Time is ticking away and I am sure, like me, that some of you are getting heads down to make that final push towards the English Language GCSE. Every time I speak to the students, I am reminding them that timing is essential and that if they are to succeed, they must finish the exam. Ergo, they must look like this at the end:
So, with timing messages going in, I’m turning my attention back to teaching activities that work in engaging and supporting students to make at least three levels of progress. This blog post could just as easily be subtitled: How to Move On From The Bleeding Obvious. But it’s not, so without further fuss…
Question 2: The ‘I just don’t get it’ Question
Thank you AQA, for creating a question that is on first appearance, a question about the presentation of a text. Looking at the marking criteria and the listening to the advice of AQA examiners, I know that this low-down, sneaky, good-for-nothing question is in disguise. It is, at heart, a language question. Understandable student instincts kick in when they see the words ‘headline’, ‘caption’, ‘picture’ – steering our wards away from obvious interpretations can be like shifting a tectonic plate with a pinky finger. Students want to tell us, and the examiner, that the purpose of the headline is to stand out as it is big and bold. I have started off by explaining that this is not a GCSE in the bleeding obvious. Students have responded well to the information that the examiner already knows that the headline is big and bold and that its purpose is to introduce the article. I spent a lesson allowing students to make all of the generic statements they could about the features of an article until they were clean worn out and could hear just how boring a response could be. A Bleeding Obvious Statement Purge, if you like. We then stopped.
I grouped students into news teams. Their task was to create an article on a sheet of A3. One person in the team was responsible for creating the headline using a range of devices, another wrote the text of the article, another created the picture and the caption. You might think, at this point, that I had gone mad, allowing my GCSE students to draw (!) this close to the exam; however, my friend, you are somewhat missing the point. They had to re-enact the process of connecting the headline, the text and the picture. So, a case in point: one team came up with the idea of Miley Cyrus visiting the school and students being very disapproving of her. The headline was created: “It’s Not Twerking!” and it was accompanied by a text that included details of Madamemoiselle Cyrus’s antics on stage. The (rather amusing) picture matched the text. Each group followed suit.
Another lesson was then dedicated to evaluating how the specific headlines matched the article and why; students responded to questions on how individual words and devices in the headline linked to specific sentences in the main text. They did the same for the caption.
You might think that the analysis of the picture is nowhere near language analysis, but it is. It asks the student to analyse the ‘language techniques’ of the visual image: size, shape, position, choice of focus and composition. But the biggest mistake students make in analysing the picture is not linking its component parts with the words of the text. We ironed out this problem by looking at each finished article in turn and orally rehearsing responses before committing anything to paper. The result? The average mark for this question when I did the question by question analysis the first time they did a mock was around the 3.5 mark After spending some time unpicking the question by creating articles and analysing how they are put together, the average mark was around 6 out of the possible 8.
Question 3: The ‘Common Mistakes’ Question
Personally, I love the simplicity of Question 3. It requires students to track the thoughts and feelings of a narrator, often on some sort of jolly in a far flung land. It is also the question that provides the most belly-laughs. My favourite mistake (and one I have used anonymously as an example to other students) is the one where our faithful narrator was on his way to Giza to see the pyramids. My lovely student pointed out with huge enthusiasm that the narrator must be a trucker, because he kept using the word “Giza” and this is how truckers speak to each other. And hilarity ensued.
The fundamental thing that I hadn’t taught him at that point (apart from the fact that Giza is a place), is that Question 3 is not a language analysis question and under no circumstances can it be treated as such. Question 3 is about things that happen – the event, the reaction to an event, or the thought process during events in the text. Far too often, my students were looking for the language clues and spending precious time providing me with connotations of individual words and phrases. We did two things to stop this from happening. We practised tracking the narrator’s thoughts and feelings logically from start to finish. The reason we did this was so students could learn to spot the ‘pivotal point’ in the text, where thoughts and feelings might change. The examiner is clear in giving credit to students who can spot subtle changes in narrative, so this was useful. Again, by using their own work as samples, we eliminated poor technique. The usual clanger follows this pattern and I wanted to nix it:
Point: The writer feels very nervous at the start of his journey.
Quotation: “I felt very nervous at the start of my journey
Inference: This suggests that the writer felt very nervous at the start of his journey
Instructing students to use their own word in the Point (apprehensive vs nervous) was a good start. They then had to use another synonym in their inference but add a ‘because’. It meant that they were not, again, stating the bleeding obvious and were showing that they could infer successfully. We practised using an ‘umbrella’ sentence at the start of the response that outlined how thoughts and feelings changed. Students sang the Rihanna song unprompted and unceasingly. This irritated me, but I could see how it had happened.
None of the above is rocket science but it has gone some way in refining technique in the howling demon that is the AQA exam. Any of your suggestions are welcome on things that have worked for your students. Sharing is caring, people.