As teachers across the land remind their pupils regularly, if you don’t know something – ask. This life lesson doesn’t end in the classroom either.
For teachers of English language, at both GCSE and A level, where the curriculum comes with no set texts and so could ask pupils in an exam situation to work from countless potential pieces of writing, asking questions about how best to prepare for assessments is commonplace.
We spoke to subject officers at a major exam provider to hear about some of the common questions they face and the advice they give.
1. How do I ensure pupils are able to demonstrate what they have learned to meet exam criteria?
Subject officer Nancy Hutt, at exam board Eduqas, fields questions from teachers about the English language GCSE, and says one of the most common is from those wanting to understand in more detail how exams are assessed and how best to meet these requirements.
“Because the qualification is skills-based, rather than content-driven, I think it’s inevitable that a lot of the questions we get asked are about how to approach those skills and what [pupils] need to do to demonstrate them.”
One key piece of advice she gives to teachers is to look at exam scripts from previous years that are available online – both unmarked and with principal examiner’s annotations – to allow them to see examples of the types of answers that receive certain marks.
“Looking at candidate responses to past papers can be a good way to think about how pupils may be assessed and where marks can be gained or lost," she says. "By being able to look at a range of marked responses to exemplify different approaches, teachers and pupils can see not only examples of good practice but also what can be improved.”
She advises against using these to “teach to the test” but they can be a helpful guide and offer insight into how the exam is assessed, as well as overarching insights into different types of answers.
2. How do I ensure pupils develop an effective NEA?
The English language A level has a non-examined assessment (NEA) that asks pupils to write a 2,500-3,000 word investigation looking at an aspect of identity and language.
Kirsten Wilcock taught English for 23 years and working as a subject officer for A-level English for Eduqas for over a decade. She says she regularly fields questions from teachers wanting to know if their pupils’ ideas for their NEA are realistic.
“I had one teacher who had a student that wanted to investigate how identity is presented in grime music. But that’s a massive genre and it really needed to be narrowed down to a more specific demographic, such as female grime artists, or a location. It’s about being able to offer that sort of advice,” she says.
In another example, a student wanted to look at how female identity was presented in cosmetic adverts. “One of the pitfalls with this, though, was there was not a lot of language in the adverts. It’s a lot more about imagery, typographic and so forth. As such, there wasn’t a chance for a sustained linguistic analysis,” she says.
Ms Wilcock advises that teachers look at what support is available from Eduqas whenever questions like this arise, as, with heavy workloads and competing demands, it is understandable they may need outside help on occasion.
“It can be lonely, especially being a sole A-level teacher at school, for example, if there is no one there to bounce ideas off. We want to make sure we give support for teachers whenever they need it.”
3. What might pupils be asked to write about in exams?
Because there are no set texts to teach from, such a question is understandable, says Ms Wilcock, but given that any type of written or spoken text could be used, she says teachers need to take an open approach in terms of how they teach and sometimes just need a nudge to think beyond traditional writing formats for this.
“I would usually highlight a few areas that might not be as obvious that could be a source of writing in an exam, from travel guides to dramatic monologues, or opinion pieces and obituaries. As such, I would suggest they work with pupils on a wide range of text types to help build the core skills they need for the exam, rather than trying to guess at what might appear and work to that. We have produced a wide range of teaching resources to support pupils’ creative writing skills that can help with this, too."
4. How can we ensure students manage their time effectively in exams?
It’s not just course-specific questions that come up regularly either. Ms Hutt says teachers often have more general questions, such as advice on how to help students manage time effectively during exams.
“I would usually offer practical advice, for example make sure they tell students to give themselves time to read extracts, consider the marks each question offers – so if something is worth 40 marks and something else 5 then make sure they spend more time on the bigger question – and make sure they assess how much they can achieve in the time limits.”
She adds that looking at past exam paper candidate responses can also help with this, too. “It can be a good way to consider time management by seeing examples of where candidates wrote too much for some questions and should have spent more time on others.”
While such insights are specific to Eduqas-related queries, given that the exams are ultimately delivered against Department for Education criteria, Ms Hutt says the resources on offer could potentially be of benefit to anyone.
“If you are asking pupils to write a narrative, there is a common skill set and I think that’s the nice thing about our resources. If a teacher is interested they can look at them and they might be able to help them enrich their teaching, whichever exam board they use.”
Ultimately, teachers with questions related to assessments should not feel alone and look to those who can help with their questions – whatever they may be. As Ms Hutt notes: “We would much rather teachers ask whatever they need to ask and speak to someone who can help them.”