Secondary English – Non-fiction Exam Preparation

Acronyms seem to have become a vital part of preparing students for GCSE exams. There are loads of them: PALSS (Purpose, Audience, Language, Style, Structure) is a popular one, but fill in the gaps yourselves, I’m sure you know them all.

There is a place for acronyms, of course. In particular if students are not very confident, having a quick reminder of what they need to look for can help to calm them and give them a sense of purpose when they are on their own with the exam paper. The problem with this approach, however, is two-fold: it can be quite limiting for the students, and, perhaps more significantly, it can actually impede them from answering the question in front of them.

Teaching a holistic approach to texts, especially non-fiction, is really important but also incredibly hard because in an exam, students don’t have a lot of time to access previously-unseen material. However, they are being assessed on their ability to link what the writer is doing to why they are doing it: to comment on how the language, or the structure, or the presentation, links to meaning. And if they don’t have a grasp of overall meaning, this is where they are going to fall down, and this takes us back to the ‘limiting’ nature of some student responses.

One of the best ways of preparing students to tackle non-fiction is not, however odd it may seem, to present them with a series of past papers. Of course they need to see a paper, of course they do – it would be ludicrous to suggest they don’t – but using the deliberately uncontentious material that has to be set as unseen material as preparation does not lend itself well to students grasping ideas and engaging with them.

Perhaps a more productive way is to regularly have interesting texts on display – perhaps as starter activities – allowing students a short time to skim and scan and then for them to notice what features are being used to good effect in that text. In this way, they take more ownership of the process rather than sticking to looking for the techniques they think they ought to be looking for. Because what happens if that technique isn’t being used in the exam text? Well, the answer, unfortunately, is that some students will still try to comment on it… leading to those very limiting statements referred to above, such as ‘the writer hasn’t really used any imagery in this passage’ or ‘there aren’t any rhetorical questions’.

Sarah DarraghEnglish Teacher and author of A Bridge to GCSE English

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