Exams are around the corner, you have done mock exam after mock exam and for some reason, every time you attempt that GCSE English Language Paper 1, Question 3, you can’t seem to get above 5 marks! Well, don’t give up just yet. I’m about to share some gems with you that should help you in approaching the question and being aware of exactly what the examiner is looking for. I’ll walk you through understanding the big picture of the question, what the mark scheme says, techniques you can expect to find and also tips and guidance on how to answer the question.

The Big Picture

The government sets 9 assessment objectives that encompass Reading, Writing and Speaking, then Ofqual sees to it that all exam boards follow these guidelines. Reading has 4 Assessment objectives and is worth 50% of the qualification, writing has 2 assessment objectives and is also worth 50% of the qualification, Speaking has 3 assessment objectives and carries zero weightings, but is still essential for you to pass. You’ll notice that your question paper is split into 2 sections:

  • Section A for reading – worth 40 marks with 4 questions
  • Section B for writing worth 40 marks with a choice out of 2 tasks

Each question in the exam is linked to an Assessment Objective and our focus, question 3, is linked to Assessment Objective 2 (AO2) which is worth 27.5% of the total English Language Paper. This means other questions in the paper must also address AO2 and therefore it’s a skill that your teacher would have focussed heavily on. To demonstrate mastery of AO2, students should be able to:

Here we find there is an internal hierarchy of progression; the AO suggests what you will do to achieve low, middle or top marks. To get low marks you explain, mid-marks you comment and top marks you analyse. The mark scheme then further expands on this, as it wants:

  • To see some accurate subject terminology (techniques/features relating to structure)
  • To see textual reference (direct quotes with use of quotation marks for top marks)
  • To have a clear explanation of the effects of some of the structural features (effect and/or impact it could have on the reader)

All of which will lead to a demonstration of a clear understanding of structural features.

So if you are aiming for that elusive 8 out of 8, you need to analyse structure using subject terminology (techniques/features) and mention the impact it has on the reader.

Approaching the Question

So now we know what we need to show the examiners for the top marks, how do we do it? Let’s start at the beginning. The question will look something like this:

English Language exam question

It assesses the structure and requires you to focus on the whole extract that has been provided. You have been given bullet-pointed guidance that you could follow to ensure you are responding to the question and you notice it’s only worth 8 marks. That means it’s only worth 5% of the qualification and you should spend no more than 10 minutes in total on this response. Now we have our time carved out, what can we do in that 10-minute slot? Naturally, we need to identify structural techniques within the source and consider what impact it could have. There are tons of structural techniques out there, narrowing it down could take a significant amount of time, so instead, we use the bullet-pointed guidance to help us stick within the timeframe while addressing AO2.

At this point you would have already read the source and annotated it with language features that you spotted (question 2), now you want to take 2 minutes of your time to go over it for structural features. Skim read the source again and annotate it using the below steps.

You’re probably wondering what types of things the writer can focus your attention on, or if you should mention the length of a sentence, so let’s break it down even further.

Tips on Answering the Question

Think about the world of the novel, first of all, everything the writer can focus your attention on falls into 1 of 3 categories:

  1. Setting (place and time)
  2. Characters (Dialogue and Action)
  3. Objects (something that will likely have significance later in the story)

So then when the focus shifts, it will still fall into one of these 3 categories. It could shift from one setting to another setting; from one character to an object; from an object to another object and so on. They are completely interchangeable and there are no rules that a writer must move from one category to another. As you look at the 1st paragraph again, categorise what the writer focuses your attention on. Let’s give it a try. Here is an extract from chapter 1 of Lemony Snickets’ A Series of Unfortunate Events. What is the writer focussing our attention on?

Writing about structure, table

Let’s do the process of elimination. As we read, what do we find out about most? If it was setting, you should be able to say where all the action is taking place, what that place looks like, maybe the weather or even the time of day. If it was character then you could maybe tell the name/age, some further detail about the characters looks or thoughts or how others perceived them. If it was an object then it would be extremely detailed, you might be able to tell what the object is, the size, the colour, what others think of the object – and so on.

What you should notice is that whatever the author focuses your attention on is the category you have the most information about. In this example, you could say the writer focuses our attention on characters, specifically Violet and Klaus. We know their age, that they are siblings, where they are and even what they thought. So we have identified our first structural feature, but we would want a little more depth as we only know the category, which would only show some awareness of structural features. Let’s look a little closer and consider what specifically we find out about the characters.

You could say the writer focuses our attention on the whereabouts of Violet and Klaus and you would be correct because we find out that they are in a caravan on a high mountain path that they didn’t think they would be travelling on. However, if we look closer, is that the main idea the writer wants to get across? I think the main idea is more so the surprise of where they are than their whereabouts.

Now we have addressed the levels of AO2 and the mark scheme. Here’s how:

  1. Identify (1-2 marks): The writer focuses our attention on characters
  2. Explain (3-4 marks): The writer focuses our attention on Violet and Klaus
  3. Comment (5-6 marks): The writer focuses our attention on Violet and Klaus’ whereabouts
  4. Analyse (7-8 marks): The writer focuses our attention on Violet and Klaus’ reaction to their whereabouts and portrays that it was unexpected

Let’s now think about the second bullet-pointed guidance which suggests that we look at how and why the writer shifts focus.

English Language table

By yourself, you can work through the process of elimination; what category does the writer focus our attention on setting, character or object? Can you address the levels of AO2 and the mark scheme? Identify, Explain, Comment, Analyse?

You should have noticed that the writer focuses your attention, particularly on another character (Sunny), her desperate situation and emotions of fear (Analyse 7-8 marks). But the bullet point asks how and why the focus changes, not just what it changes to. In order to truly address it, you will need to identify what the writer uses to change the focus and then make an inference (use your reasoning to make a conclusion) about why the writer has done this.

You could mention for example that the writer uses a connective “but” at the beginning of the sentence to introduce Sunny. Although mentioning a word-class does not fall under a structural technique, we are identifying how the writer changes the focus (connective) and to some extent why (to introduce a new character), so it falls under analysis and will give us at least 1 additional mark in our response.

Subject Terminology and Effect on the Reader for top marks

You are then expected to write about any other structural feature that interests you, and I can hear your brain ticking right now as you try to think of what structural features are. To help you, here is a brief list of structural features that you might want to keep in mind to mention:

  • Narrative Voice
  • Narrative perspective (1st/3rd person)
  • Climax (the most intense or decisive point)
  • Dialogue
  • Exposition (The start, where ideas are initiated)
  • Analepsis (Flashback, presenting past events)
  • Prolepsis (Flash-forward, presenting future events)
  • Foreshadowing (hints what is to come – can mislead)
  • Motif (recurring element in a story)
  • Resolution (The solution of the conflict)
  • Setting
  • Spotlight (something is emphasised)
  • Linear Narrative Style (events told chronologically)
  • Non-linear narrative style (events not told chronologically)
  • Dual Narrative style (told from multiple perspectives)
  • Cyclical narrative style (ends the way it begins)

Some of these no doubt you could have easily identified yourself, but maybe you simply didn’t know the technical term or the name for it …now you do!

Using the terms above will help to get you the elusive marks for subject terminology, but remember, to achieve level 8, it isn’t enough to identify. If you identify all of the above techniques in the exam and write them down, you still won’t get top marks because this is not analysis. You must go on to explain the impact it can have on the reader and within this how it informs meaning or understanding of the text.

For example, using our extract from earlier, we could say:

Have I technically stated what effect the use of the technique or the structure of the text has on the reader? No, I haven’t and so no marks would be awarded for the effect on the reader. I need to think about the effect as an action, it will cause something to happen to the reader and let’s not go for the usual (the reader feels shocked, the readers feel appalled, the reader feels angry etc) although they would receive a mark (explain or comment) they don’t equate to analysis (7-8 marks). I really need to use words like sympathise or question or assume, so instead, we could state:

Now we are starting to analyse, we are thinking about the impact on the reader and also linking it to the question focus. Without doing this consistently in your response, you will find that you can’t get above the 6 marks are you are not using perceptive analysis. See below for a list of possible words you can use to get across your ideas of the effect on the reader…thank me later:

  • Consider
  • Sense
  • Track
  • Visualise
  • Imagine
  • Perceive
  • Discover
  • Examine
  • Empathise
  • Sympathise
  • Clarify
  • Note
  • Conclude
  • Compare
  • Appreciate

These words are much more accurate in terms of how a reader would be impacted. If it isn’t a reaction you would truly have while reading such as to gasp out loud in surprise when you realise that Violet and Klaus didn’t expect to be on the road, then don’t pretend it is the reader’s response. YOU are the reader of the text currently, so be realistic.

In addition to this, definitely don’t state that the effect on the reader is boredom. I can’t say how often I’ve seen this in students responses that I’ve marked. Trust me, no writer intends for a reader to be bored! By stating this you are showing the examiner that you are not able to look critically at a text and naturally, this means you aren’t analysing so you can kiss those top marks goodbye if you ever consider using the word “bored” as an effect on the reader.

As a parting gift, I’ll leave below a complete exemplar response to question 3 and you are welcome to use it to frame your own response.

At the beginning of the text, the writer focuses the readers attention on the setting when he writes “beastly out of the way places”. He chooses to focus your attention on the setting in order to establish a sense of place and time, also by using the adjective “beastly” he describes the setting in a negative light that could foreshadow bad things to come which could reveal ideas within the plot to the reader, keeping them interested. In line 45 the writer changes focus to the monkey’s paw using direct speech when Mr White asks “What was that about the Monkey’s paw?”. The writer does this in order to keep the pace of the narrative and to set an exposition where the main focus is introduced. The use of 3rd person perspective helps to make the story seem more balanced and reliable, further interesting the reader and creating a sense of curiosity that could influence the reader to imagine what might happen next.

As you are now well aware of what the mark scheme requires, why don’t you test yourself? Can you identify the mark scheme being addressed in this exemplar response? Use the table to support yourself:

Table for English learning