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

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