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!

5 thoughts on “Sample essays for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 4

  1. Pingback: AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 5 | Teaching English

  2. Pingback: Advice and Guidance for planning Paper 1 Question 5 Descriptive writing | Teaching English

  3. Pingback: Advice and Guidance for planning GCSE English Paper 1 Question 5: Narrative writing | Teaching English

  4. Pingback: How to answer Paper 1 Question 4 for AQA English Language GCSE 8700 | Teaching English

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