Ditch the acronyms if you want GCSE exam success

It’s tempting to offer mnemonics as shortcuts for structuring exam answers, but they can do more harm than good

acronyms

“Don’t hand it in unless you’ve Peed all over it!”

I’m ashamed to say it, but I once uttered these exact words to a bemused Year 10 student upon completion of a GCSE literature mock exam.

Those words, along with my bright yellow Peed display, lovingly adorned with images of bog roll and toilet seats, were indicative of my mindset in my newly qualified teacher (NQT) year: the only way I knew how to teach analysis was through acronyms.

From my first placement school: Peed (point, example, explain, develop). From my second placement: Peedae (point, example, explain, develop, analyse, explain) – just try saying that to a roomful of teenagers without them purposely mishearing it.

Neither one was particularly more effective than the other. It took most of my NQT year, but I eventually realised that this clunky, formulaic approach to exam questions was unsophisticated, unimaginative and predominantly unsuccessful.


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I’m sure examiners will agree that it is easy to spot the students who are overly reliant on acronyms to answer exam questions. Their work is often either generic or just plain awkward. In English Language in particular, acronyms can mean that written pieces are littered with devices that simply do not work and, ultimately, detract from the fluency of the piece.

For example, I’ve read many a news article for English language citing the expert opinion of Simon Cowell, or some other equally inadequate celebrity, just to cover one aspect of the Daforest acronym, which is commonly used to teach non-fiction features (and stands for direct address, alliteration, facts, opinions, rhetorical questions, emotive language, statistics, triples).

Unless students are taught how to use these acronyms effectively – knowing when and how to confidently apply or deviate from them – they will be unlikely to move up through the bands of the mark scheme.

acronyms exams

Another issue with acronyms: they’re actually quite difficult to remember. As specialists teaching the subject day in and day out, year upon year, of course we know them. But for a student, entering our classroom just a couple of times a week, it’s far harder to recollect what an acronym is used for, let alone what each part of it means.

If we’re expecting students to recall all of the acronyms used in our subject (I once knew a head of English who insisted on five separate acronyms across the two language papers), in how many other subjects are they expected to do the same?

TLDR: time and place

That’s not to say that acronyms have no place in the classroom; they can be extremely helpful for lower-attaining students who may need something concrete to cling to in the pressure of an exam, or at key stage 3 to help build students up to longer pieces of writing.

But we should be wary of becoming over-reliant on them and potentially hindering our students.

Instead of asking students to pee all over their work and pinning bog roll to classroom displays, let’s spend time teaching analytical skills through carefully planned questioning, modelling, and writing, and plenty of verbal feedback.

Laura Tsabet is lead practitioner of teaching and learning at a school in Bournemouth. She tweets @lauratsabet

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