GCSE English language: what's the point?

GCSE English language is ambiguous and time-consuming – and out of sync with English language A level, says one teacher

Michael Nott

What's the point of the GCSE language paper, asks one teacher

What’s the point of the English language GCSE paper?

It’s a question I have been mulling over ever since the new specification changes were announced in 2015, and I’m still no closer to really understanding the paper's actual purpose.

My concerns with the language papers are:

  • What do students need to explicitly know to succeed in English language? And how are teachers supposed to actually teach the English language paper, when it is so bereft of any actual content?
  • Where is the link between English language GCSE and English language A level?
  • How is the language paper being used in schools as a form of assessment, particularly in key stage 3?
     

As far as I can see, all the English language paper is, is a holistic way of assessing whether a student is a competent reader or not by the end of Year 11. In principle, I support the idea: after all, the ability to read well is an essential characteristic of any well-rounded individual.

GCSE: The 'inferior' English language paper

However, we already have a far superior assessment for this in the form of the English literature GCSE, which is rich in knowledge and utilises some of the greatest texts in the canon. Why do we need to repeat this process over again with the inferior language paper?

This is an even more pertinent issue when you take into consideration Dan Willingham’s research on reading, which suggests that background knowledge improves students' comprehension of a text considerably, further implying that the language paper isn’t actually a particularly reliable assessment of a students’ ability to read at all.

When I took my first steps into teaching in 2010, I was instructed to teach a variety of dreadful language-based schemes such as Animal Magic and The Magazine Project. Invariably, these lessons lacked any real focus or clarity as there was often very little for the students to actually learn.

During those first two years, I would count down the weeks until it was time to teach the scheme of work that saw us focus on a novel. At the time, I didn’t quite understand why the behaviour was so much better in my lessons and why I felt more confident delivering these lessons.

But now I understand: with a literature text, there’s a wealth of knowledge that a student needs to know that can be taught explicitly to them. If students don’t have the required cultural capital then it can be taught to them. If a student doesn’t know a particular language technique, it can be taught to them. If a student doesn’t know a particular piece of vocabulary, it can be taught to them and not left to chance or vague uncertainties.

When we teach language, we often ask students to make inferences based on something they know either very little or nothing about. When I was teaching Animal Magic, I was often asking, “Why do you think this simile has been used in this description?” Whereas, when I was teaching Of Mice and Men, I was saying “Steinbeck uses the smile here because...”.

The English language paper is just too ambiguous to be meaningful for students. For example, if a student explores Shakespeare’s use of pathetic fallacy at the beginning of Macbeth, they will have a much better appreciation of the structure of a text than they would by reading through a host of random extracts, where they have very little understanding of how the extract of the text fits the entire narrative and instead end up producing woolly and imprecise responses.

In order to explore the complexities of language and how a writer crafts a text for meaning, our students' time is better spent exploring a whole text by Shelley or Dickens rather than a tiny extract of a text they have never read before and from which they cannot grasp all the subtleties of the writer’s craft.

The lack of knowledge in the paper is even more baffling when you consider the wide range of knowledge that is actually necessary for students to access English language at A level. Why doesn’t the English language GCSE feature any content on Grice’s maxims? Or the sociological aspects of language? Or how language develops over regions and communities?

In lesson time students should be exposed to rich and essential texts not endlessly trying to understand what exam boards mean when they say the word "structure" or sitting English language mock papers over and over again. The national average marks for the "structure" question on the AQA English language paper was 3/8. What do we expect 12-year-olds to actually get out of answering this question, really? Endlessly going over this paper will not instil a lifelong love of English in our students – fundamentally, we’re only teaching them the process of the exam, not how to be fantastic English students.

The danger with assessment 

The greatest danger with the English language paper is how it is being used in terms of assessment. Up and down the country, teachers are spending inordinate amounts of time teaching students how to decipher the nonsense that is the English language paper. Even worse, we have students in Years 7, 8 and 9 actually sitting mock versions of these papers over and over again. Why? What is the point?

All of the endless hours could be much better spent on actually teaching students how to read and decipher literature texts.

Schools are placing emphasis on the language paper over the literature one as a hangover from the old five A*-C (including English and maths) measures.

But language is no longer more important than literature – they are equals in the new measures. Until pupils are taught explicitly the literature pape,r they will never get better at the language paper.

I’ve heard of some schools who enter students for the literature paper at the end of Year 10, so they can focus all of their efforts on the language paper in Year 11. It’s absolutely utter madness. Without a thorough grasp of literature and all its concepts, coupled alongside a strong whole-school reading initiative that encourages students to love reading, language results will always suffer. It doesn’t matter if you start preparing them for the paper in Year 7 or if you spend the entirety of Year 11 going over language paper after paper, reading the same vague extracts.

So, for me, we have two sensible options:

The first is to completely do away with the language paper. Where would creative and transactional writing go? I would suggest an emotive writing task based on the literature texts studied, similar to what was a part of the old iGCSE literature paper. Non-fiction texts could be embedded into the study of literature across the curriculum, as a way of deepening understanding and allowing students to access a range of different writing styles.

Or we could reform the English language GCSE to bring it more in line with the A-level equivalent.

Both of these options seem, unfortunately, unlikely. Therefore, I’d propose that school leaders ensure that they shift the focus from English language to English literature in KS3 and KS4. Stop using language-style papers as a form of assessment and let teachers teach the best literature possible. We will only raise English language results by spending time ignoring it completely.

Michael Nott is an assistant headteacher in Birmingham and tweets at @MrNott117

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