John Doy is a former Head of English and leader of the G&T programme at Seaford College. Here are his Top tips for success at English GCSE.
Get your timings right
Every specification is different, but one thing that all English Language exams tend to have in common is that timing in the exam is crucial. Spending too much time on questions worth hardly any marks and leaving yourself short for higher tariff answers is one of the biggest reasons I see people losing marks in English Language exams. Another related tip, is to look at the questions with the most marks available and think about tackling these firsts. These exams can be long, and trying to write creatively after an hour and a half of comprehension questions can sometimes be a tall order. Why not try tackling the writing questions first when you’re fresh? You’ll probably make fewer errors and may even buy yourself some time for the earlier questions – just don’t spend too long on your magnum opus! This tip applies to pretty much all your other subjects too.
Practice makes perfect
How are you going to get those timings right? Once you know how long you should be spending on each question in the paper, practice doing them in that time. English Language is a hard subject to revise for as it is often a mostly skills based exam, but by practising past questions or questions similar in format to your exam, you’ll inevitably improve your chances of success. A big issue at the moment is that with new GCSEs there is a bit of a dearth of past papers around; there should, however, be at least one sample. Get your tutor to help you to compose possible questions using a similar formula to the ones in the sample material; it’s a good way of ‘getting under the skin’ of the exam as well as providing you with material to practise on.
Practise looking for howlers
Language papers have more marks available than most for Spelling Punctuation and Grammar, which is the positive spin on this situation and is fine if you’re Peter Perfect. If, like a lot of people, SPAG isn’t your forte, then practise eliminating the really noticeable blunders from your work. When you’re proofreading, it can be hard to keep a look out for all the possible errors you may make, but if you just focus on spotting one thing, say, using lower case ‘i’ instead of ‘I’ then you may have a better chance. Mistakes like this can be unduly punished by markers as they are so obvious, so try to eliminate them. One last word on that; lots of you may be using laptops to write your essays. Remember, if your exams officer is doing their job correctly it will have autocorrect deactivated, so no helpful software, gently correcting your errors as you go along – that’s your job now, so make sure you’re paying attention, and leave time for checking.
This should be the pleasant bit. Remember, your set texts were originally written primarily as entertainment, so try to enjoy them as such. If it’s a novel, curl up and read it again in as few sittings as possible; a play? Try to see a production or get hold of a filmed version. If you’re studying poetry, just have another read, find someone reciting it aloud online, or even better, try to learn a few lines yourself. Forget (for now) about all the things you’re supposed to remember about it and enjoy it on its own terms. This will not only hopefully restore your faith in literature which, by now, may well be fading fast, but will also give a good overview of the action and remind you of key points. This is the best and most enjoyable form of revision I can think of.
Write essays and essay plans
This is less pleasant, but equally necessary. Despite what some revision tipsters may imply, you won’t have to produce a storyboard, a freeze frame, or a song version of the text you are studying; instead you will, invariably, have to write an essay. Those other things I’ve mentioned may help you to re-engage with the text and certainly have their place, but please don’t let them distract you from the main task, which is, I’m afraid, writing an essay. And the only way to practise essay writing is to write essays, preferably timed ones. Another good way to engage with essay writing is to ‘backwards engineer’ your term time essays. Go back and turn them into essay plans again. Do this with exemplar essays you find online – learn the plans. You’re unlikely to be able to regurgitate them whole, but you will have made points and constructed ideas which you can then re-package and re-purpose for the question you do get.
Learn how to stick and slant
The simple truth is, you don’t have time to come up with completely original points under exam pressure. Now I’m not advocating memorising whole essays, but I am suggesting that there are a number of key ideas and points that are relevant to a number of potential essay topics. If you’ve done your work practising essay writing and planning, then the exam should be about working out what your question is asking you and slanting your knowledge and ideas towards that question. Make sure you stick close to the question by using key words repeatedly. If your question is asking you about ‘justice’ then that word should be appearing all over your essay. Don’t worry of it feels repetitive – rest easy in the knowledge that you are adhering to the first commandment of all exams: thou shalt stick to the question set. Think about other essays you’ve done or planned. Is there anything you can slant towards this question? Put it in. You will find, to greater or lesser extent, you’ve done all the hard work in your preparation activities. How much of this preparation you do does, of course, have a direct bearing on how the exam will go for you.