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Exam Tips: GCSE English Language

Author: Nancy Hutt

Plan your time

There's a lot to do, so make sure you plan your time carefully. On both papers, allow yourself around ten minutes to read the extracts before you start on the questions. After that, consider the number of marks for each question.  The fewer the marks per question the less time you should spend on it. Look at the marks per question before the exams and approximate how long you should spend on each one.  Try to build in a little time to check your answers (in particular spelling, punctuation and grammar in the writing sections).

Attempt all the questions

It's very important to attempt all the questions in the paper. The examiner will be looking to reward what you do but, as King Lear said, ‘nothing will come of nothing’. Try to make sure you complete the examination papers to maximise your chances of accessing all available marks.

Answer the questions in the order they appear on the paper

Principal examiners spend a lot of time putting together examination papers. They are designed to lead you through the text from beginning to end, and to help you by asking less demanding questions at the start. Therefore, it is not helpful to answer them in a different order. It will also increase the risk that you will forget to answer some altogether.

Reading questions

If we ask for a list, we'll be happy with a list …

Some questions require you to locate facts or make inferences. These are straightforward questions, so don't over complicate things. Selection is the main skill required, and short answers or a list are fine. However, remember that lists usually won't be helpful in response to other questions on the papers which require higher order skills such as evaluation.

Stick to the section specified.

Where questions relate to specific parts of the text, make sure that you don't stray outside the lines specified. You will gain no marks and will waste time. Similarly, where there are two texts, make sure you are referring to the correct one – and in comparison and synthesis questions that the examiner knows which text you're talking about too!

Answer the question asked!

It sounds obvious but every year some candidates fail to read the questions carefully. Read the question at least twice. Underlining the key words in the question is a good habit to get into.

… and pay particular attention to the wording of the comparison question.

For this question candidates have not just to identify what the writers say about a specific aspect of the texts but also to explore the ways in which they put this across. As a consequence, you have to be absolutely clear about the focus of the question.

Support comments with well-chosen examples of language choice

If required by the question, candidates who use appropriate evidence from the text to support their ideas do the job effectively. The best responses are based on a careful consideration of the text, with well selected examples. There is no merit in copying out large chunks of the text, and it wastes valuable time.

Subject terminology is useful, but make sure it's relevant

Assessment Objective 2 requires you to use relevant subject terminology to support your views.  Most candidates recognise the importance of the adjective "relevant" in this context and usually avoid "feature spotting". Remember, the identification of devices should never be seen as an end in itself nor should it distract you from engaging with the text – and never ever use a term unless you understand what it means.

Pay attention to "what" as well as "how"

What happens, the sequence of events or the information that is given in a text is just as relevant as the devices used by writers. If you are looking at how a writer creates a sense of drama or tension in narrative writing for example, then look at what is happening, the content of the text as well as stylistic devices. Are the characters in trouble?  Is there a lot of action? Is there a sense of danger/excitement and, if so, why?    Remember, a writer’s use of language and structure is important but so too are actions, events and narrative details.

Tracking carefully pays off

It makes sense in both papers to track through the specified parts of the extract when answering questions. Not only does this make your answer more coherent, it also shows a recognition of the importance of sequencing and development in both fiction and non-fiction texts.

Candidates who track the text methodically should have plenty of material upon which to base their answer. However, by looking at use of language, tone and structure, the best candidates are able to push into the higher marks.

Writing questions

Don't be over ambitious

For creative writing, a small number of characters will keep things manageable, as will a focused narrative without an over- complicated plot. You haven't got time to write a novel! Try to make sure that the narrative has a clear sense of direction and structure.  Keep the reader with you and engaged throughout.  Don’t confuse them!

Keep it real

This doesn’t mean that you can’t be imaginative, but it's important that your writing is convincing. For creative writing, accounts of your own experience, with a little embellishment if necessary, can often work well. Similarly, in non-fiction writing, use of real examples to illustrate points can be a good idea. 

For non-fiction tasks, don't forget the audience

Who are you writing for? The language you use in a speech to your classmates will probably be different to that you'd use in a report to the Headteacher, for example.

… or the purpose

The purpose of your writing will also inform the choices you make when writing. For example, a letter to a newspaper to persuade readers will look different from an article written to inform or entertain.

… or the context

It's important that your writing shows some awareness of the context specified. A letter should look like a letter, for example, with an appropriate greeting and sign off.

…and put some flesh on the bones

Develop points made in non-fiction writing, add detail and flesh out your writing with purposeful relevant information, arguments and opinions. Where possible, create an effective reader-writer relationship through devices such as statements, questions and direct address and make sure the approach you take is clear and coherent.

Most importantly, keep a close eye on spelling and punctuation

Allow yourself time to check this aspect and be particularly aware of words you know cause you difficulty, like tricky homophones. Make sure full stops and commas are used correctly – they are never interchangeable – and be careful with apostrophes. Know when they are used; don't sprinkle them about randomly.

…and don’t get in a pickle with tenses.

Whichever tense you choose to write in, try to use it correctly.  The most common errors seen by examiners are in subject/verb agreement, switching from past to present tense without meaning to do so (most common in narrative writing) and using the wrong ending on a past tense verb.

And finally … don't panic

Exam papers are designed to allow you to show us what you can do. We are not trying to catch you out. Use past papers and sample assessment materials to hone your skills before the exams. If you answer the questions we ask in a calm and methodical way, and do the best you can, no one can ask for anything more. Good luck!