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

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