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Calling all English teachers: does this sound familiar? You’ve read a GCSE text with your class, and used resources you’ve painstakingly made in order to get them thinking more deeply.
As you go through extracts in the last lesson on Friday afternoon, you ask carefully crafted questions, and note with satisfaction how students shoot their hands up in a flash, like Barry Allen on the run.
You collect a pile of books containing essays, and plonk them in the boot of your car, smiling at the moments of brilliance you expect to see in your students’ work. Later, back at home, you mark them. And that’s when your world comes to an abrupt stop.
What went wrong? Because what you are seeing doesn’t remotely resemble what you taught – were you even in the room? Why on earth have they included that quote, when this one would clearly have been a much better choice, leading to some fantastic analysis?
Could it be… because you didn’t actually prepare them properly for what they needed to do?
Despite timetable constraints and pressure for schools, I strongly advise reading any GCSE text cover to cover with students.
This may sound obvious – but, blasphemous though many will find it, I’ve heard rumours of schools simply handing out extracts with summaries to bridge the gaps in missing knowledge and content.
However, the only way students will be able to write articulate essays is if they know the text inside out.
Moreover, whether we like it or not, pupils need to understand the exam specification. This doesn’t mean teaching to the test, but they do need to know what to do so that they can move up the levels on a mark scheme, and this means recognising the language of that mark scheme.
Each exam board uses the same Assessment Objectives, but they’re weighted differently across the two papers for each board. Some need context, some are a comparison, and so on. You and your students should know them inside out.
For the English literature GCSE exam, students have to write an articulate essay to an unseen question, sustained over the whole piece, in about 30-60 mins (depending on question/exam board), showing clear understanding of the text and context, all whilst under pressure.
As teachers, we have to prepare them as much as possible. Five minutes planning an essay could ensure students don’t go off track because they’ve lost the question focus.
And teaching how to write effective introductions helps pupils not only to focus the start of the essay, but also to shape the direction and their ideas for the rest of their response.
Students need to consider the question, character or theme, at all times. A literature exam will always consider what the text is about, for example the actual content and themes or ideas the author is exploring.
The other consideration is how the text is written – so, the techniques used by the author through language, structural features, setting, characters etc. These are the key elements pupils should be covering in their responses:
Finally, of course, students need to finish their essay with a conclusion that summarises the author’s intent covering the question and their initial introduction.
For further help and guidance, try the following:
Fiona Ritson is an English teacher in the South East of England. Find her on twitter, @AlwaysLearnWeb, where she regularly shares KS3 and 4 resources with #TeamEnglish.
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