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.