Advice for answering AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 2

This is the third post in a sequence on AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 2. They may be in far more detail than you could ever need or want, but the guidance is helpful for Q2-4 on Paper 1, as well as Question 3 on Paper 2. And English Literature. Useful there, too.

Previously, I looked at an overview of Paper 1 Question 2, commonly called ‘the language question’. In the follow-up post, I looked at the markscheme.

To summarise so far:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullet points in the question.
  • You don’t need to know very complex subject terminology (and I’m going to look more at that today).
  • You only need to make one clear comment to come in at level three, or one simple comment to come in at level two, 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.
  • The quality of your comments on the effect of language are what decide your level, finding or spotting language features.
  • 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.

So, today I’m going to explore a bit about subject terminology and that bit of your potential 8 marks on this question.

You can hear me talking a bit about it here too.

Basically, on Q2, you have to use some subject terminology. That can be as general as words, phrases, description, describes, writes about or as precise as epanodos or cataphoric reference.

Let me start by reminding you that there is no order of merit. Your epanodos is no better than your repetition. It is what you do with it that counts. “The writer uses the word…” can be the kind of thing I see in 7-mark responses as much as it is in 1-mark responses, and “the writer uses cataphoric reference…” could be 1 mark, or it could be 7. Yes, it flatters to deceive. It looks fancy. It might trick some people into thinking you have a better understanding of language, but any fool can be taught any one of the 250 terms on Wikipedia’s Figures of Speech page and can find an example of it in the passage if there is one. If you know all of them, when I read your answer, you could be 1 mark or 7, or anywhere in between, until I’ve decided on your comment’s level of quality. Finding fancy features does not mean top marks.

I’m reminded here of my favourite Betsy Byars’ character, Carlie, who says, “even a blind pig can find an acorn every now and again.”

She is very right.

Year 2 students learn to find alliteration. Those are six year olds. Finding alliteration is no more flashy than finding isocola, not really.

As I said, it’s what you do with it that counts.

So how do you make it count?

The first is in NOT taking a feature-spotting approach. I’m going to show you how that looks.

The second is in picking out some interesting bits of the language and writing about that. I’ll look at that next time.

Now, the text that is picked for the exam will be RICH with language features. Sickeningly rich, no doubt. It’s picked out so that every single student in the whole of the UK can find something to write about.

It calls for a different reading approach. I’m going to take a passage from a sample paper, taken from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

I’m going to show you three ways that people annotate over the next two posts (and perhaps more!) that reflect different thinking processes and get different results. Today, I’m going to focus on the approach I call “Feature Spotting”.


here’s the question:

How does the writer use language here to describe the effects of the weather?

And here is the passage:

The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.

The driver, muffled in a greatcoat to his ears, bent almost double in his seat in a faint attempt to gain shelter from his own shoulders, while the dispirited horses plodded sullenly to his command, too broken by the wind and the rain to feel the whip that now and again cracked above their heads, while it swung between the numb fingers of the driver.

The wheels of the coach creaked and groaned as they sank into the ruts on the road, and sometimes they flung up the soft spattered mud against the windows, where it mingled with the constant driving rain, and whatever view there might have been of the countryside was hopelessly obscured. 

So I’m going to show you how a feature spotter identifies details – and other approaches in a follow-up post.

Imagine, if you will, the copy you pick up from the exam room from a candidate who feature spots. It looks like this:

What they’ve done is highlight all the features they’ve been taught to look for.

As you can see from this, some of the features have been accurately identified, some have been incorrectly identified and some are dubious or debatable. Some will be helpful in the exam and some won’t be.

What this approach does is encourage you to find the things you’ve been taught in class, a bit like that mnemonic DAFOREST for paper 2. If you can’t find it, you’re reluctant to comment on it. It also drives you into saying things like “the writer has not used any metaphors”.

It leads to answers that look like this:

“The writer has used a present participle verb in the passage when she says ‘shaking’ …”

which is all well and good… but it then leads into this…

“The writer has used a present participle verb in the passage when she says ‘shaking’ which makes it seem like the coach is moving really violently.”

That’s okay. It does make it seem like that, but there’s no real understanding of language, so it’s a 3 or 4 mark comment at best.

Sometimes it leads to this:

“The writer has used a present participle verb in the passage when she says ‘shaking’ which are used to show action”

That’s okay too. It’s very general, so it would have to do a bit of work to get past 2 marks.

But a feature spotting approach also leads to this:

“The writer uses the powerful adverb ‘sullenly’ which shows how the man is feeling about the weather.”

Because I’m limited by the things I can find, even if they are super flashy things, it forces me to comment on quotes that are neither easy to write about nor particularly interesting.

And it might make me say things like:

“The writer uses sibilance in “soft spattering” mud…” which is okay, but so often turns into “The sibilance makes us think of snakes, which makess the mud seem wicked.”

First off, snakes are not the only thing that hisses. Gas hisses when it leaves a pipe. Does it make us think the mud is like gas hissing when it leaves a pipe? No, not really. Cats fighting? Bacon spitting? Water droplets in hot fat? Sibilance sounds like ALL of these, and the mud doesn’t sound like that. Not all hissing is wicked.

Or students might write: “The sibilance makes it sound like the mud hitting the side of the coach.”

Except it doesn’t. Mud doesn’t sound like sssssssssssss. It sounds like blup. Or something. I don’t know. But it doesn’t sound like ssssssssssssssss.

So often, feature-spotting approaches lead to candidates spotting any old thing they can find, and then they are very much constrained by which of the 250 figures of speech they’ve been taught, crammed into a helpful DAFOREST of some variety or other.

So it leads to poor identification of the really interesting bits, and often is inaccurate. Is “shaking” personification for instance? (no). Is ‘creaked’ a past participle? Not in this sense, no. ‘Creaked’ can be, but it isn’t here. It’s the simple past. A.K.A the preterite (you can tell I’ve taught too long abroad, since many French children will tell you about the dreaded English preterite!) Or is it the past continuous? (no) Or is it the perfect past? (yes, but that’s just another name for the preterite and the simple past). Waaaaah. Headache.

That all reminds me of another thing…. sometimes, there are more names for a word than there are words. And they can have subtle differences, be subsets of one another, be exactly the same….

And not any of them show that you actually understand language.

The main problems with this approach are:

  • It leads to candidates thinking there is some unspoken hierarchy of language features – that some asyndetic listing must be worth more than a simile. No such hierarchy exists. Sophisticated can mean “the word” and simple can mean “sibilance”. There is no rank order.
  • It is ripe for misidentification… if I had a penny for every Y11 student who couldn’t tell an adjective from an adverb, I wouldn’t need to work any more, ever again.
  • If we can’t identify simple stuff accurately, how accurate do you think students are when it comes to identifying more complex features? How easy is it to know your past participle from your simple past – and if it is a past participle, has it been used as an adjective? If it is a present participle, is it tacked on a past tense auxiliary to form the past continuous? You see how complex this is?
  • When students start misidentifying language features, I’m afraid I can’t see how that gets past 4 marks – “some understanding of language”. You can’t have a “clear understanding” of language if you say an adjective is an adverb. You just can’t. Those word types do different jobs.
  • It is easy to generalise about all alliteration, or all sibilance (or any other term) as if it always does the same thing. It leads to students divorcing feature from effect and not considering the actual words they have in front of them.
  • When you are happily finding sibilance, alliteration and onomatopoeia, most of those just draw attention to particular words. You need to think “why”, not “what”. Why has the writer used it here, with these words. Or avoid completely. Few and far between, the comments of quality that begin with identification of alliteration, assonance, consonance or sibilance. It’s possible, but it’s rare.
  • It focuses on identification of language features rather than discussion of the best bits of the text.
  • It leads to list-like responses.
  • It can lead to very ineffective comment on language.
  • It tricks students into thinking they have made a really great response.
  • It suggests that the feature is more important than the comment.
  • It suggests that students can KNOW language features rather than practising commenting on effect. Easier to revise, sure, but a bit of a dead end.

Better to think “what great words has the writer used here?” and then think afterwards if you can put a name to it. And if you can’t, write about it anyway and remember that the examiners are looking for great comments, not flashy features.

Now you’ve put feature spotting to the back of your mind, you’ll certainly want to know how you DO get great marks on this question, if writing like this doesn’t work.

For me, the secret is in the quotes you choose and the way you read.

Next time, I’ll look at how to pick out great references that WILL lead to great comments and show you an approach that the best students use to pick out the most juicy and interesting quotes.

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

Tips for answering AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 2

Last time, I was looking at an overview of Question 2 on Paper 1 of AQA’s GCSE English Language. You can read about the question itself on that article. You can also listen to me chatting about that on Youtube if your eyes are sore but your ears are not.

To summarise, on question 2, you need to remember:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullets
  • You probably shouldn’t use fancy terms (especially if you don’t know the basics) and there is no obligation to use bizarre or over-complex names for language features. In fact, it can really backfire on you if you do
  • You only need to make one clear comment to come in at level three, or one simple comment to come in at level two, and so on.
  • The quality of your comments on the effect of language are what decide your level, not your identification of language features

Today, we’re going to look at what you are actually being assessed on, and what that means.

I’m going to start with a little story. It’s about a time I was very bad in class. I was 32 and it was a photography course I was doing. We’d had a change of teacher, and he was a great photographer. He did a lot of weddings, and he also did professional stuff for newspapers and magazines. Rubbish teacher.

We had an assignment that had been set by the exam board. I can’t even remember what it was on. Our previous teacher had been great, although she was only an amateur photographer. She’d always explain what we were doing and show us great examples of things, then we’d go and apply what we’d seen, what we’d practised and she’d give us some guidance as to where we could go and do our own stuff in that style. I never, ever failed to get great marks in her class because she always told us what she was looking for. And she’d have shown us examples.

So why was I badly behaved in class?

Because that guy set us an assignment and I asked him what he was going to be looking for when he marked it.

“Whatever you come up with!” he said.

“I know. But what specifically?”

“Well, a bit of creativity?” he said.

“What does that look like?”

In my head, I’m getting crosser and crosser. I don’t know what creativity looks like to him. I know what it looks like to me. I don’t know what he means by that.

“Well, you’ll use your imagination.”

At that point, I nearly left the class. I don’t have an imagination. I like clear guidelines as to stuff. Like, he could have said. “I want to see you taking an unusual view of a familiar object” or “I want to see if you have mastered dodging and burning in the darkroom,” or “You might want to do some stuff with cross processing.”

Excuse all the geeky tech talk. But if he’d have said those things, it’d have meant something to me. I know what dodging and burning looks like. I can read books and learn how to do it. I can watch Youtube or Vimeo videos. I can ask a friend to show me. I can copy him in the darkroom. I can ask for a demo. I can get help from a friend if I can’t get it right. I can look at what I’ve done and compare it to what other people have done and see if mine is as good, or worse, or better.

In other words, once you tell me what I have to do, I try and do it.

Sometimes I don’t do very well. But at least I can try.

If you say, “Emma, in a week, I am going to test you on the subjunctive form of être in the past perfect,” or any other piece of knowledge or skill, I can learn, practise and refine my performance.

I can’t do that if I don’t know what you are assessing. If I think you’re going to be marking my performance at hula hooping and you’re really marking my costume and my footwork, I’m going to fail.

That is why I am fixated, if not a little obsessed by, markschemes.

I like to know what I am being marked on. What are your criteria? And, more importantly, what does that mean in non-geek-speak, and what does it look like?

Now, back at A level, I had one of my best teachers ever. She would photocopy essays that other students did and show us them. Sure, those essays were from kids in the next year up and were their best work from the best kids. But it raised the bar. All this in the years before peer assessment.

I suspect that’s why so many of us look around and nosey at other people in tests, or check out their homework. We don’t want to copy or cheat, just to see if we’re doing it right.

A very good example from another education field I’m involved in: dog agility and trick training.

Once, we had a printed list of tricks our dogs would have to perform in a ring. One was ‘Peekaboo’. Now, to me, that meant my dog would be on the other side of an object and would hide his head, and so would I, and when I said ‘Peekaboo!’ we would both look at each other. Hard skill. It means teaching a dog to put its paws on an object, then teaching them how to duck their head down and hide under the rim of the object, then teaching them to pop up when I say ‘Peekaboo!’. It took about 2 weeks of training.

Turns out when we got to the ring that ‘Peekaboo!’ meant ‘come through your owner’s legs, sit between them and look up.’ Luckily, those are three behaviours my dog knows separately, so I could train it super-quick. Lucky because otherwise my amazingly overskilled dog would have got an F for a trick that taught him two weeks to learn, and not an A* for a trick that I managed to teach in ten minutes in a carpark. Can you imagine spending two weeks learning to do something and you fail, and everyone else who does a way simpler thing gets an A*?!!

So this is why I am so obsessed with understanding markschemes. I want to know what I am being marked on, because if I don’t, my ‘Peekaboo!’ will get me an F.

Back then to the paper and to the markscheme.

There are four levels. That’s confusing, because we have levels 1 – 9 now. I need you to forget level 9s and level 1s. There is no such thing as a level 9 response. Not really. It doesn’t work like that. So I’m going to talk about the FOUR levels on the markscheme, and the 8 marks that they cover. I don’t even really want to say they’re equivalent to any of the 9-1 levels, because they’re not. You’re going to see a lot of ‘Get a Level 9’ on the internet. I am going to say that too, but technically, it’s untrue and it’s confusing. So I just wanted to make it clear that all I’m talking about are the four levels on the markscheme.

^^^^^^^ This bit.

There are four. They cover 8 marks

Level 1 is worth 1-2 marks

Level 2 is worth 3-4 marks

Level 3 is worth 5-6 marks

Level 4 is worth 7-8 marks

The first and most important thing is that this is not a process of chipping away and getting a level.

By that, I mean you don’t do one paragraph that gets you 1 or 2, and then another that gets you 3 or 4. You don’t have to do 4 paragraphs. You could write 1 paragraph and get 1 mark, or write 1 paragraph and get 7 marks. It depends on the quality of your answer.

Likewise, and this is REALLY important, you could write 10 paragraphs and get 1 mark, or write 10 paragraphs and get 8 marks. Doing more of the same skill doesn’t get you a higher mark. Writing two comments about two quotes may get you 2 marks, and writing seventeen comments about seventeen quotes could still get you  2 marks.

Quality, not quantity.

Let me say that again: quality, not quantity.

So, I’m assuming you don’t want to write seventeen paragraphs that get you two marks, you want to write two paragraphs that get you eight marks?

How do you do that, if writing more isn’t the solution?

First, you need to understand that for Question 2 (and 3!) the quality of your comment is what is important. Really. We’re going to look at the examples on sample materials and so on, but you can use the same quotes and identify the same language features and have a 2 mark answer, or an 8 mark answer.

It is ALL about your comment. The comment is what carries the weight. But we’ll talk about the other bits too. I’m going to do it looking at the comments first, in the vain hope that you’ll understand the comments are the essential bit.

First, there is a thread for each of the three things we’re looking for on Question 2.

There is one on subject terminology. There is one on textual references. There is one on comment on effects of language. We’re starting with that one.

At level 1(1-2 marks) you need to offer simple comment on the effect of language.

At level 2 (3-4 marks) you need to attempt to comment on the effect of language.

At level 3 (5-6 marks) you need to explain clearly the effects of the writer’s choices of language.

At level 4 (7-8 marks) you need to analyse the effects of the writer’s choices of language.

Now, that is all nonsensey teacher-speak exam-board gobbledy-gook. What does that even mean at each level?

That, my lovelies, is a post for another week I’m afraid. Suffice to say, I can tell you very clearly how to know what that means, but it would take more words than you are prepared to read in one go. I can show you very clearly what ‘simple’ is and what ‘analysis’ looks like so that you have a better chance of doing the right ‘Peekaboo!’ on the day and at least you can practise the right thing.

Now, there are two other threads as well. And this is where I think there has been some lack of clarity.

Many teachers, Youtube posters and textbooks written by non-experts have put more of a focus on subject terminology than they should.

That is not what this question is about.

So many people have gone off on the notion that it’s about sophisticated and accurate subject terminology than it is about quality of comment.

That’s a real dead end. It’s meant that some students prioritise flashy, complicated terminology over good comments. Using the subject term ‘metaphor’ for example can get you level 1 or level 4 depending on what you do with it. Likewise, ‘epizeuxis’ can get you a level 1 or a level 4 depending on what you do with it. And ‘homeoteleuton’ can get you a level 1 or a level 4, depending on what you do with it.

We’ll look at some good examples of how subject terminology can be used well or can be used badly in the following posts, as well as what those ‘analytical’ comments look like.

To summarise:

  • 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 quality of your comment on the effect of language is the most important and most heavily weighted of these three things.
  • The key skill for Question 2 is analysis of language, not identification of figures of speech.
  • 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. There is no rank order of merit that means identifying adjectives is worth less than identifying metaphors.

In the next post, we’ll look at how to read the text in ways that will help you make a good selection of quotes, pick out the quotes worth getting your teeth into and how to make the best use of your reading and planning.

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