Becoming a great writer is absolutely vital if your child is hoping to achieve the top grades at GCSE, but it is a skill that is sometimes overlooked during the GCSE years themselves. Teachers have so much literature content to cover, especially now that so many more pupils sit both English Language and English Literature (when I started teaching many of the mid-low set students sat a combined Language/Literature course with far less content). Furthermore, the reading sections of the English Language papers can be very tricky, with several questions, all requiring students to demonstrate different skills.. However, the writing papers account for fifty percent of the marks in GCSE English Language, and I have found that some students underestimate the importance of these marks. The writing sections normally come second in the paper, meaning that students are often tired when they come to them, and as a result their writing can be rushed and under-developed, leading them to sometimes throw a huge chunk of marks away.
So how can you help your child focus on writing skills, and ensure that he/she shines in this section of the examination? When students are asked to set writing targets, I have seen a lot of them go straight for spelling and grammar. Similarly, when shown exemplar pieces, one of the first comments is usually “the spelling is good”. Spelling and grammar are assessed in this section of the English Language examination, but they are not the only things the examiners look for. I have come across dyslexic students who believe that they cannot possibly get a good grade in English because they cannot spell. But more than half of the marks at GCSE are allocated to structure and organisation, not to spelling. Furthermore, whilst examiners do have to take spelling into account, this part of the mark scheme also looks for ambitious use of vocabulary and creative sentence structure. The examiners are marking positively, looking to reward what is there, rather than penalise what is not.
Students tend to focus too much on spelling and overlook another key area where there are far more marks available: structure. Examiners are looking for evidence of careful thought and planning going into the structure of the story. I often tend to get students to start off by thinking about stories that have appealed to them (films work well for this activity) and then break them down in terms of the structure, focusing on how exactly the story is told to us. Their writing must be organised, and the examiners want to see a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. They do not like stories that end with a cliffhanger, or even worse, “it was all a dream”. However, this does not mean students cannot be creative with their use of structure. Examiners particularly like stories that use a circular structure, coming back to an opening image in the ending (I like to refer to this as The Lion King effect!) I also work with students to get them to experiment with techniques such as starting their story at the climax moment to grab the reader’s attention. It is far more important to create a compelling piece of writing that really stands out to the examiner, than to worry about getting every single spelling correct.
Another area where students need to be really clear is when it comes to the purpose and the audience of each piece of writing. This is particularly important in the transactional writing section of the examination (which normally comes in the second language paper). Students will be asked to produce a piece of writing in a particular style, for example persuasive or informative. It is really key that students master the features of each type of writing, and also know who they are writing for. The differences can sometimes be quite subtle, for example if a student is writing a speech, they need to think about the pacing of the piece, considering the fact they are producing something to be spoken aloud, rather than read. A persuasive piece of writing should feel more forceful than writing to explain. Persuasive writing is not about considering both points of view and letting your reader make up his/her mind, it is about insisting that your point of view is the correct one and the only one the reader should consider. It is vital that students do not start writing a piece until they are clear on the purpose, audience and form of the piece.
Whilst students only get one chance at writing in the examination, it is important that they revisit pieces of writing in the exam revision process. A lot of students do not like redrafting their writing pieces and see it as unnecessary. However, it is a vital chance to develop their skills and to evaluate what worked and what did not work so well. A professional writer will never submit the first draft to a publisher, they will polish their writing until it gleams, and if a student wants to achieve a Grade Nine, he/she needs to think like a professional writer.
Some students like to go into the exam with a certain story/descriptive piece already planned out and prepared, and essentially learnt off by heart. The writing questions do tend to be deliberately vague and generic, and this is to allow as wide a range of responses as possible. I do not recommend this technique for students who are aiming for the very top grades, as I feel that Grade Nine writing needs to be intuitive, responding to the specific stimulus material on the day. However, this strategy can be helpful for students who are less confident with their writing, and may help them feel better prepared.
The writing sections of the examinations are often overlooked, but they can be a vital source of marks for many students. The literature papers tend to get more focus when it comes to revision, as understandably students are anxious about having to learn so many quotations off by heart. But writing is not a skill that can just be pulled out when it is needed. I am able to write this blog post now after decades of developing my skills as a writer, practising, evaluating and improving. And GCSE students need to be doing the same, polishing their skills and techniques until they are ready to shine.
If you are interested in further ways to help your child find his/her writing spark, do not forget to sign up to my free workshop on Monday 15th June at 10.00 am, How to Become an English Superstar. Click here to sign up: https://mailchi.mp/b9236c529429/become-an-english-superstar