Four things that stopped students getting top grades in English GCSE – an exam marker's guide

Marking hundreds of GCSE English exam papers has changed the way this teacher will approach her teaching next year – and how she will interpret this year's results

Natalie Masala

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As a teacher, I marked dozens of my students’ exam responses this year. As an examiner, I marked hundreds. Literally. 

Sure, the extra cash comes in handy, but the real benefit of exam marking is the insight into "What the examiner is looking for", that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The holy grail. 

My students are always slightly surprised when I tell them I’m an examiner for the actual paper. It’s like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy notices Toto pull aside the curtain to reveal the little man behind the voice. I think students believe examiners are like the Wizard: fearsome, stern, implacable. What they often don’t realise is that examiners are ordinary teachers.

So where did the Yellow Brick Road of GCSE literature Paper 2 marking take me and what did I find there?  

The least successful responses tended to fall into one or more of these categories:

1. Narrative: retelling the story – particularly for the novel and drama, but also for the poems – with little or no focus on answering the question.

2. Irrelevant: the student unloads all their knowledge about the text regardless of whether it answers the question or not.  

3. Terminology overload: the student is desperate to use all the terminology they’ve been taught, so they forget to do any analysis. The response becomes an exercise in feature-spotting.

4. Translation: generally for poetry, specifically for unseen poetry, the candidate feels they have to go through the text line by line "translating" it for the examiner. Again, they fail to answer the question.

So what will I be doing differently in my literature lessons in September having learned from this experience?  How will I teach these texts so my students don’t fall into one of these traps?  

1. Less is more

I didn’t find the Emerald City but I did pick up some courage to go with the "less is more" approach. Last year, my own students’ poetry anthologies were annotated to within an inch of their lives. Next year, they won’t be. I will naturally focus on establishing the overall meaning of the poem, but explore fewer details in greater depth. More depth, less breadth. Say a lot about a little.

Using the example from this year’s Paper 2 about the effects of war in Bayonet Charge and another poem, students need to think about: what are the effects of war in that poem? What kind of effects can war have on people? What other poem deals with war and its effects? Are the effects the same in both poems, or different? How do the poets show us these effects?  

Making students focus on that one key word from the question – "effects" – will help ensure the response is relevant to the question. 

Using one line from the printed poem, or one quotation from the modern text, how can the effects of war be seen?  I’ll encourage students to really drill down to the detail and analyse it using all that amazing terminology they’ve been taught, but to go further. Yes, what they say can be "clear" (band 4) but they can mine it further:  "The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye". From this one line, students could start to feasibly construct a response that is more than clear, it’s moving towards "perceptive" (band 6), providing they say a lot about it and tackle it sensibly and, more importantly, thoroughly. Practising this with Year 10 this year, we filled the board with ideas. Twice.

2. Use quotations intelligently

I will encourage students to learn quotations, as I did this year, but they will explore them in greater detail. Frequently, candidates used quotations that they’d clearly spent time learning but they did relatively little with them other than to use them to tell the story of the text. 

3. De-clutter responses

We need to chisel away at the background of a text to allow the important details to stand out, so students can really de-clutter their responses and crucially: Answer. The. Question. 

Natalie Masala is an A-Level and GCSE English teacher in Bedfordshire. She tweets @MasalaNatalie

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