AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 5

So, we’ve worked our way through the reading section of Paper 1 on the 8700 specification, and now it’s time to take a look at an overview and some tips for Question 5.

So far in the series, you’ve had:

Today, we’re going to take a look at the writing question.

As you may know, on Paper 1, you have a choice of two questions.

There will always be a photograph that is loosely related to the text in some way.

You may be asked to describe, and you may be asked to narrate.

The two questions are most likely to be one describe and one narrate, but they won’t always be so and there will be years where there will be two descriptions or two stories. In other words, don’t only prepare for one!

You could find that the task related to the photo is to describe, but it could also be to narrate.

There are 40 marks available for Question 5, and they are divided into 24 marks for content & organisation, with 16 marks for technical accuracy. You’re going to want to spend around 45 – 50 minutes on this task.

Like questions 2 to 4 on the reading section, the marks are split into four levels. For content & organisation, those four levels are divided into sub-levels, ‘upper’ and ‘lower’. So level 2 goes from 7 – 12 marks out of 24, and is divided lower level 2 (7-9 marks) and upper level 2 (10-12 marks).

Let’s look at what is assessed on each strand:

Content and organisation:

  1. Is the way you’re writing matched to the audience?
  2. Is what you’re writing a clear narrative or clear description?
  3. How effective is your vocabulary, phrasing and use of language features?
  4. How clearly is your writing structured?
  5. Is the writing engaging? Are the ideas clearly connected?
  6. Are the paragraphs clearly linked and well-organised?

Technical accuracy:

  1. Is the sentence demarcation accurate?
  2. Is there a range of punctuation? Is it accurate?
  3. Are there a range of sentence forms?
  4. Is the language and grammar secure?
  5. How accurate is the spelling?
  6. How broad is the vocabulary?

As you can see, there are a lot of things to assess for those 40 marks.

Some of these, however, are quick to learn and sharpen. Others are lifelong projects. For instance, it’s easy to learn how to use different types of punctuation or sentences for effect. It’s not so easy to pick up a wide range of vocabulary and make sure your spelling is excellent. You can learn and practise good quality language features, picking up on the awkward phrasing. Structural features are also easy to learn and to do yourself.

For that reason, I’m going to focus the next five posts on things that will really make a difference in your narrative or descriptive writing:

  • advice and guidance for planning and writing descriptive writing
  • advice and guidance for planning and writing narrative writing
  • improving your structure
  • improving your range of sentence forms
  • polishing your punctuation

Okay… onto some bad advice floating around the internet. Let’s get the rumours and the really poor advice out of the way…

  1. Do not regurgitate the text in the Reading section! Although the tasks will be related by theme/idea, don’t think that a loosely rehashed version of the reading text will pass muster. Firstly, your examiners mark Q1 – 4 and know very well which combinations of words or ideas come up there, and secondly, plagarism is cheating! I’ve had a good number of my clients tell me they have seen advice to do this on Youtube or on the internet. Not worth it. Seriously. It’s a risk you don’t want to make with your marks.
  2. Avoid jubilant adulations. Another thing I know some students had been told to do – cram a load of words in there. If your work reads poorly because you have misused vocabulary in an attempt to impress, you won’t find yourself moving much beyond the middle mark. Now I was guilty of this – I did it right up to A level in fact. I had a thesaurus and I had no idea how to use it. I’d dip in, find some word I didn’t know the meaning of, and use that instead. Finally, I got such a poor grade because of it that I saw sense and didn’t do it any more. If I see anything that reads ‘it was a lugubrious and opaque morning.’ or ‘it was a tenebrous, crepuscular and night’, I’m finding myself stretched to the limits of my tolerance. I call these ‘jubilant adulations’ after a very poor episode of mine with a thesaurus. No Jubilant Adulations, please!
  3. There is no logical reason for you to only study description or narrative. If you only prepare for one, you may find that it doesn’t come up on the paper.
  4. Descriptive writing is not in some way implicitly superior or easier. Indeed, many of the top level scripts are narratives.
  5. Description is less easy in many ways (and you don’t get extra credit for choosing it) because we just don’t read as much description. We are surrounded by narratives from our earliest reading, listening and watching. Adverts, television, movies, novels, computer games… we live and breathe narratives. We just don’t have the same exposure to description.
  6. That’s not to say ‘don’t do the descriptive task’, but it IS to say it can be harder to do, harder to pull off and harder to get right unless you feel comfortable with it.
  7. Description doesn’t involve the five senses. We humans are visual creatures, relying mostly on sight and sound with occasional reference to smell. We may mention texture but as soon as I read about characters having to eat something just to describe it, it seems forced and laboured. Please don’t try to cover all of the senses. If you write about taste, it’s going to be pretty ‘ouchy’, I promise.
  8. If you’re describing, probably 80-90% will be visual, 10-15% will be sound, and you may find yourself mentioning a smell IF APPROPRIATE.
  9. Description CAN have dialogue in it. It reminds me of one of the chief examiners of years gone by saying how dialogue can ‘lift’ description. Description can have people in it too.
  10. Narrative is not something to bypass just because you want a 7, 8 or 9. Narrative can start with action, dialogue or description. I’m not sure you’d want to disagree with Ted Hughes’ narrative poem Bayonet Charge that starts in the thick of it… but narrative MAY have a bit of action, description and dialogue in there.

Overall, quality of writing is the most important aspect of content/organisation. One of the things that really impairs writing is the ‘ouch factor’. I’m going to give you an example from a very bad book I started to read and then put down because it hurt my English teacher sensibilities to read. The guy was trying to go for the Jack Reacher ‘lone wolf’ kind of character and it just made me cringe to read. When I started teaching back in the day in West Lancashire, the popular slang for this kind of writing was “fair cheesy” – and I still think that being “fair cheesy” is the best way to describe this kind of writing.

Here’s some fine examples of fair cheesy writing:

In an effort at stealth, the music volume had been turned down. Still, the thud-thud rhythm sounded like the heartbeat of a predator coiling for the death lunge. 

Fair cheesy. It sounds like that man who reads the previews for movies

Anything that sound like it should be read in the Preview Man Voice qualifies as Fair Cheesy.

I mean, what does ‘coiling for the death lunge’ even mean? Is he talking about a snake? Do snakes have noisy heartbeats? What’s a noisy snake got in common with the music in the car? It’s just needlessly melodramatic.

Staring down the barrel of a SIG is enough to motivate most men. He was surprisingly sprightly when offered the correct form of stimulation.

Sprightly describes old people. It doesn’t describe a teenage thug in a noisy car. In fact, the first search on Google says ‘especially of an old person’. It’s as ouchy as saying “he was unusually zippy”, or “he was playfully peppy”. Just ouch. Nothing is more ouchy than accidental (or purposeful!) alliteration drawing attention to misused words. Also, did you hear me reading the first sentence like Preview Man?

I knew what was going through the big guy’s head. He thought that the ignominious alley was where he was going to end his days. 

Ouch to the ignominious. If you swapped it with ‘disgraceful’, you can see it’s just as ouchy. It doesn’t go with the tone of the narration about a hard man thug – they don’t use words like ‘ignominious’ – in fact WHO uses words like ignominious?! Nobody. It sounds forced and yet again sounds like it’s been chosen for showing off rather than because it was the right word.

We’re all about the right word. Even ‘dirty’ would have been better. Dirty alley, muddy alley, grimy alley, filthy alley, dark alley… sure… befouled alley, feculent alley, unhygienic alley… just no. That’s what horribly ouchy language is like. Sure, befouled is a posher word than dirty, and ignominious is probably ‘sophisticated’ were it used correctly. But it isn’t. It’s inappropriate and unhelpful, and I’d be hovering around a mark of 13 out of 24 with vocabulary like that.

Terrible similes also fit into the ‘ouch’ category.

Her eyes were peeled like oranges

Ears that looked like pork scratchings

They were as solitary as oysters

You can find some more here

And yet a further collection here

Please, please respect your tired old examiner and refrain from ALL images of predators. No ‘like lions chasing giraffes’. No ‘as stealthy as cheetahs with their prey’. Definitely no ‘as stealthy as cheaters with their pray’. No hawks with prey. No sharks with prey.

The only reasons that you would use a simile like this are:

a) you think you need to use a simile because you haven’t used one yet, but you can’t think of a good one

b) you want to give the person marking your essay a good old chuckle and then find them hovering between ‘some use of (conscious) linguistic devices’ for 10-12 marks out of 24, or ‘appropriate use of linguistic devices’ for 13-15.

In fact, I’d always stick to 10-12 for fair cheesy similes that make me laugh or don’t work, and the same with ‘ouchy’ mis-used vocabulary. It’s conscious, yes. The person writing has clearly tried to do something rather than just having words spill out. But it’s not successful and it’s not clear. It’s not appropriate. This habit of vocabulary and feature-stuffing is not one to follow if you want to get a grade 5 or above.

So there you have it…. things you’re being marked on… things to avoid… and a rough idea of what will be up next (to be read in Preview Man’s Movie Voiceover Style).

Coming soon… A blog with a mission. A blog to guide you. A blog to eliminate all the competition. Learn to wield your punctuation like a weapon. Find out how to use your similes like a hunter on the trail of a jaguar. Structure your stories like Freytag and his Marvellous Pyramid…

And in non-cheesy summative style, that equates to:

  • advice and guidance for planning and writing descriptive writing
  • advice and guidance for planning and writing narrative writing
  • improving your structure
  • improving your range of sentence forms
  • polishing your punctuation

Have fun!

Sample essays for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 4

Last time, I was having a look at a sample text for Question 4, the essay question on AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 1, exploring how to annotate and how to plan your response. That followed a post about the mechanics of the question and the markscheme to help you understand what it is all about. Today, it’s all about looking at how to improve your answer using examples with 8 marks, 13 marks and 18 marks.

So far in the series, you’ve had:

To summarise what I’ve explored so far on Question 4:

  • Question 4 is the longest comprehension question and you should treat it with respect. It shouldn’t be the same length as Q2 or Q3. If it is, you’re either over-answering Q2 and 3 or you’re under-answering Q4.
  • It’s a 20 mark question
  • You should spend about 20-25 minutes answering it
  • It gives you a statement and asks you to find evidence to support (or disprove) the statement, giving your opinions.
  • It asks you to explore HOW the writer does something.
  • You need to use a range of select, embedded quotations.
  • You should be writing explanations of how the writer’s language works
  • You need to write about writer’s methods
  • Writer’s methods includes any single thing the writer has done, from figurative language through to viewpoint and perspective. If you want to write about sentence length or type, you can do so with safety here (although I’m not sure it’s necessary – and it’s certainly not compulsory!)
  • Really, we don’t care less if you agree, if you disagree, if you are making a balanced argument. This is not a question that is asking you to make an argument (that’s a writing task). It’s asking you to respond to a statement, find evidence to support or contradict that statement, and then explain what the writer is up to. That ‘to what extent do you agree?’ is a bit of a dead end. It suggests it should be an argument, but really it’s just a way to get you to respond to the statement.
  • Do two read-throughs: one to identify all possible quotes to help you respond to the question, and one to narrow in on a smaller, select number that will answer the question.
  • Use diffferent colours for different parts of the response
  • You’re looking to write between 3 – 6 paragraphs in the time available to you
  • You will need to refer to the text shared on the previous post, as well as the question there to see how this response gains the marks available.

Focus this part of your answer on the second half of the source from line 23 to the end. 

A reader said, ‘This part of the story, where the woman uncovers the skull, is very mysterious, and it sounds as if she is compelled to continue digging’.

To what extent do you agree?

In your response you could:
* consider the reasons why the woman keeps digging
* evaluate how the writer creates a sense of mystery
* support your response with references to the text

If you remember, there are four strands you are being marked on: your use of references, your exploration of the writer’s methods, your response to the statement and your comments on the effects achieved by the writer. I’ll be highlighting bits of these in the answers given.

So, what does an 8-mark response look like?

Of the four strands, it’s most likely to have some references and some comment on those as well as a little response to the statement. There may not be much by way of comment on ‘how’ the writer has achieved particular effects.

I agree with this statement. I agree that it is mysterious because she finds a human skull and she doesn’t know if it is “a child’s skull” or how long it had been buried there. This could suggest to us that she doesn’t know anything about the skull, how old it is or who it belongs to or even how long it was there. It’s also mysterious because she only finds a few bones and not the whole skeleton “she could find no more of the bones than a dozen or so random bones” so she gives up digging.
The writer creates a sense of mystery by using the rhetorical questions about the skull and by giving up at the end. 
We also think it’s mysterious because the woman doesn’t give up even though she was hot “panting in the overhead sun.” which makes us realise how hot it is and the fact that she keeps on digging anyway. It creates tension because we don’t know where the rest of the bones are. 

So, what we have here are… some response to the statement, some appropriate references to the text, a tiny bit of method and some comment on the language/method. 

It has done some of the Level 2 criteria and therefore gets a mark of 8. It has partially responded to the statement and hasn’t really considered writer’s methods in any great detail.

To improve further, the response needs to deal with the second part of the statement about being “compelled”, include more relevant quotations (because they’re not all particularly mysterious) and to focus more on what the writer is doing, and how they are doing it.

And let’s have a look at a 13 mark response

I agree with the statement made because we see throughout that she feels driven to keep going, which makes the reader want to find out what it is she has found.
Firstly, at the beginning of the section, the writer says the woman couldn’t do anything but keep going. “She had no choice, then, did she?” This gives us the impression that she could only do one thing, which was to try and find out where the strange noise was coming from and that she didn’t have an option to just leave it and ignore it. 
As the text continues, we can see that “she must trace the sound to its origin.” The imperative verb “must” means that she feels she like she needs to find it, like it’s essential. It’s also described with the adjective “awkward” which makes it sound difficult. So we can see that she is almost forced to find where the sound is coming from. 
Furthermore, the skull is described as mysterious, not only because of the strange “mewing” sound that it is making and how it seems to be calling to her, but also because we wonder what it is doing there. The questions “Unnamed?” and “Unknown” make us think that there are many questions to be answered. It makes the reader wonder who placed the bones there and why they were making a noise. 
Finally at the end, we are left with a cliff-hanger, because we expect the woman to find some answers to these questions, but she doesn’t find anything. “She could find no more of the skeleton than a dozen or so random bones”. This suggests there is still a lot of the mystery to be uncovered. 

So, what we have here… a clear response to the statement that is fairly detailed, some relevant references to the text which are embedded in the response, clearer methods though it doesn’t really talk about the effects of those methods, and some clear comments on the language and its effects. 

You can also see that the response and the comments overlap. They are both responding to the statement and making clear comments showing clear understanding about the language.

To improve further, I’d want a closer focus on the effects of the language chosen, a clearer understanding of how the writer has made the text sound mysterious, and a more detailed exploration of why it sounds like she is compelled to find the skull. Better responses may have a sense of the overview or shift of ideas through the passage and track a strand through. Quotation will be used to justify comments made rather than just ‘here’s my evidence’ and there will be some analysis of methods.

Okay, so I’m going to have a go myself – bearing in mind I’m always good at detailed and not so good at perceptive! I’ll update with a couple of my students’ responses who do perceptive particularly well. What I love most about their work is that they are dyslexic and they find reading hard going – but it doesn’t prohibit them from getting into the top level. It’s important to remember that brevity can get you into the top bands too.

I did the following response in twenty-five minutes, and my typing is clumsy, I know, so hopefully it’s an adequate handicap.

The first way in which the writer makes the discovery of the bones seem mysterious is in the use of the “mewing” cry which compels the woman to keep digging. Neither the reader nor the main character know what the “cry” was, or why it should come from the ground. The writer describes it as if the woman feels some kind of connection with the cry, as if it is calling to her, and the way that she speaks to it reveals a mysterious connection. It sounds as if the woman is on a rescue mission. The writer describes other sounds as well, in the “brief flurry of scratching”, but it is the silence that is mysterious, making us wonder why it has gone silent, and whether the woman is too late.

It is also mysterious because the writer creates a substantial delay using time and action to make it seem as if a lot of time elapses between the “brief flurry of scratching” and the “pleading cry” which comes at the end of a long paragraph. With the early emphasis on all the action, the digging, spading, raking, “deepening and broadening the hole”, it creates the impression of a long time elapsing, and a lot of effort going into finding whatever the “origin” of the noise is. The character must surely think either the creature has escaped, disappeared or died with the lack of noise. The use of temporal markers, “for some time… then… at last” seems to make the passage drag out, which makes us wait to find out the source of this mysterious buried noise.

When the woman finally discovers the skull, the “kind of knowledge” that “passed between her and these eyes” is also mysterious: it sounds as if the woman has some kind of strange connection to the skull, or who it once was. This said, it is stranger still that she would not know whose skull it was, for surely there cannot be many children buried in the family home, or even many children who went missing or died in her past. The use of the violent images of the hole seeming like “a wound” and the earthworms “cut cruelly in two” also adds to the mystery, as it has a sense of foreshadowing, perhaps, that the creature has met a violent end already.

What makes it sound as if the woman is compelled to keep digging is the way the writer suggests the level of effort that the woman has put into digging. At first, it sounds as if she is on a rescue mission to save some poor, trapped animal, since “mewing” is animalistic, along with the scratches. The effort put into digging away the “sinewy weeds and vines” and the list of all the other vegetation she has to clear just to reach the earth makes it sound as if that in itself takes a lot of effort. These make it sound as if she has been driven on to find the “origin” of the sound – otherwise she would have given up, given the hot day and the effort she needs to put in. It also sounds as if she is compelled because of the actions: “She dug. She spaded, and raked. She dug again.” which make it seem as if she is active for a long period of time. It does not sound easy because of the “jungle-like vegetation”, and so we understand that she is driven on by unknown motivation, perhaps to save the source of the “mewing” as well as to satisfy her urge to know what it is. When the writer uses the word “pleading” to describe the cry, we understand that it is the noise itself which is driving the woman on, it is as if it is begging her to be found and released.

Although she stops for a while to think about the skull, she continues for “several fevered hours”, and it is the word “fevered” which shows her drive and determination, which is now frantic. Of course, she is also hot, but the word gives us a sense of her desperate desire to uncover more of the bones. Because she is “panting” in the “overhead sun”, we know she has been at it for hours and that she must be exhausted: we can see her need to find more of the bones through her behaviour. She keeps going until she could find no more of the bones, despite the size of the hole that she has dug.

Overall, the writer creates a sense of mystery surrounding the skull, firstly in that we do not know what it is making the noise, then in its silence, just before its “pleading cry” preceding its discovery. We also may find it mysterious how the writer has described the connection between the woman and the remains. The compulsion she feels to discover the bones seems supernatural: we know that the bones cannot have made these sounds, that they were not really “pleading” for release, but even so, she works until she feels she has discovered as many of the bones as she can.

As I write, I’m trying to track through the mysterious elements in one half, before changing to focus on her compulsion in the second half. I’m going through roughly chronologically. I’m trying to pick out what the writer is doing to make it sound mysterious/compelling, and explaining what they are doing, and how that makes it mysterious or compelling. I finish off with a loose summary of my ideas and add a little bit – the notion of the supernatural. Conclusions should do that – they are not just a summary of your essay – they should build on it and extend it.

Once my lovely students have had a go at this paper, I’ll be sure to add some examples into this post so that you can get a feel for the different ways you can arrive at different marks.

Next time, Question 5!

Tips to help you with AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 4

Last time, I was having a look at the mechanics of Question 4, the essay question on AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 1, and today it’s time to have a look at how you can best prepare to answer.

So far in the series, you’ve had:

And today, I’ll be looking at Question 4 once again. This is the same reading approach that you saw for Question 2, and it’s very much about your reading, annotation of the passage and your planning time. You may find it helpful to go back and re-read those on Question 2 if you haven’t already.

To summarise the previous post:

  • Question 4 is the longest comprehension question and you should treat it with respect. It shouldn’t be the same length as Q2 or Q3. If it is, you’re either over-answering Q2 and 3 or you’re under-answering Q4.
  • It’s a 20 mark question
  • You should spend about 20-25 minutes answering it
  • It gives you a statement and asks you to find evidence to support (or disprove) the statement, giving your opinions.
  • It asks you to explore HOW the writer does something.
  • You need to use a range of select, embedded quotations.
  • You should be writing explanations of how the writer’s language works
  • You need to write about writer’s methods
  • Writer’s methods includes any single thing the writer has done, from figurative language through to viewpoint and perspective. If you want to write about sentence length or type, you can do so with safety here (although I’m not sure it’s necessary – and it’s certainly not compulsory!)
  • Really, we don’t care less if you agree, if you disagree, if you are making a balanced argument. This is not a question that is asking you to make an argument (that’s a writing task). It’s asking you to respond to a statement, find evidence to support or contradict that statement, and then explain what the writer is up to. That ‘to what extent do you agree?’ is a bit of a dead end. It suggests it should be an argument, but really it’s just a way to get you to respond to the statement.

When you get to what we’re doing today, you’ll have already looked at the statement and picked out the key words. For this, I’m going to give general reading advice based on a slightly-adapted extract from Joyce Carol Oates. It’s not perfect but you have seriously no idea how hard it is to find things that work perfectly. I picked it because it’s a little similar to the November 2017 paper. I could have wasted hours looking for something that works. Plus, It’s a big extract to deal with and there are a variety of different types of questions that we’ve seen so far.

The extract I’ll be working with over the next two posts is taken from a short story called “The Temple” by Joyce Carol Oates (with a few abridged moments).

THERE, again, the vexing, mysterious sound! – a faint mewing cry followed by a
muffled scratching, as of something being raked by nails, or claws. At first the woman believed the sound must be coming from somewhere inside the house, a small animal, perhaps a squirrel, trapped in the attic beneath the eaves, or in a remote corner of the earthen-floored cellar; after she searched the house thoroughly, she had to conclude that it came from somewhere outside, at the bottom of the old garden, perhaps. It was far more distinct at certain times than at others, depending upon the direction and power of the wind.

She had no choice, then, did she? – She must trace the sound to its origin. She set
about the task calmly enough one morning, stepping out into unexpectedly bright,
warm sunshine, and making her way into the lush tangle of vegetation that had been her mother’s garden of thirty years before. The mewing sound, the scratching — it seemed to be issuing from the very bottom of the garden, close by a stained concrete drainage ditch that marked the end of the property. As soon as she listened for it, however, it ceased.

Out of the old garage, that had once been a stable, the woman got a shovel, a
spade, a rake, these implements festooned in cobwebs and dust, and began to dig. It was awkward work and her soft hands ached after only minutes, so she returned to the garage to fetch gardening gloves-these too covered in cobwebs and dust, and stiffened with dirt. The mid-morning sun was ablaze so she located an old straw hat of her mother’s: it fitted her head oddly, as if its band had been sweated through and dried, stiffened asymmetrically

So she set again to work. First, she dug away sinewy weeds and vines, chicory,
wild mustard, tall grasses, in the area out of which the cry had emanated; she
managed to uncover the earth, which was rich with compost, very dark, moist. Almost beneath her feet, the plaintive mewing sounded!

“Yes. Yes. I’m here,” she whispered.

She paused, very excited; she heard a brief flurry of scratching, then silence. “I’m
here, now.” She grunted as she pushed the shovel into the earth, urging it downward with her weight, her foot. 

She dug. She spaded, and raked. She dug again, deepening and broadening the
hole which was like a wound in the jungle-like vegetation. Chips and shards of aged brick, glass, stones were uncovered, striking the shovel. Beetles scurried away, their shells glinting darkly in the sunshine. Earthworms squirmed, some of them cut cruelly in two. For some time the woman worked in silence, hearing only her quickened heartbeat and a roaring pulse in her ears; then, distinctly, with the impact of a shout, there came the pleading cry again, so close she nearly dropped the shovel.

At last, covered in sweat, her hands shaking, the woman struck something solid.
She dropped to her knees and groped in the moist dark earth and lifted something
round and hollow — a human skull? But it was small, hardly half the size of an adult’s skull.

“My God!” the woman whispered.

Squatting then above the jagged hole, turning the skull in her fingers. How light it
was! The color of parchment badly stained from the soil. She brushed bits of damp
earth away, marveling at the subtle contours of the cranium. Not a hair remained. The delicate bone was cracked in several places and its texture minutely scarified, like a ceramic glaze. A few of the teeth were missing, but most appeared to be intact, though caked with dirt. The perfectly formed jaws, the slope of the cheekbones! The empty eye sockets, so round… The woman lifted the skull to stare into the sockets as if staring into mirror-eyes, eyes of an eerie transparency. A kind of knowledge passed between her and these eyes yet she did not know: was this a child’s skull? had a child been buried here, it must have been decades ago, on her family’s property? Unnamed, unmarked? Unacknowledged? Unknown?

For several fevered hours the woman dug deeper into the earth. She was panting
in the overhead sun, which seemed to penetrate the straw hat as if it were made of
gauze; her sturdy body was clammy with sweat. She discovered a number of scattered bones — a slender forearm, curving ribs, part of a hand, fingers — these too parchment-colored, child-sized. What small, graceful fingers! How they had 
scratched, clawed, for release! Following this morning, forever, the finger bones
would be at peace.

By early afternoon, the woman gave up her digging. She could find no more of the
skeleton than a dozen or so random bones.

I picked this one because it’s kind of similar to the ‘Alice’ text and it works for a similar type of question. So, you know that Question 4 is less usual than Q2 or 3, but it follows a regular format, year upon year. First, it will specify a part of the text for you to focus on.

Focus this part of your answer on the second half of the source from line 23 to the end. 

For the sake of this, which has no lines, I’m going from ‘So she again set to work’.

You already know there is a little bit of a difference from Q1 and Q2, in which you absolutely must write from the lines mentioned. In this you must ‘focus’, which means you will be spending the majority – if not all – of your time looking at those lines. It doesn’t, however, mean that if you refer to bits from lines 1-22 to support what you are saying about lines 23 to the end, that we can’t mark it.

Then you have a statement:

A reader said, ‘This part of the story, where the woman uncovers the skull, is very mysterious, and it sounds as if she is compelled to continue digging’.

To what extent do you agree?

In your response you could:
* consider the reasons why the woman keeps digging
* evaluate how the writer creates a sense of mystery
* support your response with references to the text

This is probably harder than the question (and the text!) you’d find on the paper as that word ‘compelled’ would be a challenge for candidates working at the lower grades. That said, it’s going to be okay for us to work through Levels 2 – 4 from 6 to 20 marks next time in examples.

So where do you start?

Similarly to Question 2, what you want is to do two quick read-throughs. On your first, use two colours. Underline or highlight everything that is related to ‘mysterious’ in one, and everything that is related to ‘compelled to keep digging’ in the other. There may be some cross-over!

So you can see how this ensures I’m going to be answering both bits of the question and that I have more than enough to say. You aren’t going to use broad brushstrokes to answer, but it’s kind of how middle-ability candidates go about selecting.

Then you do the precision, detail work that better candidates do. You appraise all of those quotes and you decide which to narrow down on.

For Question 2, you were really looking for 4 – 6 quotes to give you enough to write about. Here, you’ve got a little more flexibility, and two parts of the question, so you may find yourself looking for around 12 – 15 mini-quotes. That means grouping similar quotes together. There are level 4 20 mark answers that use 3 quotes, 6 quotes and 20 quotes, so it’s not about number, it’s about what you do with it. Even so, a narrowing down is important.

Narrowing down helps you pinpoint the useful, evaluate what is essential and assess the value and validity of your quotes. Those are all important skills that point to ‘judicious’ quotations. More importantly, what you say should be absolutely rooted in the the text, and this approach helps you do that.

So circle or underline a more precise selection:

And I may even narrow down once more if I felt I had too much for a 25-minute essay. Personally, I like to run quotes together and focus on a couple of words in each groups so this selection works for me. I know equally though that there will be candidates who will go straight for 2 or 3 quotes in each colour and that will be fantastic.

Why this approach helps you get a level 4 is in two ways. Firstly, going from broad brushstrokes to narrowing in helps to stop the ‘scattergun’ effect where you just pick out hundreds of target quotes and there is no real sense that you have evaluated them or appraised their value. Secondly, for those who normally go straight for the sniper approach of ‘boom – boom – boom’, putting in the step before helps you ensure you’re not missing anything. Two read-throughs is never, ever a bad thing even for candidates who can slamdunk 20/20 time after time.

What I do then is I begin to shift these into my plan.

I’ve got four paragraphs. Two on mystery. Two on why she seems compelled.

My first paragraph is about the mysterious noise and how the writer makes it sound mysterious – ‘vexing… faint… muffled… distinct at certain times’, how it ‘seemed to be issuing from the very bottom of the garden’, then how ‘it ceased’ and then came again with ‘the impact of a shout’ when the woman finds the skull.

My second paragraph is about the mystery of the skull and all the questions, ‘unnamed? Unmarked? Unacknowledged? Unknown?’

My third paragraph is about how she is compelled to dig, how she searched ‘thoroughly’, the question, ‘she had no choice, then, did she?’ and that word ‘must’.

My fourth paragraph is about how her efforts show how she was compelled to dig, to unearth all the bones, the repetition of ‘she dug’, the way the writer says ‘She dug. She spaded and raked.’ and ‘deepening and broadening’ the hole until she ends up ‘panting’ and her activity is described as ‘fevered’.

Here, all I’m doing is grouping them together. Four paragraphs is a lot for 25 minutes, but if I aimed for 2 in 8-10 minues, this should not be a stretch. It’s a nice even number that allows me to address both of the key words in the statement twice.

I just wanted to stop a minute and remind you that you can really see here that I’m not thinking whether I agree or not with the statement. I’m just trying to find evidence of the statement. Then I’ve got some nice language and structural features I can comment on in both strands.

To summarise then:

  • Read through the statement.
  • Highlight key words and identify if you’ve more than one part of the question that you need to refer to
  • Use as many colours as you have key words, finding evidence and colour-coding as you go
  • Use broad brushstrokes and underline everything that may be useful
  • Then refine and narrow down
  • Aim to have anywhere between 5 and 15 quotes but don’t worry too much if you are such a sniper that you start with 3 or such a scattergun shooter that you end up with 20
  • Once you have your quotes, group them
  • You need roughly two groups per strand
  • Start to identify the main things the writer is doing in your plan, or summarise the main things that are happening

When you’ve done this, you’re ready to move on to answering.

Next time, I’ll take you through an 8 mark answer, a 13 mark answer and a 20 mark answer so that you can see what they look like, and how you move from one to another.