The new English language GCSE has plenty of critics. Research has even suggested that the new course could be putting pupils off reading.
But I disagree. I think that the new GCSE gives real scope for creativity and for us to make the qualification more accessible to those learners who have had a negative experience of studying English.
Last year I secured funding through Shine’s Let Teachers Shine competition to support a project I’ve been working on called Write On!, which is an approach to the GCSE resits that maximises progress by focussing mainly on written literacy and creative-writing skills.
And while I am working specifically with resit students, I think that the same approaches could benefit other students who struggle with English.
So, why does teaching creative writing help students to do better in GCSE English? In a nutshell, because it means focusing your teaching where the marks are.
'Creative writing is where the marks are'
Critics of the new English language GCSE often cite the 19th-century content as a barrier for less-able students or those with very weak literacy. I don’t agree with that premise for a number of pedagogical reasons, but we don’t even need to get into those, because the 19th-century component counts for such a small percentage of the available marks.
For example, on the Edexcel specification, the 19th-century literature accounts for just 15 per cent of the GCSE – and that 15 per cent isn’t awarded for knowledge of nineteenth-century literature, but for application of skills that could be practised in the classroom just as effectively on any modern text.
The creative tasks, on the other hand, account for 50 per cent of the marks. This means that half of the marks in the GCSE are awarded for two tasks that are, simply put, to write a story and to write a letter or speech. Looking at the raw numbers, if a student scores 5 out of 40 in the story task and 5 out of 40 in the other writing task, they will achieve a grade 1 in their GCSE.
But what does an approach based around these creative elements look like in practice?
I focus lessons on the basic skills of literacy and creative writing: developing imagination, building confidence – and gently supporting the improvement of sentencing, paragraphing and punctuation. Skills essential for all students, regardless of how functional or poetic their real-life literacy needs will be.
Examples from fiction
Then, to make the non-fiction writing element more engaging, I prefer to model it through creative fiction examples. I show students two- or three-minute rousing speeches from films such as Independence Day, Braveheart, and Legally Blonde. These are crammed full of interesting creative features and are a length that’s a much more realistic model for students to scavenge and scaffold from than Demosthenes’ Third Philippic, or whatever the hell educational publishers are putting in their joyless anthologies these days.
Similarly, you would be hard-pressed to find a more engaging example of creative letter writing than the stylish young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Even the reading section clearly serves writing skills. The basic format is: here are some example texts, take a look at how they use language and structure, evaluate how successful they are, now have a go at something similar yourself. In truth, it is more coherent and rigorous than the outgoing creative writing A level, which didn’t survive reform.
For me, this is why there is no need for an alternative qualification and no argument that the GCSE is anything but a gift to those of us teaching students who are belatedly beginning to enjoy English and to make progress in it.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South West college. He tweets @Education720
Shine’s Let Teachers Shine competition offers up to £15,000 to teachers who have brilliant ideas to help disadvantaged children succeed in English, maths or science. Let Teachers Shine 2018 is now open for applications.