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!

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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.

 

 

Tips for answering AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 3

Last week, I looked at what kind of things you might want to discuss when responding to AQA’s English Language GCSE question about structure on Paper 1. Question 3 is a new style of question and it has thrown many people into a state of confusion, most of which has now settled following the first exam series.

To recap, there are several things to remember:

  • You can look at a number of structural devices and techniques from zooming in to circular structures, but the main thing we are interested in is “Why THISHERENOW?” 
  • You don’t need to refer to complex terminology: there is no hierarchy that says ‘exposition’ is better than ‘development’ or that you need to know words like dénouement to get 7 or 8 marks. It’s what you do with the structural terminology that shows ‘sophisticated and accurate use’
  • There are lots of things to avoid. Narrative viewpoint and sentence structures are two of those. They are hard to write about in terms of the arrangement of ideas. Best avoided unless you are absolutely sure about how you can use these to writer about how the ideas are arranged.
  • It’s the quality of comment that is the important thing. We want to know what you think about the structure.

The following is a good list of things you MIGHT find, but it is not exhaustive and neither is it compulsory learning.

Some of the aspects you might want to explore are:

  • changes from a big focus to a small focus
  • narrowing in
  • zooming out
  • shifts of time
  • shifts of topic
  • shifts of person
  • shifts of place
  • sudden introductions or changes
  • gradual introductions or changes
  • flashbacks
  • flashforwards
  • foreshadowing
  • shifts in narrative position
  • external actions of characters
  • internal thoughts of characters
  • shifting point of view
  • developments
  • repetitions
  • circular structures

Now, because structure involves dealing with a whole passage, and because I don’t want to reprint whole passages here, I’m going to ask you to refer to this Youtube video to show how I manage a whole text and what I’m looking for. The text is taken from Cambridge IGCSE in that it worked to talk about structure. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good example that loosely fits, even if it’s not from AQA.

The reason why you need to watch the video is because it’s lengthy to discuss how to approach exploring structure and I need to navigate back and forward across the whole text.

You can find a copy of the text here

In the video, I talk you through the broad aspects of the text I could write about. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are the possibilities:

  1. The mixed feelings of the crowd at the beginning
  2. How those feelings change first from growing positivity to ‘disarray’ by the end
  3. Anuja’s growing anger
  4. How Anuja goes from being the outsider to being the leader of the community group
  5. How Anuja changes the group’s view
  6. How Rufus Carmichael goes from being the confident salesman to becoming angry
  7. Why the writer zooms in on his face when he is angry
  8. Why the writer switches perspective from Rufus to Anuja several times like watching a tennis match – we switch focus from one side to another
  9. The focus on the falcon at the end and the insect
  10. The way the writer finishes on a cliffhanger with the ‘portent’ and possible foreshadowing
  11. Tracking through the shifting emotions and feelings of the crowd
  12. Why the writer gives us the details about the ‘cold drinks’ and the ‘glossy plans’
  13. The turning point, where Anuja wins the crowd back to conserving the common land
  14. The way the writer reveals Anuja’s internal thoughts vs the external description of Rufus
  15. The turning point where he loses control of the meeting
  16. What happens to Rufus at the end
  17. The metaphorical ‘dark cloud’ on his face and then the mention of the actual storm
  18. How and why the writer leaves us with a sense that FoodFreight will get their way

So you can see, without referring once to 1st person narrative, tense, sentence structures, sentence length, Freytag or Todorov, I still have plenty to say. The passage you will get will be the same. It will be so rich in structural stuff that you shouldn’t need to rely on spotting features.

Also, if you just take, at its most simple, what ideas, characters and themes we have at the beginning, or what the situation is at the beginning, and how those develop or change, you will have more than enough to say. You seriously won’t be stuck for ideas.

Okay, so you want to know what Level 1 – 4 look like. Remember, the question is marked in 4 levels, not in the 9 grades, which makes my head hurt. The question is worth 8 marks. Just to make it more confusing. There is nothing to say 7 or 8 marks is a grade 9, or that 1 or 2 is a grade 1…. confusing Maths headache!

But you want to know how do you get as many marks as possible.

Level 1 covers 1 or 2 marks.
Level 2 covers 3 or 4 marks.
Level 3 covers 5 or 6 marks.
Level 4 covers 7 or 8 marks.

Like Question 2, you will find the same key words. Simple understanding for Level 1, some understanding for Level 2, clear understanding for Level 3 and perceptive understanding for Level 4.

It’s practically the same markscheme you saw for Q2, except instead of saying textual detail, it say ‘examples’. That means you might refer to a part of the text or you might use a quote, but it doesn’t have to be a quote.

So you want to know what each level looks like and why it gets the mark it does?

Level 1

At the beginning of the source, the writer focuses our attention on the crowd, as they are introduced in the first sentence. Then there is a shift of focus to Anuja before it moves back to the crowd who are waiting to hear the plans about the town. This structure is interesting as it could make us interested in Anuja because she is in the first part of the text and we may want to see what happens to her in the rest of the passage. The way the writer structures the text makes me interested as a reader and want to read on to find out what happens. 

The writer then changes the focus to Rufus Carmichael. This interests the reader as we can link back to the beginning. 

The story is written in chronological order which adds a further perspective to the story. The reader is interested as the events continue and it adds a sense of drama. 

This is a very good example of what Level 1 answers look like. It has many simple comments (underlined) which could be about practically any text, but they show a simple understanding of structure. The comments are very general. It mentions the main characters and the crowd briefly, but that’s all we get. There are some references to structural features (in orange) which also shows some simple understanding of structure. There are some simple references to parts of the text (non-italicised). It does everything to get a mark of 2.

If you want to move up from Level 1 to Level 2, you have to cut right back on the simple comments like ‘makes you 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.

Level 2

At the beginning of the source, the writer describes the crowd “many eager to hear plans that might bring prosperity to the town. Others wore grim expressions” which gives an overall feeling about how the crowd are feeling interested but also annoyed. This allows the reader to understand the feelings in the room As the source develops the writer changes our focus onto Rufus Carmichael who tells them that the site is an eyesore and that it is no use so they might as well build on it which makes the reader agree with him as it sounds disgusting. After that the writer shows us Anuja getting angry which we don’t understand. At the end of the source the writer introduces a falcon and uses foreshadowing which indicates there is conflict and to possibly show the next actions of Rufus Carmichael. 

This is a very good example of a level 2 response. It has some more specific comments on the aspects of structure that it has picked out, although mostly that involves putting it into their own words or explaining briefly how it sounds. It’s picked out some relevant details (in italics) and uses some subject terminology (in orange) that shows the candidate has some understanding of structural features, but they haven’t quite got it yet.

To move up to level 3, the response needs to really address why that specific structural feature is important or interesting to be positioned right there. Why is it important we understand the feelings of the crowd at the beginning? Why is it important that we agree with Rufus Carmichael when he is speaking at that point? Why is it interesting that it finishes with some foreshadowing and the image of the falcon and the insect?

Level 3

At the beginning of this extract, we are introduced to a scene in which there is a crowd. We are also told about a person named Anuja who has been specifically named, which makes us think that she might be important. We also find out that it is a meeting about a development which might bring money into the town. This is giving us the background information that we need to understand why the meeting is being held. We are told that the crowd have mixed feelings, with some being “eager” and some being “grim”, so we understand the atmosphere. The way that Anuja “scanned” the people makes her seem like a bit of an observer at the beginning, rather than telling us if she is also eager about the plans or if she is unhappy. 

As we move to the middle, the mood in the crowd changes and they seem to be more eager and convinced that the development plan is a good ideaThe writer only focuses on Rufus and on Anuja whilst he is speaking, and then they say “people squirmed in their seats, turning to their neighbours to exchange excited comments” and we see that instead of feeling angry like Anuja does, they actually feel excited. This is so we understand that Anuja’s views are different from the crowd and we understand why she “could stand it no longer”. Everybody else is being won over and she feels that they are being bribed and taken advantage of, so she has to speak up.

At the end although the meeting breaks up “in disarray” and we feel like Rufus has lost his battle, we get the feeling that it is not over yet. Rufus Carmichael says “We will get our way!” and the writer uses foreshadowing with the image of the falcon, which makes us think that FoodFreight is the falcon who will come and snap up the common land for their depot. 

This is a good example of Level 3 for six marks. It clearly understands the sequence and position of ideas. It has a number of clear comments (underlined) about what the position of the ideas makes us think at each point. It also picks out some clear examples and references to the text (in italics) and has some clear understanding of why the writer has chosen to position the ideas where they have.

To move up into Level 4, a more careful selection of structural features will help the candidate be more perceptive. It’s all about the selection. An overview of the whole passage will also help. Writing in more detail about each detail selected (having picked out fewer details) will also help with the ‘detailed’ side of Level 4.

Level 4

This passage focuses on the changing emotions of a village as they hear a proposal about a new depot that could be built. At first, the crowd are divided between being “eager” and having “grim expressions”, but they are quickly won over by the sales pitch from the FoodFreight representative. After the turning point where Anuja stands up and reminds the villagers of the importance of the plot of land, it is clear that the villagers have won the first battle in what will probably be a war with the company, but there is a sense that the “titanic battle” is far from over.

At the beginning, the writer allows us to see the internal thoughts of the villagers, describing some as “eager”, but the writer also focuses on the external reactions of their faces, with “grim expressions”. For Anuja, who will play the pivotal role in shifting the villagers’ feelings, she is doing nothing other than observing the room and we are unaware of her own feelings about the proposed depot. There is a juxtaposition between the wealth of the representative, who looks “well-fed” and the crowd who are “roughly dressed” and “weather beaten”. We get a sense that they are definitely the underdogs and as we move through the passage, it is clear Anuja thinks they are being taken advantage of and ‘bribed’.

In the middle of the text, we see the mood swing as Carmichael convinces them that the land is a health hazard that is of no use. It’s important that we see this shift towards him. The writer also switches each paragraph from a focus on Carmichael to a focus on Anuja. We see Carmichael’s words (but not his internal thoughts) compared to Anuja’s internal thoughts which give us an idea of how angry she is and how amazed that Carmichael could suggest the place is infested with vermin, not recognising that it is a sanctuary for the falcons. The pivotal moment where she stands up and redirects the crowd shows how easily they were tricked by the sales talk, but also how valuable the land is to them really.

By the end, then, it is clear the villagers have ‘won’ the battle. Carmichael’s final words are menacing, when he says “we will have our way”, and the falcon takes on a different meaning. At first, we saw the falcon as a symbol of the beauty and value of the land, a natural image that reminds us of the beauty of nature, but by the end we remember that it is a predator, not unlike the company, and that it is the natural order of life that predators will pick off ‘insects’, which is perhaps a subtle reference to the fact that the battle will indeed be ‘titanic’ as the “weather-beaten” villagers will have to fight off the slick and ‘glossy’ power of the development company. However, we don’t know if the falcon caught the insect in the final image, as the writer says the falcon “swooped” then “veered away” and we don’t know if the insect lived to see another day. There is a sense of inevitability by the end that the development company will have their way, and the ‘dark clouds’ that pass across Carmichael’s face are picked up with the image of the rain and lightning giving us a sense that the battle is really only beginning.

This is my own response – it took me 12 minutes, so it’s on the long side. You know me well enough by now to know that I have a problem reining in the word count. To be honest, it’s the over-the-top 8 of an English teacher, but I wanted to show you how important it is to have an overview and to pick up on the most interesting details. By tracking through the text and tracing the establishment and development of ideas, you can see how easy it is to comment on structure without relying on sentence forms, sentence lengths, narrative voice or Freytag’s pyramid. Better answers will have embedded quotations, a very carefully selected range of quotations or references, a clear understanding of structural features in general as well as the ability to apply that understanding to the text before them. They will pick up on subtle, less obvious details which show a careful reading. Subject terminology will also be embedded and you will not find a “feature first” approach.

For teachers reading this, I would be working with my students on careful reading of the text. Broad brushstrokes first, then narrowing down to precise details. I would be teaching students how to look at the beginning and the ending, looking at what changes from the start to the end, and why we need to know what we do at the beginning. I’d be teaching how to use those narrow details in embedded sentences. I’d run through four or five extracts in modelled and shared reading sessions in which we’d look at all the toolkit of common structural features and think about why they are used in general before asking how that specifically relates to the text in front of them. For instance, why would a writer generally use a flashback or foreshadowing, why would they use juxtaposition or explain the internal thoughts of a character? Then apply that understanding to the text.

For students, I’d be practising with a range of different texts. Since the exam from AQA is new and it has been a while since there have been fiction passages on the paper, you could always look at Edexcel, OCR or Eduqas fiction papers from other years as a source. You want to practise in a range of ways. Practise giving yourself lots of time, then under timed conditions. The more you do, the better you’ll get at those careful readings.

To summarise:

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.

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

I currently have a very limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour and I am also taking bookings for September 2018 for Year 9 and 10 students.

AQA GCSE English Language 8700 Paper 1 Question 2 practical guidance

After having had a really good look at some feedback for Paper 1 Question 2 (the ‘language’ question) about how the question is marked, about the markscheme itself and about how to use subject terminology and why you shouldn’t take a feature-spotting approach, in this post, I’m going beyond the shoulds and shouldn’ts of the question to give you some practical guidance that will make a difference to your marks.

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 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.
  • 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.

Whether you are aiming for a grade 4 or a grade 9, much depends on what you do before you start writing.

What do I even mean before you start writing?

How can I even mark BEFORE you start writing?!

Truthfully, no teacher starts marking what you do before you start writing. That’s not even possible. It’s not like we can see into your head or that we even mark any annotations or notes you make.

But the things you do before you start writing impact strongly on the answer you give. In the following post, I’m going to write a lot about broad brushstrokes and narrowing in.

Broad brushstrokes are big sections of underlined bits. In art, you use the broad brushstrokes to pick up the big details, and that’s what they do. No refinement, no focus, just big chunks. Narrowing in is precisely that – focusing in on one or two key words in a quote.

Better candidates are always more precise, but you may see broad brushstrokes at first in their answer.

Let’s look at some of the things that candidates do before they start answering the question. This is based on Question 2 from November 2017, the ‘Alice’ paper.

So what do people do?

#1 Nothing

Some people do nothing. Well, they read it. You guess that they read it because they have written about it. The reproduced bit of text shows zero sign that it has been read. They certainly haven’t used the reprinted text for anything. 

#2 Underline practically everything.

Some people underline everything. They don’t always refer to it all (how can they?!) and what they’ve underlined, at least some of it makes its way as a quote into their answer. This one used “it’s her first time in the Pyrenees” in the answer, and “it’s a place of secrets”. A bit from the beginning, a bit from the end. Their annotation is their broad brushstrokes – it’s ALL worth commenting on!

Some of these candidates may use these big chunks in their response. Others narrow in during their answer, as this one did.

Underline practically everything – quote practically everything

or:

Underline practically everything – quote practically nothing.

#3 Underline big chunks, but fewer of them

You can see this one kind of has a theme. They might as well have written the features in the margin. You know they are going to comment on colours and then a second paragraph about contrasts. That is exactly what they did. Kind of broad brushstrokes, just with fewer of them.

#4 Underline a lot of precise quotes

This approach is a more precise one, but it’s still not very helpful because there are too many things to write about. In their essay, they narrowed down again to focus in on ‘jagged’, ‘covered’ and ‘beautiful’.

#5 Underline a lot of precise quotes and annotate everything with features that have been spotted and some comments

This approach means the candidate has spent a good three or four minutes of their ten on the plan. You could actually mark the planning. There are a lot of features on there and this kind of candidate has obviously been taught the importance of thinking before they write, but not how to do it in a way that will help them.

These five approaches exemplify some very important learning points:

  • Underlining nothing is unhelpful. It really doesn’t help you to only think in your head. You may have a great idea or an interesting thought about something and it disappears into the 10-minute ether as you write. Not even the most able candidates can do that.
  • Underlining too much is unhelpful. It really doesn’t help you prioritise.
  • Annotating with features and comments is very labour-intensive and can be very restrictive not only in time but also in your thinking, although it does help you to have an organised approach.
  • Underlining stuff and not narrowing down is also really unhelpful.

Time for a cautionary tale about two girls. One is called Emma (that’s me) and one is called Liz (that was my uber-smart classmate). I annotated everything.

E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

My entire copy of Pride and Prejudice is underlined and written on. There is not a spare space or page. I did this because I wasn’t confident and I couldn’t sift. I couldn’t prioritise. It was ALL important to me and it made me nervous having to pick out particular bits, like I was going to miss out on some marvellously important thing. Chronic underlining of everything is a sign of a candidate who can’t zero in. It’s a mid-grade kind of thing that says you really, really want to do well at English but you haven’t got the confidence or the understanding to decide what is important and what is not. That’s fine if you want to comment on everything, and if you have the time, but it’s really unhelpful if you don’t.

Then there’s the Liz approach. Underline some stuff. Highlight the most important bits of those underlined bits once you’ve finished and had a bit of a think about what’s useful. This is often what better candidates do automatically. They kind of go straight for the juicy bits that they can squeeze a lot of use out of and instinctively know which bits will lead them up a dead end, comment-wise.

If you are a Level 4 or 5 chronic underliner of everything, how you become a Level 7, 8 or 9 is in how you narrow down. Do the chronic underlining first, then read again and narrow down.

I’ll show you how.

This is the passage:

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In the early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the landscape into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

And this is the question:

How does the writer use language here to describe the mountain area?

So the first thing I’m going to do is underline everything I might want to use about the mountain area.

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In the early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the landscape into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

Now as you can see, that is far too much. I could write about all of that if I had five hours and nothing else to do. But I have ten minutes. That means four quotes as an absolute maximum.

There are things to help me pick out those four things:

  1. It must be brief. One word is fine. Four is okay. Seven is not. It’s not up to the examiner to look at what you’ve picked out and decide which they think you thought the relevant detail was. Be brief.
  2. It’s helpful to look across the whole passage, rather than focusing too much on things at the beginning.
  3. It’s helpful to look for repeated ideas as they help you really think about the bigger themes.
  4. At this point, it CAN be helpful to look at what the writer is doing as well, in terms of language use.

When I look at the passage then, I can see some interesting words to focus in on. I like ‘jagged’ as it gives me plenty to say. I like ‘peep out’ as well, which reminds me there is quite a lot of personification in the passage to focus on. ‘Delicate’ kind of sits with ‘peeping’ and I can tell I’ll have more to day about that. I like the bit about the sun ‘flattening’ the landscape, and although the quote is long, I can focus on ‘flattened… into submission’ as my keywords. ‘Beautiful’ and ‘inhospitable’ are nice and give me a sense of the contrast of the place, so I think I’ll use these to help me form my answer. They seem to sum up the place. It’s beautiful but unwelcoming.

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In the early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the landscape into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

Now I could equally write about the ‘place of secrets’ and the ‘seen too much, concealed too much’ as well, but the only thing making me want to do so is lack of confidence in what I have picked out. So I have to take a breath and say, ‘Emma, six is more than enough. It’s an 10-minute response, not an analysis of the Works of Shakespeare.

Now that I have done that, I have moved from the nervy ‘waaah, want to include it all’ to ‘a clear selection of quotation’.

All before I’ve even started writing.

To sum up, then…

  • Use the printed passage to underline. Then, if you haven’t been selective enough, narrow down.
  • Pick out four main words or phrases.
  • Be brief and be precise. One or two words to focus on in each of you two paragraphs is more than enough.
  • When you pick out the words and phrases, think about ‘what here does the writer think is important? Which words are unusual or interesting?’ Look for the juicy words that you can squeeze a lot out of.
  • Look for parallels and linked ideas.
  • Think about any particularly nice figurative language – metaphors, similes and personification – if you can see some come up and you think you can write about it.
  • Try not to just focus on the first two lines you fall over.

Above all, think about what is the main idea the writer is trying to convey. For me, in this passage, the place is both dangerous and delicate. I want to explore those in my answer. So, ask yourself, “what’s the big thing the writer wants me to think about?” and select your quotes accordingly.

Many middle-grade candidates fail to access the upper grades simply because they are not narrowing down. Narrowing down is what Liz did naturally and which I did not (and still struggle with!)

Knowing which quotes will give you plenty to write about and which you can discard is a vital step in moving up the levels.

You can also have a look at me exploring quote selection on this video

Next time, I’ll look at how to make great comments based on your quote selection that will help you understand what a 2-mark comment looks like compared to an 8-mark comment.

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

I currently have a very limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.

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”.

So….

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

I currently have a limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.

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

I currently have a limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.