A Guide to GCSE English Language

GCSE English Language is a core GCSE, and along with Mathematics, a pass in this subject is normally essential to stay in education. However, many students often get confused about how it differs from the literature part of English, and what exactly they need to in order to achieve a high grade. 

English Language is the study of communication through words. It is concerned with the mechanics of how a written text is put together, and how the writer achieves their intended effect and purpose. Students are tested on their ability to both analyse extracts of writing, and also reproduce their own writing pieces in a given style. It is a skills-based GCSE, in contrast to English Literature, which tests students’ knowledge and understanding of the texts they have studied. This can mean students do not always know how to prepare for the English Language examination, and fall into the trap of thinking they do not need to revise. 

What does my child actually have to do? 

Each examination board will produce its own  paper for English Language, but there are strong similarities between all the boards in terms of which skills are being assessed. Each paper normally focuses on the same type of writing and asks students to demonstrate the same skills. 

Language Paper One 

The first part of this examination is reading-based, and normally focuses on fiction. There will be a series of questions that will test the student’s ability to read, understand and analyse an extract. The questions centre on language techniques used by the writer, as well as the way in which the writer has structured the piece. Furthermore, there will be a longer question that requires students to evaluate the overall effect of the piece of writing. 

The second part of this paper is writing-based. Students need to produce their own original piece of creative writing. They will either produce an extended description or they will be asked to write a narrative. They may be given images or story prompts. These are to help them generate ideas, and do not have to be used if they are not required. 

Language Paper Two – Non-Fiction 

In some ways, Paper Two follows a similar structure, but focuses on different skills/styles. The first part again is reading-based, but in this paper it is normally focused on analysing non-fiction and there are normally two extracts for students to analyse. The examiners again assess the student’s ability to analyse language and structure, as well as evaluating the intended effect/purpose. However, in this paper there is also normally a requirement for students to compare the two texts as well. 

In the second part, the task is again writing-based, but rather than creative writing, students need to produce a piece of transactional writing. This could include writing to argue, to inform, to persuade, to review and so on. 

What skills does my child need? 

Your child needs to be able to read a variety of extracts, and not just understand them, but also analyse them. This means breaking down the specific techniques that are used by the writer, and thinking about how the text has been constructed in order to create a particular effect. At this level, we are not so much concerned with what a writer is saying, but more focused on how and why something is said. Analysis can be word-level, focusing on individual words used or linguistic devices, and it can also be whole-text level, for example exploring the structure of a piece of writing. It is important that students learn to see every piece of writing as a construct that has been put together by a writer in order to achieve a specific purpose, and that they can evaluate how this purpose is achieved. 

For the writing tasks, the examiners place a lot of emphasis (and marks) on the structure and the organisation of the piece of writing. Technical accuracy is very important, and marks are awarded for spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and sentence structure. However, they are also looking for evidence of careful planning. The piece of writing needs to draw the reader in, with ideas that are clear and linked together in a complex way. The student also needs to demonstrate that they understand the appropriate style, tone and register to use for different types of writing. 

How does my child develop these skills? 

As it is a skills based qualification, practice is absolutely essential. Ideally, students should practice with extracts that are the same length as those that they will be writing about in the examination, and they need to work with both fiction and non-fiction texts. Practice answers are important, but there are other activities that students can do with these texts before they launch into writing. They need to get used to annotating pieces of writing, which means actively making notes and highlighting the techniques that the writer is using. They need to be able to quickly identify which parts are significant, and need further analysis. 

Furthermore, they will benefit not just from writing practice answers, but also planning them. This is often the stage that students will miss out, and it is not so much from laziness, but from a lack of understanding about how to plan. There are different strategies students can use in order to plan, such as mind maps or post-it notes. They need to make sure that they are thinking in terms of topic sentences, and thus identifying a clear focus for each paragraph in their answer. Once they have a focus, then they can start collecting the relevant evidence. Venn diagrams (overlapping circles) can also be a good technique to help students plan comparative answers. 

For writing tasks, exemplar answers will help your child to get a sense of the level required in their writing, and will hopefully inspire them to experiment more with their structure. Again, students need to practice planning in order to really help them understand how their ideas should be organised and presented. An initial brainstorm with post it notes, that can then be reordered if necessary to create a more striking effect for the reader, is a good strategy to try. Vocabulary activities, such as finding synonyms of overused words, will also help to develop your child’s writing. 

With some students, it may be helpful to have a set story that students practice and perfect before the examination. They may need to tweak it slightly to the demands of the question, but it can be useful with students who lack confidence and are frightened by the idea of coming up with a story in an examination situation. 

Are you looking for further English support for your child? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one to one and small group tuition for KS2, 11+, KS3, KS4 and KS5. To find out more about how we can help your child flourish in English, email hello@brightskytutoring.com

Leave a Reply