Falling to pieces: common mistakes with AQA Language Paper 1 – Q3 Structure

I’ve marked a lot of Q3 responses during the last week or so. Here’s what can, and invariably does, go wrong with this tricky little 8-marker:

  1. Using the bullet points/Re-telling the story

 Using the bullet points is a bad idea. I’m not saying they’re the most unhelpful bullet points I’ve seen in a GCSE English exam question, but they’re in the top one. As well as encouraging an unhelpful tick list approach to the text, they also actively encourage weaker candidates to re-tell the story, with comments like:

‘At the beginning of the text the boy is sat waiting for his parents to pick him up but as the text develops the writer changes the focus on to him thinking about what he’s going to have for his tea. At the end of the text he never gets his meal and goes to bed hungry.’

How to avoid your pupils doing this: tell them to ignore the bullet points completely

  1. Writing about language

 Pupils might well produce beautiful analysis on the use of personification at the start of the extract, but it won’t be credited, as it isn’t the focus of the question. Unless pupils can show how language (e.g. repetition, use of short sentences and so on) contributes to an overall structural pattern, then it will go unrewarded. That’s not to say that pupils shouldn’t ever focus on key words or phrases, but they must be used to support comments about structural features, rather than looking at language in isolation.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: when giving feedback highlight the amount of wasted words they’ve written due to a sole focus on language

  1. Not identifying structural features

 Pupils might not need to use complex terminology when writing about structure, yet I find giving pupils some common structural features to focus on allows them to write about structure more convincingly. Vague comments like ‘the feelings change halfway through’, usually become more confident when framed as ‘a disruption in the equilibrium’, as knowledge of the feature encourages students to be more precise about when things have gone awry and what the implications are.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: teach them a few generic features that crop up frequently. I came up with the mnemonic SPENT (Spatial shifts, Patterns, Exposition, Narrative time, Todorov’s narrative stages) for my class, but you could probably trim this down even further for struggling pupils

  1. Ignoring the effect on the reader

 Having said that, you can identify structural features all day long, but they’re pretty useless without a clear explanation of why they’ve been used by the writer. It might well seem helpful to point out that the narration comes from a third person perspective, but it’s an unwelcome example of feature-spotting if it doesn’t spell out exactly how this adds to a sense of tension for the reader.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: say or write ‘so what?’ every time they pick out a feature without explaining the wider meaning

  1. No evidence

 Similarly, writing about structure in general without using evidence, to pinpoint specific turning points or key features, is usually indicative of a pupil that hasn’t really understood why a writer has put the text together in a particular way. Often structural features are lobbed in randomly without any real sense that the pupil knows what they actually mean.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: initially, lots of live modelling then practice on single paragraphs. It’s better to do one well than three badly

  1. Meaningless attempts to identify effect

 You know which phrases I mean. I’m reluctant to even mention them, lest a pupil accidentally see this and think it’s a recommended list of phrases to use. My pupils know they are banned. I tell them each time they write any of them, somewhere in the world a baby hedgehog dies:

  • Makes the reader want to read on
  • Creates an image in the reader’s head
  • Makes the reader want to find out what happens next
  • Grabs their attention for the rest of the novel
  • Puts the reader on the edge of their seat

Of course writers structure their texts in a way that encourages a reader to want to keep reading. It would be a brave writer that deliberately intended to discourage a reader from reading any further. Even Finnegan’s Wake was constructed in the hope that people might want to keep on reading it. As such, these phrases need to be excised from your pupil’s work with extreme prejudice. Even if they use the phrase as a springboard for identifying precisely how the technique makes a reader want to continue they may have deflated the examiner’s sense of hope for life in general at the first sight of the abomination.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: have a banned list. Refer to it frequently. Mark very harshly for pupils who use prohibited terms in mock exams. See @heymrshallahan’s excellent ‘alternatives for… resource’

  1. Hyperbolic interpretations of effect

 Conversely, pupils can get a bit carried away by effect, leading to sentences like this:

‘The spatial shift of the character ‘walking into the shadows’ clearly signifies that he is destined for eternal damnation in the sulphurous fires of Hell. As a result, at this point of the text, the reader will feel utterly traumatised and will not be able to sleep for 72 hours, such is the haunting effect of this totally terrifying movement into the world of the Satanic.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: use my example above, or create similarly breathless exaggerations. Get them to critique it. They’ll soon stop.



3 thoughts on “Falling to pieces: common mistakes with AQA Language Paper 1 – Q3 Structure

  1. I think you raise such valid points here! Having marked Paper 1 last year, it was soul destroying seeing how many pupils received low marks on a question that could be easily achievable.
    I’ve often found, for some pupils, that physically allowing them to draw lines across the page gives them a visual understanding of shifts that occur so that they aren’t just guessing, which is what some weaker pupils tend to do. Using this alongside your mnemonic could work really well!


  2. Really useful and thought provoking. I’m definitely going to be using some of my gained time to work on improving how we teach structure. I wondering if you had a link to the resource you mention “@heymrshallahan’s excellent ‘alternatives for… resource’”. I’ve had a scroll through her twitter feed but can’t see it. Thanks.


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