When Gavin Williamson announced the cancellation of all formal examinations this summer, it was arguably the biggest tremor the education sector had felt in recent history. Both teachers and students were rattled, experiencing a range of emotions including frustration, fear, relief and even a sense of grief over what had been taken away without negotiation or warning. Teachers have now been left with a space to fill for year 11 students who are still under our stewardship but without an exam to work towards. Here, we explore possible options for English teachers to facilitate the continued education of our young charges and provide much needed structure, support and meaning to their lockdown experience.
Preparing for exams down the road
It goes without saying that students must be fully prepared for the exams they were supposed to take, in case the need arises to sit them in the future. Students who are disappointed with grades received, will be given the opportunity to take the exam later. Therefore, content and skills that were yet to be addressed should be covered as much as practically possible.
Bear in mind that it is English Language not Literature that students are likely to ‘resit’ in year 12, as that is often the qualification that is more valued in FE . Past papers are a given but it may be prudent to try to motivate despondent students by creating tasks around material which you know inspires them (admittedly more difficult in certain boards and questions). Use current events to help students develop a better understanding of the world; find articles on the people and trends in which they are interested; and if preparing fiction extracts, take them from novels that there’s a chance they may actually read. This could be from popular young adult fiction of previous years (Noughts and Crosses, The Fault in our Stars, The Hate U Give) to more adult titles depending on reading competency.
A Level English
Admittedly much easier for schools with a sixth form or for teachers with relevant experience, the provision of an introduction to Advanced Level English will be of benefit to more able students and may just make them see the subject in a whole new light. Create projects which introduce skills of: the inclusion of secondary sources and using Google Scholar; the reading of a text through the lens of critical theory; independently selecting texts, areas of focus and constructing appropriate assignment questions; and finally, writing several drafts of an essay, a skill which has been massively neglected in the exam-dominated educational landscape of recent years.
Functional writing skills
Alternatively, teachers may provide a diet of functional writing skills to equip students for transactional reading and writing. This might be a more appropriate option for pupils who will take vocational routes and may include work on CVs, personal statements, letters of inquiry and letters of complaint etc. There could now be scope to address those niggling technical errors for which there was never enough class time. Students may find the completion of worksheets on spelling, punctuation and grammar refreshingly straight-forward and relish the opportunity to brush up on these skills.
Try to instil a love of reading, (yes, even for those students it has eluded for all these years, it’s still not too late!) encouraging as many genres as possible, just for fun. Google Classroom and Teams provide appropriate forums for virtual book clubs.
Alternatively, have students get a head start on college courses by reading around key topics they will encounter. Sixth form colleges may not publish a reading list alongside their course information but encourage pupils to write to providers to request advice and inquire into which exam board is used. Students can then use exam specifications to compile research topics. For example, a student taking A Level Media on the Eduqas spec will need to understand postmodernism, structuralism and genre theory. Familiarising themselves with these concepts before courses start would be a really productive use of time.
Develop academic style
If your students are likely to go on to more traditionally academic courses, and subsequently university, now seems like an opportune moment to introduce academic register. Due to the plethora of pre-sessional and in-sessional courses that practically every British university now offers for its increasingly international cohort, the web is awash with guidance and advice on academic writing. Ask students to compile ‘top tips’ on producing academic style and then rewrite an existing piece of work. Alternatively, many university websites also include activities for students to complete. I personally have found the University of Manchester phrase bank useful for increasing students’ academic vocabulary and The Anglia Ruskin site for referencing. Introduction to the topic of logical fallacies is also highly interesting and transferable and YouTube is awash with quality tutorials on the topic using examples from popular culture.
Provide students room for creativity where possible, allowing them an outlet to work through their feelings and granting them a sense of escapism when trapped at home. Inspire and support them in writing and producing vlogs, blog posts, radio shows, lyrics and scripts.
Finally, ensure Year 11 students know that – just like it is for the rest of us -it’s also okay to use some of this time to rest, restore, contemplate and plan for the future.