GCSE English: How to fix 3 common student problems

As an online tutor, Molly Bolding has identified where students struggle in GCSE English - here she offers solutions

Molly Bolding

GCSE English: How to fix common student problems

I have been teaching English at GCSE and A level as an online tutor for the past 18 months, covering a number of topics and texts from a variety of exam boards. 

One of the most interesting elements of my experience has been the questions that I am asked by the students.

Because I am an additional source of information to their curriculum, textbooks and teachers, their questions seem to go some way towards identifying the gaps that they feel are not being addressed in their understanding of the material.

GCSE English: How do I know I’m getting it right?

The most common question I get, from parents and students alike, is about confidence. 

Quick read: What are the hardest GCSE subjects? A student's view

Quick listen: Inference: why comprehension is not just about vocabulary and knowledge 

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The number of students I work with who offer a disclaimer before speaking – “I don’t know if this is right”, “I’m sure this isn’t it but…” – and go on to give great answers is staggering, and it translates directly into their written work. 

A lack of confidence to assert themselves has a real impact on students’ willingness to take risks, make connections and reach for high-level analysis.

Regular writing exercises that push them to utilise their technical vocabulary, coupled with specific feedback and voluble praise, seem to make a big difference.

Some of my less confident students prefer to keep a tick-list of ideas in mind, which helps them to feel that they have covered all areas of the task properly, even if they aren’t sure about their ideas: something along the lines of “language, structure, form” or “what, how, why”. 

I am increasingly encouraging them to also keep a list of technical terms in mind, as I find that students who have more words to describe the features of a text tend to find more details to talk about.

Why can’t I describe them like that?

When I’m working with students on English literature, one of the biggest hurdles I face is helping students to understand and utilise the process of characterisation in their answers. 

Most students are quick to understand a text but are also quick to make moral judgements, but Mr Birling isn’t selfish and Macbeth isn’t arrogant – because characters aren’t people.

It’s a difficult habit to break, but a few simple ideas have definitely helped. 

Firstly, asking students to examine how a character is being described, picking out language features and patterns in diction, and then connecting the language used to why the author has made those choices: in other words, what does the author want us to think or feel, and why might that be?

Secondly, getting students to use the phrase “the character of X” instead of simply the name of the character seems to make a big difference.

It creates a useful distance between the character as a person and the construction of the character, which facilitates a conversation about the process of characterisation and moves away from simple description.

How can I improve my creative writing?

The creative writing portion of the exams seems to split students into two groups: they either write creatively anyway and just need help to fit their skills to the specification, or they have only learned how to write analytically in class and have no idea where to start with the imaginative tasks.

Making sure that students have a good understanding of genre, form and effect seems to help across the board.

Looking at examples of short stories, talking over synopses of films, TV shows and books they have enjoyed, and demonstrating different styles of writing help to give them a range of sources to draw on for inspiration if they aren’t so sure on where to start with plot and characters.

Using past paper questions as prompts in spoken tasks where students can spit-ball ideas without writing them down tends to work well. It takes the pressure off the technicalities of writing while leaving them free to be as imaginative as they like.

Molly Bolding is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge

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Molly Bolding

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