Preparing students for new GCSE English Language

How many English departments have had the time to scrutinize the new specifications or to think about what they really mean for our teaching, both at KS4 and, perhaps even more importantly, at KS3?

Let’s start with some of the basics of the new exam requirements:

  • 100% exam
  • 2 exams, each of approximately two hours (one hour reading, one hour writing in each)
  • Unseen texts from a wide range of text types including non-fiction, literary non-fiction and prose fiction
  • Pre-twentieth century unseen texts, usually non-fiction
  • Questions that demand understanding of language and structure
  • Questions that call on students to synthesise from two texts and to evaluate and compare writers’ attitudes and ideas
  • Writing tasks loosely based around the themes of the source texts

For me, the elements that stand out are the unseen fiction, the pre-twentieth century non-fiction and the fact that one exam board has separated language and structure, setting a question on each rather than treating them as interwoven elements of writing. The writing tasks feel very familiar although I am delighted to see that at long last in at least one sample paper there is a pictorial stimulus for writing. (When I took my ‘O’ Level in English Language in 1979 there was a picture stimulus and I remain certain that this image was entirely responsible for my A grade).

This is what now needs to be done at KS3 (and earlier) or at Key Stage 4 if students are already there:

Develop students’ confidence about responding to challenging unseen material

Equip students with the skills to analyse unseen material and present them with it at regular intervals, increasing text length and degree of challenge as they progress. Teach less able students to search for what they can understand in a text and not to be put off by daunting texts because they will have to face these. Encourage them to develop their own ideas and responses to what they read and then use their spoken ideas to build written responses. Expose students to a wide range of genres, forms and styles

Present students with a wealth of text types and styles. Include letters, essays, journals, travel writing and autobiographical writing when teaching non-fiction. Enjoy the freedom of building a range of texts into your teaching. Search out 20th century fiction which you may have forgotten about and revel in bringing all that wonderful 21st century stuff into play. Include 19th century non-fiction in units of work and assessments

Make links with History and pick their brains for ideas about pre-twentieth century non-fiction sources. Comb the net for interesting material on sites like the Victorian Web.

Teach students to synthesise from different texts

Like it or lump it, you will have to teach students to ‘synthesise’. Start by defining this –‘synthesising evidence from different texts means balancing summarised evidence from different sources and weaving this evidence together, sometimes using it as a basis for your own ideas and opinions.’Make it a habit to draw ideas and information from different texts into synthesised responses.

Teach students to compare texts in a sophisticated and interwoven way

Encourage students to compare the information, ideas, attitudes and intentions conveyed by different writers and to interweave their comparisons rather than writing about one text and then the other and then comparing them.

Remind students to use literary terminology when commenting on texts

Develop students’ ability to use subject terminology naturally and to embed it comfortably in their writing rather than stating, ‘This is a metaphor’ when they comment on texts. Widen the teaching of linguistic and literary devices to include less commonly identified techniques such as synecdoche, tricolon, anaphora and pathetic fallacy.

Reinforce the need for well-chosen quotations and textual evidence

Teach students to scrutinise the quotations they choose to see if they can be ‘trimmed’ and to ensure that they are the best fit for the purpose.

Develop students’ understanding of context

Explore the context in which a text is read as well as the context in which it was written. Context can be seen as the circumstances under which a text is received as well as conceived.

Develop students’ ability to interpret and to recognise that there can be different responses to texts

Encourage students to share and argue about interpretations of words, phrases, sentences and whole texts. Get them to choose one word or phrase from the text as the title for the extract and then justify it. Identify a word in the text that could be interpreted differently in a different context. Etc.


web_Jill_CarterJill is a teacher, former leader of English and author, with over 20 years of teaching experience. She currently works in a secondary school in Kent, and, in what spare time she has, she writes articles, and is an author, working on a number of books found throughout schools, including Ignite English and new 2015 GCSE English publishing.

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