How to revise for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 4

This post is the last in a series looking at the reading section of Paper 2 for AQA’s GCSE English Language paper, specification 8700. You can find guidance on revising for question 1, question 2 and question 3, or for Paper 1 here.

Question 4 is the question with the highest marks on Paper 2. It allows you to build up to it and as it is worth 16 marks out of the 80 available on the paper, it is a question that needs a bit of practice and development.

Let’s look at the question first.

So as we go through the question, you can see that some things stay the same and that some things change. The first thing that stays the same is the guidance about what to explore:

For this question, you need to refer to the whole of Source A, together with the whole of Source B. 

That’s just a reminder of what the focus of the question is: your ability to write about both extracts and compare key aspects of it. As you may remember, the focus of paper 1 is exploring how writers create texts, and the focus on Paper 2 is how writers express viewpoints and perspectives. 

As we move on to the second part of the question, it tells us to compare how the two writers convey their 

At this point you could be asked about perspectives or attitudes – how they see things and how they feel about things. You’re being asked to look at their point of view and the way they share what they think about the topic that binds the two extracts together.

Now let’s look at the markscheme and pick out what you’re being assessed on.

Like question 4 on Paper 2, you are assessed on four things here. That often means that there will be one or two things that you’ll forget, as you’ll be concentrating so hard on doing the others.

As I wrote on the previous post about question 3, we’re going to discuss levels here, not grades. The 16 marks are split into 4 levels. I can’t tell you what grade you’re working at because grades are for the whole paper and your mark out of 160 across the two papers, not how you do on a particular question. So I can’t say ‘this is a Grade 9 answer’ because such a thing doesn’t really exist. I can say ‘this is a 13 mark answer’ though and I can say that, very very roughly as a massive generalisation, the grades might be split like this:

Level 1 (1-4 marks) = Grade 1 to somewhere in Grade 3
Level 2 (5-8 marks) = Somewhere in Grade 3 to Grade 4/5
Level 3 (9-12 marks) = Grade 5 to somewhere in Grade 7
Level 4 (13-16 marks)  = Somewhere in Grade 7 to Grade 9

So you can adjust yourself accordingly. If you’re aiming to get Grade 7, you should be aiming to get to the top of Level 3 or into Level 4 on all aspects of the paper. Were you to do that across the whole paper then you’d be hitting Grade 7 kind of territory. At the end of the day, though, it depends on a set of really, really complex mathematics and assessment of standards, so those grade boundaries change for every paper – and even every year group that take it.

Cautionary waffle over.

Let’s look at those four strands a little more carefully:

The first is about comparing the ideas and perspectives.

The second is about writers’ methods

The third is about references

The fourth is about identifying the ideas.

For each of those four strands, there is an increasing difficulty or complexity as you’d expect. It’s not that L1 students DO different THINGS than L4 students: they do things DIFFERENTLY

Let’s take each strand in turn, starting with the main one: comparison.

Level 1 responses will be making simple cross references. That means you’re making simple links between the two texts. At Level 2, responses are attempting to compare. Level 3 responses have a clear and relevant comparison and Level 4 responses have a perceptive and detailed comparison

That works with the next strand about references.

Level 1 responses will be have simple references or detail. At Level 2, responses have some appropriate detail. Level 3 responses have revelant detail and Level 4 responses have a range of judicious supporting detail

You can see this continue in the strand about writers’ methods:

Level 1 responses will be make simple identification of methods. At Level 2, responses have some comment on methods. Level 3 responses have clear explanation of methods and Level 4 responses have analysis of how the methods are used

Finally that works in the strand about ideas and perspectives:

Level 1 responses will be make simple awareness of ideas and perspectives. At Level 2, responses identify some ideas and perspectives. Level 3 responses have a clear understanding of ideas and perspectives and Level 4 responses have a detailed understanding of ideas and perspectives.

So I’ve got a loose framework to support me:

Ideas and perspectives – detail – methods – comparison

One thing to be especially focused on though, and absolutely not to forget, are the writers’ methods.

My loose framework turns into a more clear structure:

  1. Identify an idea or viewpoint in Source 1
  2. Use a quote to support my point
  3. Mention the method and say what the quote means
  4. Explain the method and effect
  5. Link to point in Source 2
  6. Use a quote to support my point
  7. Mention the method and say what the quote means
  8. Explain the method and the effect

Method, by the way, simply means anything the writer is doing. It doesn’t mean to drag out your asyndetic listing again. It’s really such a lovely, vague term that you shouldn’t need to go feature spotting. Don’t feature spot – it will severely hamper your response.

So where do you start?

Start by your identification of quotes from both texts. Do your broad brushstrokes underlining, by going through both texts and underlining or highlighting literally anything that is a viewpoint or perspective, attitude or feeling, or suggests one. Don’t be stingy. Underline everything that’s useful, even if you end up with 75% of the text underlined.

When you’ve done this for both texts, you can then narrow down.

For a 16 mark question, you’re looking to write about 16-20 minutes, which gives you time to write about 3 good paragraphs. That means you’re looking for 3 pairs of linked quotes across the two texts. So I look at my two texts and I then narrow down on things that match. And then I might even narrow down one more time if I have too much to go off.

First is my long list of quotes from Source A, then Source B, then I’ll narrow down.

  • the longest and shortest year of my life
  • it’s felt as if my son has always been part of this family
  • I simply mean that I haven’t slept for a year and I don’t really know how time works any more.
  • It’s honestly quite hard to grasp.
  • With every tiny development – every new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.
  • He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.
  • He’ll never again be the tiny baby who…
  • But I’ve had a year of this and it’s ok.
  • He’s never going to stop changing, and I don’t want him to.
  • This sadness, this constant sense of loss… is an important part of this process
  • the silly old fools who tell him how much he’s grown.
  • You just have to make the most of what you have.

Then I do the same with Source B

  • But my eyes are aching for the sight of cut paper upon the floor
  • I want to see crumbs on the carpet,
  • But my ears are aching for the pattering of little feet
  • I want responsibilities
  • My little boy is lost, and my big boy will soon be.
  • I wish he were still a little boy in a long white night gown
  • If I only had my little boy again, how patient I would be!
  • I wonder if they know they are living their very best days; that now is the time to really enjoy their children!
  • I think if I had been more to my little boy I might now be more to my grown up one.

As I read and outline all the things that could possibly be an attitude or viewpoint, I’m starting to get a feel for the big ideas.

For instance, in Source A, he feels that “it’s okay” that his son is changing, whereas Source B seems filled with a sense of profound sadness and loss.

In Source B, she mentions fretting and scolding, and things she found annoying, whereas in Source A, he just seems amazed by his child, if a little bewildered. Source B, however, finds the grown boy in front of her to be bewildering.

I’m aiming for three differences for my plan though, so I need to look closer. Both have a sense of regret (though this isn’t unlike my first paragraph) but Source A seems to be “ok’ with the future. I think I can develop that idea into two paragraphs. Also though when I look back at my quotes, Source A says that he feels like his son has always been a part of the family, whereas Source B seems to see her son as a stranger.

So let’s narrow down. I need three pairs of quotes (and supporting bits that will go with it.

Feelings about child growing up:

  1. They’re part of the family, “it’s felt as if my son has always been part of this family” vs “He calls me mother, but I am rather unwilling to own him.” as if he is a stranger to her. He feels his son is part of the family even though he jokes about it, whereas she feels as if he is a stranger.
  2. “It’s ok” vs regret. “He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.” and “he’ll never again be the baby who…” but ” it’s ok.” vs “But my eyes/ears are aching” My little boy is lost, and my big boy will soon be.”
  3. Child is incomprehensible ” irrationally terrified of my dad.  “for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever work out.” He doesn’t understand his child as the child grows, vs ” How much I would bear, and how little I would fret and scold!” but her regrets and wishes come from the fact her son is older and she can’t change what she’s done, whereas for Source A, the writer has yet to really see his child grow up and regret (or not) the role he played in that.

So then it comes to the writing. Can you see how a good plan, some narrowing down and some re-reading really helps me get to the bottom of those viewpoints? Time thinking and planning is never time wasted.

Just a final reminder… this is a question about methods!

I’m going to add some methods to my plan.

  1. They’re part of the family, “it’s felt as if my son has always been part of this family” vs “He calls me mother, but I am rather unwilling to own him.” as if he is a stranger to her. He feels his son is part of the family even though he jokes about it, whereas she feels as if he is a stranger. Explaining feelings. 1st person narrative viewpoint.
  2. “It’s ok” vs regret. “He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.” and “he’ll never again be the baby who…” but ” it’s ok.” vs “But my eyes/ears are aching” My little boy is lost, and my big boy will soon be.” Metaphor and contrast. Making the abstract imaginable. Helping reader understand and empathise with emotions.
  3. Child is incomprehensible ” irrationally terrified of my dad.  “for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever work out.” He doesn’t understand his child as the child grows, vs ” How much I would bear, and how little I would fret and scold!” but her regrets and wishes come from the fact her son is older and she can’t change what she’s done, whereas for Source A, the writer has yet to really see his child grow up and regret (or not) the role he played in that. Some conditionals. Source A isn’t conditional. Some future tense.

That’s better! Saved me from falling into the big Question 4 trap!

Once I’ve done that, I’m ready to write. 16 marks should be about 20 minutes, so I’ve time to write 3 longer paragraphs using the formula outlined above.

This is the final post for the essentials for AQA GCSE English Language 8700 Paper 1 and Paper 2. You can find all the links by clicking – and there’s plenty there to keep you busy. Good luck in your exams!

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Revise AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 3

This post is part of a series on AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 to help you revise each question and prepare for your exams. You’ll also find posts on Question 1 and Question 2. If you are looking for materials on Paper 1 or the writing sections, you can find those by clicking here.

Essentially, Question 3 on Paper 2, also known as ‘the language question’ is similar not only in style but also in markscheme to Question 2 on Paper 1, also a ‘language’ question. Like that question, it was dogged by poor preparation and an over-reliance on subject terminology at the cost of evaluation. This question is worth more marks, and so there are some small but subtle differences that you might want to focus on.

How you prepare is exactly the same as you would for paper 1, and so a lot of the advice is going to be the same.

Let’s start by looking at the question.

So as you can see, it tells you to look at one specific source text, and refers to the lines you’ll need to stay within (on the two ‘live’ papers, at least – the last is from the specimen paper). It starts with how does [writer] use language to… 

After that, there are subtle differences which are dependent, I’d guess, on the purpose of the source.

The question is worth 12 marks, so look to spend between 12 and 15 minutes on it. I would be looking to write three developed paragraphs in that time.

The reason it asks you to stay within the lines is that the best and richest language use will be focused on those lines, so it is an attempt to help you, not hinder you. Don’t try to be smart and work outside the lines given. Put a box around the lines and make sure you stick to them.

Now let’s look at how you’re being assessed: what is it that you need to do in the exam to gain marks?

As you may know, there are four levels. These don’t mean grades. It’s meaningless to tell you ‘this is how you’ll get Grade 9’, because it depends on the year, the cohort, the test, maths, statistical analysis and analysis of standards which are waaaaay above most people’s tolerance for waffle. Roughly, though, you might want to think of it this way:

Level 1 = Grade 1 to somewhere in Grade 3
Level 2 = Somewhere in Grade 3 to Grade 4/5
Level 3 = Grade 5 to somewhere in Grade 7
Level 4 = Somewhere in Grade 7 to Grade 9

Like I say elsewhere though, that is absolutely my spin on it. You don’t get a grade for the question. You get a grade for the total mark across both papers. So I can’t tell you how to get Grade 9 on this question, and neither can anyone else. If they say they can, they are most probably a charlatan and a rogue!

But I can tell you how to get Level 1 (1-3 marks) or Level 2 (4-6 marks) and so on.

Let’s look at the assessment features for Level 1, right at the lowest end.

Now, like Paper 1, these bullets are not equally weighted. The first is the most important and it decides whether you come in at 1, 4, 7 or 10 marks. One comment could mean you’re 1 mark or you’re 10 marks depending on the quality of it.

If you make a simple comment, you’re Level 1, an attempted comment, you’re Level 2, a clear comment you’re Level 3 and a perceptive comment, you’re Level 4. It’s why you can write 4 sides and still be 3 marks, or write 1 side and be 12 marks. It all depends on the quality of what you write.

So, your comment is much of everything.

Why do so many candidates fail to get out of Level 1? Almost 20% of June 2017’s marks were 1, 2 or 3.

First, because they make such general, waffly comments that could apply to literally any text ever committed to paper. It makes you want to read on. It hooks the reader. It tantalises the reader. It engages the reader. It baffles the reader. It arouses the reader’s curiosity. You can be as fancy as you like, but if you really mean ‘it makes us want to read on’, you’re going to get stuck at 3 marks.

Second, because identifying synaesthesia, asyndetic listing, synecdoche or hyperbole isn’t what’s being assessed here. You could spot zoomorphism at twenty paces and still not get out of Level 1. Even if you’re right. And most people aren’t. To misquote TS Eliot, the naming of words is a difficult matter. It also won’t lead you to twelve marks. There is no hierarchy of language features. Nowhere in the markscheme is anaphora marked more highly than ‘the writer describes’.

This is straight from the examiners’ report, which is now in the public domain. So you don’t just have to take my word for it.

So how do you go about preparing for this question?

A lot of it is actually in the things you do before you answer. That comes down to your identification of ‘juicy’ bits of the text to explore. Believe it or not, given all those words, better candidates rely time and time again on a very narrow bank of useful quotations. They won’t mean to select from such a limited range, but by and large, candidates at the top end have unconsciously focused in on the exact same kind of quotes.

A lot of how you can prepare is in doing a double read through.

First, put a box around the given lines.

Then take a highlighter or pencil and underline absolutely everything that is interesting to you. You don’t need to be selective or precise. This is a lot how middle grade students read – they think everything is useful. It stops you focusing in on random things or things just from the beginning.

Don’t think about language features at this point. I promise you that if you go looking for similes or zoomorphism, you won’t do as well as you would with this method.

So once you’ve underlined everything that could be useful, it’s time to think like the most successful students do: narrow down and focus in on three or four really, really interesting bits. By and large, you’re looking for single words or short phrases, not huge chunks. It’s also generally true that the longer your quote, the fewer marks you’ll get. I want to see you focus in on a small number of words.

I’ll show you how here:

A year ago, he was a sleepy ball of scrunched-up flesh, but is now determinedly his own person. I can see everyone in him – me, my wife, my parents – yet he’s already separate from all of us. He’s giddy and silly. He’s a show-off, albeit one who’s irrationally terrified of my dad. He loves running up to people and waiting for them to twang his lips like a ruler on a table. When he gets tired and barks gibberish in the middle of the room, he throws his entire body into it, like he’s trying to shove the noise up a hill.

With every tiny developmentevery new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.

Photos of him taken in the summer seem like dispatches from a million years ago. Photos of him taken last week seem like a different boy. He’s blasting ahead as far as he can. He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot there on my first go-through. Lots of those bits are interesting.

When I narrow down, you can see what I’ll focus on:

A year ago, he was a sleepy ball of scrunched-up flesh, but is now determinedly his own person. I can see everyone in him – me, my wife, my parents – yet he’s already separate from all of us. He’s giddy and silly. He’s a show-off, albeit one who’s irrationally terrified of my dad. He loves running up to people and waiting for them to twang his lips like a ruler on a table. When he gets tired and barks gibberish in the middle of the room, he throws his entire body into it, like he’s trying to shove the noise up a hill.

With every tiny developmentevery new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.

Photos of him taken in the summer seem like dispatches from a million years ago. Photos of him taken last week seem like a different boy. He’s blasting ahead as far as he can. He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.

Whilst I could happily have explored everything I’ve underlined, I’ve got to be more careful than that. Better candidates hone in on things, selecting. They are judicious and wise about their quotes. That requires elimination of the crappy quotes.

Once I’ve got my quotes, I’m ready to start answering.

I’m going to start with the words of the question, give a little away about what the writer is trying to show, use my quote, mention the language feature if I know it and then try to put it into my own words and explain the effect. Just like Q2 on this paper and on Paper 1, I’m going to use some of the following starters to get me going on my explanation:

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

Let’s put that all together:

The writer describes how his son has changed, saying he “was a sleepy ball of scrunched up flesh” but “is now determinedly his own person”, with the tense change highlighting what he once was and  how he now is. It’s the way he described his son as having been a “ball of scrunched-up flesh” that is most interesting, with the “flesh” sounding like he’s almost not even alive or human, that he was unrecognisable even as a human being, but as he has grown older he is described as being “determinedly his own person”, which shows how he has grown up not just physically but developmentally, becoming “determined” which could suggest he is strong-minded or stubborn, certainly that he is has become an individual – and that he is almost driven to be individual – rather than that unidentifiable “ball” of “flesh” he once was. It sounds as if the writer is both proud and a little scared of how single-minded and obstinate his son is at being “his own person”. 

Those words were actually very juicy indeed, looking back on them! I certainly could tie it in easily to the next bit about his son throwing “his entire body” into barking “gibberish”.

If I want to take it further, I’d certainly look at that quote, as well as the sense of being “confronted by” the changes, which make the parents seem passive and powerless, like the changes are sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes amusing and sometimes terrifyingly fast, as well as a little heart-breaking, since the writer finishes by saying he leaves a little piece of himself behind with each milestone.

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.

Next time, a look at Question 4 on Paper 2 to complete the series. Don’t forget, you can always find the full index here.

Advice and revision for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 2

Following on from the previous post about Question 1 on AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 1, this time I’m looking at Paper 2 Question 2 to give you a few revision tips and hints for the exam.

Let’s have a look at the question first of all.

This is June 2017

and here is November 2017

As you can see, some things change and some things don’t. Let’s look at the ones that don’t.

First, it says You need to refer to Source A and Source B for this question. 

That gives you your first indication of the marking. This is a question asking you to handle two different sources of information.

What follows is then a statement that focuses you in on a small part of both texts and tells you the focus point for those differences.

You’d do well to underline the subject and the focus point as this will help you narrow in on what to look for. After all, this question is actually asking you to look at a very small part of the text.

So I know I need to look for stuff generally to do with ‘the boys’ in both texts, and specifically ‘how they spend their time playing’. This second statement tells me how to narrow down and where to look.

The third bit has some bits the same Use details from both sources to write a summary of the differences/different and then it repeats the subject ‘boy’ and the focus ‘activities’ and ‘enjoyed’.

So, it’s telling you in two different ways what to focus in on.

The final thing the question tells us is that it’s worth 8 marks. That means I need to spend about ten minutes on it. I won’t need extra paper and I don’t need to write three paragraphs or find four differences or any nonsense like that.

What I do next is locate everything to do with what the boy does in Source A. I underline all of it. This is a technique that I call ‘broad brushstrokes’ and whilst it means a double read-through, it really does help get to the ‘right’ quotes. So often teachers find that students who hit the top grades are really picking from a very small range of quotes available to them, whereas lower down the grades, it’s more hit and miss. Using broad brushstrokes helps you focus in and then narrow down.

Already you can see there is not much to work with – and that’s fine.

I do the same with source B and underline absolutely everything that the boy in Source B seems to enjoy doing.

Then I go back to Source A, having Source B fresh in my head, and focus in on the points that are connected or come under a bigger idea. For instance, both sources refer to the boys making noise, or their relationship with adults, enjoying contact with parents.

So I underline once again and pick out a few pairs of things that are different.

‘he throws his entire body into … bark[ing] gibberish’ vs ‘a habit of whistling’ and ‘pop guns’, ‘a hearty shout, a shrill whistle, the crack of little whips’

and then I do the same with another difference:

‘rests his head on my shoulder whenever he gets tired’ vs ‘holding his hand in mine’

But when I think about it, it’s the boy in Source A who initiates contact whereas the boy in Source B doesn’t. He bounds ‘away to school’ with ‘nimble feet’.

So now I’ve got some differences and some quotes, I’m ready to look at the markscheme and what it is I need to do.

Like other parts of the markscheme, there are three parts to this question. They are also not equally weighted.

The first bullet point is about the differences between the two texts.

The second is about your use of textual detail.

The third is about inferring meaning from what this tells us.

Some comment then from the principal examiner’s report that will help you understand what’s being assessed and what’s not…

This question is testing your ability to synthesise, as is Question 4. That’s crucial. You absolutely need to find those differences and bring them together. You are looking for connecting points. Weaker responses will mostly be making a connection and giving a quote, whereas better responses will be inferring meaning. You also need to remember that the focus of this question is very narrow – the boys and their activities – and so you’ll need to only look for those things and write about those things. You also need to make sure you aren’t mentioning language features. That’s Question 3 and can’t be marked here. It may be the very best language analysis that has ever existed, but it’s like you’ve started writing chemical formulations rather than answering about inferences relating to a specific focus. It may be the best chemistry that has ever existed but it’s not what the examiner is looking for. Also, don’t write more than you are being asked for. Two paragraphs is more than enough for 8 marks. Unless you have incredibly large handwriting, you don’t need extra paper to respond to this task.

Before we start writing, then, some final words from the examiner’s report, which is now in the public domain:

Students still aren’t moving past 4 marks on average though, which means you have a bit of work to do to make a clear inference.

We’re going to look at how you make those clear inferences today.

So, I had my quotes in response to the June 2017 question above:

I’ve decided that I don’t think I will look at the way they seek out parents as it’s not about how they play. I will however look at the fact the second boy in Source B plays loads more with toys and things, compared to Source A where the boy seems to rely on human interaction.

I’m going to follow the guidance from the examiners’ report and start with a difference, a quote, some inferences, then contrast, more quotes, more inference.

In Source A, the boy seems to enjoy making a lot of noise, as he ‘throws his entire body’ into ‘bark[ing] gibberish’ which suggests that he is so enthusiastic about this shouting that he does it whole-heartedly and without any reserve or hesitation. However, in Source B, whilst the boy also seemed to enjoy making noise as a child, as he had a ‘a habit of whistling’ and his mother mentions a number of noisy toys or behaviours such as ‘pop guns’, ‘a hearty shout, a shrill whistle, the crack of little whips’, it seems that he has a wider range of noises. Also, it may be that the ‘barking gibberish’ is related more to the fact that the younger child in Source A is ‘tired’ rather than actually enjoying it. It could be frustration rather than pleasure which is causing this behaviour. 

So here, I was trying to follow a loose formula …

a) In Source A [subject & focus from question] and make a point, followed by a quote.

b) Explain quote and make inference about what it means or suggests.

c) Contrast with Source B [using subject & focus from question] and make another point, followed by a second quote.

d) Explain quote and make inference about what it means or suggests and how that’s different from Source A.

e) Add an ‘also’ and take it further, explain the difference more deeply or give reasons for the difference.

Making inferences is the tough bit. You’ve really got to think about what it suggests or what it means. I like the following phrases for doing this:

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

These are all really useful ways to explain or draw an inference from the text. Pick four or five that you feel comfortable with, and keep using them!

Next up, revision tips for Paper 2 Question 3.

Don’t forget you can find links to all my free material on 8700 AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 and Paper 2 here. All you could ever need, and more. Why not book a lesson if you want individualised support that’s focused on your own performance?

AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 1 revision

If you’re revising for AQA GCSE English Language, you’re probably not spending much time on Question 1, although it’s definitely worth a quick look and a bit of revision.

You can find guidance on Paper 1 Question 1 here. They are different in some ways although they are assessing the same skill. If you ask me, Paper 1 Q1 is harder. Most people get three or four marks on both questions, though. They’re both designed to ease you into the paper and so they shouldn’t be too terrifying. Paper 1 Q1 can be a little bit harder because you’re not given the phrases, so there’s more potential to go wrong – to pick quotes or details from the wrong part of the passage or to make a poor inference – but Q1 on paper 2 presents challenges of its own.

Let’s look at a sample question, from June 2017.

First, you’re asked to look at a bigger section than Paper 1, so there is more reading to do. That means it can take you a little longer than you might expect.

Second, most of the problems on this question come from not following the guidance given you. It tells you to shade the circle if you think it’s true. If you make a mistake there are things you need to do, but shading a circle for the true statements is your first thing.

That looks like this:

It doesn’t really matter if you colour in the lines. It matters if you use black (you should) and that’s all you need to do.

But over 10% of June 2017 students did other things instead…

Like this:

Now AQA aren’t going to fail you for doing this (although SHADE THE CIRCLE is simple advice) but you can see the problem of this script – and I’ve chosen a font that is a bit indecipherable. For most people T or F are quite distinguishable, but if that horizontal line though the F is not very long or clear, then it could be a T. And this is an examiner headache. Examiners aren’t paid to peer at your scruffy handwriting and try to work out if you’ve done an F or a T. That’s why it says SHADE THE CIRCLE. That way, we don’t need courses in Advanced Graphology to decipher your hieroglyphics.

So shade the circle. Don’t. Do. Anything. Else. Just shade the circle.

That said, it looks like far fewer students made that mistake from June to November if you read the examiners’ reports (available online) but it’s worth remembering.

Now if you are anything like me, you are fraught with uncertainty and doubt. Does the statement mean exactly this? Is it a trick? Will I fail the whole paper if I get this wrong?

To help you more, there’s a rough sequence to the statements

It’s not like you have go hunting back and forward around the text. So if you are of an anxious disposition, you can always highlight the text as I have done.

You may also then want to write T or F IN PENCIL down next to the letters before you shade the circle in pen and rub out the T or F so as not to leave any doubt. If you’re not sure, you can always use a question mark.

So do this:

And this:

Before you do this:

Although that may take you a ridiculous amount of time for what is just a 4 mark question. 5 minutes max.

This is an easy question, but don’t be hasty. There are some inferences you’ll need to make. Some are straight deductions. Sometimes they swap a ‘has’ in the text for a ‘has not’ in the answer, or use loose antonyms like ‘quite hard’ and ‘easy’ in the text and answer booklet. Sometimes they’re just rephrased. But don’t overthink it. It’s not that tough, honest!

Next up, a look at Question 2 on Paper 2

GCSE English Language Writing: Essays & Development

You may have arrived here looking for support on how to write essays for AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 2 Question 5 – the non-fiction writing question. Today I’m going to look at how you write an essay (which will also be the main bit of an article, letter or speech with a little adaptation) and how you can develop your ideas.

This post is the fifth in a series looking at letters, articles, speeches and leaflets.

So how do you write an essay (or the main body of the other bits)?

Very simply, you have time to write about three to four developed paragraphs or sections.

Why three to four?

The exam gives you about 50 minutes for planning and writing your response. Take 10 minutes off for thinking, planning and checking and you have about 40 minutes. Take off your introduction and conclusion, and you have about 30 minutes. On a good day at degree level (where I’d peaked at speedy essay writing!) I could manage a side of wide-lined A4 every 8 minutes. I’ll assume you are a little slower, so you’re looking at a maximum of three sides of fairly large handwriting, maximum. I guess I can write a good paragraph in about 7 or 8 minutes, which gives me time to write 3 or 4.

Why else three or four?

Partly, because you need a range of connected ideas to get to 13 or above out of 24. That’s around the Grade 5 boundary, possibly. A range, if you’ve not read this from me before, is not two. Two things are not a range. A range is a minimum of three. So you need three ideas in your response. If you go with the ‘new topic/idea = new paragraph’ approach, then that’s a minimum of three.

To get 16 or above you need a range of clear connected ideas. Ok – still three, just linked better. We’ll look at links next time.

To get 19 or above, you need a range of developed complex ideas. Now, if you are going to be developed and complex, you think that one idea that’s fully developed is enough. It isn’t. You’ve still got a range in there. Now, you may have 27 ideas but if you have 40 minutes to write, you’re looking at possibly 90 seconds on each. If you have 6, you have around 6 minutes on each. 6 minutes does not make for a lot of development.

So for me, it’s a minimum of three points, ideas or reasons, along with development. A maximum of five means you won’t have to sacrifice development.

What if you want to slip into the elusive Grade 9 territory? Those ideas have to be convincing. Other than that, it’s the same really as you’d be doing in the 19-21 band.

That is my secret formula for how many ideas/sections you want to be thinking about for good grades. You don’t want to sacrifice a range, but neither can you sacrifice development. This way, you know you’ve got a range and you know you’ve got time to develop your ideas.

Now most of the students’ work I mark at the lower grades – say Grade 4 and below – do not suffer with a lack of ideas. They’re the kind of papers where there are 27 ideas. None of them are linked and none of them are developed. Students at this level write paragraphs (or notional paragraphs, where there are clear places paragraphs should be even if they’ve been forgotten or left out) that are one or two sentences long.

Let’s take the sample assessment material question as an example:

‘Homework has no value. Some students get it done for them; some don’t do it at
all. Students should be relaxing in their free time.’

Write an article for a broadsheet newspaper in which you explain your point of
view on this statement.

A Grade 3 student is going to be writing a bit like this:

Some students prefer to do nothing rather than doing homework. If you just do homework all the time your life will be very boring. 
People cheat with homework. You can buy it on the internet.
There is no point doing it because nobody does it and the teacher makes you do it in class.
It doesn’t help you to do homework because if you get it wrong you aren’t learning anything. Why would you bother if you are just wasting your time?

Can you see? Four ideas, no development and no links at all. They could be in any order at all.

It might even have looked like this:

Some students prefer to do nothing rather than doing homework. If you just do homework all the time your life will be very boring. People cheat with homework. You can buy it on the internet.There is no point doing it because nobody does it and the teacher makes you do it in class. It doesn’t help you to do homework because if you get it wrong you aren’t learning anything. Why would you bother if you are just wasting your time?

That’s what I mean about having notional paragraphs. There are places you want to put a paragraph break, but the student either has forgotten, hasn’t bothered or didn’t know.

The biggest problem students have moving up is learning how to develop their non-fiction paragraphs. Organising them can be pretty challenging too.

So, today, I’m going to give you NINE ways that you can develop and extend your paragraphs. They are not a checklist. You don’t have to do all nine. Some will be appropriate and some might not fit. Some might work and others won’t. And definitely don’t do all nine in one paragraph. That would be hideously unnecessary.

So, let’s take one of those ideas and give some examples of each of our nine things. I’m going to pick the clearest argument, that if you do it wrong, you’ve wasted your time, and then I’m going to have a play around with the nine ideas as examples.

#1 Explanation

This has got to come in at number 1, since this question is often going to be asking you to explain your viewpoint. An explanation is just you telling me why.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Worse still, the more we practise our errors, the more they stick with us. 

As you can see, all I’m doing is explaining why it’s a waste of time. An explanation, by the way, is a good place for a colon. If you’ve read my post about colons, you’ll know why.

#2 Analogy

An analogy just means explaining something using “it’s like…”, kind of a bit like a simile. It points out the connections so that a reader can understand a difficult point and puts it in an image that is more clear for them. My analogy builds pretty nicely on the bit I just did, so I’ll continue:

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Worse still, the more we practise our errors, the more they stick with us. It’s like if you learn to cycle with your knees pointing out – you’ve practised it so often like that it just becomes natural to you. Even when people point out that you need to keep your knees in, it’s really hard to do it especially in the heat of the moment. It’s the same way with much of what we learn. The more we practise those errors, the more fixed they become.

So you can see me using a mix of analogy (the bit about the bike) and explanation – why homework is like that. I like to always finish an analogy by coming back to the central idea that connects the two, and explain why X is like Y. You might find that overkill, but I think it makes my writing a bit more neat in terms of organisation.

#3 Examples

Examples cover a broad range of ideas, some of which I’ll expand on by themselves. They help put things into practical terms, and work especially well for abstract ideas. Let’s take that first topic sentence again and expand it with an example:

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. If you keep making errors with commas, for example, and you just keep practising those errors, all that will happen is you’ll make those errors so many times that you think they’re right. There’s no way all your teachers will pick up on all the times you make mistakes with your commas, and so the more you make, the more you’ll think that’s how it’s supposed to be. 

Rather than being airy-fairy, examples are easy to imagine. They give weight to your explanation and make it into a real-life situation so that your reader can see the value in what you say. They help make the hypothetical or speculative into a somethingn that is easy to grasp. You can also use some discourse markers, like such as, for instance or for example to help make it clear that this is what you are doing.

#4 Anecdote

An anecdote is a specific form of example: one that is a personal story. It doesn’t have to be personal to you, but that’s one way you can do it.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. In Maths, for example, I did five hours of quadratic equations one week. By the time the teacher marked them, I’d really thought I had the process perfect. I did the factoring all wrong, but I practised it so many times that by the time I got my homework back with 0%, it wasn’t just demoralising for me, but it was also really hard to learn the right way of doing it because I’d practised it badly so many times. 

Anecdotes are the opposite of statistics in many ways: where statistics have lots of numbers involved (usually!) anecdotes are individual and personal. They’re useful though because once again, they put things in practical terms. They’re also useful because when you describe it and give that little bit of narrative, I can really see what you mean.

#5 Facts (and assertions)

A fact is something that can be proven with evidence – although you might not always have the evidence there. I ask myself whether or not your statement can be verified. If it can, then it’s a fact.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. It makes it very hard when you’ve done things wrong for a long time to then do it right. 

The last bit of this is a statement that sounds like a fact. Can it be verified? I’m guessing someone somewhere has done an experiment with mice to show that if they’ve always run through a maze one way, it makes it hard for them to then change the habit. It sounds like a fact, for sure. In the exam, you don’t have access to back-copies of scientific studies and lab results, so you will have to make things up. Facts make you sound authoritative and scientific. An assertion, by the way, is a statement that sounds like a fact but isn’t really, or there’s no real evidence for. It might be right or it might be wrong. Assertions are what you’ll mostly be making in the exam. That said, many writers make assertions in arguments or persuasive writing and write so authoritatively that you think it is a fact when it’s not. In the real world, I hate this. It’s a bit of false expertise. For instance, those who say ‘text speak and emoticons have a negative impact on spelling’… well, no study has been done on that, and it’s not shown in exams. Assertions make you sound like an expert. Many people give away their assertions by saying things like it’s a fact that or it’s true that and turn their opinions into facts. Say, for instance, I say “I believe that homework is unnecessary”, I can make it into a false fact or assertion by removing the “I believe that” bit. Homework is unnecessary. That sounds like a fact. But you and I both know that it is not. If I want to sound even more confident, I might add “It’s a fact that homework is unnecessary” which is my last-ditch desperate attempt to convince you that my opinion is a fact.

#6 Numbers and statistics

This is one I actually hate and I find it can be the one part of writing that comes across as really ridiculous. You’ll have lots of lovely argument or explanation, and then it’ll all be ruined by a number or statistic that is utterly unconvincing, even if it’s true. Too big, and it seems unrealistic. Too precise and it also seems unrealistic.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. 83% of students make the same error in every single homework they do. 

That sounds ridiculous because it is too precise. It’s also too big. But if I make it too small, it seems silly.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. 3% of students make the same errors time and time again. 

As if that’s a reason to get rid of homework!

Getting the balance right is hard. It has to sound sensible. Most statistics and numbers don’t, particularly for students at Grade 4 – 6. It can be the one ugly, niggling little detail that makes something sound inauthentic.

So, if you must use them, err on the side of caution and generalise.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. According to a recent survey, almost a third of students admitted that they make the same mistake in every piece of homework, but they don’t know how to change. 

One of my students in the week was writing a Paper 2 piece about teenagers, in which he’d made up a nice statistic about 20% of teenagers having been wrongly arrested. That sounded a lot, but it also sounded a bit made up. It might have been more believeable to say that for teenage arrests, almost 90% went without charges being pressed. We did a bit of research and found 74,588 young people (16-17) in 2008-9 were convicted, reprimanded or warned. There are about 1.5 million 16 year olds in the UK, so you could work out actual statistics, especially if you had numbers for people taken into custody – which is what I would do were I really writing an article about false or unproductive arrests for teenagers. However, as soon as I get specific with big numbers, like saying “There are 1504788 16 year olds in the UK”, it sounds immediately made up. Newspapers and magazines, alongside speech writers, round up statistics all the time to make them more palatable. Can you imagine even trying to say 1504788 in a speech? “There are one million five hundred and four thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight sixteen year olds in the UK.” After five hundred, I bet you were scratching your head. Too precise statistics sound ridiculous. Round up and sound real.

Just as an aside, I went through the ten most-read opinion articles in each major paper today, and only two had a statistic in them. Numbers, sometimes, like 202 people were killed in the Bali bombing in 2002, or 9 of the 11 countries with the best equal rights records are in the EU. They aren’t used as often as you think they are, I promise. If you’re going to use them, get them right, and avoid if not.

#7 Series of questions

These are not rhetorical questions, always, but just questions. You may well go on to answer them. Remember, I’m not such a fan of rephrasing the question to start off your answer (simply because I remember one year on an old, old paper where it seemed like everyone had done it – and it was really, really annoying after a while).

Have you ever got frustrated with homework? 

Urgh.

Especially URGH if you’re going to do this afterwards:

Have you ever got frustrated with homework? I have.

But done properly, a row of questions can make a nice point.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. What’s the point in making error after error? Especially if it rarely gets corrected? 

Two felt like a good number here. But three or four wouldn’t be unreasonable. I just didn’t have any more questions that seemed to fit. These questions are really good at making it obvious that there is no point at all in making error after error, or never being corrected.

#8 Imagine ifs…

An “Imagine if” is a good way to speculate about a future or a situation which isn’t currently the case. It’s a ‘best case scenario’ or ‘blue sky thinking’ where you put forward all the possible good things that could be the case IF your suggestions were put into place. It’s the ideal, the possible, the dream scenario.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Surely there’s a better way to learn? A way in which students get fairly immediate feedback that they can act on quickly. This may seem like a wild dream, but it happens already. In-class oral feedback, whether it’s from your peers or from a teacher, is a much better way to avoid endless repetition of error that just makes them more and more hardened. Guided writing, peer writing and small group work is a way to take pressure off teachers and enable students to become better appraisers of not only their own work, but also that of others. Isn’t that the ideal we’re all working for?

By putting forward hypothetical best-case scenarios, you’re presenting all the positive reasons to do something. It’s non-confrontational, it’s celebratory and it’s inoffensive. Who could criticise you for wanting to change things for the better? If you’re writing to a school to ban homework – part of the very institution of schools – you’ll win more votes with blue skies than with tellings off, I promise. It works very well when you pile it up with number 9…

#9 Worst-case scenarios

If you’re using blue skies and possibilities to imagine a better future, it’s nice to contrast that with the flaws of the current system. It’s particularly nice if you imagine those flaws from the perspective of your reader – ones you know they’re going to admit to.

What isn’t nice is if you turn it into a big list of selfish moans.

Homework is the bane of our lives. It makes us miserable. We hate it. You only do it to torture us, or because you think OfSTED think you should, or the parents complain if you don’t give us something to do. It’s cheating us of our lives and turning us into mindless drones. I don’t even get a social life because of it. I hate homework!

Imagine what your audience would criticise it for and then describe it from their point of view.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Surely there are better ways to spend your evenings than poring over exercise books – homework half-completed, tatty, lacking in application or effort. Is there anything worse than the sinking sense of déjà vu that you’ve marked their/there wrong in every single piece of Billy’s homework since the day he started in Year 7, and he still hasn’t got it? You tell him and you tell him, but nothing changes. It’s a waste of your time and a waste of your effort. But why is it that Billy still isn’t getting it? Is it because he just hadn’t understood at all? And if writing a big long explanation underneath each time isn’t helping, what will? Studies show that the best feedback is immediate: five minutes working with Billy until he has that lightbulb moment might be all it takes. That’s surely got to be one of the best reasons to put an end to the monotony of marking? 

In that final bit, you can see how I’m blending series of questions, made-up anecdotes, facts (made-up ones), examples, worst-case scenarios, best-case scenarios, explanation… Those nine things help me really build up my paragraph into something beyond those simple topic sentence paragraphs. Is that a developed, complex idea? I like to think so. Is it convincing? I’ll leave that to you to decide. It’s convincing to me, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Two more paragraphs like that, along with the appropriate tailoring for whatever text-type you’re writing, a genre-specific opening and ending, and you have yourself a well-rounded GCSE English Language non-fiction response.

In the next post I’ll be looking at ways you can organise and link your ideas more securely to improve your marks.

GCSE English Language Writing Types: Speech

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at the different genres of writing that you could get on AQA English Language Paper 2. We’ve covered articles and letters so far in the process, and today I’m looking at speeches.

So, another genre that’s a little contrived and a little out of most people’s comfort zone. Other than Best Man speeches at a wedding, few people actually get up and speak in front of other people once they’re out in the real world. Some of us may go on to do a lot of public speaking. Some of us may be in debating teams. Others may just fancy leading others into revolution and revolt. But there is a reason that public speaking is our greatest fear… and why so many people shy away from it.

In school, it’s a little different. Teachers like giving you a speech to prepare. Assemblies are one place you might get called on to speak, and you may well get a spoken project in class for one subject or another.

I don’t know about you – and no offence to anyone reading this – but many of the speeches I asked for at the beginning of my teaching career were duller than you could possibly imagine.

“Now, Year 7,” the younger version of me would say, “I’d like you to do a speech about one of your hobbies…”

Cue 15 talks about fishing, 5 about ponies, 3 about rabbits, 2 about rugby league rules and 1 about playing video games.

All of those talks were at least 30 minutes long and we spent the best part of April and May as a captive audience with me shushing anyone who dared whisper at the back.

And then there was invariably the Year 11 post-work experience talks. Cue 3 weeks of students talking about how many cups of tea they made and how they never, ever want to work in an office.

I got savvy after this. I copied good stuff on television and we did Room 101 speeches about things that bugged us. Year 8 did a magic trick and ran through the formal patter of magicians. I ran a thing called “It’s So Unfair!” based on the fiction of Jon Scieszka and we played the much-maligned characters from fairy stories. My favourite ever was one of my Year 11s doing a retelling of The Grinch, written in perfect Dr Seuss rhyme. I got to dress up as an Ugly Sister and I didn’t have to listen to people talking about working in their mum’s estate agency.

Hoorah.

What I wanted were the kind of socially-conscious kids who were passionate about social issues as I had been. But then I was a weird child and I’m pretty sure nobody feels as strongly as I felt about ethics at 14. I’d have loved to have ushered the Next Great Speaker into the world by way of listening to Churchill, Shakespeare’s Henry V, Martin Luther King and such like, but it never happened.

But exam boards still seem to cling on to the last, desperate hope that some of today’s yoof are more interested in local community centres than they are in the lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and so needs must.

You’re just going to have to prepare for being Teenage Me, and giving a rip-roaring speech to a captive audience an audience of your peers about something that will bore the pants off them a recent hot topic.

Let’s talk, then, about the conventions and customs of public speaking, about the register and devices that most of them use, so that you can attempt to be more speechy in your writing tasks. Otherwise, without that speechiness, what you’re writing is just an essay, or the main body of an article, without the article-y bits.

Like articles and like letters, much of speechiness rests in your opening and ending. What you do there can show whether or not you have enough of a grasp about speeches to be ‘convincing’.

So what do AQA say you might do when writing your speech? Let’s start there.

As a minimum, you could include:

 a simple address to an audience
 sections
 a final address to an audience.

So, I’m not really seeing anything very speechy. You might find those features in articles or letters.

For more developed responses, you could include:

 a clear address to an audience
 effective/fluently linked sections to
indicate sequence
 rhetorical indicators that an audience is
being addressed throughout
 a clear sign off e.g. ‘Thank you for
listening’.

So some of it is about linking, just you’ll find in letters, leaflets and articles. Some is about stuff that you can do that shows awareness of a live audience. And the rest is those openings and endings.

Generally speaking, when we stand up to do a speech, someone else has introduced us. It’s customary to thank them for having you, for hosting you, for giving you a bit of a soapbox on which to stand. Like letters, polite – but not to the point of obnoxiousness. You’ve got to get the tone and content right. No shouty ranting, no matter how on board your audience is with your talk.

Forget those “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, or those “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” kind of openings that grab your reader right from the start. In real life, most speeches start with some fairly standard conventions.

One of those is the thank you to your audience and your hosts. You can thank them for taking the time to listen to you, for inviting you, for indulging you, for giving you time to speak. You can also nod your head to the occasion and event, if it’s mentioned in the task. You can explain why your host invited you to speak.

It’s also a really good idea to introduce yourself a little bit.

When you’ve done that, then you can build up to the persuasive bits or get your rhetorical devices in.

Let’s have a look at the November 2017 task:

‘Education is not just about which school you go to, or what qualifications you
gain; it is also about what you learn from your experiences outside of school.’

Write a speech for your school or college Leavers’ Day to explain what you think
makes a good education.

Great. Captive audience of wild-eyed Year 11s who just want to get out and indulge in whatever the Leavers’ Day traditions are, be they something innocuous like writing on everyone’s shirts, or something deeply childish like egging each other or throwing flour bombs. Half the schools I worked at had the police on call on Leavers’ Day… and you’ve got to give a speech to these foaming-mouthed teenagers who just want to let off a bit of steam before exams start??!

I’m guessing that it was anticipated you’d all have warm, emotional and inspirational assemblies with teary-eyed year 11s all wise, nostalgic and sentimental, happy to sit through ten minutes of you waffling about a good education.

So let’s imagine that scenario, shall we, rather than an irate headteacher who’s spent ten minutes reminding you all that if you egg anyone, your Prom privileges are forfeited and you won’t be welcome back in school except for your exams.

Before we start, I’d like to share with you one of my favourite assembly speeches, from Ja’mie, star of Summer Heights High.

A great example of some of the conventions of speeches, as well as some cringeworthy examples of how not to alienate your captive audience. Some dos and don’ts based on Ja’mie’s example:

  • Do thank the people who asked you to speak
  • You don’t need to thank absolutely everyone involved
  • Do introduce yourself
  • Don’t alienate your audience
  • Do try to make yourself sound friendly and sincere
  • Do speak directly to your audience and include things in your speech that make it clear that you’re trying to engage them
  • Be polite
  • Do use facts and statistics if they fit in
  • Don’t wander off topic in an attempt to engage your audience
  • Finish with a call to action and a polite imperative
  • Don’t use ones that are rude about your listeners and definitely don’t talk to them as if they are stupid!

So how would I open and end my speech explaining my ideas about a good education in that fictional Leavers’ Assembly?

First, I’d thank the head teacher, who I guess would have introduced me. And then I’d thank the audience for listening. I’d introduce myself, even though they may already know who I am. I’m not going to try to be funny or smart, because I try that sometimes and I’m so bad at it. I have a student currently who is really, really good at it. If you can pull off a comical, satirical or humorous approach and it would be fitting for the occasion, audience and purpose, go for it.

Here’s my sample opening:

Thank you, Mr Burns, for your kind introduction and having chosen me to speak today. I’m sure you can all well imagine the terror of having to stand up and speak. It’s the ultimate revenge, I’m sure, for all those times we misbehaved in class or made it difficult for our teachers to actually do their job. It is, of course, an honour, not a punishment, to be speaking to you all today on this most auspicious occasion: what may be, for some of us, our final day in school. Certainly, our final day together as a group before we begin our exams.

Although I am unsure why I’ve been chosen today to represent the student voice, I know part of it must be how passionate I am about what goes into a good education. It is not just about bums on seats and how many Powerpoints Mr Ambrose can take us through in Biology. Nor is it about results or who gets the best grades. What makes a good education is so much more than that.

And in my ending, I’m going to try once again to refer to occasion, to the audience.

As I come to the end, I hope you share my vision of what makes a good education, but that you also share my gratitude to the school for the role they have played in giving us the very best. I know I also speak for us all when I thank the school for playing their part in making our school days truly the best days of our life, and I know you will join with me now in thanking our headteacher, Mr Burns, and his wonderful and dedicated body of staff who have given us so very much. Whilst education may be many things, it is in no small part down to those people who provide it for us.

I hope I speak on behalf of our year group when I ask that you  accept our most sincere thanks. We will go out into the exams and the world beyond hoping to do you proud.

Not Julius Caesar or Henry V, not Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, but speechy for sure. Appropriate, I hope, for the occasion and the audience, too.

Next up: leaflets

GCSE English Language Writing Types: Letters

Many, many years ago, a young teacher sat at the back of a room surrounded by fellow markers for our annual markers’ briefing. The chief examiner at the time was an almost mythical figure: passionate about the fact we must award the ‘right’ marks and be dedicated to giving the students the marks they deserved, and unsympathetic towards examiners who didn’t do their duty. He was as humorous as he was terrifying, but you dared not be the one to ask the wrong question.

The task that year was a letter. I don’t know what it was about, but I remember that it was a letter. One examiner stood up to ask how we should penalise candidates who had not written an address or matched up their ‘Dear …’ salutation with the appropriate and corresponding ‘faithfully’ or ‘sincerely’.

What happened next changed the way I thought and taught forever.

“Well, you mark it as you would mark any other response…” came the reply.

“Yes, but it’s not a letter…”

“It IS a letter. It just isn’t addressed. Don’t concern yourself with whether it looks like a letter. Ask yourself if it sounds like a letter.”

As it turned out, there were few of us who could put our finger exactly on the qualities of a piece of writing that made it sound like a letter. We kind of knew, but none of us could say categorically: “it does this, this, this and this.”

What followed was a 20-minute blasting about ‘letterness’ – the style, conventions, register and tone – and I’ve forever followed the guidance that, if you took the address off, the ‘Dear blah blah’ and the ending, and it doesn’t do anything else that is remotely ‘letter-y’, then it’s not very letter-y at all. An address, a Dear Sir and a yours faithfully do not a letter make.

So what is this ‘letterness’ business and why are we so bad at it?

As a 24-year-old examiner, I’d written precisely three formal letters. Two got me an interview and one got me a job. I’d never written a letter to my mayor. I’d never written to my headteacher. I’d never once written to the local council. I was quite remiss in my correspondence, it must be said.

I’d written lots of letters, in the days before email and Whatsapp, just not the kind that you’d ever write in an exam. I had a friend called Paul in Salisbury and we wrote bitchy letters about townies and Cabrini jackets. I also wrote to my friend Pam when I should have been doing GCSE History. I had a boyfriend who lived in Bury St Edmunds who wrote me letters, and then one who lived in Crewe who did the same. When I moved to Sheffield to start university, my friends wrote to me religiously. We wrote about various lads we liked and various things we’d done at the weekend. They were in equal measures funny and cringeworthy.

What they weren’t were the kind of letter-writing practice that would be in any way useful for GCSE letters.

And despite my extensive repertoire with informal letters to friends, I still hadn’t written a letter to a headteacher, a mayor or a local town council. Nor had I written one to a newspaper. I had never been Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells.

By the time I got to the examiners’ meeting in 1996, I lived in a land without formal letters or formal letter experience. Practically, anyway.

In 2018, I still don’t write letters. I write some emails, and I get a lot of emails. Many of them sound a bit like letters. None of them look like letters, though, which would horrify that examiner back in 1998, who wanted to give E grades to anyone who left off an address.

And you, dear reader, do you write many letters?

Maybe I’m underestimating you, but I would hazard a guess that for most of us, we neither receive many letters nor write them. Worse in the Age of Technology than in the Age of Ink. My 15-year-old self knew it would be funny to write a letter addressed to “Miss Pam Fairhurst, esq.” and asking if she could do me “the courtesy, nay, the honour” of joining me on the monkey bridge by the pie shop at breaktime. I ‘got’ formal letter style, though nobody had ever bothered to teach me. And she knew how funny it would be to reply, “Dear Bunts (informal, perhaps a touch blasé)”. We played around with those salutations ranging from the formal to the casual “Oreet?” (which passed for a greeting back in 1980s Lancashire) in ways that showed we really understood formality of letters, even if we’d never written one.

You may well be the same.

That said, times have changed. Letters were the only mode of written transactional communication back in the day. Thirty years on, are we busily hammering out notes to our friends at the back of History lessons? Why no, dear students, you are not, because you are not as naughty as Pam and I were, and you value your results. My result spoke for itself in that subject (decidedly average) and I shall not embarrass you by assuming you’d be so silly as to write notes in class. Besides, we had a fair few intercepted and read out as punishment, which clearly was ineffective as it didn’t stop us at all, just made us more crafty.

Those thirty years in between my teenage years and yours have changed the way we write forever.

That makes it pretty hard, then, for the average person to know what ‘letterness’ entails anymore. Plus, our correspondence is much more immediate and open-ended. Gone are the “Hi Mum” letters, because my mum and I have been in an open-ended conversation since, well, about 2008. We very rarely have to open conversations anymore, and we are even rarer in having to finish them off. Our transactional writing is open-ended and much more in keeping with spoken conversations. In 1991, I would happily write ten-sided letters simply because a) I had too much time in the world before selfies and Facebook, and b) you might as well, since it cost you the same to send that as it did to send three sentences on one side of writing paper. When was the last time you wrote a ten-sided missive to your best friend?!

It’s no wonder then that ‘letterness’ has become even more of an old-fashioned notion.

Luckily, I have two guiding lights. One is that twenty-minute explanation of what letterness entailed from our former chief examiner. The other is a delightful book called ‘The Timewaster Letters’ by Robin Cooper. In this book, Cooper writes to many agencies, shops, associations, clubs and individuals with a variety of unusual propositions or suggestions. Not only does he have a wonderful handle on ‘letterness’, but he also included the responses, which showed that everyone else seemed to as well.

It seemed from this glorious documentation of many, many series of correspondence, that there is a loose understanding in society of the style, register and formality of letters. A bit of light-fingered pilfering allowed me to pick out the main stylistic features of letters (and emails) to share with you to help you understand letterness too.

With that in mind, I’m going to use some of the openings and endings from The Timewaster Letters as well as a couple of emails from people in my correspondence list to elucidate for you what ‘letterness’ is really made up of, so if you are struggling to make something SOUND LIKE a letter, you’ll have a bit of a clue.

My advice is this: chop off the address and the date, the ‘Dear Blah Blah’ (and definitely the ‘I am writing to you…’) as well as the ‘yours faithfully’ at the end, and ask yourself what else am I doing that makes this sound like a letter? If there really is nothing in there that’s very lettery, this article is definitely for you.

If the answer is ‘very little’, you can brush up on that today.

Just to make it clear about WHY you might want to bother doing that, I’m going to talk you through the levels on the markscheme.

Remember that the levels are what we use to mark. They aren’t grades. When I say level 4, I don’t mean Grade 4.

The markscheme is split up into 4 levels. You already see the problem that there are 9 grades.

When I write about level 1, I am writing about what will roughly be Grades 1-3. Level 2 is roughly Grades 3 – 5, Level 3 is roughly Grades 5 – 7, and Level 4 is roughly Grades 7 – 9. The exact boundaries depend on so much maths that it makes my head hurt, and anyway, they change year on year, so it would be redundant. To make it more fun, each level is divided into sub-levels. So I’ve taken the description for each one for our lovely table.

I’m focusing on the part of the markscheme that is about audience, purpose, register and response to task. I’ve shortened it a little and put in the marks available, but as you can see, at the bottom, a candidate will have occasional sense of audience and purpose (does one or two things that shows they know someone is reading it and that they’re not writing a story) whereas at the top, it’s not only a ‘convincing’ letter that sounds appropriately letter-y throughout, but it’s also so compelling to read that I actually want to read it.

What follows, then, is a bit of an exploration of letterness, then a list of some lettery things you can do. It’s not a checklist or ticklist. It will also be moderated by the audience and it will be affected by the required level of formality, so you can use these features as and where they fit. Don’t use them all. That would be horrible.

Let’s start with identifying some lettery things.

I’ve taken these two from Robin Cooper’s The Timewaster Letters.

The first is his letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dear Archbishop,

I hope you are very well.

I am writing to you for your learned advice.

I am thinking of starting up my own religion. Unfortunately, I’m a bit stuck on a number of issues, such as what we should believe in, how we pray, what to call ourselves etc.

As a religious man could you perhaps give me a few tips as to the best way to set up an entirely new world religion.

I look forward to your response.

Best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Robin Cooper.

So, this is what I mean about appropriate. There are bits that just aren’t. For instance, “I hope you are well” is kind of inappropriate. It sounds as if Robin Cooper personally knows the Archbishop. I also, personally, hate “I am writing”. Of course you are writing. That much is evident. I would like to ban this phrase completely from all letters.

Of course, the content is also wrong.  You shouldn’t ask the leader of a world religion for advice on how to set up a new world religion. It’s just not done.

But there’s some nice bits you can use. I do like the fact that the letter tries to establish a sense of a relationship. “I hope you are well” invites response. We should never forget that letters are a transaction. They are like a very long written communication. So therefore they need the same politeness features we would expect at the beginning of a conversation. You can’t just come in with a: “Can you tell me how to start a religion please?”

All the same, you can’t use conversational things easily because they’re not formal enough.

What I like to do is have a bit of a warm-up by explaining why I’m writing to them at that moment focusing on our shared interest (the subject of the letter)

The very fact that I am writing to them shows they can do something for me, or I want to do something for them. That something is our common link.

Let’s have a look at a sample question:

“Subjects in school today are based on things that are no longer useful for us. Education should be relevant to the lives young people will lead.” 

Write a letter to your headteacher in which you explain your views on this subject. 

So, I’m guessing I’ll share a common interest about education with the headteacher.

Letters, too, have a special kind of tone, even if you were writing to complain (which isn’t something you’ll be asked about) or if you are trying to persuade the recipient of a different view. Politeness is crucial and even if you strongly disagree with the views the recipient might have, you don’t ever want to threaten or be rude. Letters are the last bastion of polite manners.

If you think I’m joking, you should see how French letters end. Even my electricity bill comes with distinguished and cordial salutations. I forgot to pay once and I got a menacing letter that even finished with a very polite, “please accept our distinguished salutations”.

Seriously, you are going to be verging on obsequious and obnoxious good manners.

Let’s look at how the Archbishop of Canterbury could have replied to Robin Cooper.

Dear Mr Cooper,

Are you &”%*ing kidding me? Have you got some kind of undiagnosed mental illness? What on God’s good earth makes you think you can start a religion? We’ve had two thousand years’ practice, and that’s nothing on our Jewish friends. Work out your own religion, you thieving swine! Either that, or you are seriously taking the mick. Get a grip, you timewaster.

Best wishes, 

Despite the feelings of whoever opened that letter – be they amusement, anger or scorn – the reply went like this:

Dear Mr Cooper,

I have been asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to thank you for your recent letter, the contents of which have been noted.

I am sure that you will not be surprised that Dr Carey is unable to advise you on how to found your own religion. If in approaching him you are seeking the help of the Church of England to meet your own spiritual needs, the Archbishop would advise you to approach your own local clergy, or other Christians in whom you have confidence.

Yours sincerely,

See… polite even if sensing mockery, scorn, rudeness or a complete lack of understanding.

So, in my letter to the headteacher, am I going to start:

Dear Mr Brown,

I am writing to you to tell you how pointless and outdated education is?

or:

Dear Mr Brown,

Have you ever thought about what a colossal waste of time school is for us today? We can find everything you teach us on Wikipedia. Education is pointless. 

Nope. Not in the slightest.

So I’m going to:

  1. state who I am and my reasons for writing
  2. express our common ground
  3. be polite
  4. explain what prompted me to write now

So it might look like this:

Dear Mr Brown, 

As a student in Year 11, I listened with interest to your assembly about planned changes to the school building to make sure it is ready to cope with students’ needs in the future. I share your enthusiasm for high-tech laboratories and art spaces that will help St Bernard’s students prepare for life in the real world. At the same time, I had some thoughts about how the subjects we are offered in school may perhaps be developed alongside these structural and physical changes, ensuring students have the most competitive edge when entering the workplace. 

So you can see I say who I am first off. It saves the reader having to read to the end of the letter to find out who they are and why on earth they’re writing.

I do a little thing to explain why I’m writing now – it is in response to an assembly. I made that bit up. But it is there to show why now.

I do a little making of common ground, with the ‘sharing enthusiasm’ bit.

And when I write my purpose, I’m so mild and gentle that nobody could mix that up with hostility and confrontation. I have a discourse marker that is non-confrontational. It’s not an ‘on the other hand’, but an ‘at the same time’, as if what I want to say is an extension, not an opposition.

Ones to avoid are ones that mean ‘but’: on the other hand, in contrast, despite this, nevertheless, for all that, in spite of and so on.

Why I avoid them is they are confrontational. They are ones for the middle-end bit where you have got your reader listening.

I don’t want to say, “Dear headteacher, your ideas are rubbish.”, not even if I dress it up prettily and politely.

I’m trying to make out that my challenges are in fact only small modifications, a slight detour or addition. Not that I think he’s wasting his time and money completely on technology that will be obselete in five years. Soften the blows.

I’ve got conditional modal verbs: may, might, could, would be.

Keep your forceful obligations to yourself with your musts, have tos and shoulds. They have a place in persuasion, but not in explaining my views unless I want to aggravate this poor headteacher.

Add some softeners: perhaps and possibly add another level of speculation and politeness.

Extend your contractions. “I am” is more formal than “I’m”. It’s not a time to show off your apostrophes for omission.

And say please, but don’t beg.

Some examples:

  1. I would be very happy to explore these ideas with you further.
  2. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like to discuss these ideas further.
  3. After long consideration, I feel that…
  4. I hope that…
  5. I would suggest that…
  6. Could I suggest that… ?
  7. Do let me know if…
  8. I enclose further details that may be of interest…
  9. Some ideas that may possibly be of interest…
  10. Perhaps the following ideas may be of use…

See? Helpful, friendly and subtle.

How we finish letters is also interesting. I like to always leave them open to response, and we often say things like, “I look forward to your response.”

I do like that. I like “I very much look forward to your response.”

“I await your response” – now that’s cold and unfeeling!

For the very final line, we’ve moved on from “Yours faithfully”, and sometimes “Kindest wishes” or “Warmest regards” can set a more friendly tone, especially if you want something from them.

True story: once, my editor changed, and my new editor finished his first email to me with “Best”.

“Best what?” I thought. How rude! Are you really so busy that you can’t even be bothered to write “wishes”? Needless to say, I was prickly in response.

Let’s have a look at an email enquiry I had about lessons (because emails follow many of the same conventions as letters)

Dear Emma,

I have followed your blogs with interest for some time now and they have been very helpful for my son, who will be entering Year 10 in September. They seem to have hit the right note with him, which is an achievement in itself. I know you may not have any tuition time available at present, but would it be possible to book a series of lessons from September? He is currently working at Grade 5. 

Best wishes, 

We’ve moved beyond the 80s, and it’s fine to address people by first names (sometimes) unless they are more powerful than you. No first names for anyone who is in a position of power, eg headteachers, mayors, leaders of councils. It’s just rude. Hello and Hi are fine if you are writing to a friend. Dear Sir can be sexist and Dear Sir or Madam suggests you haven’t got the foggiest who I am. If you’re writing to a friend, use their first name by all means.

You never lose anything with a sentence of pleasantries at the beginning of a letter. Honestly. It stops you sounding too formal. You may want to add a little bit that shows you’ve been following them (in a non-stalker, non-weird way) and this is especially true if you’re writing to someone you already know.

Take this email to a colleague. I wanted some Paper 2s from her.

Can I write:

Dear Janet,
Please send me all your Paper 2s. 

Best, 
Emma

No I can’t. It’d be rude. Well, I could, but Janet would reply “Dear Emma… Bog Off. Love, Janet.”

To use “Dear” with someone I know is a bit rude these days as well. It’s okay. Bit formal.

“Hello Janet” sounds odd.

“Hiya Janet” sounds like I’m from Coronation Street.

“Janet” sounds like I’m angry at her.

“Hi Janet” is where I’m going. It’s friendly, if a little informal.

Now she knows I want something from her; I don’t just write random emails. Sometimes it’s just to know if she’s okay, what she’s up to, or to catch up on the gossip. But it’s just nice manners to say:

Hi Janet,

Did you have a good Easter? How are the children?

But if I write that to someone I don’t know… well, it sounds weird. Is it appropriate for the headteacher, the mayor or the local council? Not on your nelly.

Dear Mrs Burton,

Did you have a good Easter? Hope the children are well!

Creepy and stalkerish.

So what kind of things work for those ‘why now?’ moments?

Things like:

  • I recently read your review of … and I wish to…
  • I recently attended your speech about… and I would like to…
  • Having listened to your recent talk about… I would like to…
  • In light of recent interest in… I wondered if I could…
  • As a [person or role], I was very interested to hear your thoughts about [topic] recently
  • Your recent post about [topic] mentioned…
  • Having recently [something you did], I thought it might be…
  • In response to…

And here’s how they look in practice with that example task:

  • I listened with interest to your talk in assembly about how our school will be changing in the future. Knowing how you always try to take on board the views of students, I hope you will permit me to share my thoughts on this important subject
  • As a Year 11 student, how our schools will change in the future may not seem like the most vital of subjects. I found, however, your recent assembly to be very interesting and thought I would share my views on the topic.
  • Having recently participated in the student council about education in the future, I hoped that you may find some of our key ideas to be of interest.
  • Your recent school newsletter mentioned that you were seeking comments and ideas about how our school may develop in the future. As a Year 11 student, I have a great interest in being part of those developments, as a legacy for our younger students.

Nope, they’re not brilliant. They’re not persuasive. They’re not Martin Luther King having a dream or Nelson Mandela having a long walk to freedom. But they sound like letters. And that’s the important bit.

A bit of politeness and letterness at the beginning, followed by all your ideas, then a bit of letterness again at the end, and you’re on to a winning formula.

What things work to finish a formal letter off?

In the internet and print world, we call it a ‘call to action’… what you want them to do. Do you want them to get in touch to discuss further? Do you want them to consider and reflect upon your ideas? Do you want their support? Do you want their practical help? Do you want an interview? Do you want them to call you?

What do you want them to do, urgently, the moment they finish your letter? Hopefully not say, “well, that’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back!”

These are not always a direct call to action. They’re not a ‘buy my book now’ kind of thing. They’re using conditional verbs and no contracted forms.

  1. Thank you for considering my ideas. I would be delighted to discuss these further if you find them of interest.
  2. Many thanks for having taken the time to read my proposals. I very much look forward to your response.
  3. Do let me know any of my thoughts are of interest. I look forward to your reply.
  4. Thank you, in anticipation, for your support on this matter. As you can tell, it is a subject which I feel strongly about.
  5. I would be grateful if you could…

So, if you’re a teacher, pick up a copy of Robin Cooper’s The Timewaster Letters and explore their wonderful examples of appropriate and inappropriate style with your students. And if you’re a student, brush up on those openings and endings to letters that go beyond addresses, Dear Sir or Madam, and whether or not you should put yours faithfully or yours sincerely. 

Letters are so much more than just a nod towards stuff that might help you post them and get them opened by the right person. Sure, they’re a blast from the past, but such is life. Remember, this is ONE style of letter writing –  a formal style. None of these things would be appropriate if you have a different audience who require an informal style. What goes in the middle may well ressemble an essay or an argument, but what goes around the edges tells your examiner that you know the conventions and appropriate style for a letter. You don’t need hundreds of these stylistic elements, but a handful would certainly show you understand that elusive ‘letterness’.

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