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Yes, you absolutely CAN revise for English GCSEs – here’s how

Who says students can’t revise for English? Zoe Enser sets out the practices and strategies that will see them triumph on exam day…

Zoe Enser
by Zoe Enser
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Persuasive writing – Advice for KS3 and KS4 English students

One of the most pernicious misconceptions that circulates around the English classroom is that there’s no way to revise for the subject. This is closely followed by another pernicious myth that ‘There’s no best way to revise’.

Both claims are categorically false, but then what is the best way of getting students to know what they need to do once those English mocks start looming?

My first port of call is to hit them with science – if we understand why we’re doing something, we’re much more likely to invest in doing it. I tell students that when we revise, we’re aiming build schemas in the long-term memory. The act of revising brings information you’ve already learnt into your working memory, so that it can be used it in a flexible way to answer new questions. That’s why we need to ensure that said information has been covered in the first place, and that it’s been stored properly.

Start early

In practice, this means that revision in English needs to begin as early as possible – preferably right at the start of the course. Failing that (as is likely to be the case), we must ensure that certain knowledge is well and truly embedded, and that you know what your gaps are in order to fill them. There’s little point in missing key lessons on a topic and doing nothing about it; teachers are good at circling back round to information in a course, but if you keep missing every lesson on Wordsworth’s The Prelude, your priority should be to read it and learn about it.

I model a few different techniques with students to ensure they’re able to efficiently retrieve, reorganise and fill gaps, reflecting on the advice suggested by John Dunlosky’s article ‘Strengthening the Student Toolbox’ (see I’m quick move them away from busy and inefficient practices, like reading over the text, or using heavy streaks of highlighting without consideration of what said highlighting is for. Instead, I use regular, short sessions to complete the below activities:

Revision clocks

This involves giving students an outline of a clock, divided into 12 blank segments (A3 size works well). They then add information to the segments, taking 5 minutes to complete each one (out of the 60 minutes represented by the clock), thus breaking their revision down into manageable chunks. This activity can work well in any subject, though for English I’ll get the students to complete revision clocks based on key themes, concepts and characters. It’s important to not cover too wide a topic, or else the completed segments can end up being rather superficial.

I’ll get them to practise doing this in class after modelling the process, so that they can see how it works. I’ll insist that they spend their full allocation of time really thinking hard about the concept, rather than moving on to another topic too quickly. This is done ‘closed book’, so that they’re encouraged to retrieve as much as possible. Since they’re the ones selecting the information they want to include, they’re drawing on a generative learning process.

Having spent time focusing on the concept, we’ll then look at an exemplar, perhaps developed as part of the learning process, and note where the gaps are. This demands willpower and hard work, but if the students understand the science involved, they’ll be much more likely to work on it without giving up.

Flash cards

Similarly useful across a range of different subjects, these are especially handy for internalising bodies of knowledge and key English terminology. Writing flashcards for specific texts that contain key quotes relating to, say, certain themes and ideas can be a powerful revision process in itself. You can then couple this with the principles of spaced or distributed practice, getting students to organise the cards into different piles they can return to on different days. If you can ensure that the information on the cards is indeed stored, you’ll have the makings of something really powerful.

Remember that it’s important for students to see where they’re struggling and where their knowledge gaps are – allow them to decide which chapters in a text to return to, or what vocabulary they may need to revisit.

Cornell notes

This note-taking system can be a really useful way of helping students organise their revision notes, while also providing them with opportunities to self-test. It can work particularly well when reading through chapters of a text, watching a Shakespeare play or listening to a lecture. Students simply divide a page into three sections – notes in a larger main section, key questions or revision topics down one side and an optional space at the bottom for summing up.

The main notes might comprise bullet points, sentences, diagrams and maps or some other generative activity that’s reliant on selecting, organising and integrating information into their schema. The space at the bottom is there to provide a quick summary that students can use to review key topic information. If, for example, students were to produce a page of Cornell notes for each poem in a series, chapter of a book or character in a play, they would eventually have their very own home-grown revision booklet, complete with quiz questions at the side of every page for ‘check and answer’ purposes. Doing this will also let teachers quickly check if there are any misconceptions.

What about language?

The above revision techniques are easy to apply to literature topics, where there’s a clear body of knowledge to accompany each text, but they can seem less practical for the largely unseen texts and tasks of English language study.

However, language still involves learning specific vocabulary – the structural or rhetorical devices specific to non-fiction texts, for example. There are also processes when approaching language questions that are quite distinct from essay-style literature responses, which students need to be familiar with. Self-testing techniques are still very much relevant when it comes to achieving the fluency and agility demanded by language papers in the exam room.

Students should get used to completing deliberate practise tasks for both language and literature topics. They should take the opportunity to read and annotate, plan their responses and answer longer questions as part of their revision. It can be useful to turn these into distinct homework tasks and encourage the systematic approaches above, so that they’re able to focus on knowledge and retrieval – something which will help them considerably when they come to attempt those longer exam responses that are designed bring their knowledge together.

Whatever they end up doing, your students need to be making sure that information is being retrieved, reconsidered and then stored all over again. The more they do this, the more they’ll ultimately retain. The more intricate their schema, the more the new information will adhere to the old.

More importantly, good revision relies on elements of metacognition. Students need to be aware of what they have available to them in relation to a text and the knowledge they possess. They then need to be clear where they may have gaps, and ensure they have the materials – be it lesson notes or revision materials you’ve provided – they need to restudy.

Above all, they must be clear that they’ll need to test themselves repeatedly to ensure this information remains available to them when they need it– not just tomorrow, or next week, but during the mock, the actual exam in summer and any time after that. This calls for a careful and systematic approach, and will involve hard work. There are no shortcuts.

It doesn’t matter if their revision materials look pretty (unless that makes it more likely that they’ll actually use them). But they will need to be focused, designed for regular practice and able to get the relevant information stored in their heads for life.

Zoe Enser is a specialist advisor for English at The Education People; for more information, visit or follow @greeborunner

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