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GCSE English: Quick tips from an exams expert

How to make sure pupils manage their time properly during the GCSE exam

GCSE English

How to make sure pupils manage their time properly during the GCSE exam

Even the most carefully prepared pupil can sit in front of an exam paper and become disorientated. Despite all our best efforts, this can severely affect the grade the pupil achieves.

So it’s worth giving pupils explicit guidance about how they should navigate the paper. At AQA we have prepared the following for those taking our English exams.

GCSE exam: use annotation time wisely

It’s helpful to remind your students to annotate the reading extracts during the advised reading time of 15 minutes for both papers. It’s easy to assume that students know how to make useful annotations, but it’s sensible to point out the obvious effective strategies.



For Paper 1, where the source is just one text, remind your students to annotate or highlight key words or phrases that they may want to refer back to when answering either the use-of-language question (Question 2) or the structure question (Question 3).

This helps with quick referencing of textual detail required for success in both of these questions.

‘Chunk’ the reading assessment

Equally important for GCSE English language is the obvious reminder that the reading assessment (Paper 1 and 2, questions 1-4) is "chunked out".  

This helps students to navigate their way through the unseen texts by reading shorter sections before having to respond to the whole text.

GCSE English

There are two pointers for students here.

The first is, once they have read the whole text, to check they’re using the right section of text for each answer (specific line references are provided for Paper 1, questions 1, 2 and 4, and specific line references and specific source texts are provided for Paper 2, questions 1 and 3).  

Secondly, for Paper 2, where two source texts are provided, the annotation or highlighting during the advised reading time should be focused on similarities or differences in viewpoint. This will help flag up clear points for exploration in question 2 and question 4, and save time.

It’s also worth reminding your students that it’s only Question 4 that requires exploration of methods used to convey the similarities or differences.

The writing response

For both papers, the writing response in question 5 is rewarded for the content, the way in which it’s organised and for technical accuracy.

The best advice for students in a time-pressured environment is to plan what they intend to write about before they make a start. Planning helps students to ensure that the written response is clear in focus and has a strong sense of the purpose. It also helps them maintain control in their writing which, in turn, supports clarity of communication.

For Paper 2, question 5, the writing task requires a viewpoint and the ability to work through different perspectives. Planning for this style of writing helps students to think about the shape of their point of view and avoid easy mistakes, such as contradicting themselves, which can undermine clarity, purpose and crafting.

For both writing questions, it’s better to a have a plan followed by shorter, well-crafted responses that communicate clearly rather than longer responses that lose their thread.

Our Hub materials from summer 2018 provide very useful advice and can be found on our website.

Deborah Pearson is head of curriculum, English, at AQA

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