20 essentials for AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 2

If you’re looking for some quick revision tips and reminders for AQA English Language Paper 1 Question 2 (the 8-mark language question), I’ve put a short video together to help you. 20 tips to help improve your answer.

You can also find more on Paper 1 Question 2 here:

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

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GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: Sentence Forms Part II

In the last post, I spent a while exploring all the different types and forms of sentence that you have available to you when you write.

To recap,

  • simple sentences
  • compound sentences
  • complex sentences
  • sentence fragments
  • compound-complex (and maybe complex-compound – who knows in these turbulent and anarchic times?)
  • declarative sentences
  • interrogative sentences (a.k.a. questions)
  • exclamatory sentences
  • imperative sentences
  • and negative versions of all of the above.

And if you are unsure what they all look like, you might want to take a trip back to the previous post, where I’ve provided examples and explained what they are. To be frank, it’s a rather constrained caper – less a fragrant romp than a smash-and-grab. But I appreciate not everyone has the stomach for a more exhaustive exploration of the peculiarities of English sentence construction… and so we move on today into exploration of how writers can use them.

I’m going to be looking mainly at a passage of narrative from best-selling author Lee Child and a piece of purplesque description from Angela Carter to explore sentence forms for effect in narrative and descriptive writing. Next time I’ll look at a bit of opinion from David Mitchell so you can see how sentences for effect work on Paper 2. Between them, you’ll see how writers are using a range of sentence forms for effect…

You know me well enough by now to know that I start with identification, and you can find that in the videos below.

Then some discussion.

And then a little application.

First is an identification of what type of sentences Lee Child uses in an extract from one of his action novels. You can explore the passage with me here:

To summarise, if you can’t be bothered to watch, he uses lots and lots of fragments, a lot of short sentences and the occasional ‘slow-motion’ complex or compound sentence where he breaks all the rules to really slow the action down and break it into pieces whilst at the same time giving it a sense of continuity.

One of my favourite fragments has to be this one:

You can tell I love it because I do a silly voice.

Technically, you don’t really want a full stop. Alone in the dark describes how he waited – it’s a complement of the verb. Alone is actually a way to describe ‘he’, so you have an adjective and then an adverbial that completes it, where he was, ‘in the dark.’

But if I’d seen it written, “Then he waited alone in the dark.” or “Then he waited in the dark”, or with a comma after waited, then he would have a complete sentence.

So why that full stop? Why that fragment?

It just builds up the drama. It makes you focus on that word Alone because it’s now after a pause. It just has the effect of highlighting that fragment, drawing attention to the content and reminding us that Reacher is a one-man army. The pauses before the paragraph and after the paragraph – all that empty space – adds emphasis to those two sentences. And then the full stop adds a break so that you’re really having to emphasise Alone.

The sentence that follows is also pretty cool. Seven actions – three complete and four participles…

Perez stepped into the night, turned to close the door behind him and Reacher swung, arms extended, hips twisting, driving forward off the back foot

You might ordinarily think that a long sentence slows things down and detracts from the tension. Whilst this slows things down and we get the minutiae of movement, that one sentence has seven actions in it. The fact that they are not separated by full stops makes them continuous. All that detail has the effect of going into slow motion so that we get a sense of a lot happening in a short moment. At the same time, by giving us all the details and all the movement, we are delayed from knowing whether or not he was successful.

The short sentence fragments that follow tell us that he wasn’t.

No Good. Late. 

He’s really playing around with the momentum, speeding us up one moment, slowing us down with a baseball metaphor. We have pairs of simple sentences started off by coordinating conjunctions:

But Perez’s head was not a baseball. And the G36 was not a bat. 

Before he takes us into the graphic compound sentence:

The sight block caught Perez in the temple and punched a shard of bone sideways through his left eye socket and on through the bridge of his nose and halfway through his right eye socket.

So why a compound sentence here, and why all those ands?

Firstly, compound sentences are long – and without punctuation, to use a cheesy cliché, they flow. There is a sense of unbroken movement. And that’s what this is describing. An unbroken movement. Although the actions ‘caught’ and ‘punched’ are chronological, by using a compound sentence, there is a sense that the ideas are equal too. It’s slow. It allows us to go slow-motion again and imagine the path that the shard of bone took. Were we of an unnecessarily violent disposition, we may savour that moment and appreciate those graphic details. It also has the added effect of not letting us know whether that stopped Perez or not. We’re still waiting to know what happened next.

In fact, Lee Child dedicates a full NINE sentences to that ONE blow. That’s a lot of detail for one action. We have a metaphor about baseball. We have a simile rooted in speculation about a soft-boiled egg.

That one hit with an assault rifle is evaluated in more detail than you’d probably expect, before we reach the conclusion:

Messy but effective. Perez was dead long before …

and I don’t even care what happens after we’re told the conclusion.

So why get that nine-ways-from-Sunday description and those compound sentences, that detail, the brutal figurative language?

Because otherwise it would read like this:

Reacher moved to the building. He could hear Perez inside on the telephone. Reacher waited. When Perez came out, Reacher hit him with the assault rifle. Perez died instantly. 

Not very exciting, suspenseful or interesting, is it?

But it’s the interplay between all those fragments that makes it interesting. It’s the use of that long compound sentence with that list of actions, the compound sentence that describes the impact of the blow, the parallel simple sentences… and barely a complex sentence at all.

That works beautifully for the action bit of your narrative.

I’m a big fan of using interplay between simple sentences, fragments and compound sentences in action writing. The compound sentence in particular is a nice way to make a lot seem like it happens in unbroken continuity. Fragments and simple sentences speed us up through the rollercoaster of action and increase tension.

They are definitely things you can use yourself.

As for the Angela Carter example… it is the opposite end of the spectrum. Fancy-schmanzy vocabulary, airy-fairy semi-colons. Poetic diction in purple prose. It’s too rich and elaborate for everyday use, but she’s playing with those sentences too.

So… what do we have here?

I’m not even going to get into categorising these sentences!

The first bit is fine. I can manage that. Up to the semi-colon, we have a simple sentence, and the semi-colon makes it into a compound sentence. The ‘but’ suggests an extension of that compound sentence. So three simple sentences spliced together with the embedded ‘not quite yet’ stuck in there.

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look.
There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. 

Oh, okay. Already I have a problem. We have a main verb ‘is’. And then some other bits with verbs, one of which is clearly an infinitive and doesn’t count. And one, ‘smile’, which is another infinitive? Waaaaah. If they are both infinitives it could still be a simple sentence.

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look.
There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile.
It is not yet the saddest time of the year.
Plus the embedded bit *not quite yet*

That suggests then that there are three simple sentences spliced into one compound sentence. One of the splicey things is a semi-colon. One is a FANBOYS.

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile, but it is not yet the saddest time of the year.

And then when I put that embedded bit back in, I’ve got my full sentence.

Let’s say compound it is then. Happy to take your sentence parsing in the comments and amend, by the way, if you are a better linguist than I am. Or if you are braver than I.

The next sentence is ALSO a compound sentence with a tacked-on ‘only’ and another embedded addition.

There is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being.
The year turns in on itself. 

Phew. A little easier. You can see the simple sentences here.

And then a verbless fragment to finish it off.

Introspective weather. A sickroom hush. 

The main thing is that she’s using these compound sentences in the same way as Lee Child is. Yes, really. They stretch out that moment and extend the idea. They slow things down and add detail. She’s using the embedded bits and stick-on words to slow it further. The final fragment changes the pace a little.

Think of it if she’d written it like this:

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look. There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. It is not yet the saddest time of the year. There is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being. The year turns in on itself. It is introspective weather. There is a sickroom hush. 

That fancy vocabulary allows it to seem more lovely than it is. Let me make it more simple:

The trees look thin. There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. It is not yet the saddest time of the year. There is a sense that everything is ending. The year turns in on itself. It is thoughtful weather. It is as quiet as a sickroom. 

NOW we can really see what’s going on. See how average it sounds without some of that flash ‘imminent cessation of being’ (don’t get caught up on fancy-schmanzy, though… no jubilant adulations, please!)

So how does she take it from these decidedly average seven sentences?

First, she uses two semi-colons. Not to be rude, Ms Carter, you being a published writer and all, but personally I find two semi-colons in two adjacent sentences a bit rich for my taste, but it just goes to show that you can do what you like. I wouldn’t, but then that’s me.

She doesn’t just use the airy-fairy. No. She also has a simple FANBOYS. But.

She sticks on a word, ‘only’.

She adds a couple of embedded details in ‘in turning’ and ‘not quite yet’. That ‘not quite yet’ makes up for the semi-colon abuse use. I do love a little purposeful play with almost-quite repetition, especially when it slows things down so thoughtfully.

Then there is a gloss of lovely words, of course, but even without them, you can see how she’s using sentences to control the pace.

The trees look thin; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile, but it is not yet, not quite yet, the saddest time of the year. There is a sense that everything is ending; the year, in turning, turns in on itself. Thoughtful weather, a sickroom hush. 

Not quite so fancy when you get down to it, is it?

So… some stuff for you to try:

  • Use the heck out of those simple sentences. Get your money’s worth. They are very overlooked as a great way to shift the pace and speed things up in narrative or to change the pace in descriptive writing.
  • Add some fragments but please don’t put them in a single-word paragraph. They look ugly and it’s the writing equivalent of punching me in the face. Single-word fragments look fabulous at the beginning of a paragraph, add spice in the middle and add a bump on their own, but if I see another ‘Silence.’ floating on its own in space, I’m going to end up bursting my innards with angry frustration. They are dramatic enough without floating in space, dangling between paragraphs. Soften them a little, please.
  • Don’t overlook the compound sentence. Just because those FANBOYS seem to be things you’ve been using forever, it doesn’t mean you should ignore them.
  • Variety is the spice of life, but be purposeful. DECIDE what sentence length or type you are going to use before you put pen to paper. Stop at the full stops, lift your pen and make a decision before you venture forth into the next.
  • Don’t play before you’ve got the basics right. If you regularly put commas in where full stops should go, it’s like getting out the machine tools when you can’t use a spanner. Put them away and be comfortable with the basics.

And just because I can’t resist, I’m going to leave you with two more beautiful passages of description. One is from Bleak House and it is my most favourite set of sentences of all. The other is from The Great Gatsby. 

That one is from Dickens’ Bleak House. How you use sentences to make the fog seem like it’s everywhere. We’re not all Dickens, but we can learn from his style.

Now those sentences are pretty special, but they’re ways in which candidates looking to move up to the top levels might want to think about how to play around with their sentences.

Next time, I’ll be looking at how you can use a wide range of sentence forms for Paper 2 writing.

Advice and Guidance for planning GCSE English Paper 1 Question 5: Narrative writing

Last time I was looking at Paper 1 Question 5 – descriptive writing – and today it’s the turn of narrative writing.

You can find information about Section A Questions 1 – 4 here:

You can find information on Section A here:

And some general guidance about question 5 here.

Personally, I prefer the narrative response, and my students generally tend to get better responses and marks with it, but that’s not to say you should always choose the narrative, should it be available to you. Don’t forget, there will be times when you will have a choice of TWO narratives or TWO descriptions, and that the description may not always be based on the photograph. You could easily get a narrative based on the photograph given too. The moral is to be prepared for all eventualities.

Whilst I prefer the narrative, it is easy to do a simple descriptive piece and cram a lot in, whereas a narrative can get a little unwieldy. Sometimes, you’re just stuck for a storyline. Description tends to be based on things most students are familiar with, and so it’s not as challenging if you are stuck for an idea.

If you prefer to avoid the fragrant romps with purple prose, narrative may well be the option for you.

Narrative in itself has a sense of chronology or time progression. The moving on of time gives you an innate structure. That’s something that descriptive writing doesn’t always have.

You can use this innate structure to help you plan.

Beginning – Middle – End.

It can be that simple.

You can make it more complicated if you think of

Situation – Complication – Resolution.

But again, it’s the same as Beginning – Middle – End, it just sounds more fancy.

And really, for a 50-minute narrative, you really do not want to be more detailed than that.

Things to avoid:

  • Casts of thousands. One or two characters, maybe three. That’s it. The November 2018 paper had a narrative based on a photo that had one person in it. If you write a story with one person in it, or one main character, you’ll be less likely to end up overcomplicating things. If you think simple stories with a limited number of characters can’t be developed, you need to have a look at Z for Zachariah, The Road or I am Legend. But you’ll rarely (ever?) find a short story with an enormous cast.
  • Starting the story way before the action. I don’t care that you woke up and ate your cornflakes if it has nothing to do with what later happens. Why do people think that stories must start at the very beginning of the day? Start in the moments before the action.
  • Feeling like you need to give an explained ending. Many of the stories I’ve read would have been much better without the last couple of paragraphs. If you write yourself into a corner, stop. Stop right where you are. I’ve seen too many good stories ruined by some kind of attempt to finish it off. If you get to the point where you can’t find a solution to your story, just leave it on a cliffhanger. I’d prefer a cliffhanger than a ‘and then I woke up’ or ‘it was all a dream’, I promise.

Start your plan with the solution. A simple twist in the tale is always nice.

Like… what if a school bully turns out not to be a school bully? What if the mild-mannered janitor turns out to be a spy? What if the dog saves the day?

And then work back.

Why would someone think the bully was a bully? Why would someone think the janitor wasn’t a spy? Why would a dog need to save the day?

That’s then the ‘complication’ or problem.

And then put them in a scene in which that problem can happen.

A scene where someone thinks the school bully will hurt them – turns out the bully isn’t a bully.

A set of spies have a meeting – a janitor clears up – he’s the spy

A school picnic – a boy gets lost – a dog finds him

Now I know they don’t sound like the most scintillating of plots. But they are the basis for so many stories. See how we all thought Snape was going to be the bad guy in Harry Potter? Story two is essentially Hong Kong Phoey-meets-Scooby Doo, and the last is every plot of Lassie or the Littlest Hobo. Simple plots are the stuff of our lives. It’s how you write them that counts.

And you’ll find another list of three to help you with that, too.

Narration (action) – Description – Dialogue.

I like to kind of portion it out. Start with a bit of action. Then add some description. Then some dialogue. Then some action.

I loosely plan three or four lines of conversation, then a bit of description using the same method as I used in the previous post.

Here’s an example short story that I wrote in the time. I typed it, which gave me a bit of a handicap. It runs in at about 600 words.

Although the safe haven and familiarity of school was only minutes behind him, the darkness made easy work of its last remnants of light and security. It cut him off from everything that was comfortable, everything that was known, and cast him out like a hesitant explorer. The inky darkness spilled through the cracks, forcing its way into forgotten corners, slipping through the streets, eating up the vestigial remains of the day. Beyond the distant gates, you could just see the faint lights of the estate; one by one, they were all turning off for the night, until he was left standing in the darkness. Staring at the darkness. He stood completely alone, between the isolated street lights, his only connection with the rest of the universe. 

Everything was silent, except for the flicker and hum of the lights above.

Daniel hated the walk home. He hated the darkness. He hated the long passageway that cut under the railway tracks. Most of all, he hated the boys who hung around at the tunnel, waiting for boys like him. Maybe tonight, they’d all have gone home. He’d been so long at the club in school that they were sure to have gone home by now, weren’t they? He hoped so. The silence seemed to confirm his thoughts.

As he reached the edge of the tunnel, the last street light seemed to flicker and fade, fizzing and buzzing, then dying. It seemed to find life once more, spluttered into life, and then died one final time.

He took a deep breath. The tunnel seemed darker than ever, with only the faintest pinprick of amber light from the other side. Daniel picked up speed and decided to run for it. The mouth of the tunnel opened cavernously. It was far from reassuring. He took a breath. Then another. Then he ran.

Panting hard, his coat billowing, his rucksack marking out each pace thumping at his back, his legs pounding, arms pumping, he made it a quarter way. Fifty yards. Then a hundred.

“Oi you!”

Daniel pulled up to a stop, only metres before the end of the tunnel and the relative security of the street lights. He turned around, the dread surging up from the pit of his stomach and he choked a little. Behind him, he could see nothing. The tunnel swallowed up the light. He took a breath and tried to reason with himself. Maybe he’d imagined the voice. Maybe it wasn’t meant for him. 

It was then that the streetlight chose to flicker back to life. 

For one horrible second, Marvin McGoran was lit up in an amber spotlight before the light faded for good. 

Marvin McGoran. Known for his enormous bulk and his love of violence. Marvin, who was every cartoon villain rolled into one. Marvin, the terror of the tunnel. 

It couldn’t have been worse. 

Through the darkness, Daniel heard the sound of footsteps. Not the usual heavy, singular, staccato footfall of Marvin at rest. No. The fast thudding of Marvin on the rampage. A thudding growing ever closer, punctuated by huge exhalations of breath as Marvin steamed towards him. 

Nothing for it. He had to run. Daniel turned on his heels and started into an immediate sprint, hoping that he could find the energy to outrun the certain terror that lay behind him. He picked up speed, finding a motivation from within that he didn’t know he had. Twenty yards left. Then five. 

Behind him, Daniel heard a huge crash as Marvin came tumbling to the ground. An advantage for sure. He smiled and slowed his pace. He’d live another day. There were grunts and groans as Marvin struggled to regain his feet. 

“Stop will yer?!”

Something in the panic of that voice brought Daniel to a halt. He stopped and turned to take a look. Marvin lay belly down on the concrete, like a conquered bull. 

“Can you give me a hand?”

Daniel would never understand what drove him to go back and help Marvin to his feet. Stupidity perhaps. Bravado brought on by lack of oxygen? Camaraderie for a fallen comrade? He took tentative steps towards the boy on the ground and put out his hand, before pulling him with some effort to his feet. 

“Alright? Sorry… I don’t know yer name. I’m Marvin… D’yer mind if I walk home with yer? I hate the dark.”

And that, my readers, is where I would leave that story. No point explaining how they got home. No point labouring it and dragging it out. I know there are faults in this simple narrative. Of course they are. I am a humble English teacher, not a novelist used to churning out short stories without the benefit of a good editor and a proofreader. Nevertheless, it serves as a simple example of the kind of story that combines those triple elements of dialogue, description and action. I’m going to use it again to dissect in terms of punctuation and sentence structures.

You can see I’ve made decisions about where to slow down the pace and add a little description, trying to create a little atmosphere and intrigue. You can also see how I’ve used dialogue to interrupt the action and speed it up. I’ve got a simple two-character story that I’ve fleshed out, a simple situation – a walk home from school – and a simple twist in the tale. We’re not talking Booker Prize winning, but then this is GCSE.

 

AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 5

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

So far in the series, you’ve had:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content and organisation:

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

Technical accuracy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s some fine examples of fair cheesy writing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrible similes also fit into the ‘ouch’ category.

Her eyes were peeled like oranges

Ears that looked like pork scratchings

They were as solitary as oysters

You can find some more here

And yet a further collection here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun!

Sample essays for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 4

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

So far in the series, you’ve had:

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

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

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

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

To what extent do you agree?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time, Question 5!

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

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

So far in the series, you’ve had:

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

To summarise the previous post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Yes. I’m here,” she whispered.

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

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

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

“My God!” the woman whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then you have a statement:

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

To what extent do you agree?

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

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

So where do you start?

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

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

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

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

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

So circle or underline a more precise selection:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To summarise then:

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

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

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

 

 

How to answer Paper 1 Question 4 for AQA English Language GCSE 8700

So far, we’ve had posts on answering:

And today, I’ll be looking at Question 4. I’m going to cover some general guidance about the question itself and the way that you’re being assessed on this question. In truth, it’s going to pick up lots of things from Question 2, so you need to go back and re-read if you haven’t already. I’ll give you some tips on how to select details next time, as well as how to plan a great answer. The post after that, I’ll look at some sample responses and explain how the marks are applied.

So, to the question and the mechanics of Question 4.

It is the longest comprehension response on the GCSE English Language papers, worth 20 marks.

You should therefore treat it as if it is a mini-essay. It doesn’t need to be double or triple the length of Question 2 or 3, but if you’re writing a side, you need to consider if you’ve responded in enough depth.

In terms of time, you should be thinking of around 25 minutes. Again, that’s suggesting 2-3 sides of normal-sized handwriting. This question is designed to stretch you! And whilst there won’t be much difference in marks for Question 1-3 between someone who gets Grade 4 and someone who gets Grade 8, this is where better candidates can ‘open up the lead’ so to speak.

Unlike Question 1 which is largely predictable based on the first paragraph and finding information, or Q2 and 3 which won’t change, Question 4 has some bits that stay the same and other bits that will change.

Let’s have a look at an example, from the sample assessment materials available on AQA’s website – the paper I’m calling the ‘Mary’ paper.

Focus this part of your answer on the second part of the Source from line 19 to the
end.

Question 4 is going to ask you to refer to the later section of the text. If Q1 refers to paragraph 1, Q2 refers to paragraph 2, Q3 asks you to refer to the organisation of the ideas in the whole text, Q4 pinpoints back in again now that you have an overview of the whole paper.

The questions build on each other, which is why it’s a good idea to do them in the order given. I’ve seen advice to do them backwards, which is just pointless, to be honest. By the time you get to Q4, you want to know the passage fairly well. You’ll have read it through once before answering, read parts of it twice for Q1 and 2, read some of it three times by Q3 and it’s a good idea to re-read the bit in question for Q4. That means you’ll have read it at least three times, and some of it four times. If you do them backwards, you’re doing the highest mark question when you are least familiar with the text. Silly, if you ask me.

 

So… the statement.

You then get a statement from a student or a reader. Is it made up? Who knows? More importantly, who cares? It will give an opinion on the text in those lines. Often, it’s been focused on the main character/s, but I don’t know if that will hold true of all exam series.

It will look like this:

A student, having read this section of the text said: “The writer brings the very different characters to life for the reader. It is as if you are inside the coach with them.”

Then it will ask you:

To what extent do you agree?

Now, when I first saw the paper, I thought that in fact it was a good idea to be arguing your viewpoint, that you could be agreeing for the main bit and disagreeing. I thought that the question was asking where you stood in relation to the statement and it wanted you to construct an argument.

Two years of teaching later, and, well, it does, but not really.

We’ll get to the markscheme later. Suffice to say that you need to engage with this statement. We’ll look at trends in the statement as well that might help you too.

Following that, you’re going to get three bullet points that won’t change.

In your response, you could:
 write about your own impressions of the characters
 evaluate how the writer has created these impressions
 support your opinions with references to the text.

These are fixed. They are not ‘shoulds’ or ‘musts’, but like Question 3 (and unlike Question 2), better answers will do all of these things. However, you can’t use them like Question 3 as a rough sort of plan. For instance, the last bullet point is just advice that you must use quotes. And the second bullet point is telling you to comment on the text.

So they aren’t a plan. Just a reminder to PEE, to CQE, to PQE or whatever else it is you are doing. If I had to come up with an acronym, it would go like this:

  • Respond to the statement and make a comment on it
  • Support with quotes
  • Identify methods 
  • Evaluate methods in relation to the statement.
  • Comment on the ideas in the statement, the meaning of the quote and its effect

That’s very mechanistic though.

Basically, the question is asking you to respond to the statement, discuss the writer’s methods, evaluate the ideas mentioned in the statement, evaluate the methods and use evidence from the text to help you.

The question is asking you:

What are the ideas?
How are they conveyed?

So, how are you being assessed? What are markers looking for when they mark?

First, we’re looking for you to respond to the statement. Now, bear in mind that many of the statements have TWO bits.

Look again:

  1. The writer brings the very different characters to life
  2. It is as if you are inside the coach with them.

Those are two different things to respond to. One is about the characters being life-like. The other is about how the writer makes you feel as if you are a part of the scene.

It’s the same on the ‘Alex’ paper.

The statement to respond to is:

A student said: ‘This part of the story, set during breakfast time, shows that Alex is struggling to cope with his mother’s illness.’

This really only has one focus – Alex struggling to cope.

So it’s not always true that there are two bits to the statement, but if there are, you need to deal with both bits.

When I’m reading what one of my students has written, then, I’m asking myself if they are responding to the statement.

And then I’m asking myself if they are doing so in a simple way, a way where they’re trying to explain their thoughts, a way which clearly explains their thoughts or a way that really explains their thoughts.

It’s the difference between saying:

“Yes, the characters are lifelike” (simple) or “the characters are lifelike because the way the writer describes the tiny actions of the characters is very realistic, such as the old man who ‘muttered in his beard’ ” which promises to be something better than just ‘I agree’

In other words, you need to explain WHY  you agree.

Your response to the statement is therefore the first thing I’m looking at.

Secondly, I’m looking at your use of quotes to support your response. What details have you picked out? I’m making decisions about how precise they are, how relevant they are, how well they support your view. Embedded, precise quotes are hands-down better than copious copying and unselective detail, but how good your quotes are is not necessarily something I’m marking. If you have great quotes and you’ve used them in the right way, you’ll write a better essay, but they don’t lead to a mark for quotes as such.

Third, I’m looking at methods. Writer’s methods is deliberately vague in the markscheme. It means simply ‘anything the writer does’. That can be their use of words, language, imagery and figurative language, like Question 2. It might be aspects of development that are similar to Question 3 (although you’ll find there won’t be any crossover with Question 2 because it’s about a different part of the text.) And it can be about all those wonderful things I’ve been advising my students to steer clear of on Question 2 and 3, such as sentence lengths, sentence types, voice, viewpoint, point of view, narrative viewpoint and perspective. Tone and presentation of the author’s perspective might also fit in here too. Anything goes, as I said.

Basically, how does the writer craft the text to create the ideas presented in the statement.

What does the writer do to make the characters seem lifelike?
How does that work?

Coming back to long-dead papers of years gone by, it’s very much about the author’s technique and purpose. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What effect does it have on us? How does convey a particular idea?

The fourth and final thing I’m assessing in my students’ work is how well they’ve commented on the effect of the ideas and methods.

Now, that is a lot of things to assess. It’s a lot of things to include in an answer. There is sometimes what I call the ‘Crackerjack’ effect. Now I’m showing my age. Crackerjack was a kids’ TV programme on in the 1970s where there was a game called Double or Drop where you had to hold a load of prizes and if you got questions wrong under stress, you’d get a cabbage added all the things you had to hold. If you dropped them, you lost everything. My point is that, under stress, you’re more likely to drop stuff if you’ve got a lot to hold on to. That’s why this question is hard. You’ve got a lot to hold on to, and sometimes you’re going find you just can’t remember to do it all. You get so carried away responding to the statement that you forget to add any methods, or you are so involved with discussing the figurative language that you forget to respond to the statement.

If I had to say anything, it’s make sure you manage to respond to the statement in each paragraph, and you try to explore a method from time to time.

Next time, I’ll look at all the stuff you can do before you even start writing to make sure you get the very best of the marks available to you.

You can find further posts on Question 4 here and here where you’ll find an explanation of how to tackle the question and sample responses.