How to maximise your marks

Alan Combes offers tips for better GCSE exam performance

All schools are looking to improve their A to C results profile in GCSE performance and it is common to target D grades which could possibly be transformed into Cs. But in English language there is no content or body of knowledge that can be crammed at the last minute, so the focus must be on method.

It is well worth the teacher spending time in the days and hours before the exam going over how students might attack the two papers. After all, if students have no grasp of the key stage 4 attainment target embedded within GCSE by then, no amount of practising old papers will communicate it.

So let us examine Paper 1 Tier F and consider how students who are targeted at C and below might tackle this paper. The first and most glaring oversight of candidates is an inability to comprehend the significance of the mark tariff. In the NEAB paper, for example, in 1999, Section A (Reading) consisted of Question 1 (worth 54 marks overall) which was divided into five sub-sections carrying six, eight, six, eight and 26 marks respectively. Yet many candidates wrote no more for the sub-section carrying 26 marks than they did for the one worth six marks. To cover the bullet points recommended within the exam paper, students needed to write approximately four times as much for the final sub-section.

Many candidates ignore the mark tariffs. They should be encouraged to consider the relationship between task and mark. For example, an indication that the mark tariff is eight is likely to mean the candidate must cover either eight basic points or four extended ones.

The sub-section which carries the highest tariff is likely to be the one that invites the candidate to compare and contrast two pieces of writing. It is essential that actual language employed in the given material be quoted. Fleeting generalised references to what this material means or how it is expressed are nothing like as effective as specifics.

Students must also recognise the importance of Section B (Writing), which is also worth 54 marks. Yet many candidates ruin their overall paper with an essay which is ill-conceived, shows little sense of audience or paragraphing and loses its sense of purpose.

The candidate should make a sound overall plan of the essay with bullet points corresponding to each proposed paragraph. The principal reason that many foundation-level studentsomit their plan is panic as the clock marches on. But the plan will not only save time and give purpose to the writing, it is also likely to produce marks if they do run out of time. The examiner has a clear outline of how the essay would have developed.

It is worth going over the differences between writing to argue, persuade and instruct on the morning of the exam. This needs to be linked to advice about the proposed audience for the writing.

Finally on Paper 1, remind candidates about the importance of paragraphing.

Many of these comments also apply to Paper 2, but here there is a content or body of knowledge with which candidates must have some familiarity.

A major failing of students concerns their conviction that the principal task is to show their understanding, particularly of poetry. "What the poet means when he says ..." is a common paragraph opening at foundation level. Appreciation of the poet and an accurate response to the bullet points in the question are aspects that the teacher needs to accentuate.

Just as quotation of given material should be encouraged in Paper 1, direct quotation from poems, set apart from the body of the answer and written in the same format as the text studied, needs to be emphasised in Paper 2.

The final question of the exam requests that candidates either inform or explain or describe. Most candidates find that the personal writing promoted by the explanation question enables them to cover familiar territory, giving them mastery over subject matter at least. If the student has original ideas and a reasonable vocabulary, then the descriptive writing could be undertaken. Perhaps the letter writing with its more formulated response, is the natural milieu for less imaginative candidates.

In summary:

* look at how many marks a question carries and ration writing accordingly;

* bullet points within the question should correspond to paragraphs in the answer;

* always quote from the actual language used in the given material;

* refer to specific points not general impressions;

* paragraphing and planning are essential in essay answers;

* ask "Who am I writing this for according to the question?";

* on the poetry paper, showing appreciation is essential;

* use direct quotes and set them apart from your answer.

Alan Combes is an assistant examiner with the NEAB and an educationalconsultant

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