AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 2: how to make the best comments on effect

In the previous posts, I’ve been dissecting everything that you need to do for Question 2 on Paper 1, commonly called ‘the language question’. Yes, it’s been overkill. But hopefully that leads you into a very clear what to do versus what not to do. We’ve looked at why you don’t need to know loads of complex language features, what you’re actually being assessed on and some of the basics about the question as well as what you’re being marked on.

To summarise so far:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullet points in the question.
  • 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 key skill for Question 2 is analysis of language, not identification of figures of speech.
  • You don’t need to know very complex subject terminology and there’s no hierarchy that says you need to write about semantic fields rather than adjectives for example. 
  • The quality of your comment on the effect of language is the most important and most heavily weighted of these three things.
  • You only need to make one clear comment to come in at level three, or one simple comment to come in at level one, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

So today, we’ll look at some tips on how to narrow down the important things to look at now you know how to find some juicy quotes from the passage.

In the exam, the passage is printed on the paper for you. You’ve understood what was meant about broad brushstrokes and narrowing in, and you’ve got yourself to a point where you have a shortlist of juicy quotes to write about.

For this task, I’m going to take a passage from The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is taken from the beginning of the novel, and describes city of Barcelona in the early morning. A boy, Daniel, is being taken to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father.

Night watchmen still lingered in the misty streets when we stepped out of the front door. The lamps along the Ramblas marked out an avenue in the early morning haze as the city awoke, like a watercolour slowly coming to life. When we reached Calle Arco del Teatro, we continued through its arch toward the Ravel quarter, entering a vault of blue haze. I followed my father through that narrow lane, more of a scar than a street, until the glimmer of the Ramblas faded behind us. The brightness of dawn filtered down from balconies and cornices in streaks of slanting light that dissolved before touching the ground. At last my father stopped before a door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity. Before us loomed what to my eyes seemed the carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows. 

So I did my broad brushstrokes and then my narrowing down, to help think about what I’m going to focus my response on.

How does the writer use language here to describe the streets of Barcelona? 

You could include the writer’s choice of:

  • words and phrases
  • language features and techniques
  • sentence forms

So, I’m going to start by taking the same details and showing you responses at Level 1, (1-2 marks) Level 2, (3-4 marks) Level 3 (5-6 marks) and Level 4 (7-8 marks) as well as giving you a comment on each answer so that you can see how they use the subject terminology and the quotes differently to get the different levels.

The writer uses language here to describe the streets of Barcelona so that the writer can make it more interesting so that he can engage the reader to carry on reading. The writer uses a simile to describe the streets with ‘like a watercolour coming to life‘. This gives more attention to this part so that the reader will carry on reading about the streets of Barcelona and what the boy sees. 

The writer tries to make the place scary at the end as they show us a sense of mystery about the door. The writer might have done this so that it can grab the reader’s attention. This shows that the writer was trying to give more of an impact and make the audience carry on reading. The wordshadows might make the reader think that there is something bad about the place. It shows that the writer wants to give a better image her and have the reader imagine what sorts of echoes the boy might hear. 

This is a very good example of what Level 1 looks like. There are lots of simple comments that could really be about any text. They aren’t really about the text in front of us at all. It just mentions Barcelona and the boy. So you have two simple quotes (in orange), some simple subject terminology (in italics) and some simple comments (underlined).

If you want to move up from Level 1 to Level 2, you have to cut right back on the simple comments like ‘makes yo want to read on’, ‘grabs your attention’, ‘make it interesting for the reader’, ‘give a better image for the reader’. You have to cut these right back to zero.

So then what do you put in its place?

Here’s a Level 2 answer so that you can see for yourself.

The writer says, ‘the city awoke, like a watercolour coming to life’ the writer, in this phrase, is comparing the city to a painting to make the feeling of the beauty of the city come to life for the reader.

The writer also says, ‘before us loomed what seemed to me the carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows.‘ The writer uses the verbloomed‘ to make the feeling clear to the reader. This makes it seem like it stands out and it is gloomy and scary. The writer has used it because it makes it sound like a human quality which makes the door sound dangerous. This contrasts with the idea of it being like a watercolour which is very beautiful. This verb is effective because it gives the impression of a dangerous, dark door. 

This is a very good example of what Level 2 looks like. There are lots of attempted comments that try and explain what the words mean or give a simple but accurate effect. It has the same quotes in and although they are longer, they do zoom in on the quotes. When you’re explaining meaning of words or using synonyms without explaining effect, it is very much like a Level 2 response. So you have some appropriate textual detail in orange), some subject terminology used appropriately (in italics) and some attempted comments (underlined).

If you want to move up to Level 3, you need to add to the synonyms and meaning by giving an explanation of effect. Or just explaining the effect. Both will get you into Level 3. Here’s an example Level 3 response.

The writer uses the simile, “the city awoke, like a watercolour coming to life“. This shows that the city had almost seemed still and lifeless. Both ‘awoke‘ and ‘coming to lifehave connotations of becoming active as if it had been asleep. A watercolour is faint and hazy, which is how the city must seem to the boy. The writer has done this to emphasise how the city still doesn’t feel real, how it feels quite magical to the boy and it must feel like he is still dreaming himself. 

By the end, the boy and his father seem to have walked away from the daylight and the images created at the end contrast with the first images which are gentle and misty. The door is described using the adjectiveblackened” and the boy says it seemed to be a “carcass of a palace“. The word carcass refers to the dead body of an animal, so it makes it seem as if the place is still dead and that it has not woken up like the rest of the city. Further on, he says it is filled with “echoes and shadowsas if nothing is real or solid. 

Some of this response is better than other bits. There are lots of comments that explain what the words mean or give the effect of the words. I can ask myself “does this quote mean this/suggest this?” and if I say ‘yes it does’, then it’s ‘clear comment’. It has the same quotes in and they are starting to embed the quotes in their answer or be more precise all over. So you have a range of relevant textual detail (in orange), clear and accurate subject terminology (in italics) and some clear comments on effect of language (underlined).

To move up to Level 4, you can come at it from two directions: perceptive (which makes the examiner say, “ah, yes!”) and detailed (which may explore a range of effects of one particular word or phrase). Both are fine. Perceptive depends on the day, I think, even for me. It needs you to really, really think about what the intended effect was and what it makes you think of. For me, perceptive means you have a fine appreciation of what the writer is up to. Even if I mark 5000 questions, a Level 4 should be able to say something I’ve not really considered, or to do it in a detailed and interesting way. Detailed, I can do every way since Sunday. Perceptive? Well… if I get the right passage, I think of something devastatingly clever to say and I can do it within the ten minutes of the exam.

For instance:

Zafon uses shifting imagery to portray the streets of Barcelona, and shows how the light has magical qualities but that it cannot reach everywhere. At first, he says the streets were ‘misty’, and that gives them a magical quality as they come to life through the simile of ‘a watercolour slowly coming to life.’ Watercolours are gentle, transparent images, almost ephemeral compared to the solidity of an oil painting, so the figurative language here shows the transient and translucent scene seems almost like an illusion. Since the main character has just woken, like the city, it seems as if the image is a remnant of a dream world through the use of this simile. In places, the light has not yet reached, where Zafon refers to ‘a vault of blue haze‘. Since a vault is a deep cellar or crypt, the ‘blue haze’ seems almost as if it is yet to wake from sleep and it seems to cast the character into a world where light has yet to touch.

Later, he says the ‘brightness of dawn filtered down’, almost as if it loses its power as it ‘streaks’ through ‘balconies and cornices’, lacking the power to reach the pavement as it ‘dissolved’ before it could wake this part of the city. The image of light and darkness is continued with the ‘blackened’ door and the ‘shadows’ which seem to have kept this part of the city in a kind of semi-permanent darkness, part of a dream world, something dark and mysterious. When we know this is the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, the way the light fails to penetrate this part of the city seems almost symbolic. The place is left to rest in darkness.

Okay, that’s my 8. I need to confess something. I am a 40-something English teacher with 20-odd years on the job. If that seems a little ‘whoo hoo’ for an 8, you are right. I was just writing about what the words suggested to me and how to track the shift from light to darkness. That works on this passage in ways that I don’t think I could replicate on the ‘Alice’ one from November 2017 that you saw on my last post. I don’t usually write things that make me say ‘well done Miss!’ and I confess I quite like what I did there. Trying to do perceptive and detailed and it overshoots the mark a little. But… you’re here to know how you shift from that 6 towards an 8…

Level 4 scripts will probably have embedded quotations. They’ll make more use of the words the writer has used, and turn them into sentences. They focus in on one or two words in detail, and they’ll track ideas through the sentences if they find them. They use subject terminology, but it is embedded and used helpfully. There is evidence that they have thought about the words, thought about the meaning of them and their effect, thought about why the writer may have chosen the words that they did and how the reader is intended to respond, as well as giving a personal response. You’ll find lots of things like:

  • it suggests that
  • it makes us think
  • it is designed to
  • it gives the impression that
  • it could be that
  • it may indicate that
  • it sounds as if
  • it seems
  • it’s described as
  • this indicates that
  • this could be associated with
  • this may be
  • this is shown to be
  • this shows
  • the writer hints that
  • this adds a sense of
  • we can assume that
  • the writer could be
  • it’s as if
  • the writer purposely
  • this allows the reader to

Phrases like these are nothing in themselves. What they allow students to do is discuss effect and to evaluate the words used. They are springboards that propel students’ responses into speculation, allowing them to make perceptive and insightful comments. Run a couple together and you can see how you work your way to a Level 3 or 4. Better candidates will go beyond the simple ‘not really’ regurgitations or generalisations of Level 1, and will go beyond ‘kind of’ comments at Level 2 which often stick to the safety of synonyms. They explore meaning but not effect.

So, there you have it…

An achingly full analysis of how to reach the top marks of Paper 1 Question 2.

If I have to summarise:

  1. Use the reading time well to outline the broad brushstrokes and narrow in on the right details that give you plenty to discuss. This double-layer reading allows you to sift and synthesise, prioritising the important and weeding out the less relevant or less useful.
  2. Remember that effect is everything. Your comment on the effect of language is what puts you in a level.
  3. Use subject terminology appropriately and carefully, but do not use it to have a feature-led approach.

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

17 thoughts on “AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 2: how to make the best comments on effect

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  12. I’ve read the whole guide and just want to say how this is absolutely amazing! I am a Year 11 student who is sitting my GCSE English Language Paper 1 Mock exam tomorrow. I normally write a 7-8 mark answer but your exam commentary has really helped to put my on the right road to a Level 4 response. Thank you so much for doing this!

  13. The mark scheme says that this question assesses language ie words/phrases/language features/techniques/ sentence forms – why do you say that it’s not necessary to write about sentence forms?

    • Hi Donna

      Firstly the slash means and/or so it’s not an obligation. Secondly because the text that candidates are given will be so rich in language that they will have more than enough to go on with just words & phrases. Thirdly, it’s an 8 mark question for 10 minutes max, only double the marks available for Q1, and if candidates try to write about all this “words/phrases/language features/techniques/ sentence forms” they’ll end up over-answering and writing a book – which is exactly what my students do if they try to write about each bullet point – and that costs them dearly on Q4 and Q5 which are worth 75% of the marks. One of my students spent 45 minutes on it during the week because I let him! And fourthly because it leads to hugely generalised statements ‘it speeds us up/slows us down/makes us read faster/adds to the tension/drags it out’ which could apply to any sentence ever written and come in at level 1 ‘simple and generalised’. I often find my level 3 or 4 students get level 1 or 2 on their comments about sentence forms. Since it’s not necessary to write about them and it lowers the overall quality of their writing, I advise them not to do it unless they are absolutely sure they are tying it into the idea or meaning of the passage. Sometimes my students write better things that pick up the ideas of the passage and how they’re presented in the use of sentences, but it’s not necessary to write about them and they generally do better focusing on words. There is no obligation to write about sentence forms ie there is no penalty if they don’t.

      Hope that helps!

      • Also, from the chief examiners’ report 2017 (on the AQA website)

        Students also found the bullet points (You could include the writer’s choice of words and phrases, language features and techniques, and sentence forms) helpful in guiding their response, although the use of the word ‘could’ needs to be emphasised: there is no requirement to cover all of these aspects. In
        fact, students who narrowed their choice and then explored the effects of their selected examples in depth were frequently more successful.

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