Insights from the AQA AS and A level English Language exams, by Dan Clayton

Exam

It’s now the third time through the A levels for the new (ish) reformed A level specifications, or the fourth time round if you count the AS exams (which are now sat by just a quarter of those who took them 2 years ago). That usually means that teachers and students are getting more used to the kinds of questions being asked in the exams and are feeling a bit more confident about the content and skills needed on the courses.

And that’s generally the picture emerging from the 2019 lead examiner reports for AQA English Language. I’ve summarised some of the key messages from the reports below, grouping them together by key themes.

Meanings and representations

Across the AS and A level papers, it’s vital to get students to deal with what the texts are about and what they are saying. This may seem obvious, but if you get to the end of a student’s answer on a text in which they cover address and positioning, the mode, audience and genre of the texts but are still wondering what the texts were about, it’s probably not a great response. All the reports stress the importance of engaging with meaning and organising answers around meanings and representations rather than leading with a tick list of features to spot.

This is especially important when students have to carry out the most demanding task of all – Question 3 on Paper 2 – in which they need to read and analyse two texts about language issues, assessing the ideas and opinions being put forward while at the same time evaluating the success of the texts in presenting those ideas. There’s a lot to do here, so students need to think about what’s being said about the topics, how language is being used to construct ideas about (in this case) different regional and social accents, how language is being used to represent accents (looking at verbs that describe processes associated with accents, or the adjectives used to evaluate them, for example) but also to think about how the writers are using language to represent themselves and the people they quote. Having a solid grasp of what is being discussed and what is being said about those subjects is a way into dealing with how those ideas are put across.

The same is true on Paper 1 Questions 1 and 2, where a close engagement with what the texts are about and what they represent – the subject matter, the different people and ideas presented to the reader, the text producers themselves – is essential for Level 4 marks or higher in AO3.

Using contextualised examples

Another clear message from the reports – and this time we’re also including the report on the NEA – is the importance of well-chosen examples. Illustrating points is central to convincing the marker that you have something to base your argument on. In many cases on the NEA, single words were plucked from the students’ data sets and used to support a point, but this is not really sufficient. Examples need some consideration of the context from which they derive. Where in the data or text are they from? What is going on around the words (both the ‘cotext’ – the words around the words – and the context)? Is the example you’re using clearly illustrating the point you are making? Again, the same is true in the exam components, where it’s important to look at what’s going on in the whole text and to show how your examples relate to what’s around them. So, if you’ve spotted several adjectives being used, don’t just focus on them: think about what they’re modifying. What kind of functions do they serve and what kinds of patterns might be emerging? Which brings us on to…

Dealing with patterns of language

A key message in last year’s reports was that ‘patterns’ across texts were as important as – if not more important than – identifying isolated features of language. Both the Paper 1 and Paper 2 reports this year stress this again. So, for example, the feedback on Paper 1 states “examiners noticed that those students who had a clear sense of each of the texts as a whole were far more coherent in their responses” as that made them “better placed to identify patterns in language use” across the texts. A similar picture emerges in Paper 2 Question 3 where some of the best student answers showed a grasp of the ways in which patterns emerged in each text, how those patterns might be contrasted across the two different texts and how those patterns reflected or reproduced wider discourses about language.

For example, students noticed that verbs such as ‘mellowing’ and ‘polishing’ were being used in Text B to describe what could be done to accents, according to the accent reduction experts, and saw how this related to wider views about certain accents being seen as rough or crude. That then allowed them to evaluate and challenge such a view in their answer to Question 3 and later in their response to Question 4.

Deploy your knowledge effectively

It goes without saying that students need to know stuff to do well on the questions that assess AO2, but it’s important to select from that knowledge and use it ‘judiciously’ (as the reports put it). That can mean choosing the right question in the first place. Whether it’s the choice of spoken language development (Q4 on Paper 1) or literacy development (Q5 on Paper 1), or the choice of Language Diversity (Q1 on Paper 2) or Language Change (Q2 on Paper 2), identifying the most relevant ideas, case studies and examples is vital. Some students came unstuck on the literacy question on Paper 1 when they attempted to apply theories of spoken language to the task, others in the NEA chose inappropriate spoken theory to discuss written data, and some tried to discuss too many examples of change in a question that was primarily about diversity. This can get a little complicated – there’s evident overlap across some of these areas, particularly on Paper 2 – but students need to think carefully about what’s going to help them to answer the question in front of them, rather than the question they wish had been set.

When it comes to the last task of them all (Question 4 on Paper 2), the report makes it clear that the ideas in Text A and B should provide the “starting point for their piece”. Identifying those ideas is a logical first step – and one you’d hope would have been achieved by doing Q3 beforehand – and then evaluating those ideas should follow, using the most appropriate AO2 for the task. As the report says, debate, exploration and evaluation are at the heart of this, so the response needs to have a line of argument that takes into account different interpretations and (ideally, for the higher levels) a clear view taking shape.

Dan Clayton works at the English And Media Centre, writes for OUP (AQA English Language and Revise AQA English Language Workbook) and runs @EngLangBlog.