What I know…about teaching AQA English Language Paper 1

I was told recently that I don’t shout enough about my expertise…and  maybe I don’t, but I am also someone who believes that expertise in teaching takes time, reflection, a willingness to adapt and to scrutinise very carefully how well something has worked. It takes time and patience. If you read any of my other blogs, you will know that I am someone who likes to have trialled something in my practice for a considerable amount of time before I impart my knowledge. As teachers, we are rarely experts in all aspect of our practice, but we come to a point where we are knowledgeable enough to support and advise others.

Since their arrival in 2017, I have come to know the AQA GCSE Language papers very well. Across that time I have marked literally thousands of exam papers, analysed results, exam scripts, examiners reports and individual responses right down to question level across every cohort. I have worked across two schools in that time, leading and planning schemes of work for the Language papers, running student intervention sessions for every question and running  CPD on both the teaching and marking of the exam papers. So, I feel pretty confident in the knowledge that I have and am about to share, which will hopefully be useful to both new and more experienced teachers.

One thing that I think is key in in all of this, however, is that to get the absolute best results for students at GCSE, we have to consider how we teach the skills at KS3 so that we are not teaching from scratch at KS4. What I don’t mean by this, however, is that we explicitly teach the exam questions right from year 7, because KS3 is there to inspire and to challenge, not just as the bit between SATs and GCSEs. How it should work is that the skills are interleaved within schemes of work. It is easy for example, to look at the structure of a text when looking at extracts from dystopian fiction (1984 and Fahrenheit 451 are excellent for this), so that students understand the importance of considering structure, not only in what they read, but for their own creative writing. Other skills like language analysis can be broken down so that it can be developed across KS3 because we want students to feel confident before they are expected to analyse unseen extracts at KS4. Paper 1 Question 4 asks students to respond to a statement on a text. If students aren’t used to giving their opinion, or are not confident in evaluating a text, they inevitably struggle and we don’t want them to struggle on a 20 mark question. So, at KS3 we should think about how we can introduce this skill without explicitly teaching it as a GCSE question. When looking at Great Expectations in KS3, students might therefore be given the essay question: ‘A critic said, ‘Havisham is considered one of the most intriguing and disturbing characters in literature’. To what extent do you agree? This might then serve many purposes; students are able to continue to practise the skill of essay writing, they gain confidence in expressing their opinion, they learn how to respond to a statement, they understand how a writer’s methods shape how a reader responds to a character. Students might also use what they have learnt to create their own character, thinking about what statement someone might make about their own character, and the methods they themselves use to create this impression. We can do all this, without having to explicitly teach GCSE questions at KS3.

In this blog and the next I will share what I have learnt about answering each question across the language papers, with some teaching tips…starting with Language Paper 1. At this point I must thank Sophie Hiles @HilesSophie who at my previous school spent hours and hours bouncing ideas round with me.

Question 1 – Fact retrieval (AO1)

A relatively easy question, designed to allow all students to gain some marks. However, where students can lose marks is where they do what actually we have spent years wanting them to do, and that is make inferences about the text. One or two marks can be the difference between a grade, so it is really important that it isn’t assumed that students can just get on with answering this question. Allow time to practise, talk through the question step by step, and even though the question doesn’t necessarily need it, encourage students to write simple sentences, beginning with the subject of the question so that their responses are focused. I always tell students to answer this question before they read the rest of the source, so that they aren’t thinking about the rest of the extract.

Keep practising this question every so often, use them as lesson starters, they are great as settling tasks because they don’t take up too much time in a lesson.

And then get students to mark their own or others, this allows them to see what the expectations are for a response.

I find that with we get to the point where students are able to write 4 clear facts in about 3 minutes, and it gives them the initial boost to tackle the rest of the exam paper.

Question 2 – Language Analysis (AO2)

By the time they get to this exam in year 11 and even preparation in year 10, language analysis is ideally a skill that students will feel fairly confident in tackling. The biggest difference is that often they will have looked at an extract with some contextual understanding, within a novel they have been studying, or with plenty of class discussion. So the issue is perhaps supporting students in gaining the confidence to find examples of language to write about independently, and in a relatively short amount of time.

I think one of the mistakes we can make is to focus too much on language devices. I have lost count of the number of scripts I have seen where students simply list language devices, without actually saying anything about the effect, and perhaps not even relating them to the question. It is far more important therefore that they start by focusing on what impression is being created. Often the question is focused on a character or setting, so students should initially be encouraged to look at small extracts and consider just one question:

What impression is being created of the character/setting etc?

In the example below, students were asked to simply answer the question, ‘what impression is being created of Mrs Flowers?’

Once they can articulate a response to their overall impression, then students should be asked ‘how’ that impression is created. This is where they can discuss language devices, with the added caveat that they need to explain ‘why’ the writer is using that language device. So therefore a student might think that overall she seemed a bit cold and unapproachable and it is important that they are able to articulate this understanding of the impression that is created before they dive into language techniques and the ‘how’ and ‘why’. An overarching statement in the exam before they leap into the language itself often encourages a response to stay focused.

Where students do less well is where they lead with the language technique, often because they then think that every paragraph they write needs to have a language device, and therefore the language device becomes the ‘thing’ that will get them the marks, when it reality they can write an entire response devoid of naming language devices that still scores pretty highly because of what is said about the effect of the language. There seems to be a misunderstanding that students are limited if they don’t mention language devices, which really isn’t true – if you don’t have examiners in your department that can support with this idea, call exam papers back to analyse; it really is interesting. Students should always therefore be clear that it is always the explanation of the effect of the language that should lead their response and the use of language devices should compliment that explanation. This stops students simply writing things like, ‘the writer uses a simile’ but saying nothing about the effect of that simile, but also hopefully also encourages students to write about anything that they believe creates an overall impression. What is sad is when students know that something is important to their understanding, but don’t write about it because they can’t remember the name of the technique. If they have something brilliant to say, then ‘the word’ or ‘the phrase’ is sufficient – better to do that, then not to say something they regard as important to their analysis. Of course, ideally a student will be able to seamlessly integrate language devices within their response, but without doubt the biggest impact I have seen on marks, is when students fully understand that they should start with the overall impression, and then ‘zoom’ in on the nuts and bolts of the language considering ‘how’ and ‘why’. Connotation circles/chains are also really useful, particularly with students who struggle to articulate ideas in thinking very carefully about ‘how’ the effect is created and moving them away from that focus on the device itself.

Something else that students forget is that they are able to place the section that they are analysing, within the context of the extract as a whole. For example, if the impression of a character changes later in the extract, they can discuss why this initial description might be misleading, or if the language used hints at what happens later. Students do need to be careful not to therefore analyse language outside the extract, but I always advise students to read the whole extract after answering question 1, before focusing on the lines given in the question.

Question 3 – Structure (AO2)

When we initially saw the specification for the new GCSE, this was a question that arguably caused most panic. Again, what arose out of this was lists and lists of complicated structural features – I think many of us were guilty of overcomplicating this question, when really all that mattered were two questions – what is happening and why? Again, ideally students will have looked at structure at KS3, not only when looking at a writer’s work, but also when considering the structure of their own work, so again the main issue should be the unseen aspect of the paper.

Students struggle the most with this question when there is a lack of the fundamental understanding of what is meant by structure. My degree is in English, Media and Film and I have taught A level Film Studies and the moving image as a text is often very useful and perhaps undervalued in understanding the idea of structure. I often use the opening of the television series Lost to show students how information can be drip fed to the viewer and how a story can be gradually built. Analysing short film extracts, particularly openings can really support students in their understanding of not only why information is given at certain points, but also how focus changes e.g internal to external, from one character to another, different viewpoints, close ups, long shots. flashbacks etc, all of which transfer to the written text very easily. When talking about the written text, it can also be useful for students to think about how they would film the extract if they were directing it. I have seen light bulb moments with students doing this, when they realise that a writer has purposely given the reader a piece of information before another, because the second wouldn’t make sense if it were structured differently. It also encourages them to understand narrators, for example that the narrator is omniscient because they know something about the writer’s feelings that would be difficult to convey if it were being filmed.

Once they understand the fundamentals of structure, it is much easier for students to articulate the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. In this question they need to think more carefully about what is being introduced at certain points and why the writer has chosen to include that structural feature/order.   They should see the text as a construct, thinking about the beginning, middle and end is a good place to start and then considering the journey through the text to get to the final point. Exam extracts normally have structural features that students can talk about, whether that be clear shifts in focus, time shifts, flashbacks, shifts in setting or movement from internal thought to external. They might use symbolism or repeated motifs that become a structural feature. Again, it is the explanation of the effect of these choices that gains the marks in this question.

One thing that is also hard for students to understand with this question, is that they don’t need to quote, the reference to the text does not need to be a quote. In fact, I always find that lots of modelling is needed to show how using a quote works in practice, so that they don’t fall into the trap of slipping into analysing language.

Question 4 – AO4

The biggest change in both my teaching of this question, and ultimately students marks for the individual question, came with the realisation that the evaluation is of the statement itself and that this then pushes into evaluation of the text, but within the context of that evaluation of the statement itself. Therefore, it is vitally important that students understand that concept before they move into looking at how to relate that to a text. Sophie Hiles @HilesSophie spent some time thinking about this in my previous school and came up with the idea of introducing the question with the teaching advert and two opinions of the advert (Twitter was full of plenty of opinions at the time.

Students were encouraged to evaluate each statement considering the evidence and methods used in the text (the advert). They could see how the individual teachers might have that opinions and encouraged to give reasons why each teacher thought that way. Two opposing opinions also helps them to understand how people can see the same text in a different way, but each opinion can be backed up with what is seen in the text.

Again, as mentioned before, being able to express an opinion, and to be able to understand other people’s opinions, is something that needs to be built into KS3. What we don’t want is for students to get to KS4 without that confidence to not only express their own opinion, but to be able to pick apart other’s opinions, understanding that they are always rooted in a perception of the text.

When we move on to look at the question itself, I always start with the statement. There are always two points of focus in the statement, supported by the bullet points in the question, so we start by breaking down the foci and discussing how they are different.

Once students understand the requirements of the question itself, and the statement that they are evaluating, then we move onto thinking about the ‘how’. I always model this by showing how I have taken one of the foci and thought about ‘how’ I can see where this opinion has come from in the text. One of the best ways I have found for students to really think about their analysis is to take each focus from the statement and consider, ‘they think this BECAUSE…’ and then ‘BUT is there another way of looking at this, or something else to consider’. In this case, we also looked at how if Mr Fisher’s story was better than expected, then he must have had low expectations in the first place. A modelled example is below:

I have often heard students ask, ‘do I get more marks if I disagree?’ I’m not sure where this comes from, but we need to be careful that they understand that the statement is never incorrect, it is always someone’s opinion and therefore valid. What they should do instead is consider the ‘but’ and use tentative language to consider how it ‘could’ be considered differently, not launch into a scathing review of the statement. I have found using an image from the advert they previously looked at here is really useful; they can practise verbalising sentences using tentative language before using it within their analysis.

As we all know, and I am not teaching anyone to suck eggs here, breaking down a modelled response is always extremely useful before students practise writing their own. Getting them to find examples of everything that has been discussed in lessons is always beneficial, in this case they focused on the four particular skills, but then we discussed the strength of the analysis. They were also given ‘poor’ responses that they were asked to improve.

I always make it clear as well, that both language and structural features are relevant methods for this question in fact, anything that is relevant to their evaluation. Once they feel confident, I often finds that this is one of the questions that they most enjoy, perhaps because they have that bit more time in the exam to articulate a response, but they tend to find it easier to have the statement as that focus for the answer.

Question 5 – AO5 and AO6

Question 5 probably deserves a blog of its own, it is a huge topic so I am not going into much detail here. As I have mentioned many times in this blog already, I do think the key here is that across KS3 students have built their creative writing skills so that KS4 never ends up a ‘quick, let’s teach them everything about creative writing’ course. When planning a curriculum at KS3, we can think about spreading out all the nuts and bolts of good creative writing so that KS4 can become a chance for a bit of playing around with structure, or targeted teaching of skills.

Now, I personally do have a huge issue with this question, in that they will never have to write a narrative or description in 45 minutes again, but actually if we think about it, it is the creativity that they have practised before in lessons that will shine through in the exam. Some people tell students to complete this question first, I personally allow students the freedom to choose what they feel most comfortable with whilst mooting it as an option.

Structure is essential in this question, whether it is the narrative or descriptive, a well-structured piece of writing will ultimately score more highly. KS4 should be a chance for students to move away from the typical narrative arc and start to play with structure. I have used Stuart Pryke’s @SPryke2 lessons using the Present – Flashback A – Flashback B – Present structure that student have really enjoyed and I have seen some wonderful creative examples. Students that struggle with creative ideas have really benefitted from using the structure below, it is basic, but encourages a clear structure in their work

I always encourage students to aim for 2 sides of writing in this question (depending on handwriting.) Too much and it starts to lack focus, think about the ‘and then we…and then…’ type of responses. Instead, I encourage them to focus very carefully on the crafting of their work, reminding them that we don’t need to pack in whole novels worth of events, For both, it is a small snapshot. A couple of years ago we called scripts back to analyse; the students that who receive the highest marks all wrote short but well-structured pieces and had carefully thought about their crafting of sentences and ideas.

I talked about this recently at TeachMeet Icons, but there are three books I really recommend for the teaching of creative writing (see below). Lindsay Skinner’s @lindsayjskinner is a great resource for targeted interventions and teaching one particular skill and Chris Curtis’s @Xris32 has whole sections focused on the nuts and bolts of writing, whilst Jenny Webb’s @FunkyPedagogy is just a great all round resource for understanding the writing process.

Working on those little bits e.g sentence types, paragraph types etc can not only improve writing, but also ignite creativity and ultimately increase a student’s confidence. Here are some examples of writing using some of the ideas from these books. The second typed examples were students during lockdown, who actually really engaged and anecdotally said it gave them confidence that they could write creatively when actually, all they were looking at, at that time was their own four walls

A last idea that I have found works really well is something that students certainly do later on in their school career (A level Lang/Lit courses for example) and that is to write emulating the style of an existing writer. An example I have used is the opening of Lovely Bones. Students learn how to emulate a very particular first person writing style, whilst relating it to another text that they know (bonus revision of a poem). Again this encourages them to play about with narrator and style.

This isn’t meant to be a ‘this is how you must do it’ blog, but rather a sharing of ideas that comes from several years of reflection and analysis. I’m a great believer that we don’t know what works unless we have a significant period of time where we teach, watch, reflect and adapt, and this is simply a sharing of what I have learnt through that process which I hope is useful. My next blog will look at Paper 2, a paper I am very confident with and therefore enjoy teaching – although it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea!

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