AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 1 advice and guidance

Following on from last week’s post with some thoughts about the new GCSE English paper 1 from AQA (8700), today I’m focusing in on Question 1. You wouldn’t think that this little question would be problematic, but lots of really bright students lose marks on it.

Basically, your marker is starting with the notion that all candidates should be able to get four marks on this question. It’s marked positively and candidates do well on it. Sometimes, it’ll be the only four marks they’ll get on the whole paper. And there’s a good reason it starts like that. Can you imagine any paper that started with a hard question that frightened off the majority of students?! The aim of this question is to get you four marks and set you on your way to the rest of the paper, not to make you all emotional.

So why doesn’t everyone get four marks, and why do better students often get lower marks? This post is designed to help you understand what the examiners are looking for and how you can get those crucial marks.

What do you need to know?

Firstly, you should give yourself about five minutes to do this question. The question is assessing your ability to find facts and information in a passage.

Question 1 asks you to look at one section, usually the first paragraph.

Read again the first part of the source, from lines X to XX.
List four things about [thing] from this part of the source.

Now you can already see where people go wrong. Question 2 is printed in the answer booklet, but Question 1 is not. That means the first hurdle that some students fall at is they don’t find a thing from the right lines.

Also, before the extract is an explanation of where the passage is taken from.

Here’s a slightly-amended example, from a Cambridge CIE 2015 paper with an AQA-style addition to the introduction.

This extract is taken from the middle of a novel by [name of writer] in which villagers meet to hear proposals from a large company wishing to develop a piece of common land.

Already, you can see my problem in creating it for you… CIE didn’t bother adding the writer, the type of text or who wrote it, which AQA do. Not only that, the CIE version is much less informative. So… read the introduction but do not make the mistake of using it in your answer. Lots of students do! You’ll see some examples shortly.

Now, onto the extract. I’ve included the first three paragraphs but the question would only refer to what usually forms the first paragraph. You’ll see why I had to extend my range in the ‘mistakes’ that come later.

The crowd swarmed into the building, many eager to hear plans that might bring prosperity to their town. Others wore grim expressions, aware of the titanic fight needed to save a precious site. Anuja scanned the people, many roughly dressed and weather-beaten from long hours of working outdoors. None looked well-fed – except the main speaker, the representative of the development company.

‘You know why we are here tonight,’ a leading member of the community began. ‘Food Freight wants to build a depot on our common land next to the river. Mr Carmichael is here to tell us why we should let them.’

The temperature in the room rose as the meeting wore on. Hands were swept across sweaty brows and some removed outer garments. A short break was announced during which people could look at the glossy plans and maps pinned up around the hall, and enjoy cool drinks and delicious-looking snacks thoughtfully provided by Food Freight. Fingers traced the lines of new roads on the maps.

So, a sample question would go like this: 

Read again the first part of the source, from lines 1 to 5.
List four things about the people in the crowd from this part of the source.

And there are plenty of things you could say.

Let’s start with what you don’t need to do.

  1. You don’t need to answer in full sentences
  2. You don’t need to use quote marks
  3. You don’t need to infer meaning

So what can you do (and these are ‘can’s not ‘should’s!)

  1. You can use the words of the question to start your answer off
  2. You can use quote marks
  3. You can quote directly
  4. You can paraphrase or put it into your own words
  5. You can make inferences (but you do not need to)

Here’s a helpful example response:

  1. The crowd “swarmed into the building”
  2. Many of the crowd “were eager to hear plans”
  3. Some of the crowd “wore grim expressions”
  4. Many people in the crowd “were roughly dressed”

Four points. Four marks. No inferences.

  1. The crowd swarmed into the building
  2. Many of the crowd were eager to hear plans
  3. Some of the crowd wore grim expressions
  4. Many people in the crowd were roughly dressed

Still four points. Still four marks. Still no inferences.

  1. They swarmed into the building
  2. Many were eager to hear plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

Still four points. Still four marks. Still no inferences.

Doesn’t seem that hard, does it?

Where it gets hard is where you start doing more than the question needs. Like if you refer to the opening.

  1. They’ve come to hear proposals from a large company.
  2. Many were eager to hear the plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

The first point is from the introduction, so even though it is true, it doesn’t get a mark. Three points from the right bit of the passage. Three marks.

This is also true if you refer to bits after the extract.

  1. The people were sweaty
  2. Many were eager to hear the plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

So even though it’s true, it’s from the wrong bit and it doesn’t get a mark. Three points from the right bit and one from the wrong bit. Three marks.

If you refer to anything other than the crowd, you also will not gain marks. Although Anuja and Rufus Carmichael are there, they are not “villagers in the crowd” as such because one is named and the other is not a villager and not in the crowd.

  1. Mr Carmichael was there to talk about the plan
  2. Many were eager to hear plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

Now, while the aim is to give four marks, there will be SO MUCH in the passage that you could use as your answer that it’s taking liberties if you refer to other bits and the examiner has to sit there thinking about whether that is included or not. So if it’s not about the crowd, don’t expect a mark.

For this reason, I’ve got two tips:

  • put a box around the right bit of the passage and only select your answers from that bit, even if you struggle;
  • start with the words of the question.

Those two things will help you stay on topic, write about the right topic and answer from the right bit.

The other reason candidates go wrong is they try too hard and try to draw inferences rather than just finding quotes. Examiners will have to think about whether your response is ‘fair’ or not.


  1. The people in the crowd were thin
  2. Many people were excited to hear the plans
  3. Some people in the crowd were prepared for the worst
  4. The people in the crowd were interested in the possible benefits of the plans

These are what we call ‘fair inferences’. The people were thin, as it says “none looked well-fed”. Some were “eager” and excited would be a fair inference for eager. Some were “aware of the titanic fight needed to save a precious site” so you could say they were prepared for the worst – or could you??! – I’ll come back to this. And if they were eager, they were “interested in the possible benefits” – but would this get a mark?

Response three would have me calling someone for a second opinion! Is “prepared for the worst” a fair interpretation of being aware of the fact they are going to need to fight to save the site? Honestly, I don’t know that it is. I think you could justify it to me if you had ten more lines, but you don’t. How I wish you’d written Some of the crowd was aware of the titanic fight needed to save a precious site !

And response four would also have me wondering, because it’s kind of similar to response two. Are they kind of the same? That’s another reason candidates lose marks, because they refer to the same point.

Waaaaah – examiner headache!

But some students make it even worse by making an inference that’s a bit of a leap. It’s not a fair inference.

  1. Some of the crowd were furious
  2. Many of the crowd were desperate to hear the plans
  3. The crowd were desperate for money
  4. They were poor.

All four of these are a bit of a leap. “Grim expressions” is not the same as furious. Being “eager” is not the same as being “desperate” and even though their clothes are roughly-dressed and “none looked well-fed”, we don’t know it’s because they are poor. We can guess, but it’s a guess rather than something we know for sure.

So on Question 1, a lot of candidates talk themselves out of marks by referring to things that are not in the passage. You can also stay on topic by using full sentences that start with the topic of the question – it’s pretty tough to stray if you do that, I promise you! You can also include quotes and you may drive yourself into a lower mark by trying to make inferences and not getting it quite right.

Remember KISS… Keep It Simple, Students 😉

This is a really simple question and the majority of students gain a quick four marks here, which is often more than the marks they get on Question 2 or Question 3 (which I’ll write about next week and the week after)

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 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.



AQA GCSE English Paper 1 and Paper 2

Guidelines and summary

In the following series of articles, I’ll be looking at each of the questions on AQA GCSE English papers to look at how students can access the full range of marks, and give examples of what mistakes are commonly made as well as advice as to how to improve the marks through the levels. In taking each question in turn, it should help you get to grips with the demands of the exam.

It’s a bit of a deviation from working through the poetry anthology for GCSE English Literature, but a season of marking does help make things much more clear that were less so before. For students, there is always a tendency to prioritise English Literature, because it is easier to revise. It is easier to learn 10 quotes from each poem, or key quotes on Macbeth than it is to revise ‘description’ for example. Teachers spend longer on English Literature, this blog certainly has, and that is reflected in what students do too. Apologies to all you lovelies who are expecting a continuation of the poetry – but this seemed to be more pertinent!

So how do you prepare for and revise GCSE English?

There are two main approaches: familiarity and practice.

Yesterday, I was coaching a lovely Y6 student for the 11+. At one point, I said something about an approach and she corrected me. “It won’t work like that on this paper,” she said. And she was absolutely right. It wouldn’t have. Luckily she was there to correct me and 11 year olds feel less bound by teacher-student relationships to correct a teacher when it’s needed.

It was actually the best thing she could have said, because not only was she absolutely correct, she clearly knew the exam paper she is going to take, whilst my head is swimming with five different 11+ formats.

That’s what every student needs before going into this exam. Complete and confident understanding of the exam paper.

That comes through extensive practice. This in itself is a little more challenging because it’s a new syllabus and there just isn’t that much out there. Contrast this to the Edexcel IGCSE which I also teach, and you’ve got 8 years of past papers, twice a year. 16 sets of papers to practise on.

It’s also challenging because there is SUCH misinformation out there. Appalling and shameless misinformation from noisy social media experts with busy Youtube channels who do not mark and who have no concept of a markscheme in practice. Misinformation spread among teachers that goes against what AQA and the Chief Examiner for this subject are actually saying.

Ask yourself before you take on this guidance how someone knows how to get a 9 in English.

The answer is that they do not. They cannot know how to, because the grade boundaries are not fixed and are not set in stone. Ask yourself if they know how to get top marks on each question, and ask yourself HOW they know. “Being a teacher” shouldn’t be the answer you are looking for. Having a popular and glitzy Youtube channel isn’t either. I know how you get top marks on each question because I spend my summer marking it and I pay attention to the Chief Examiner. They know, because they set the paper. Sadly, the misinformation about how to get good results on this paper severely hindered some students – misinformation that deliberately and wilfully went against the guidance from AQA, even in Q1!

The truth is that in all change of syllabus, we need to be respectful of the fact that it is new to all of us. I work with markers who have marked papers for 30+ years. I’ve marked for 20 years. It’s new to all of us. I learned a lot this season and I hope that what I learned will help you. All of the material I will link to is directly from AQA and available on the main GCSE English page. I’ll try to respect the usual laws of schools and not use the June 2017 paper until June 2018, as many schools will use this as a mock paper.

What I intend to do over the coming posts is take each question in turn and take it apart so that teachers and students can fully understand what it is they have to do on each question. No misinformation. No red herrings. What I will say will link to the report on the exam from the Chief Examiner and all of it is rooted in practice.

About the papers

There are two papers. Both are worth 80 marks. Both papers have 40 marks for reading and 40 marks for writing. There are five questions on both papers. Both papers are 1 hour and 45 minutes long.

On Paper 1, you will have one comprehension. It is based on a fictional text from the 20th or 21st Century. That is not important in itself, but it is important to remember that it is fictional. As it says in the GCSE syllabus ” It will include extracts from novels and short stories and focus on openings, endings, narrative perspectives and points of view, narrative or descriptive passages, character, atmospheric descriptions and other appropriate narrative and descriptive approaches.

Q1 asks you to find four pieces of information. It is worth 4 marks.

Q2 asks you to write about the writer’s use of language in a short excerpt. It is worth 8 marks.

Q3 asks you to write about the effects of structure in the text. It is also worth 8 marks.

Q4 asks you to construct an argument in support or disagreement with a given statement. You are required to root your interpretation in the text and to express a supported opinion about how the writer has used a range of methods. It is worth 20 marks.

Q5 is a writing question. You are given two choices. It may be descriptive or narrative. In some years, you may find two descriptive questions. In others, you may find two narratives. The question is worth 40 marks. The topic of this is always linked to the themes or ideas in the reading text.

On Paper 2, you will have two non-fiction texts. The first will be either from the 20th or the 21st Century depending on the century from which the Paper 1 text is chosen, as all three texts must cover the 19th, 20th and 21st Century. It’s not massively important to know this, but I thought I’d share how they are selected. Neither is it important to know about the fact the texts are non-fiction except in understanding that this paper is very much about viewpoint.

Choice of genre will include high quality journalism, articles, reports, essays, travel writing, accounts, sketches, letters, diaries, autobiography and biographical passages or other appropriate non-fiction and literary non-fiction forms.

Q1 is a multiple-choice question and asks students to decide which of 8 statements is true. It is worth 4 marks.

Q2 is a comparison of the two passages and asks students to explore the writer’s ideas and compare them across two texts. It will give students the opportunity to compare two texts and to make inferences or explain effects. It is worth 8 marks.

Q3 asks students to explore how language has been used in the second text. It is worth 12 marks.

Q4 is a comparison of the two sources and asks students to look at the attitudes of the writers to the theme that links the two texts, and explore how they present their views. It is worth 16 marks.

Q5 is a writing question that asks students to compose a text in which they give their own views on the theme in the reading question. It is worth 40 marks. On both writing questions, 24 marks are available for content and organisation, and 16 marks are available for technical accuracy.

It is very sensible for students to work out how many minutes to spend on each question. Timing is vital, and many students spend far too long on Q2 and 3 to the detriment of Q4 and 5, which are worth much more. Thus there are 80 marks to be gained in 105 minutes, so timing could be split as follows:

4 mark questions = 5 minutes

8 mark questions = 10 minutes

12 mark questions = 15 minutes

16 mark questions = 20 minutes

20 mark questions = 25 minutes

40 mark questions = 50 minutes

That gives students time to check the paper through and manage the reading. Of course, they will need to read the texts also. How I suggest they do this is that they read the texts in entirety before looking at the questions. Students should know the questions on the reading section anyway, as they do not change. Then they should read the questions, mark off the sections that each question asks about and then re-read more closely with a pencil or highlighter to underline the pertinent information. Finally, they can answer the question. In reality, that means they will probably spend a couple of minutes for each reading question in re-reading and highlighting.

One thing for students and teachers to bear in mind is that 8 mark questions do not need to be more than 2 sections/paragraphs or ideas. It’s frustrating to see that the exam paper clearly says the bullet points COULD provide areas to focus on, only to see huge numbers of students cross out COULD and write SHOULD or MUST. There is NO obligation to write about all three bullet points and, indeed, doing so will impede their progress on other questions which will suffer as a consequence.

Students should not need to ask for extra sheets of paper to complete their responses.

It’s disheartening to see students write almost as much or often more for 8-mark questions than they do for 20-mark questions. Whilst responses are not marked in terms of quantity or length, they have different marks and different numbers of pages to respond in because it is expected they will respond in more detail on higher-mark questions. Similarly on Q5, there is no need to write a response that goes over the number of pages allocated and doing so can be detrimental to the final mark in that writing tends to become sloppier and less succinct or focused. Whilst 1 page would generally be inappropriate to show the detail needed for higher levels, 5 pages are also unnecessary in many cases.

One final remark that I’ll make that goes across all questions is that over-answering is detrimental to students. By this I mean that if you are teaching things on A level syllabuses or undergraduate linguistic analysis, it is unnecessary and does not help students in any way. I’m going to harp on about this because I have no idea why even very capable candidates can’t recognise a simple adverb and thousands write about asyndetic listing instead. Freytag’s Pyramid, Todorov’s narrative sequence, rhetorical devices taken from 1960s Latin textbooks and parsing of sentences that would generally be seen in post-grad linguistics have no place in GCSE English if it means students do not have a firm grasp of the rudiments of language. Focusing in on polysyndetic listing gains no more marks than focusing in on a simile. Referring to Freytag’s Pyramid gains no more marks than referring to a twist or turning point in the narrative. It’s incredibly frustrating to see students attempting valiantly, over and over, to explain the effects of obscure language devices when they are missing out on some quite lovely language elsewhere. I’m going to make this point so many times that you’ll be sick of hearing it. It’s a point worth labouring though.

Once, a Year 11 girl asked her substitute English teacher if she needed to explain how to use litotes and metonymy in her GCSE English Language exam.

“No,” that English teacher replied. “Emma, if I have to go and get a literary devices dictionary out, then it’s going to make me very cross indeed.”

That English teacher was Mrs Ashworth, otherwise known as Sherry Ashworth, the writer. That student was me. I managed to get through GCSE, A level and an undergraduate degree without ever needing to pick out litotes or metonymy.

Another time, a Year 11 student asked, “Is this a simile, Miss?”

“Yes.” she said. “Good stuff.”

“Will I get an A* for that?”

“No, I’m sorry, Luke. You won’t.”

“Will I get a C?”

“Probably not. Can you tell me why the writer used it?”

“Because his English teacher told him that he needed to put more similes in?”

That teacher was me, and my student was Luke, who could spot a simile at 50 paces.

Substitute simile for “agentless passive” or any other overly complex term and what you have got are students who can feature spot.

I’ve been saying it for years… divorcing the ability to spot features from the ability to comment on what they tell us is pointless. It doesn’t take much to make a nice comment. I’ll refer you to an example from the long-defunct KS3 paper. The text was one from Treasure Island, where Jim and Long John Silver approach some buried treasure.

What does the writer suggest when he says Long John Silver’s “nostrils stood out and quivered”?

“It means he was like a human gold detector.” one response read. In that brief response, it was quite clear that the student had absolutely got it. That’s what we are looking for – students who absolutely understand what the writer is saying and who can appreciate the effect, not that they can parse sentences and identify arcane language or structural features. Teachers who commit to chasing language features at the expense of focusing on effect are prioritising techniques that will not benefit their students.

Please, please feel free to comment, question and enter into a dialogue about this. I fear that it may take several years for the message to get through when there is so much out there that encourages students to chase this feature-spotting red herring. I do not want to suggest that students shouldn’t be able to identify language parts, or that learning correct terminology is unhelpful, only that this should not come at the expense of inaccurate identification of the basics, nor should it come at the expense of understanding or appreciation.

In the next post, I’ll be focusing in on Paper 1 Question 1 and looking at ways students get all four marks, as well as those who don’t.