By Andrew Atherton
One of the most important things we can do in our classrooms is to ensure our students experience a feeling of success. However, for the English Language GCSE this, perhaps, is often trickier than it might at first seem.
English Language can be hard and frustratingly so, whether we’re tackling the notoriously difficult-to-grasp “structure” question on Paper 1 or, on Paper 2, the question that requires “inference” (which, somewhat ironically, expects students to infer this).
This article takes us through each of the questions on Paper 1 (Fiction and Creative Writing), offering tips and strategies in the hope that our students might find the paper just that little bit easier.
Ignoring Question 1 (hopefully, for obvious reasons) the first question we arrive at is the 8 mark language-analysis task. This question presents students with a short paragraph of text from the given extract and asks them to analyse how the writer shapes meaning through their use of language. For this question, I teach my students to read the passage, highlighter or pen in hand, and look for three “diveable” images. (A diveable image, by the way, is what I call the kinds of images that are rich and replete with meaning, the kinds we can really get to grips with, ‘diving’ into their many layers of meaning.)
When teaching this question, I go to great lengths to stress that, as ever, what matters is quality and depth of analysis. Exploring three images in detail is always better than exploring five briefly. Less is more.
Imagine, then, that students have read the passage and highlighted their three diveable images. What next? How do they take this raw material and produce a cogent and streamlined “8 mark” response? To help students to do this, I use “What, How, Why”, a strategy with which they are already familiar. In the case of question 2, it looks like this:
What is the overall idea that the writer is communicating, in relation to the question?
How does the writer achieve this, using an analysis of the three diveable images already identified.
Why does the writer seek to convey this overall idea in this specific way? What are they hoping the reader thinks or feels?
Working their way through these prompts helps to create a really coherent and streamlined response, with your students cued to grapple with both the language and the meaning of the passage. However, I’ve found that students struggle with how to move between points, often reducing their answers to a series of bullet points.
One way to help with this is by explicitly teaching sentence stems, for example:
- This sense of X is further reinforced by…
- The writer continues this sense of X by…
- This is further explored when…
- The writer’s developing motif is continued when…
A final strategy to help students with this question is to embed the following routine into questioning and short bursts of analysis. If, when looking at a specific image your students are unsure what to say about it, then a really easy and effective way into thinking about it is for them to ask ‘what other words could have been used’ and then ‘what is the exact difference between that chosen word and its alternatives’? By offering a point of comparison, as opposed to thinking about an image in the abstract, the task of unpicking its specific effect becomes a lot easier.
This question tends to be really tricky for students, mostly because the kind of structural analysis called for will likely be unfamiliar to them. It doesn’t tend to be the kind of analysis that we teach or students engage in. due to this, the slight difficulty it presents is not altogether surprising. However, it’s crucial to remember it is worth just 8 marks.
When teaching this question, I try to keep it as simple as possible using the following prompts:
- What is our attention directed to at the start of the passage and why?
- How does the passage develop and then shift our perspective and why?
- What is our attention directed to at the end of the passage and why?
In this way, we focus on three structural moments just like, in Question 2, where we focus on three diveable images. I’ve found that this helps to focus students’ attention and makes this question a lot more manageable. When they are discussing what their attention is directed towards and the subsequent shifts, I encourage students to focus on physical objects within the world of the text, which helps to avoid them slipping into language analysis. Why begin, for instance, by focusing on a crowd of people and then, as the passage develops, zoom into one specific individual?
A further aspect of this question that can cause some difficulty is why the chosen structural moments or perspective shifts cause interest. How do we talk about the effect at the level of structure? One strategy that I’ve found really helpful is to think about this in terms of questions that the passage causes us to ask through the manner in which it structurally develops. Here are a couple of sentence stems that help to cue this kind of thinking:
- This [perspective shift] causes the reader to wonder/question…
- As the passage develops we begin to consider…
- By shifting our attention to X, the reader perhaps begins to ask…
The most helpful strategy I have used for question 4 is use of the table below:
At a single glance, this table helps students to transpose all they will need to answer the question. Firstly, it’s divided into two columns labelled (A) and (B) and this is to help capture the fact that the given statement will always include two aspects to it and that students need to engage with both of them.
Your students can express a different point of view to either statement: they need not agree to both or disagree to both. What is important though, and what this question is really all about, is expressing a clear and analytical point of view and then justifying this position through a detailed discussion of the text.
This is where the next section of the table becomes most useful: for each aspect of the statement, students identify three diveable images, with a total of six across the whole response. This could also include a discussion of structure, too. The really great thing, here, is that this question now effectively becomes two 8-mark responses, with the table guiding what your students will discuss.
But, the table also has another clever benefit. The cells in the first row in the table, where the student identifies their point of view, are taken together to produce the introduction and the columns, filled with images, become the main body of the response. As such, once students have filled this table in, everything they need in order to answer the question thoroughly is right there in front of them. This is why I encourage my students to spend five minutes of their allotted time for this question drawing and completing this table.
One further aspect of this question I think it’s important to address is how to approach the evaluative element. The temptation is to think about this in terms of language, but I think it’s a lot more productive to think about it in terms of the statement. We are not evaluating the writing, but evaluating the statement and our view of it. For this reason, students want to keep the statement “alive” throughout their response by connecting their points of analysis to whatever point of view they have adopted.
It’s easy to forget that the creative writing question is worth half of this entire paper and so a quarter of the English Language GCSE! For this reason, it is crucial students don’t mismanage their time on the Reading section, ensuring that they leave enough time for this question. Yet, it’s also crucial students don’t assume the route to success is via length of response. This question all depends upon a short, well-crafted and thoughtful response, displaying clear and consistent evidence of manipulating language and structure for effect.
In order to help students to achieve this, I teach them the following overall shape:
1. Drop: begin with a sense of movement, with something happening to the point of view or with the point of view doing something
2. Zoom: zoom into and describe a specific object or detail that was mentioned in passing in the drop section
3. Flash: a flashback that includes some kind of tonal shift to the overall piece
4. End: conclude with either a cyclical structure by returning to the start (perhaps by repeating a certain image), or with a cliffhanger
This overall shape allows a great deal of creative flexibility, but also a scaffold onto which students can hook their ideas. I also suggest they include some kind of motif or recurring phrase, typically sandwiched between these four main sections.
In order to further help scaffold their response to question 5, I teach the planning structure below. It allows a certain degree of automaticity and puts more focus on crafting their use of language. Here is a useful series of prompts that your students can work through, in order to generate their initial ideas:
- What is the point of view you will adopt?
- Is this point of view feeling happy or sad and why?
- What might happen in the drop?
- What might happen in the zoom?
- What might happen in the flash?
- What might happen at the end?
- What motif might you use?
- What is the big idea you hope your writing will express?
I hope the strategies in this article help your students with AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1. With a little planning, these strategies should enable them to experience the success we all work so hard for.