Modelling exam answers for GCSE English

I love discussing a text with my classes: ethical issues in ‘Never Let Me Go’, duality in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, how far we think Macbeth’s a tragic figure, the sheer horror of war in poems like ‘Exposure’…

But one of the things that I’m often asked is, ‘So how do I write that in an essay?’

It’s very useful to model writing with students so they understand how to shape their knowledge and understanding into a strong exam response. There are a number of different approaches that you can use, depending on your confidence with your class or with a topic.

Pre-prepared paragraphs

Writing these before the lesson allows you more control. You can project them onto your screen, making your sentences appear bit by bit as you talk through the writing process. Alternatively, you can give your students a paragraph on a handout and ask them to identify how different parts are meeting the assessment objectives (perhaps highlighting each AO in different colours). If you’re a little worried about writing your own paragraphs, or simply don’t have time, there are plenty of print and video examples available in the Snap Revision Text Guides.

Another variation of this is showing two paragraphs side by side, a grade 5 and a grade 7+, then discussing with the class why one is achieving more marks. There are lots of different paragraph structures that teachers like to suggest and they’re great for supporting students. I ask mine for a point that relates to the question, a clear piece of evidence, some specific analysis of language, and – if relevant – some context. Comparative modelling is a good opportunity to demonstrate to your more able students how those elements can be presented in a sophisticated manner and need not be restrictive. You can highlight the importance of embedding quotations, show them different points at which context can be woven into an answer, and look at ways in which they can develop their analysis through greater nuance or links across a text.

Writing as a class

This is my favourite version of modelling as it gets the whole class involved and creates a real sense of success when they finish up with an excellent piece of writing. It’s a little more nerve-wracking, though, as you’ve less control over how the paragraph develops so you have to think on your feet when you get to the second stage. Initially, I ask students to make a point to match the question, then provide me with evidence, and follow that up with analysis and context. I write on the board, or type it onto the screen, as they speak. If it’s the first time I’m doing the task, I take hands up; once we’ve done it in a few lessons, I select students at random.

Once we’ve got our completed paragraph, I ask the students to interrogate it with me. We start by checking it’s met the assessment objectives (at which point, they often realise we forgot to include context). In particular, I encourage them to develop the analysis so it’s detailed, specific, and fully developed.  Sometimes, we notice our quotation didn’t give us anything to actually analyse, in which case (cue some groans) we start again. Then we look at our answer in terms of academic writing: is it concise, precise, and sophisticated? We keep making corrections and additions until everyone feels they’ve contributed to a grade 7+ response.

It’s a good idea to follow this up with a different but related exam question. The students can use the model, and their experience of constructing it, to support their writing of an independent response.

Writing with the class

This one can seem like showing off but can also be quite challenging. Basically, when you set a written task (a whole essay or just a practice paragraph), sharpen your pencil and do it at the same time. There are numerous benefits. Firstly, it reminds us just how difficult (and short!) timed exams are. Secondly, it shows students you can actually do the work yourself; the impact of giving them faith in your academic abilities shouldn’t be underestimated. Moreover, it creates good differentiation opportunities within grouped sharing and feedback as you can discuss your answer with the more able students.

If you haven’t done modelling of exam answers before, try it. If you have, keep exploring – and sharing with your colleagues – the many variations that can be utilised to match the skills and needs of your students. The main aim is for our young people to get to their GCSEs and be able to turn their knowledge and understanding into a great exam response.


Ian Kirby has been teaching English for over twenty years, currently working as a senior tutor and key stage 5 co-ordinator at a school in Northamptonshire. He is also the author of a number of English textbooks and revision guides, including the popular Snap Revision series.

Snap Revision is a series of bestselling text guides and workbooks for GCSE English. Plus, new editions now include video support for the most popular AQA set texts accessed via QR codes.

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