Teaching the Writing Questions in a GCSE English exam

I love teaching writing skills. I love sharing the work of my favourite writers and inspiring – or trying to at least – my pupils to mimic elements of their style. I love the finicky stuff, like ensuring paragraphs are cohesive. I love teaching how to create islands of words, using bracketing commas for example, to make sentences more complex and easier to read. I even love teaching spelling rules and how to write out the alphabet properly (yes those ‘f’s do need to slip below the line please). But I’ve never been a big fan of teaching the writing sections of GCSE English exams. Why? Well, there’s the tedious writing triplets (inform, explain, describe etc.), beautifully skewered by @Xris32 in a recent post. Then there’s the whole writing by numbers approach, which everyone, including me, must have been guilty of teaching:

  1. Start with a language feature. Usually a rhetorical question to ‘engage the reader’.
  2. Make sure you stick in a one word sentence.
  3. Oh and don’t forget a one word paragraph. Why sir? Oh…erm… examiners like it. Just do it.
  4. Cram in as many big words as possible. Sorry. Compress as much mammoth vocabulary in as is feasible.
  5. Use a semi colon and colon; even if you don’t know how to: use them. End paragraphs with ellipsis for no apparent reason.
  6. Check your spelling at the end. I know you never normally bother, Steven, but this is an exam after all.
  7. If in doubt, use AFOREST. Or DAFOREST. Or some other catchy mnemonic. Ensure you write this down on your answer sheet so the examiner knows that you are creating something formulaic and mechanical.

I could go on.

When I get bored I start to become more honest. My current Yr11 pupils, both A*/A and C/D borderline have started to cop more direct truths recently as my patience with this section of the exam is just one deeper than usual paper cut away from giving way…

On the current AQA English Language exam the writing section (Section B) is separated into a shorter task (Q5 – describe, explain, inform) and a longer one (Q6 – argue or persuade). These are worth half of the total marks, so it’s understandable why teachers feel the need to drill their pupils with the writing tricks.Here’s a typical Q5:

Write an article for your local newspaper in which you describe a memorable childhood experience. (16 Marks)

In the past I used to suggest that pupils might like to ‘think outside the box’ a little on this one. Now, in the spirit of telling it straight,  I absolutely insist on it. Here’s what I do:

  • Get them to write down what they think most of the tens of thousands of pupils taking the GCSE across the country will write about. They will happily tell me: A birthday party. Visiting Santa’s ‘grotto’. Going to the beach/theme park/Blackpool (poor northern comp kids)/The Andes for a spot of kayaking(posh independent school kids). I once marked 135 papers on the old AQA spec on a very similar question. Approximately 95% of them wrote about going on a day trip to the salubrious theme park Lightwater Valley (I used to go regularly with my family, so I’m not being snobby, just rude). They all had ice cream. They all got soaked on the log flume ride. They all nearly copped off with Kelly Smith in Yr 8 (she must have been popular). And they all fell asleep on the coach/backseat of the car on the way home before stopping off at the chippy to top off a glorious day. In fact they must have all gone at the same time. In the same E reg Vauxhall Astra. All 112 of them. By the 97th version of this I way ready to gouge out my eyeballs with a 5ml plastic medicine spoon.
  • At this point  I will tell them that it is, of course, possible to write about a bloody obvious topic and still get good marks. Less likely but possible. I may have awarded some decent marks to the Lightwater Valley posse. I simply don’t recall.
  • Then I tell them that I do however recall giving full marks to one little gem of a candidate who wrote the same start to the story and then anticipated that I was going to find this a tad predictable, so then veered off David Mitchell style into a different genre. And then repeated this trick (convincingly I might add) in each paragraph: sci-fi, bildungsroman, romance pastiche, western etc. I’ll never forget that one, I tell them,  and we’re going back a while.
  • We then have a talk about how they could do something a bit different to subvert the question. Recently we looked at a spirit-crushing Q5: Describe a time when you couldn’t see things clearly. They banned writing about a) power cuts b) being stuck out in the dark c) waking up in the middle of the night confused. Instead they came up with 1. being blindfolded before a firing squad 2. being buried alive (they know I like the macabre stuff) and 3. A small event that changed their view of someone forever. Much more interesting, they agreed.
  • Then we have a look at the mark scheme which confirms that this gives them more of a chance of higher marks, with phrases like ‘uses satire/irony/manipulates the reader’.
  • Then I remind them that this is basically an opportunity to show off their writing and nobody, least of all their tired and resentful examiner, cares too figs whether any of this is actually true or not.  Indeed, being ‘you’ i.e. a 15-year-old pupils writing about ‘yourself’ is usually the most stultifying thing you can do. Be an octogenarian looking back over their life. A single mother of three teenagers. An astronaut. A hitman. An apple growing on a tree waiting to be picked.
  • At this point they normally say ‘So sir, this is like… CREATIVE writing?’
  • And at that stage, we start writing.

What about Q6 (or any other writing to argue cobblers), I hear you ask. Pretty much the same, I answer. I’ll show you how next time.

Thanks for reading,



Comparing literature texts in an exam

In this blog series I started out with a few general principles for comparing texts. Then I moved on to comparing unseen texts in a GCSE language exam. This final (I think) blog on comparison will put forward my preferred method for teaching links between literature texts with some examples, and will also look at how to make sophisticated comparisons.

Firstly, a reminder that pupils who turn up with the intention of winging it by finding comparisons on the day rarely do well. As an examiner you can just tell when they are grabbing at straws and making increasingly tenuous links between the texts. Bear in mind again that the most effective way to compare – in my experience – is to analyse the key quotes that you fancy and then link the respective effects on the reader (or themes or feelings, which is often the same thing). So it makes perfect sense to plan these comparisons out and, crucially, practise these repeatedly in advance. To see if they work. And if they don’t then ditch them and start again. This way, I pretty much guarantee you, pupils can compare anything with anything. But don’t some poems naturally ‘go better’ with others though, I hear you say? To some extent yes. Yet going down the route of linking texts in an obvious way can often lead to predictable, formulaic responses that are less likely to attract higher band marks. It also drastically cuts down the options if pupils are given a named poem (or two) that they dislike. My way means they can have a favourite poem “banked” that will go with the poem given, rather than the recommended poems that ‘link together nicely’.

The revision guides tend to adopt this safety first approach, nudging candidates towards poems that snuggle up cosily with each other, like this example on the AQA poetry Conflict cluster (which I teach and mark as an external examiner):


And this is undoubtedly useful. Knowing which poems link on the theme of patriotism is helpful. Being able to say ‘Poem X is written in the first person, Poem Y is also written in the first person’ is significantly less helpful. I’ve always taught my pupils to use this kind of grid as a starting point and then move on to more interesting links. Such as:

  1. Perception: many poems – whether autobiographical or persona-driven – present the ideas and experiences through a particular lens, clear or distorted (or a combination of the two). The Conflict poems, for example, can all be linked through the effect of the ideas of perception:

Conflict poems linking on the theme of perception – some example quotes

Flag‘blind you conscience to the end’

OOTB‘are your eyes believing’

Mametz Wood‘a dance macabre’

The Yellow Palm‘a glass coffin’

The Right Word‘a boy who looks like your son, too’

ATB 1979‘the autumn soil continued on the other side with the same colour’

Belfast Confetti ‘it was raining exclamation marks’

Poppies ‘sellotape bandaged’

Futility ‘whispering of fields half-sown’

COTLB ‘When can their glory fade?’

Bayonet Charge ‘The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye’

The Falling Leaves ‘like snowflakes wiping out the noon’

COCB ‘the icy adorable lake’

ntocgai ‘what could be more beautiful than these heroic happy dead’

Hawk Roosting ‘my eye has permitted no change’

2. Other fundamental themes that are central to the genre/category of text being studied. In conflict poetry, virtually everybody is going to write about loss of life and how war is generally a bad thing. Why can’t we give pupils a more challenging, interesting but clearly understandable way of looking at the texts? Another example:

How do the Conflict poems support or challenge the concept of Kleos?

Kleos (Greek: κλέος) is the Greek word often translated to “renown”, or “glory”. It is related to the word “to hear” and carries the implied meaning of “what others hear about you”. A Greek hero earns kleos through accomplishing great deeds, often through his own death.

Here’s an extract from The Iliad that nicely sums up the level of personal sacrifice that leads to Kleos:

“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I will not return alive but my name will live for ever (kleos): whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” –Achilles

A developed investigation of Kleos might be attained through a resource like this:

cleos and tennyon and hughs

For Relationship poetry the fundamental theme might be the notion of perpetual conflict between lovers/families. After all, relationship poems that merely espouse the beauty or perfection of one’s love or offspring are unremittingly dull. A typically clear-cut quotation from Oscar Wilde might provoke more interesting comparisons than the normal links on whether the love is requited or not:

‘Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship.’

By now some of you may be thinking that this is all well and good for top sets but surely beyond the realm of lower ability pupils. To begin with possibly, yet I would argue that with a little perseverence there is little difference in talking about themes of patriotism (love of one’s country) and Kleos (willing to die an honorable death for one’s country). So why bother you ask? Isn’t this just unnecessary fancy language? I think not. One reason is that it offers a more nuanced view into the idea of personal sacrifice (exploring the idea that celebrates the bravery of a soldier in a morally unjust war for example). Another reason is that it allows us to contextualise the texts way beyond the scope of the literary heritage/contemporary selection we are given. In Relationships clusters we might achieve this in a similar way by linking the genre back to Ovid or Petrarch. In a genuinely reflective way, rather than weak name-dropping. Which leads me on to…

3. Putting sophisticated context at the heart of comparisons

This, I agree, is difficult for some pupils. Nonetheless, with plenty of practice, this skill can become an integral part of comparing lit texts, especially if pupils are going to be preparing ‘here’s one I made earlier’ essays.

Once pupils have planned out which quotes they are going to use and have identified the effects on the reader, they can be given some memorable quotes to form part of their comparison of effects. For example:

War quotes

‘To consider people in their relation to war is, almost inevitably, to think in categorical and binary terms – combatant and civilian, men and women, young and old, injured and healthy, prewar and postwar, enemy and friend.’

Sarah Cole, ‘People in War’ Cambridge Companion to War Writing (2009)

‘…the distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence.’

Wendle Berry, ‘A Poem of Difficult Hope’ (1990)

‘Reporting on war is a profoundly disillusioning experience… the abnormal becomes routine … war zones distort reality. War consists of thousands of acts of individual cruelty.’

Jeremy Bowen, On the Frontline (BBC Documentary 2012)

‘The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.’

Joseph Stalin

Relationship quotes

‘Francis Meres recorded exuberantly in 1598 that ‘the sweete witty soule… lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare.’

‘The wayward nature of erotic desire is a major theme in Ovid’

Amorous Rites: Elizabethan Erotic Verse, Sandra Clark (1994)

‘The repertoire of denouements [for stories about love] is fairly limited: marriage, splitsville, murder, and mutual annihilation.’

Louis Menand, The New Yorker, (1997)

‘it’s a formula that the best writers deviate from, refresh, or subvert…by using language that makes universal emotions seem unique, or, at least, ne’er so well expressed.’

Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker, (2014)

‘Simply to say “I love you” or “you’re beautiful” is not interesting. Remember William Carlos Williams’ advice about writing – there is no truth but in things.”

Andrew Motion, The Guardian  (2015)

What would this look like in practice?

Duffy’s use of the gunslinger motif offers an original take on what Louis Menand called ‘the denouement… of mutual annihilation’. By contrast the speaker of Khalvati’s poem is less interested in damaging the object of their desire and is willing to embrace a one-sided self ‘annihilation’.

It is possible, of course, to be sophisticated in the use of context without the bother of having to remember a few more quotes from ‘other readers’. A Band 6 example below illustrates this:

It’s interesting to note that Owen’s savage indictment of the callousness – ‘move him into the sun’ – of the generals shares similarities with Tennyson’s more muted criticism – ‘someone had blunder’d’ – of the Light Brigade commanders.  Both despair at the ineptitude of the upper echelons yet they also leave the responsible ‘someone’ anonymous.  Owen does this to create a sense of universal indifference, whilst Tennyson, in his role as Britain’s poet propagandist, does so out of a contrasting need for discretion.

However, choosing quotes that get to the universality of the theme of conflict or relationships (or character or place if you’re mad enough to subject pupils to those poems for an exam!) means that pupils might only need to memorise one especially juicy quote that will elevate really good comparisons to an even higher plane. The Band 6 effort from above would be even better with a bit of Kleos or ‘absolute despair is silence’.

Let’s not make comparison a mere tag on then. I know it’s a hard skill to master. Hopefully though, these last three blogs having given you a few ideas about how to make the skills explicit enough for pupils to make those vital links.

Comparing texts – next steps – GCSE English language

Last time we looked at general advice for comparison of texts. This blog will look at comparison in more detail by breaking down the steps further.

Before doing this, it’s helpful to pause for a minute and consider the difference between comparing for GCSE English language (current specs: non-fiction; new specs: a combo of ‘literary’ fiction extracts and non-fiction from across the centuries) and GCSE English literature exams (current specs: comparison of poems; new specs: comparison of poems including unseen poetry). Why does this matter? Well, there’s a big difference between comparing something that you have only just read and something that you’ve been studying for up to two years. All teachers worth their Maldon sea salt, advertise the fact that it’s a good idea to plan your comparisons in advance of a lit exam but I’m not sure they always show explicitly how to do this. (I’ll return to this in my next installment).

However, in lang exams- for example the notorious AQA Q4 on the current spec – you are obviously not going to be able to this in advance, but there are still ways to teach the comparison skill that help avoid shoddy linkage.

For the purpose of this blog, let’s start with the unseen stuff on language papers. I said last time that comparing themes/feelings/effect on reader is the most effective way to compare. On Q4 lang pupils will need to pick out say three quotes from each text, preferably with juicy language features. This is usually not too much of a hardship. The problems begin when you ask pupils to now plan out their comparisons. At this stage they often complain that they can’t find two that ‘go together’, let alone enough for three meaningful links. This is usually because they are, in my opinion, planning the wrong way round. Or at least the most difficult way round. What pupils need to do it this:

  1. Start with two quotes (one from each source) that contains interesting language features and notable key words. Ones that they feel confident analysing.
  2. Annotate quote 1 briefly (while they are reading the text for the first time ideally), picking out the language feature/key words/word class/sentence form/synonyms or connotations for the key words.
  3. Make sure they include the all important effect(s) on the reader.
  4. Repeat for quote 2.
  5. Only then do they try and find the links: namely, the effect on the reader (or themes or feelings if they struggle with this). Simply put – is the effect different or similar. Hey presto, you’ve got yourself a comparison.
  6. Write up the PEA 1/PEA 2/ Compare.
  7. Repeat for quotes 3 and 4. Then write up. Then do quotes 5 and 6. Then write up. Finished.

The annotations will look something like this:


Doing it this way has the following advantages over trying to spot a general link between the texts and then looking for quotes to support:

  • You get to write about the quotes that you like. The ones that have the best language and, crucially, the ones you understand.
  • It forces you to focus on effect on reader, which is a key skill for language anaylsis as well.
  • You generally make meaningful comparisons (it avoids banal offerings such as ‘this uses a metaphor, this also uses a metaphor’ or ‘Source 1 is positive but Source 3 is negative).
  • It helps you spot opportunities for developed comparisons, like in my example above. Pupils who can reflect on similarities and differences within the same comparison are likely to move into the highest mark band.
  • You compare as you go, throughout the answer, allowing greater opportunity for comparison marks and avoiding forgetting it at the end. After all, this method makes it a  central part of your planning.
  • You can compare anything with anything (I call this “apples and oranges” rather than trying to find another citrus fruit). Remember to continually emphasise that contrasts are just as valid as similarities; pupils need to get away from the idea of stuff ‘going together’.


I’ll return to planning comparisons for literature exams soon (with a bit of context thrown in too).

Thanks for reading,