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Cracking Open GCSE English Language: A Granular Method of Preparation

Updated: 10/10/2021

So, cards on the table: I don’t like the English Language GCSE. I don’t think it does a very good job of assessing, well, English Language. I think it does a good job of assessing student knowledge about other things (say, surf boards) but not the domain it seeks to assess.

This causes a big problem for English teachers. It makes it really difficult to teach English Language. Why? Because, in a very real sense, there isn’t really anything to teach. There is no knowledge domain attached to the English Language GCSE, nothing for a teacher to stand up at the front of the class to teach. I suspect the person who designed the specification was very much of the mind that ‘English is a skills based subject’. It’s not, so preparing students for English Language is a problem because the GCSE is designed as though it was. The GCSE assesses prior knowledge that cannot be anticipated or taught rather than the prior knowledge that belongs to the disciplinary domain of English Language.

How might we navigate this issue? How might we teach an exam that is, in a sense, unteachable? I wanted to try to think of a system that was as targeted as possible, a way of building up to those responses and cultivating the required skills in a more accumulative fashion. A more granular approach. But I also wanted to find a way to reclaim the disciplinary domain of English Language as you might encounter it at A Level or university. Here’s what I’ve done.

Cracking Open GCSE English Language

When I started to rethink my approach to teaching English Language, I wanted to move away from beginning with the expectation students would produce whole exam-style responses, even if modelled and scaffolded. Instead, I wanted to crack open the GCSE, isolate the constituent elements of each question, find ways to practise this, and then build up to the full question. My ambition was to create a foundation out of which would grow the opportunity for students to engage much more meaningfully with a varied and rich diet of fiction and non-fiction, whilst still explicitly targeting the required skills demanded by the exam.

But, what would this look like in reality? And how would it translate to what I did in the classroom? I started to design a preparation booklet that sought to do exactly this, going through multiple drafts and many edits, always trying to be as granular as possible.

Here, then, are some examples of what this looks like for Paper 1, Question 2, although the same principles have been applied to all questions of the Language GCSE. The first thing I do is to introduce students to the question as a whole in order to situate the work we are about to do within the context of the exam they will ultimately sit, which looks like this:

I begin by explaining the format of the question itself and then introduce the Big Question for that specific question. This helps to provide a conceptual hook and a thread that unites the various tasks we’ll complete. Once we’ve gone through this together, I’ll explain to them that the way we’re going to prepare is to break down the question into its smallest elements and work through them together one by one before building up to a full response. Here, then, is Task 1:

Beginning with the principle that I wanted to break each question into its constituent elements and practise those, I asked myself what is Question 2 ultimately assessing? The student’s ability to explore specific instances of language and their effect on the reader. Let’s begin, then, I thought, with the most basic element — the word. Task 1 seeks to encourage students to think about meaning and effect at the level of a single word by asking them to consider why a specific word might have been chosen by the writer and the effect it has in the context of the given image.

It is certainty true that these basics would have been covered and explicitly taught at KS3 and so this will likely be covering old ground, but it is no bad thing to review and refresh, as well as offering a chance to assess any possible gaps in understanding. I might then include a couple more of this style of task before moving on. As an aside, you may recognise the image from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, fronting a subsequent textual exploration that I know I’ll have with the class.

Moving forward a couple of tasks but still Question 2, here’s what Task 4 looks like:

By this point, students would have had the opportunity to practise analysing specific words, thinking about why they might have been chosen as opposed to other words, and the specific effect they provoke. I wanted now to think about how individual words combine with others to generate an accumulative effect within an entire image, which is what Task 4 seeks to achieve. But, I wanted to keep in mind the overall ethos of maintaining a granular approach and so offered a prompt as to where to direct their interpretative focus by underlining certain words. This also provides a great opportunity to pause and really think about what we mean by images that are dense or rich, what I personally call ‘divable images’. Those images students ought to really dive into and gravitate towards.

With this discussion fresh in their minds, we move to Task 5:

Now is the opportunity is think about how the writer shapes meaning using language across an entire extract, the ways in which the words and images come together to create effect. But, students will approach this, having already thought about and practised the necessary skills. What are the divable images? Why this word and not another? How do the words and images come together? Still, though I don’t want to rush ahead and instead I ask them to select just two divable images, making consideration of such images explicit. The key, I tell them, is to discuss fewer images but say multiple things about them.

At this point in the preparation booklet, we pause and redirect our focus specifcially to the exam by pinning down the success criteria for this question and discussing together a model response, picking it apart and looking at the ways in which it manifests those skills we’ve already been working on:

Having thought about and worked through the model response, students are now met with Task 7:

Here, they are asked to analyse and think about specific images and words as well as the cumulative effect of those language choices, all of which has already been undertaken in previous tasks, but now they need to analyse overall effect in a sustained written response. You may notice also mention of a ‘mini-mock’: at the back of the booklet there are three mini-mocks that are used throughout, either for the modelled responses, scaffolded questions, or, as with the next task, independent work.

Having now considered the specific effect of single words as well as the cumulative effect of several related images as well as discussing a model answer and attempting their own scaffolded extended response, the time has arrived. It is time for them to attempt a full Language Paper 1 Question 2:

Whilst the above are all taken from Paper 1 Question 2, the same driving ethos has been applied to all questions, with each question having its fundamental elements isolated and refined, moving deliberately with a granular focus.

What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?

Let’s imagine, then, that each student has a copy of this booklet, but what happens next? How is it actually enacted in the classroom? Slowly, deliberately, and with everything modelled and modelled again.

The biggest mistake that I feel could be made with this booklet is to treat it as a workbook for independent practice. Even though the Tasks are sequenced in such a way as to encourage a scaffolded approach to each question, their success depends upon explicit teacher guidance and modelling every step of the way.

I recall a number of years ago first reading Dan Willingham’s ‘Why Is It So Hard to Teach Critical Thinking?’ and being really struck by the thought that a student might know the cue that is expected, but still not how to enact it. They might know, for instance, they are expected to analyse specific words in Paper 1 Question 2, but that is not a guarantee they can successfully enact such an analysis. This has always stayed with me.

The solution, I think, is in large part lots and lots of modelling of what such analysis looks like in a range of contexts, both live modelling where the teacher is verbalising why they have selected a certain word and what to say about it, but also static modelling where an examplar is picked apart and discussed. This becomes all the more crucial in an examination like GCSE Language, where there doesn’t exist a body of knowledge that can be taught.

In my own classroom, I upload the booklet to Microsoft OneNote and annotate it with digital ink, but imagine this as more or less exactly the same as using a visualiser. This modelling can take many forms. I might, for instance, live model a response to a Task, verbalising my thought process as we go before then asking them to complete a similar task. Or, I might complete a Task at the same time that they do and then reveal this to them once they have had time to complete their own. We might then pause and discuss my response and why I did what I did as well as then immediately self-assessing their own response in light of this. Or, again, we might construct a response together, with lots of questioning as to how we’re proceeding and the decisions we’re collectively making. We do this kind of modelling before we move onto the next Task and if needed I often have a bank of similar tasks ready for extra practice, although this is often built into the booklet itself.

Here’s an example of what this might look like, taken from one of my classes using this booklet for Paper 1 Question 2:

In this particular example, students attempted this full question on their own for the first time. I completed the same task at the same time. After they had the required time, I then showed them my response and we discussed together what was good and what could be improved. They then had time to revisit their own response in light of that discussion and self-assess, using mine as a concrete point of reference.

Given that each Task in modelled in some format, by the time of completing the booklet students would have had lots and lots of opportunity to practise the constituent elements of the questions, carefully sequenced and scaffolded, with vast amounts of modelling and teacher talk.

What Comes Next? Reclaiming English Language

Whilst the preparation booklet is not intended to be completed quickly, augmented as it is by lots of modelling and explicit guidance, it still does not take up all of the time allocated to English Language over the two year course. This is by design.

The intention was always to use the booklet and the granular method of preparation it encourages as a gateway to a more meaningful engagement with a rich diet of assorted and varied texts at GCSE, especially non-fiction. Once the booklet has been completed, what we hopefully have is a class who have been introduced to and carefully worked through a series of strategies, pinned to the requirements of the exam, but in such a way that we can now seek to continue to develop and deploy these strategies away from the exam. It is here the booklet and what it hopes to facilitate comes into its own.

What this has involved is curating extracts and texts, both fiction and non-fiction, specifcially related and aligned to the actual disciplinary domain of English Language as we might think of it at A Level or undergraduate. I might, for instance, use non-fiction and fiction extracts about dialect and identity, reading and discussing newspaper articles related to media perspectives of dialect or extracts from James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late. We do continue to work towards the exam specification, perhaps by focussing on language analysis or summarising, but because we have spent so much time practicing and building up the responses via the booklet, we have bought a little more freedom in how we approach these texts.

As such, the method of preparation advocated in this post, with the booklet at its core, permits:

  1. Students to accrue requisite strategies through the practice of carefully sequenced tasks designed to isolate the component elements of the specification and provide lots of opportunity for modelling
  2. Teachers to reclaim the disciplinary domain of English Language by creating the space and foundational proficiency to expose students to aspects of, for instance, sociolinguistics or regional variance

A Final Caveat

The methodology this post outlines is a proposed solution to the problems created by the GCSE as it currently exists. Of course, a better solution is to completely rethink the English Language GCSE, stop it from continuing to be a thinly veiled assessment of general knowledge, and allow teachers to teach English language as a subject in its own right. Yet, for the moment, we have the GCSE we have and hopefully this post offers some thoughts as to how we might navigate it.

The Booklets

With massive thanks to Laura Webb (@ LauraLolder) whose previously shared mini-mocks are used as part of these booklets. Laura has shared these mini-mocks before via Twitter and they are hugely helpful.

Language Paper 1 Booklet (with space for students to write): (UPDATED 31/12/2020)

Language Paper 1 Booklet (without space for students to write): (UPDATED 31/12/2020)

Language Paper 2 Booklet: (UPDATED 10/10/2021)

Old version of the booklets: Since originally posting this, I have updated the booklets, making slight changes. I have introduced the use of Big Questions and tweaked the sequencing of a couple of tasks. The above links are to the most recent version of the booklets, but the below links to the old version should you prefer to continue with it.

Language Paper 1 Booklet (with space for students to write): (OLD)

Language Paper 1 Booklet (without space for students to write): (OLD)

Language Paper 2 Booklet (without space for students to write):

Language Paper 2 Booklet (with space for students to write):


3 thoughts on “Cracking Open GCSE English Language: A Granular Method of Preparation

Add yours

  1. HI I’m really impressed by the booklet and I’d like to try using it but I can’t find the mini-mocks that your refer to. Is this something you are able to share?


    1. Hey Dany. Really glad you like the look of the booklet. The mocks are in the back of the booklet so everything’s in one place. Hope it helps!


  2. Just downloaded and going through. Surprisingly, a few years ago when I was HOEnglish, after experimented the year before, I decided to treat each question as a skill to be developed and perfected. Lessons were tailored to develop each skill.
    We tried this approach and the results were fantastic! I have no doubt this resource will add a new dimension to my craft, so I can further help my students to navigate the English papers better. Many thanks!


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