’s a good idea to re-read the bit in question for Q4. That means you’ll have read it at least three times, and some of it four times. If you do them backwards, you’re doing the highest mark question when you are least familiar with the text. Silly, if you ask me.


So… the statement.

You then get a statement from a student or a reader. Is it made up? Who knows? More importantly, who cares? It will give an opinion on the text in those lines. Often, it’s been focused on the main character/s, but I don’t know if that will hold true of all exam series.

It will look like this:

A student, having read this section of the text said: “The writer brings the very different characters to life for the reader. It is as if you are inside the coach with them.”

Then it will ask you:

To what extent do you agree?

Now, when I first saw the paper, I thought that in fact it was a good idea to be arguing your viewpoint, that you could be agreeing for the main bit and disagreeing. I thought that the question was asking where you stood in relation to the statement and it wanted you to construct an argument.

Two years of teaching later, and, well, it does, but not really.

We’ll get to the markscheme later. Suffice to say that you need to engage with this statement. We’ll look at trends in the statement as well that might help you too.

Following that, you’re going to get three bullet points that won’t change.

In your response, you could:
 write about your own impressions of the characters
 evaluate how the writer has created these impressions
 support your opinions with references to the text.

These are fixed. They are not ‘shoulds’ or ‘musts’, but like Question 3 (and unlike Question 2), better answers will do all of these things. However, you can’t use them like Question 3 as a rough sort of plan. For instance, the last bullet point is just advice that you must use quotes. And the second bullet point is telling you to comment on the text.

So they aren’t a plan. Just a reminder to PEE, to CQE, to PQE or whatever else it is you are doing. If I had to come up with an acronym, it would go like this:

  • Respond to the statement and make a comment on it
  • Support with quotes
  • Identify methods 
  • Evaluate methods in relation to the statement.
  • Comment on the ideas in the statement, the meaning of the quote and its effect

That’s very mechanistic though.

Basically, the question is asking you to respond to the statement, discuss the writer’s methods, evaluate the ideas mentioned in the statement, evaluate the methods and use evidence from the text to help you.

The question is asking you:

What are the ideas?
How are they conveyed?

So, how are you being assessed? What are markers looking for when they mark?

First, we’re looking for you to respond to the statement. Now, bear in mind that many of the statements have TWO bits.

Look again:

  1. The writer brings the very different characters to life
  2. It is as if you are inside the coach with them.

Those are two different things to respond to. One is about the characters being life-like. The other is about how the writer makes you feel as if you are a part of the scene.

It’s the same on the ‘Alex’ paper.

The statement to respond to is:

A student said: ‘This part of the story, set during breakfast time, shows that Alex is struggling to cope with his mother’s illness.’

This really only has one focus – Alex struggling to cope.

So it’s not always true that there are two bits to the statement, but if there are, you need to deal with both bits.

When I’m reading what one of my students has written, then, I’m asking myself if they are responding to the statement.

And then I’m asking myself if they are doing so in a simple way, a way where they’re trying to explain their thoughts, a way which clearly explains their thoughts or a way that really explains their thoughts.

It’s the difference between saying:

“Yes, the characters are lifelike” (simple) or “the characters are lifelike because the way the writer describes the tiny actions of the characters is very realistic, such as the old man who ‘muttered in his beard’ ” which promises to be something better than just ‘I agree’

In other words, you need to explain WHY  you agree.

Your response to the statement is therefore the first thing I’m looking at.

Secondly, I’m looking at your use of quotes to support your response. What details have you picked out? I’m making decisions about how precise they are, how relevant they are, how well they support your view. Embedded, precise quotes are hands-down better than copious copying and unselective detail, but how good your quotes are is not necessarily something I’m marking. If you have great quotes and you’ve used them in the right way, you’ll write a better essay, but they don’t lead to a mark for quotes as such.

Third, I’m looking at methods. Writer’s methods is deliberately vague in the markscheme. It means simply ‘anything the writer does’. That can be their use of words, language, imagery and figurative language, like Question 2. It might be aspects of development that are similar to Question 3 (although you’ll find there won’t be any crossover with Question 2 because it’s about a different part of the text.) And it can be about all those wonderful things I’ve been advising my students to steer clear of on Question 2 and 3, such as sentence lengths, sentence types, voice, viewpoint, point of view, narrative viewpoint and perspective. Tone and presentation of the author’s perspective might also fit in here too. Anything goes, as I said.

Basically, how does the writer craft the text to create the ideas presented in the statement.

What does the writer do to make the characters seem lifelike?
How does that work?

Coming back to long-dead papers of years gone by, it’s very much about the author’s technique and purpose. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What effect does it have on us? How does convey a particular idea?

The fourth and final thing I’m assessing in my students’ work is how well they’ve commented on the effect of the ideas and methods.

Now, that is a lot of things to assess. It’s a lot of things to include in an answer. There is sometimes what I call the ‘Crackerjack’ effect. Now I’m showing my age. Crackerjack was a kids’ TV programme on in the 1970s where there was a game called Double or Drop where you had to hold a load of prizes and if you got questions wrong under stress, you’d get a cabbage added all the things you had to hold. If you dropped them, you lost everything. My point is that, under stress, you’re more likely to drop stuff if you’ve got a lot to hold on to. That’s why this question is hard. You’ve got a lot to hold on to, and sometimes you’re going find you just can’t remember to do it all. You get so carried away responding to the statement that you forget to add any methods, or you are so involved with discussing the figurative language that you forget to respond to the statement.

If I had to say anything, it’s make sure you manage to respond to the statement in each paragraph, and you try to explore a method from time to time.

Next time, I’ll look at all the stuff you can do before you even start writing to make sure you get the very best of the marks available to you.


Tips for answering AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 3

Last week, I looked at what kind of things you might want to discuss when responding to AQA’s English Language GCSE question about structure on Paper 1. Question 3 is a new style of question and it has thrown many people into a state of confusion, most of which has now settled following the first exam series.

To recap, there are several things to remember:

  • You can look at a number of structural devices and techniques from zooming in to circular structures, but the main thing we are interested in is “Why THISHERENOW?” 
  • You don’t need to refer to complex terminology: there is no hierarchy that says ‘exposition’ is better than ‘development’ or that you need to know words like dénouement to get 7 or 8 marks. It’s what you do with the structural terminology that shows ‘sophisticated and accurate use’
  • There are lots of things to avoid. Narrative viewpoint and sentence structures are two of those. They are hard to write about in terms of the arrangement of ideas. Best avoided unless you are absolutely sure about how you can use these to writer about how the ideas are arranged.
  • It’s the quality of comment that is the important thing. We want to know what you think about the structure.

The following is a good list of things you MIGHT find, but it is not exhaustive and neither is it compulsory learning.

Some of the aspects you might want to explore are:

  • changes from a big focus to a small focus
  • narrowing in
  • zooming out
  • shifts of time
  • shifts of topic
  • shifts of person
  • shifts of place
  • sudden introductions or changes
  • gradual introductions or changes
  • flashbacks
  • flashforwards
  • foreshadowing
  • shifts in narrative position
  • external actions of characters
  • internal thoughts of characters
  • shifting point of view
  • developments
  • repetitions
  • circular structures

Now, because structure involves dealing with a whole passage, and because I don’t want to reprint whole passages here, I’m going to ask you to refer to this Youtube video to show how I manage a whole text and what I’m looking for. The text is taken from Cambridge IGCSE in that it worked to talk about structure. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good example that loosely fits, even if it’s not from AQA.

The reason why you need to watch the video is because it’s lengthy to discuss how to approach exploring structure and I need to navigate back and forward across the whole text.

You can find a copy of the text here

In the video, I talk you through the broad aspects of the text I could write about. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are the possibilities:

  1. The mixed feelings of the crowd at the beginning
  2. How those feelings change first from growing positivity to ‘disarray’ by the end
  3. Anuja’s growing anger
  4. How Anuja goes from being the outsider to being the leader of the community group
  5. How Anuja changes the group’s view
  6. How Rufus Carmichael goes from being the confident salesman to becoming angry
  7. Why the writer zooms in on his face when he is angry
  8. Why the writer switches perspective from Rufus to Anuja several times like watching a tennis match – we switch focus from one side to another
  9. The focus on the falcon at the end and the insect
  10. The way the writer finishes on a cliffhanger with the ‘portent’ and possible foreshadowing
  11. Tracking through the shifting emotions and feelings of the crowd
  12. Why the writer gives us the details about the ‘cold drinks’ and the ‘glossy plans’
  13. The turning point, where Anuja wins the crowd back to conserving the common land
  14. The way the writer reveals Anuja’s internal thoughts vs the external description of Rufus
  15. The turning point where he loses control of the meeting
  16. What happens to Rufus at the end
  17. The metaphorical ‘dark cloud’ on his face and then the mention of the actual storm
  18. How and why the writer leaves us with a sense that FoodFreight will get their way

So you can see, without referring once to 1st person narrative, tense, sentence structures, sentence length, Freytag or Todorov, I still have plenty to say. The passage you will get will be the same. It will be so rich in structural stuff that you shouldn’t need to rely on spotting features.

Also, if you just take, at its most simple, what ideas, characters and themes we have at the beginning, or what the situation is at the beginning, and how those develop or change, you will have more than enough to say. You seriously won’t be stuck for ideas.

Okay, so you want to know what Level 1 – 4 look like. Remember, the question is marked in 4 levels, not in the 9 grades, which makes my head hurt. The question is worth 8 marks. Just to make it more confusing. There is nothing to say 7 or 8 marks is a grade 9, or that 1 or 2 is a grade 1…. confusing Maths headache!

But you want to know how do you get as many marks as possible.

Level 1 covers 1 or 2 marks.
Level 2 covers 3 or 4 marks.
Level 3 covers 5 or 6 marks.
Level 4 covers 7 or 8 marks.

Like Question 2, you will find the same key words. Simple understanding for Level 1, some understanding for Level 2, clear understanding for Level 3 and perceptive understanding for Level 4.

It’s practically the same markscheme you saw for Q2, except instead of saying textual detail, it say ‘examples’. That means you might refer to a part of the text or you might use a quote, but it doesn’t have to be a quote.

So you want to know what each level looks like and why it gets the mark it does?

Level 1

At the beginning of the source, the writer focuses our attention on the crowd, as they are introduced in the first sentence. Then there is a shift of focus to Anuja before it moves back to the crowd who are waiting to hear the plans about the town. This structure is interesting as it could make us interested in Anuja because she is in the first part of the text and we may want to see what happens to her in the rest of the passage. The way the writer structures the text makes me interested as a reader and want to read on to find out what happens. 

The writer then changes the focus to Rufus Carmichael. This interests the reader as we can link back to the beginning. 

The story is written in chronological order which adds a further perspective to the story. The reader is interested as the events continue and it adds a sense of drama. 

This is a very good example of what Level 1 answers look like. It has many simple comments (underlined) which could be about practically any text, but they show a simple understanding of structure. The comments are very general. It mentions the main characters and the crowd briefly, but that’s all we get. There are some references to structural features (in orange) which also shows some simple understanding of structure. There are some simple references to parts of the text (non-italicised). It does everything to get a mark of 2.

If you want to move up from Level 1 to Level 2, you have to cut right back on the simple comments like ‘makes you want to read on’, ‘grabs your attention’, ‘make it interesting for the reader’, ‘give a better image for the reader’. You have to cut these right back to zero.

Level 2

At the beginning of the source, the writer describes the crowd “many eager to hear plans that might bring prosperity to the town. Others wore grim expressions” which gives an overall feeling about how the crowd are feeling interested but also annoyed. This allows the reader to understand the feelings in the room As the source develops the writer changes our focus onto Rufus Carmichael who tells them that the site is an eyesore and that it is no use so they might as well build on it which makes the reader agree with him as it sounds disgusting. After that the writer shows us Anuja getting angry which we don’t understand. At the end of the source the writer introduces a falcon and uses foreshadowing which indicates there is conflict and to possibly show the next actions of Rufus Carmichael. 

This is a very good example of a level 2 response. It has some more specific comments on the aspects of structure that it has picked out, although mostly that involves putting it into their own words or explaining briefly how it sounds. It’s picked out some relevant details (in italics) and uses some subject terminology (in orange) that shows the candidate has some understanding of structural features, but they haven’t quite got it yet.

To move up to level 3, the response needs to really address why that specific structural feature is important or interesting to be positioned right there. Why is it important we understand the feelings of the crowd at the beginning? Why is it important that we agree with Rufus Carmichael when he is speaking at that point? Why is it interesting that it finishes with some foreshadowing and the image of the falcon and the insect?

Level 3

At the beginning of this extract, we are introduced to a scene in which there is a crowd. We are also told about a person named Anuja who has been specifically named, which makes us think that she might be important. We also find out that it is a meeting about a development which might bring money into the town. This is giving us the background information that we need to understand why the meeting is being held. We are told that the crowd have mixed feelings, with some being “eager” and some being “grim”, so we understand the atmosphere. The way that Anuja “scanned” the people makes her seem like a bit of an observer at the beginning, rather than telling us if she is also eager about the plans or if she is unhappy. 

As we move to the middle, the mood in the crowd changes and they seem to be more eager and convinced that the development plan is a good ideaThe writer only focuses on Rufus and on Anuja whilst he is speaking, and then they say “people squirmed in their seats, turning to their neighbours to exchange excited comments” and we see that instead of feeling angry like Anuja does, they actually feel excited. This is so we understand that Anuja’s views are different from the crowd and we understand why she “could stand it no longer”. Everybody else is being won over and she feels that they are being bribed and taken advantage of, so she has to speak up.

At the end although the meeting breaks up “in disarray” and we feel like Rufus has lost his battle, we get the feeling that it is not over yet. Rufus Carmichael says “We will get our way!” and the writer uses foreshadowing with the image of the falcon, which makes us think that FoodFreight is the falcon who will come and snap up the common land for their depot. 

This is a good example of Level 3 for six marks. It clearly understands the sequence and position of ideas. It has a number of clear comments (underlined) about what the position of the ideas makes us think at each point. It also picks out some clear examples and references to the text (in italics) and has some clear understanding of why the writer has chosen to position the ideas where they have.

To move up into Level 4, a more careful selection of structural features will help the candidate be more perceptive. It’s all about the selection. An overview of the whole passage will also help. Writing in more detail about each detail selected (having picked out fewer details) will also help with the ‘detailed’ side of Level 4.

Level 4

This passage focuses on the changing emotions of a village as they hear a proposal about a new depot that could be built. At first, the crowd are divided between being “eager” and having “grim expressions”, but they are quickly won over by the sales pitch from the FoodFreight representative. After the turning point where Anuja stands up and reminds the villagers of the importance of the plot of land, it is clear that the villagers have won the first battle in what will probably be a war with the company, but there is a sense that the “titanic battle” is far from over.

At the beginning, the writer allows us to see the internal thoughts of the villagers, describing some as “eager”, but the writer also focuses on the external reactions of their faces, with “grim expressions”. For Anuja, who will play the pivotal role in shifting the villagers’ feelings, she is doing nothing other than observing the room and we are unaware of her own feelings about the proposed depot. There is a juxtaposition between the wealth of the representative, who looks “well-fed” and the crowd who are “roughly dressed” and “weather beaten”. We get a sense that they are definitely the underdogs and as we move through the passage, it is clear Anuja thinks they are being taken advantage of and ‘bribed’.

In the middle of the text, we see the mood swing as Carmichael convinces them that the land is a health hazard that is of no use. It’s important that we see this shift towards him. The writer also switches each paragraph from a focus on Carmichael to a focus on Anuja. We see Carmichael’s words (but not his internal thoughts) compared to Anuja’s internal thoughts which give us an idea of how angry she is and how amazed that Carmichael could suggest the place is infested with vermin, not recognising that it is a sanctuary for the falcons. The pivotal moment where she stands up and redirects the crowd shows how easily they were tricked by the sales talk, but also how valuable the land is to them really.

By the end, then, it is clear the villagers have ‘won’ the battle. Carmichael’s final words are menacing, when he says “we will have our way”, and the falcon takes on a different meaning. At first, we saw the falcon as a symbol of the beauty and value of the land, a natural image that reminds us of the beauty of nature, but by the end we remember that it is a predator, not unlike the company, and that it is the natural order of life that predators will pick off ‘insects’, which is perhaps a subtle reference to the fact that the battle will indeed be ‘titanic’ as the “weather-beaten” villagers will have to fight off the slick and ‘glossy’ power of the development company. However, we don’t know if the falcon caught the insect in the final image, as the writer says the falcon “swooped” then “veered away” and we don’t know if the insect lived to see another day. There is a sense of inevitability by the end that the development company will have their way, and the ‘dark clouds’ that pass across Carmichael’s face are picked up with the image of the rain and lightning giving us a sense that the battle is really only beginning.

This is my own response – it took me 12 minutes, so it’s on the long side. You know me well enough by now to know that I have a problem reining in the word count. To be honest, it’s the over-the-top 8 of an English teacher, but I wanted to show you how important it is to have an overview and to pick up on the most interesting details. By tracking through the text and tracing the establishment and development of ideas, you can see how easy it is to comment on structure without relying on sentence forms, sentence lengths, narrative voice or Freytag’s pyramid. Better answers will have embedded quotations, a very carefully selected range of quotations or references, a clear understanding of structural features in general as well as the ability to apply that understanding to the text before them. They will pick up on subtle, less obvious details which show a careful reading. Subject terminology will also be embedded and you will not find a “feature first” approach.

For teachers reading this, I would be working with my students on careful reading of the text. Broad brushstrokes first, then narrowing down to precise details. I would be teaching students how to look at the beginning and the ending, looking at what changes from the start to the end, and why we need to know what we do at the beginning. I’d be teaching how to use those narrow details in embedded sentences. I’d run through four or five extracts in modelled and shared reading sessions in which we’d look at all the toolkit of common structural features and think about why they are used in general before asking how that specifically relates to the text in front of them. For instance, why would a writer generally use a flashback or foreshadowing, why would they use juxtaposition or explain the internal thoughts of a character? Then apply that understanding to the text.

For students, I’d be practising with a range of different texts. Since the exam from AQA is new and it has been a while since there have been fiction passages on the paper, you could always look at Edexcel, OCR or Eduqas fiction papers from other years as a source. You want to practise in a range of ways. Practise giving yourself lots of time, then under timed conditions. The more you do, the better you’ll get at those careful readings.

To summarise:

If I have to summarise:

  1. Use the reading time well to outline the broad brushstrokes and narrow in on the right details that give you plenty to discuss. This double-layer reading allows you to sift and synthesise, prioritising the important and weeding out the less relevant or less useful.
  2. Remember that effect is everything. Your comment on the effect of language is what puts you in a level.
  3. Use subject terminology appropriately and carefully, but do not use it to have a feature-led approach.

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a very limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour and I am also taking bookings for September 2018 for Year 9 and 10 students.

AQA GCSE English Language 8700 Paper 1 Question 3

In the last few posts, I’ve been looking at the paper itself, Question 1, lots on Question 2 and this time we’ll be moving on to Question 3. Question 3 is commonly known as ‘the structure question’. I’m going to spend a bit of time talking about what structure is and what structure isn’t, since it’s still a bit of a minefield to some, despite the copious guidance sent out from AQA.

This question was hugely, massively overcomplicated and it needn’t be. It builds on Question 1, which looks at the first information, and Question 2 which looks at an early paragraph. It’s helpful that it builds up in this way. Question 3 then looks at the whole text.

The question itself is new, which is part of the problem as to what it involved. That said, the question is not going to vary. Most of the language of the question is going to be the same. It is worth 8 marks and should take you around 10 minutes to complete. The space given is two sides, and that should be more than enough for most candidates, excepting those with larger handwriting.

Remember that one of the problems of getting your timing wrong on this question, as for Question 2, is that it will penalise you, time-wise, later in the paper, which is worth 75% of the final mark. It’s just not worthwhile labouring over this question and trying to squeeze out three sections under the misguided notion that there are three bullet points and you must address them all. Yet I’m still seeing things on the internet saying this is a trick and you should cross that ‘could’ out and you MUST or SHOULD refer to all the bullets. The bullet points are there as a structure for anyone who wants to use them. They are not a straitjacket or a trick.

So, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the question itself.

It asks you to ‘think about the whole of the source’.

Then it tells you where in the text the passage comes from. That might be interesting if you are thinking in terms of how the writer involves the reader in the narrative, or how they tie up loose ends if it comes from the ending. This information is helpful as it aids you in understanding the position of the extract as part of a whole. Mostly, it’s going to come from the beginning or from an interesting bit.

The question then asks you:

“How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?”

It once again, like Question 2, gives you three bullet points to help you. As a reminder, these are could not should, but students aiming to hit 4 or 5 marks of the 8 available may find the bullet points about the beginning of the source and as the source develops will give them a simple focus that helps them access the low-to-mid range marks of the markscheme, as indeed it does for candidates aiming for 7 or 8 out of 8. Unlike Question 2, where the bullet points give you ideas of things you may want to look at, Question 3 benefits from a closer following of these bullet points.

That said, those bullet points are suggestions. You will not be penalised if you don’t use them or you find other structural features interesting to write about.

Before I move on to how this question is marked, I want to focus a little on what structure is, and what it isn’t, what it could include and what it’s best to steer clear of.

Structure simply means “the arrangement of and relations between the parts of something more complex”

That definition is worth bearing in mind here. It is about how the ideas are organised, the sequence of those ideas, and the way the ideas follow or precede one another.

Organisation. Sequence. Links & connections. 

Those three things cover most of the structural aspects you will ever need to write about.

That’s Question 3 at its most simple.

Organisation. Sequence. Links & connections. 

There are some questions I would be looking for to prompt me:

  • What changes?
  • What develops?
  • What is introduced?
  • Why this, here, now? 

And I would be looking at how we get from the beginning to the ending, asking these specific questions.

Some of the aspects you might want to explore are:

  • changes from a big focus to a small focus
  • narrowing in
  • zooming out
  • shifts of time
  • shifts of topic
  • shifts of person
  • shifts of place
  • sudden introductions or changes
  • gradual introductions or changes
  • flashbacks
  • flashforwards
  • foreshadowing
  • shifts in narrative position
  • external actions of characters
  • internal thoughts of characters
  • shifting point of view
  • developments
  • repetitions
  • circular structures

This is not a list for you to learn or to go spotting those features in the text.

Above all, I care about “Why THIS, HERE, NOW?” 

Mostly, you are going to be looking at beginnings, endings and shifts in between. You are going to be looking at the whole text, or shifts between paragraphs, but very little on sentences or at word level. You could look at sentences or words, but there will be so much in the text to look at for whole text, or paragraph to paragraph, that you will not need to. Not only that, but you will tie yourself up in knots trying to write about structure when you’re writing about sentences or language features.

In AQA’s ridiculously helpful booklet Paper 1 Question 3 Further Insights, you are given 12 questions that may help you to explore structural features:

Possible key questions move from the what, to how and on to why. They could include:
1. When I first start to read the text, what is the writer focusing my attention on?
2. How is this being developed?
3. What feature of structure is evident at this point?
4. Why might the writer have deliberately chosen to begin the text with this focus and therefore make use of this particular feature of structure?
5. What main points of focus does the writer develop in sequence after the starting point?
6. How is each being developed?
7. Why is the writer taking me through this particular sequence?
8. How is this specific to helping me relate to the intended meaning(s) at these points?
9. What does the writer focus my attention on at the end of the text?
10. How is this developed as a structural feature?
11. How am I left thinking or feeling at the end?
12. Why might the writer have sought to bring me to this point of interest/understanding?

Those questions will help you find interesting things about organisation and the way the ideas are put together.

Now for the markscheme…

Like Question 2, the things we are marking you on are not equally weighted. Your comment on the effect of this arrangement of ideas is the most important thing. Then I’m looking for your use of evidence and your subject terminology. I’ll look more on comments in a future post.

That subject terminology throws yet another curveball for teachers. It means things like ‘the writer focuses us on… the writer zooms in… the writer changes perspective when… we have a change of focus when… the writer uses a flashback when… the writer shifts from the character’s actions to the character’s thoughts when… ‘

Yet again, ‘sophisticated’ for 7 or 8 marks seems to have been misconstrued by some teachers. You can see this dotted around the internet and Youtube with references to Freytag’s pyramid and Todorov’s Narrative Sequence… terms that are practically useless for candidates and hard for most candidates to get their head around. Whilst (many?) teachers will understand that you apply theories retrospectively, writers don’t write to a kind of recipe. You can analyse Shakespeare in many ways: his cultural New Historicism, via Marxism, via Feminism, via Homer Simpson’s Theory of Life, if you like…. but Shakespeare didn’t set out with Feminism, for example, in mind. Unless he was a time traveller or particularly insightful about the cultural ideologies that would follow. The truth of the matter is that when young minds are introduced badly to narrative features, they then write about them as if the writer were making deliberate choices in line with political or theatrical thought. Very unhelpful. Not least when all I want to know is why the writer put this idea before the one that follows, or why he repeats one idea from the beginning to the end.

No Freytag’s Pyramid, if you please. I don’t even want you to go and look that up if you’ve never heard of it. Likewise with Todorov’s Narrative Sequence. If you’ve stumbled across these on Youtube, please just put them aside and don’t over-complicate it.

Being able to identify the exposition or the rising narrative, the dénouement or the falling action is no more useful for Question 3 than identifying Horseshoe Monkeynuts is on Question 2. Just in case you’re off on Wikipedia looking for Horseshoe Monkeynuts, it’s not an actual linguistic term, but it’s no less ridiculous than someone seeking the cataphoric references in a text. Feature spotting is not your friend.

There is no hierarchy in which ‘beginning, middle and end’ are less ‘sophisticated’ in terminology than ‘exposition, rising action and dénouement’.

What I’d like, please, is some subject terminology about structure.

Yes, about structure.

Now…. this is where it gets tricky.

Is Narrative Voice a structural feature? Is an omniscient narrator a structural feature? Is tense a structural feature?

Well… they CAN be. Sure, they CAN be.

But telling candidates that it IS structure and focusing on them is not really about ‘organisation and arrangement of ideas’, is it?

Writing about narrative viewpoint or tense can often be a real dead-end, so I’d tend to avoid them completely in favour of the whopping great big list of actual organisational features I gave you above.

Likewise sentences. In the “Further Insights” booklet, there is a very good example of how you can write about sentences for Question 3. What it is essentially getting at is the need for you to write about the content of that sentence, not its construction. This is not the place to write about simple sentences, compound sentences or complex sentences. They are not structural devices about the arrangement of ideas. No, it is the ideas they contain that are the bit worth writing about.

I can happily show you how to write about sentences in ways that will satisfy a marker for Question 2 or Question 3, and the different ways you need to explore them.


In my opinion, and this is very much my own opinion, it is better to completely ignore sentences altogether on Question 2 and 3. They are such a minefield that you can easily end up writing about them in ways that aren’t about language or structure and that lovely fat paragraph you have about compound-complex sentences (??!!!) is not only hard to mark, it is worth nothing. Writing about sentences in the wrong way on either question is as if you have suddenly started writing in Spanish. It’s very nice, dear, and it may well be perfectly interesting and accurate in its own way, but it’s not within the small little box of my markscheme and I don’t know what to do with it.

Best avoided completely.

Not only that, but there is SO MUCH you can write about that if you get to the point where you feel you’ve got to feature-spot some random made-up sentence type then you need to revisit what you know about structure, and what structure means. Like on Question 2, the chief examiner will have picked out a text so rich in language and structure that you could write about it for five hours without ever once having to refer to sentence types or sentence lengths.

When I get a response that is two paragraphs, and it focuses on the narrative viewpoint in one and the sentence lengths in the other, it is really, really hard to mark. Not only that, it shows very limited understanding of what structure ACTUALLY is. It’d have to be done in such a way that it’d take me 5000 words to explain it. I’d rather the answer was focused around Freytag’s Flipping Pyramid.

Finally, where it comes to the comment, we need specifics, not generalisations. Please avoid the following: “makes the reader want to read on, hooks the reader, makes the reader interested” without developing. Anything like those, or even posh versions, is just ‘simple response’ that is applicable to most, if not all text.

So, in summary:

  • You need some structural language, but you don’t need to ever know the word dénouement. There is no hierarchy that says ‘the focus at the beginning’ is worse than ‘the exposition’.
  • There are lots of things to avoid. Narrative viewpoint and sentence structures are two of those. They are hard to write about in terms of the arrangement of ideas. Best avoided unless you are absolutely sure about how you can use these to writer about how the ideas are arranged.
  • There are hundreds of things you can write about, and AQA’s booklet will help you if you don’t believe me
  • The comment is worth more than your quotation or your use of structural features. Your comment is what I’m after, not your fancy language.

In the next post, I’ll look at these ideas in practice, so you can see how I would approach a text in terms of structure, and the kind of comments you might want to make that will move you to 5, 6, 7 or 8 marks.


AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 2: how to make the best comments on effect

In the previous posts, I’ve been dissecting everything that you need to do for Question 2 on Paper 1, commonly called ‘the language question’. Yes, it’s been overkill. But hopefully that leads you into a very clear what to do versus what not to do. We’ve looked at why you don’t need to know loads of complex language features, what you’re actually being assessed on and some of the basics about the question as well as what you’re being marked on.

To summarise so far:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullet points in the question.
  • There are three things you are being marked on in Question 2: your subject terminology, your use of text references and your comments on the effect of language.
  • The key skill for Question 2 is analysis of language, not identification of figures of speech.
  • You don’t need to know very complex subject terminology and there’s no hierarchy that says you need to write about semantic fields rather than adjectives for example. 
  • The quality of your comment on the effect of language is the most important and most heavily weighted of these three things.
  • You only need to make one clear comment to come in at level three, or one simple comment to come in at level one, and so on. You don’t need three paragraphs. Or more! This is an 8-mark question that should take a maximum of ten minutes to respond to.
  • You need to understand what you’re being assessed on, because if you don’t, you could end up hula hooping instead of designing a fancy costume.
  • You don’t have to do level 1 and 2 to get to level 3. You can make one comment and hit level 3 or even level 4.
  • Nowhere in the markscheme does it say you have to write about everything in the bullet point list of the question (words, phrases, language features etc) and it does not specify which you have to write about.

So today, we’ll look at some tips on how to narrow down the important things to look at now you know how to find some juicy quotes from the passage.

In the exam, the passage is printed on the paper for you. You’ve understood what was meant about broad brushstrokes and narrowing in, and you’ve got yourself to a point where you have a shortlist of juicy quotes to write about.

For this task, I’m going to take a passage from The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is taken from the beginning of the novel, and describes city of Barcelona in the early morning. A boy, Daniel, is being taken to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father.

Night watchmen still lingered in the misty streets when we stepped out of the front door. The lamps along the Ramblas marked out an avenue in the early morning haze as the city awoke, like a watercolour slowly coming to life. When we reached Calle Arco del Teatro, we continued through its arch toward the Ravel quarter, entering a vault of blue haze. I followed my father through that narrow lane, more of a scar than a street, until the glimmer of the Ramblas faded behind us. The brightness of dawn filtered down from balconies and cornices in streaks of slanting light that dissolved before touching the ground. At last my father stopped before a door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity. Before us loomed what to my eyes seemed the carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows. 

So I did my broad brushstrokes and then my narrowing down, to help think about what I’m going to focus my response on.

How does the writer use language here to describe the streets of Barcelona? 

You could include the writer’s choice of:

  • words and phrases
  • language features and techniques
  • sentence forms

So, I’m going to start by taking the same details and showing you responses at Level 1, (1-2 marks) Level 2, (3-4 marks) Level 3 (5-6 marks) and Level 4 (7-8 marks) as well as giving you a comment on each answer so that you can see how they use the subject terminology and the quotes differently to get the different levels.

The writer uses language here to describe the streets of Barcelona so that the writer can make it more interesting so that he can engage the reader to carry on reading. The writer uses a simile to describe the streets with ‘like a watercolour coming to life‘. This gives more attention to this part so that the reader will carry on reading about the streets of Barcelona and what the boy sees. 

The writer tries to make the place scary at the end as they show us a sense of mystery about the door. The writer might have done this so that it can grab the reader’s attention. This shows that the writer was trying to give more of an impact and make the audience carry on reading. The wordshadows might make the reader think that there is something bad about the place. It shows that the writer wants to give a better image her and have the reader imagine what sorts of echoes the boy might hear. 

This is a very good example of what Level 1 looks like. There are lots of simple comments that could really be about any text. They aren’t really about the text in front of us at all. It just mentions Barcelona and the boy. So you have two simple quotes (in orange), some simple subject terminology (in italics) and some simple comments (underlined).

If you want to move up from Level 1 to Level 2, you have to cut right back on the simple comments like ‘makes yo want to read on’, ‘grabs your attention’, ‘make it interesting for the reader’, ‘give a better image for the reader’. You have to cut these right back to zero.

So then what do you put in its place?

Here’s a Level 2 answer so that you can see for yourself.

The writer says, ‘the city awoke, like a watercolour coming to life’ the writer, in this phrase, is comparing the city to a painting to make the feeling of the beauty of the city come to life for the reader.

The writer also says, ‘before us loomed what seemed to me the carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows.‘ The writer uses the verbloomed‘ to make the feeling clear to the reader. This makes it seem like it stands out and it is gloomy and scary. The writer has used it because it makes it sound like a human quality which makes the door sound dangerous. This contrasts with the idea of it being like a watercolour which is very beautiful. This verb is effective because it gives the impression of a dangerous, dark door. 

This is a very good example of what Level 2 looks like. There are lots of attempted comments that try and explain what the words mean or give a simple but accurate effect. It has the same quotes in and although they are longer, they do zoom in on the quotes. When you’re explaining meaning of words or using synonyms without explaining effect, it is very much like a Level 2 response. So you have some appropriate textual detail in orange), some subject terminology used appropriately (in italics) and some attempted comments (underlined).

If you want to move up to Level 3, you need to add to the synonyms and meaning by giving an explanation of effect. Or just explaining the effect. Both will get you into Level 3. Here’s an example Level 3 response.

The writer uses the simile, “the city awoke, like a watercolour coming to life“. This shows that the city had almost seemed still and lifeless. Both ‘awoke‘ and ‘coming to lifehave connotations of becoming active as if it had been asleep. A watercolour is faint and hazy, which is how the city must seem to the boy. The writer has done this to emphasise how the city still doesn’t feel real, how it feels quite magical to the boy and it must feel like he is still dreaming himself. 

By the end, the boy and his father seem to have walked away from the daylight and the images created at the end contrast with the first images which are gentle and misty. The door is described using the adjectiveblackened” and the boy says it seemed to be a “carcass of a palace“. The word carcass refers to the dead body of an animal, so it makes it seem as if the place is still dead and that it has not woken up like the rest of the city. Further on, he says it is filled with “echoes and shadowsas if nothing is real or solid. 

Some of this response is better than other bits. There are lots of comments that explain what the words mean or give the effect of the words. I can ask myself “does this quote mean this/suggest this?” and if I say ‘yes it does’, then it’s ‘clear comment’. It has the same quotes in and they are starting to embed the quotes in their answer or be more precise all over. So you have a range of relevant textual detail (in orange), clear and accurate subject terminology (in italics) and some clear comments on effect of language (underlined).

To move up to Level 4, you can come at it from two directions: perceptive (which makes the examiner say, “ah, yes!”) and detailed (which may explore a range of effects of one particular word or phrase). Both are fine. Perceptive depends on the day, I think, even for me. It needs you to really, really think about what the intended effect was and what it makes you think of. For me, perceptive means you have a fine appreciation of what the writer is up to. Even if I mark 5000 questions, a Level 4 should be able to say something I’ve not really considered, or to do it in a detailed and interesting way. Detailed, I can do every way since Sunday. Perceptive? Well… if I get the right passage, I think of something devastatingly clever to say and I can do it within the ten minutes of the exam.

For instance:

Zafon uses shifting imagery to portray the streets of Barcelona, and shows how the light has magical qualities but that it cannot reach everywhere. At first, he says the streets were ‘misty’, and that gives them a magical quality as they come to life through the simile of ‘a watercolour slowly coming to life.’ Watercolours are gentle, transparent images, almost ephemeral compared to the solidity of an oil painting, so the figurative language here shows the transient and translucent scene seems almost like an illusion. Since the main character has just woken, like the city, it seems as if the image is a remnant of a dream world through the use of this simile. In places, the light has not yet reached, where Zafon refers to ‘a vault of blue haze‘. Since a vault is a deep cellar or crypt, the ‘blue haze’ seems almost as if it is yet to wake from sleep and it seems to cast the character into a world where light has yet to touch.

Later, he says the ‘brightness of dawn filtered down’, almost as if it loses its power as it ‘streaks’ through ‘balconies and cornices’, lacking the power to reach the pavement as it ‘dissolved’ before it could wake this part of the city. The image of light and darkness is continued with the ‘blackened’ door and the ‘shadows’ which seem to have kept this part of the city in a kind of semi-permanent darkness, part of a dream world, something dark and mysterious. When we know this is the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, the way the light fails to penetrate this part of the city seems almost symbolic. The place is left to rest in darkness.

Okay, that’s my 8. I need to confess something. I am a 40-something English teacher with 20-odd years on the job. If that seems a little ‘whoo hoo’ for an 8, you are right. I was just writing about what the words suggested to me and how to track the shift from light to darkness. That works on this passage in ways that I don’t think I could replicate on the ‘Alice’ one from November 2017 that you saw on my last post. I don’t usually write things that make me say ‘well done Miss!’ and I confess I quite like what I did there. Trying to do perceptive and detailed and it overshoots the mark a little. But… you’re here to know how you shift from that 6 towards an 8…

Level 4 scripts will probably have embedded quotations. They’ll make more use of the words the writer has used, and turn them into sentences. They focus in on one or two words in detail, and they’ll track ideas through the sentences if they find them. They use subject terminology, but it is embedded and used helpfully. There is evidence that they have thought about the words, thought about the meaning of them and their effect, thought about why the writer may have chosen the words that they did and how the reader is intended to respond, as well as giving a personal response. You’ll find lots of things like:

  • it suggests that
  • it makes us think
  • it is designed to
  • it gives the impression that
  • it could be that
  • it may indicate that
  • it sounds as if
  • it seems
  • it’s described as
  • this indicates that
  • this could be associated with
  • this may be
  • this is shown to be
  • this shows
  • the writer hints that
  • this adds a sense of
  • we can assume that
  • the writer could be
  • it’s as if
  • the writer purposely
  • this allows the reader to

Phrases like these are nothing in themselves. What they allow students to do is discuss effect and to evaluate the words used. They are springboards that propel students’ responses into speculation, allowing them to make perceptive and insightful comments. Run a couple together and you can see how you work your way to a Level 3 or 4. Better candidates will go beyond the simple ‘not really’ regurgitations or generalisations of Level 1, and will go beyond ‘kind of’ comments at Level 2 which often stick to the safety of synonyms. They explore meaning but not effect.

So, there you have it…

An achingly full analysis of how to reach the top marks of Paper 1 Question 2.

If I have to summarise:

  1. Use the reading time well to outline the broad brushstrokes and narrow in on the right details that give you plenty to discuss. This double-layer reading allows you to sift and synthesise, prioritising the important and weeding out the less relevant or less useful.
  2. Remember that effect is everything. Your comment on the effect of language is what puts you in a level.
  3. Use subject terminology appropriately and carefully, but do not use it to have a feature-led approach.

The five posts in which I explore Question 2 are as follows:

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a very limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.