The importance of using practice tasks in the GCSE 9-1 English exams

In my teaching I always need to see an example of what the examiners are looking for in each grade boundary before I can work out what I need to teach my students. The same rule applies if I’m asking for a GCSE essay or AS coursework – I need to study an example and often create my own response to see what the hurdles are and what is expected.

The same should apply to our students. Reading practice tasks and annotating responses together is an invaluable part of teaching the 9-1 English exams. The chief examiner remarked on his concern that this isn’t being done enough in schools and that students are writing thoughtful responses but not actually addressing the question or are not given the opportunity to see what a grade or two higher than their own would look like and ways in which to get there.

Example responses together with the marker’s comments are available online. I also print out the grade descriptors and hand out highlighters. Before the lesson I create a seating plan so that I have students in threes and where possible the set up might follow that I have a level 5 next to a 6 next to a 7. Next lesson my level 7 is next to an 8 who is sat by a 9. This way each pupil gains insight and inspiration from their peers.

The first step is to read the response together. Now, without the mark being seen and using the grade descriptors, estimate the grade boundary students think the response is. This is a useful exercise as it clarifies what a grade looks like. It is especially helpful to find a response which is a similar ability to the majority of class if you are not teaching mixed ability.

Next, highlighters out. Create a focus for each colour highlighter or give small groups their own focus (and I’d definitely be strategic here and give the focuses to those who are working towards the same target themselves). Depending on what part of the exam you are looking at, you might like to ask them to consider: Writer’s use of language, features used, insightful analysis, discussion of quotes or direct response to the question. Alternatively, take your focus directly from the marking guide. When students can identify these things being used, highlight them in different colours. Now discuss and consider the following: Have they got a balanced answer according to the highlighted colours? Has the example student focused too heavily on some elements and missed others? What could they have done to improve? Did they estimate the correct grade boundary earlier?

After this I ask them to do the same practice question but with a different resource and under timed conditions. You should find they feel better equipped and more familiar with what they need in their responses. Whilst they are writing I write my own response on my laptop which I then show on the IWB. Sometimes I write very simply and then as a class we discuss how I could improve or sometimes I write at a higher level than the example we looked at to show what the next step is – you could vary this from lesson to lesson. An alternative to this is swapping books in your group of threes and having their peers highlight according to the grade descriptors and give advice. On this occasion I would print my example and ask the students to repeat the class exercise individually and as homework or as a starter next lesson to remind ourselves of past learning.

If your class finds the language of the grade descriptors tricky, could they re-write them using language they understand and then identify their targets and stick them in their books as reminders?

I like to also encourage pupils to be the examiner – what comments for improvement would they give to the student whose work we have seen? What did they do well? How could they have created a stronger response? What parts did they particularly like?

Using practice tasks and annotating responses shows students exactly what is expected of them, how they will be marked and creates a sense of clarity over how to respond. It makes the exam less abstract and can help calm those who panic or tend to write without focus.

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.

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