Secondary English – Obeying the Command Words

The phrasing of exam questions can mystify teachers, let alone panicking year 11s in the exam hall, and to add to it all the command words used often seem to mean different things in different subjects.

As part of my research into improving extended writing in my school, I sifted through the many (oh so many!) command words used across the curriculum.  I found that there were four key words that seem to be used across the significant range of subjects: describe, explain, compare and evaluate. And most amazingly, they didn’t actually mean different things in different subjects.

The Heads of Department in my school were really pleased to know which command words were being used where (e.g. Explain: English, History, Geography, R.E, Science, P.E; Describe: English, History, Geography, R.E, Science, P.E; Compare: English, Geography, Science; Evaluate: Science, P.E). As we all know, it is so much more meaningful for students, when they know how their knowledge and skills link across their subjects.

The next thing to work out was what to do with them. I found lots of good practice across my school, with students highlighting command words and then creating success criteria based on their understanding of them. I also produced the attached sorting activity, which asks students to sort the definitions for these four commonly used command words. Anything that gets students interacting with the exam questions and trying to unpack them has to be good. The trick now is to get them so used to doing it that they remember, in their panic, to do the same in the exam hall!

Naomi Hursthouse
Advance Skills Teacher, Steyning Grammar School

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