The problem with the GCSE English reading and writing paper is pupils have to read and write - and quite a lot in only two hours and 15 minutes in the AQA English language unit 1 paper. To do well they need an almost mechanical answering style if they want to help the examiner tick off the high-grade bullet-point criteria. And to give pupils this rigour you have to teach to the exam.
Pupils who get top marks often come from homes where reading quality newspapers is the norm. They are already familiar with reading an opinion piece, identifying an argument, emotive language, and discussing it with their parents. But what about the rest?
Many fall into the trap of simply pointing out an image to illustrate something in the text: "There is a picture of the volcano and the text mentions volcanoes."
The new AQA specification has separated titles and subtitles into their own subcategory, but the exam wording "interesting way" seems too open, and teenagers are often switched off by the expectation of "interesting". They need to overcome this and learn to write about the way a headline sets the tone of an article and see the effect it is designed to have on the reader. They need to identify an emotive word, the effect on the reader and link it to an idea in the text - that should lead to top grades.
But pupils often struggle with the subtle differences between word choices and changes in register, and to see the written word as a black-and-white entity rather than multi-layered.
Producing an alternative version of the article with emotive words substituted for more everyday choices can highlight the impact of words and how they are chosen for effect. Pairing pupils to look through a thesaurus and find alternative words for an article can also help them realise the importance of word choice and identify subtle differences of meaning.
Highlighting colloquial language in one colour and authoritative language in another, and using Flip cameras to record a conversation using each type of language, can help pupils understand the impact of each technique. Crucially, pupils see that when a writer uses these together, they make each other more effective.
Encourage pupils to read at home. Reading a magazine and identifying emotive language, images, titles, colloquial and authoritative phrasing with Post-it notes and thinking about how these techniques are designed to make them react will really improve their understanding.
Amy Winston is deputy curriculum co-ordinator of English at a comprehensive school
For a comprehensive set of resources to accompany the AQA specification, see the GCSE English language collection from TES English
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