In my experience of both teaching and marking GCSE English papers, you can quickly recognise from the first few sentences a response that has not been planned. I completely understand the temptation of students to feel that they are under time constraint and it’s quicker just to get straight to the point but they are doing themselves a disservice. If the examiner has to struggle to decipher the response the mark given will be hindered. It is really important that teachers equip students with tools to support their planning.
Firstly, I often encounter papers where the simple mistake of not reading the question properly leads to an answer that misses key points. When practising exam responses in class, ask students to highlight the key terms so they are ready to respond effectively. For example, is it a How or Why question and how would you respond differently? Are you being asked to discuss, present or expand a point and how would you do this? Generally, I find teaching the following equation helpful for a discuss or expand point: STATEMENT – EVIDENCE – DISCUSS & ANALYSE
Two examples can be seen here:
‘How does Dicken’s present the character of Miss Havisham in this extract from page 68-69?’
a). Miss Havisham seems like a ghost as she is described to be wearing white, ‘her shoes were white’ this shows she might not go out much. This makes us wonder why. We know that she was left at the alter as she is still in her ‘wedding dress’ so we feel sorry for her.
b). Dicken’s character of Miss Havisham is both fascinating and horrifying, she holds a gothic appeal and would have been popular with readers in the 1800s. On first appearance, Pip notices she is ‘not quite finished dressing’ which makes us wonder what has happened and makes us want to read more. ‘I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress and the flowers’ Dickens here suggests that Miss Havisham has wasted away, both literally and metaphorically, ‘withered’ suggests age and decay but also that her youth has been lost. She is presented here as a mystery, why is she still in the same dress?
Both examples are correct answers but answer b has more clarity and has been planned in terms of how to discuss quotes and how to analyse language. Candidate b is writing at around a level 5 grade – quotes are used and discussed but not in detail and not in a particularly relevant way. I’m not sure Dickens did mean to show that Miss Havisham’s white shoes show she doesn’t leave her house – although this is a true observation. They also haven’t properly read the question as they don’t respond directly to how Dicken’s presents the character. Overall this response is simplistic and brief but does hold merit.
Answer b is a planned response. The student strives to show us they know the text by briefly introducing their interpretation of the character and adding some context. They reference central characters and choose apt quotes which they then analyse and discuss thoughtfully. Further discussion of the use of ‘withered’ shows their ability at around a 7 grade and their clear response and sophisticated language supports this.
Secondly, often the difference between one grade, or even two, is pushing the analysis a little further – pulling apart a word is a good focus and can be seen in example b. Often when marking exam papers it is impressive to see clarity of expression. Clarity of expression does need planning. It is advantageous if students have an extensive vocabulary to develop their thoughts. I found displaying key terms in the classroom from the start of the academic year really helped them in their language discussion; it inspires students in younger years too. A good warm-up or starter activity might be the ‘good, better, best’ method where you give out a few words and ask students to discuss them in more detail. For example: nice could become delightful which could then be expanded to sublime. Getting them into the habit of planning their language choices makes a huge difference. Vocabulary exercises are excellent homework tasks too as long as students are encouraged to use them in their responses rather than simply memorising them.
Thirdly, another great tip is to create a word bank of connectives to help students move between statements, analysis and ideas fluidly. They should memorise and be able to confidently use a few adding connectives, emphasising and sequencing ones which will then improve the flow of their response and give them tools to create a polish and planned answer.
Finally, and most importantly, all practice in planning under timed conditions is the key here. When encouraging students to take part in a mock exam I always do the question at the same time which I then display on the whiteboard – including my brief plan and how long it took – to model afterwards. I’d be calculating here too so if your class is 5/6 borderline, I’d be writing as if I were a high 6/7 student. If you don’t manage to complete your answer as thoroughly as you’d like, all the better! Can the class give you tips on what you should have included or left out? What grade do they think you are working towards? Can they now share their responses with a partner and have the same conversation? If you have all students working on laptops for this in a shared area you can display examples on the IWB for group discussion.
By Joanna Fliski
Joanna Fliski has taught English Literature and Language to 11-18-year-olds at an urban comprehensive secondary school for 10 years, she had the highest value added score for her students and was nominated for an outstanding teacher award. As well as teaching Drama and Media GCSE she was head of PSHE, trained teachers and is a behavioural specialist. Joanna currently teaches in primary schools in Bristol. She is also a freelance author, writing resources and teacher guides for the Cambridge IGCSE, creating schemes of work and contributing to a number of educational blogs.