AQA English Language Exam Insights 2019, by Beverley Emm

Exam Insights

We’re now three years into what is still being referred to as the ‘new spec’, and students, teachers and examiners have settled into a pattern of expectation: most students know what to do in the exam, teachers teach it and examiners examine it.

Something is obviously working because results continue to get better year on year, but with each series, areas where students could improve become increasingly apparent.

What follows are five key points, taken from the June 2019 Reports on the Examination, which could help your students to focus on these areas and therefore become even more successful:

1. Count when it helps – but not when it doesn’t!

Q1 is the most straight-forward question on both Paper 1 and Paper 2, and the number of responses required by the student is specified: in Paper 1 they have to find four things in the given lines about the given focus and in Paper 2 they have to find the four statements that are true out of the eight listed.

Students should definitely count in Paper 2, and select precisely four – no more and no less. If more than four statements are selected there is an automatic reduction of marks.

However, it will probably benefit students not to count so much in Paper 1! Here they should find at least four things, because a mark is awarded for each correct point and incorrect points are ignored. As long as they still only spend a couple of minutes on this question, an extra one or two points can be usefully included.

2. Be specific when analysing language.

Analysing language is one of the harder skills students have to demonstrate, and they have to do it in both papers: Q2 on Paper 1 and Q3 on Paper 2. The most effective way to approach these questions is to focus on a specific word or language feature and zoom in on it – commenting on punctuation or sentences often proves less successful. Students need to consider the effect of their chosen example within the context of the source, and they should avoid generalisations – ‘it catches the reader’s attention’ or ‘it makes us want to read on’ are merely Level 1 effects. The best advice is to think about what the writer wants us, the reader, to understand about the source by choosing that word or language feature. Go beyond generic comments and be specific to the situation.

3. Don’t forget the methods.

Q4 is the most demanding of the Reading questions on both Paper 1 and Paper 2 because students are expected to demonstrate a number of key skills: in Paper 1 they have to evaluate the relevant ideas in the source and also the effects of the writer’s methods used to convey these ideas; and in Paper 2 they have to compare the writers’ ideas and perspectives and also comment on the effects of the writers’ methods used to convey these ideas and perspectives.

Evaluating or comparing ideas is often less of a problem for students than analysing methods – sadly, methods are frequently an afterthought or even ignored altogether! However, students need to understand that it is essential to consider the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ in order to access the full range of marks. 

Sometimes adopting a method-driven approach can be beneficial, especially in Paper 1. Responses that lead with methods will naturally and seamlessly develop into the interpretation of ideas when these methods are contextualised, and this approach may help students to remember to cover all the necessary key skills.

4. Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to vocabulary…

The quality of vocabulary is one of the skills rewarded in Paper 1 Q5, which requires students to write imaginatively, and Paper 2 Q5, which requires students to write discursively, and of course they should be encouraged to include more complex vocabulary when appropriate.

Unfortunately, some students enter the exam room armed with a suitcase full of ‘sophisticated vocabulary’ to slot into their responses at all costs, and fail to appreciate that this is not the route to success!

Complex vocabulary needs to be seamlessly integrated if it is to add to the quality of Section B responses. Including over-ambitious words that sound sophisticated but are contrived and frequently mis-used only serves to obscure meaning, and does not make for a fluent and engaging piece of writing.

5. …..nor when it comes to length!

Students should be encouraged to adopt a quality rather than quantity approach when it comes to Section B Writing – a shorter, crafted response is always better than a longer, rambling one.

In Paper 1, students sometimes start ambitious narratives but manage to get no further than establishing a setting or a character before they run out of time. In Paper 2, writing at great length makes it far harder for them to sustain the clarity of their argument. In both papers, the overall cohesion of the response, as well as the accuracy of technical skills, becomes diminished with excessive length.

Students need the confidence to take time to plan, and then craft a shaped and structured response in two or three sides, leaving time at the end to revise and improve. This way they will not set out to achieve the impossible in the time given.

AQA GCSE English Language

Beverley Emm is the coauthor of AQA GCSE English Language: Student Book 1: Developing the skills for learning and assessment