iGCSE English Language advice

The iGCSE English Language exam is on Tuesday. Here are some top tips for success. 

General advice

Start with question 3: By starting with this one, you will hopefully ‘bank’ a large number of marks and it will help you to feel confident.

Keep an eye on the time: It is important that you don’t leave any question unanswered or incomplete. Mark schemes for Q1 and Q2 require even and balanced responses.

Read the focus of each question carefully: You need to ensure that your answers address exactly what is required. A slight misunderstanding can cost lots of marks.

Question 3 advice

Highlight points and number them: Numbering as you look for points ensures that you have enough. If you get more than 15, you can choose the best ones.

Make sure that your points are clear: If your points are not clear, the examiner might think that you don’t really understand what you are writing. Ensure short and unclear answers are expanded with a noun or verb to make sense e.g. ‘Northern Lights’ becomes ‘You can see the Northern Lights’. Ask yourself: if the examiner had not read the text, would they understand my point?

Don’t just copy quotations: Sometimes a quotation isn’t the full point. Quotations can be fine but make sure that you change anything that needs changing.

Be precise: If the weather is freezing, then it is ‘freezing’ or ‘very cold’. It is not just ‘cold’. Be careful with plurals e.g. writing ‘dog’ when it should be ‘dogs’ will lose the mark. Writing ‘is’ when it should be ‘was’ will lose the mark.

Don’t repeat yourself: Check that none of your points are similar. If you said that Lapland was not too far away and also said that Lapland is a three and a half hour flight away, you would be repeating yourself.

Question 3b (summary) advice

Don’t write an introduction or a conclusion: It is a summary and should be concise- this means keeping things short.

Reorder things: Don’t just list ideas in the order they appear in the text. This will show that you have skilfully organised things.

Group similar ideas together: It shows that you fully understand the text and can help you to ‘squash’ things up

Use discourse markers to structure the summary: These help your writing to be fluent; it flows better. They prevent it from becoming too much like a list. e.g. Additionally; However; In fact; Equally; Despite this

Use your own words: You will get a low mark if you don’t!

Don’t develop points: It is a summary so you can’t do this. Leave that for Q1.

Question 1 advice

Make sure that you understand the text fully: It’s a reading exam and knowing the text well will make both Q1 and Q2 much easier. Ways to aid understanding could be to underline facts and details as you read or reflecting after each paragraph on what it was about.

Highlight 5 or 6 ideas per bullet: This will allow you to have lots to choose from. You want 4 or 5 for each bullet if you are trying to get the best grades.

Cover each bullet point evenly: The mark scheme is clear- an ‘even’ response will get you into the higher bands. On a simple level this means writing the same amount but it really means including several points, details and developments for each.

Include specific details from the text to exemplify your points: It’s pretty easy to state an idea for a bullet point, but the next part is to refer to a specific moment, fact, circumstance, event from the text. Don’t just say that the journey to Winter Wonderland was difficult, give a specific example of exactly when it was difficult. Again, it shows that you really understand the text. It is sometimes useful to start with the detail and build things around it. “When x happened, it was clear that…”

Develop your details: This is important because the best readers can make inferences and statements that build on what they know. You could do this in a very simple way with words like because/so/which/therefore or phrases like which told me/ this meant that/ it made me realise that etc. There are of course more sophisticated ways to do this which the best answers will have.

Change the order of things: The exam board mentioned in their report that the worst answers “tended to stick closely to the events and ideas in the passage, and to present them in the same order.” The best answers used the details from the passage, but made sophisticated decisions to structure the ideas in a new way. It is good to try and notice where the mood/tone changes in an extract, and reflect this in your own answer. Thinking a little about your structure will help the writing mark too.

Don’t forget the writing mark: Most marks are for reading, but there are 5 for writing. The exam board want to see interesting writing which matches purpose and is aimed at the right audience. Shape the source into whatever style they want. They also want the basics: correct spelling; correct punctuation; clear paragraphs. Add in some complex vocabulary and vary your sentence structure. CHECK YOU’RE YOUR WORK

Question 2 advice

Start each answer with an overview of the paragraph: This shows that you understand what the writer is doing and will help you later with ‘effect’. Avoid vague sentences like ‘It builds tension’; be specific and precise. Don’t just say what happens, try and capture the mood/tone and what the writer is trying to do.

Highlight everything that you could write about, then pick the best quotations: Highlighting all possibilities gives you options to choose from. Pick things that you could write lots about. This means words/phrases and especially images with clear meanings and connotations. Words with different connotations are great. Remember that this question asks you to show understanding of how language works.

Refer to language techniques: Showing a knowledge of language terminology is not essential, but referring to metaphors, similes, personification and other things e.g. adjectives or alliteration will show off what you know. Don’t go overboard with this though.

Explain the meaning of the quotation: Explaining the meaning shows that you know the different stages of creating effects. Effects start with an understanding of meaning. You can’t say the effect of the phrase ‘the weather gripped him’ without knowing what ‘gripped’ means. So, say ‘To grip something means to hold tightly, often against the will. This creates the impression that the weather…’

  • If something is described as…then it…
  • A…is often seen as…

Note that you should consider the meaning in context. Don’t just write the dictionary definition of something- make sure that it is relevant to the paragraph and the effects that you will go on to explore.

Then comment on the effect: Once you have been clear about the meaning of the word/ image you apply to the context. “The writer uses the simile ‘like a bull’ to describe the customer. Bulls are often portrayed as angry, violent creatures, which creates the impression that the customer is particularly angry and capable of violence. A bull is also a huge animal, and this image reinforces the idea that the customer was large and could overpower the shop assistant.


Diligence: Smarter Revision

With the English Language exam just over a week away, we are very nearly into ‘exam season’. At this point, there is a tendency for some students to panic and to just start cramming for the exam. But lots of what we know about learning and revision says that just getting out the books and highlighters won’t have the desired effects. Whether you are a student or a parent, here are some simple research-based strategies that will support revision- the smart way.

Spacing not cramming

While it would be silly not to revise the night before an exam, research says that a little more thought needs to go into how you organise your revision schedule. If you were to spend 10 hours in total revising for an exam, you will remember more and be better prepared if you space this study out. Five 2 hour revision sessions would lead to greater retention of information then one 10 hour session.

This means getting the exam schedule out and planning backwards for the exam. Even those taking the final exam- Film Studies- will benefit from starting their revision now.

Testing not reading

By now, most students will have study guides and lots of notes. They will have elaborately colour-coded cards with Geography case studies and simultaneous equations. Simply reading these will not be harmful, but it is likely to fool the brain a little, making it seem that the content is known well. The problem is that this builds a false sense of confidence that everything is ok. The better approach, instead of simply reading, is quizzing.

A huge body of research shows that testing is better for the long term retention of information than simply studying. This is known as the ‘testing effect’, and it works because the more that you have to recall things, the easier it is for you to recall them at a later date. There is also the benefit for revision that you can check whether you actually know something, or just think that you do.

Flashcards are particularly useful for this. Write notes as usual on one side and then write questions on the other side. Start with the questions and then check the answers. If writing notes on paper, you can use the Cornell system: make a column on one edge of the page where you enter key terms or questions then test yourself later by covering the notes and answering the questions. There are programs like Quizlet and Memrise which also have mobile apps. There are many quizzes already there or you can create your own.

Elaboration and self-explanation

Elaboration basically means asking ‘why?’ and Self-explanation really just means saying ‘How do I Know?’.

Instead of simply answering a question or reading some notes, it helps to ask ‘Why is this true?’ or ‘How do I know this?’ For example, if studying Heroes in English Literature, you might say that Nicole is presented as innocent. By asking ‘why’, you might begin to comment on what Cormier was saying about guilt, and innocence, and heroism, and religion. By asking ‘how’, you might start to talk about Cormier’s use of imagery or the way that the narrative is structured.

When looking at a scientific or mathematical process or a series of events in History, asking ‘why’ will allow you a greater depth of focus than merely studying the material and asking ‘how do I know?’ will help you to connect all the information together.

You can never guarantee anything when it comes to exams, but by approaching revision with these principles in mind, you can be sure that your study sessions will be fruitful.

Further links:

Mr Gayle has created some excellent revision videos for Religious Studies here.

You will find a playlist of iGCSE English Language videos created by me here.

If you search ‘walking talking mock’ in YouTube, you will find a number of these. They are simply teachers talking through how to answer exam papers. It is helpful to see what they look at and focus on in exam questions, then how they proceed to answer them. Quality is variable, so it is best to check comments/ likes/ views etc to get a sense of this. You must also be sure that it is the correct exam board or paper, otherwise you could be learning how to succeed in an exam you won’t take.


Civility: More than just a word at DKA

Positivity, respect, excellence, commitment, opportunity, integrity, honesty, determination. Go into any school and the schools values will be displayed but are these mere buzz words used to show that the school has a moral purpose, or are the words meaningful and demonstrated throughout the school day?

CivilityUsually the values of the school are on display the moment you enter the building and here at DKA we are no different; upon entering the main entrance of the school in blue size 1000 font are the words INTEGRITY, CIVILITY, DILIGENCE.  However what I feel makes us different is that we fully live by our values. We don’t have contrived displays that show students modelling our values, we don’t have fancy acronyms that are repeated daily incorporating a number of values, we don’t use them as a PR stunt– what we do is embed the values in to everything we do.  To illustrate this, I will share how we have embedded our value of civility as something we do, not just something that we say.

Take a typical school day at DKA. Every day starts with ‘line up’. The whole school is silent and in arrow straight lines fully equipped for the day. Students are spoken to by a member of staff about selected topics; these might include literacy, current affairs, morals etc and staff make links to our school values in these speeches. Students then leave line up and move to lesson one in impeccable silence in a calm and civilised manner. There is no shouting or rowdiness and when they get to Lesson 1 students are in the right frame of mind to begin learning. The movement from line up to lesson one was recently described by an inspector as ‘ballet’ and it is wonderful to be part of such a purposeful start to the day.

Having worked in a school which was very noisy and chaotic during lesson transition, I feel we have got the right balance of civility during lesson changeover at DKA. We don’t have silent corridors or expect students to walk between lessons in arrow straight lines like the movement from line up to lesson one. What we do expect is students walking on the left in a civilised manner. To ensure that everyone is able to get to where they need to be on time, students can only visit lockers at certain times during the day. Any shouting, running, pushing or general conduct that is more acceptable at a football match than a professional place of work is not tolerated. This stems from our values, specifically civility and prepares students for the civilised world.

Family diningThis year we have introduced family dining with our year 7s. As a head of faculty, I do not have a tutor group and I feel privileged to attend family dining on a daily basis.  Having witnessed the development of table manners and etiquette, even I have learnt some more vital table etiquette! Students are encouraged to speak in proper English and the sophistication of conversations is rapidly developing. Family dining will undoubtedly support students later in life when eating at university, a place of work and even in the home.

We always end our school day with a ‘thought of the day’. A reminder bell will trigger EVERYONE to stop what they are doing and start reflecting on the day. Classrooms have quotes for students to think about – but this is a whole school policy and it is observed by everyone in the building – it can be embarrassing when you have to stop a meeting with a parent or school governor and explain to them that a minutes silence to reflect must be adhered to. However, everyone following the rules and routines of the school is essential for consistency and without it, we would not be adhering to the civility we want to instil in students.

Dixons Kings Academy is no different to other school in that we have our values: integrity, diligence and civility. What I feel makes us different is that both staff and students express these values in everything they do every day.


Practice: a collaborative approach to successfully tackling curriculum changes

Teaching is a fast-paced profession in which the rate of change can frequently threaten to outstrip the ability of even the most consummate professional to keep up. Every subject has its particular challenges, but, speaking as an English teacher, the current climate is particularly demanding. New specifications, the movement to numeric grades and the consequent necessity to make substantial modifications to Key Stage 3 are weighing heavily on English departments throughout the country. Regardless of which exam board has been selected, confronting new papers requiring new expertise can be an incredibly daunting prospect. As these changes are rolled out across all subjects, the challenge of becoming an expert all over again will be faced by all.

So, what’s the solution? With locking ourselves in the stock cupboard for the next few years out of the question, surely there is something we can do to make the transition both manageable and successful?

Here at Dixons Kings we’ve been trying a range of strategies to help develop a more supportive, collegiate working atmosphere in which problems like those outlined above become a shared endeavour. The introduction of practice has been a particularly successful part of that. In its most straightforward application, practice involves teachers getting up in front of one another and essentially drilling the everyday routines that, when delivered perfectly, help to underpin consistently excellent teaching and learning. Receiving and acting upon peer feedback is a key aspect of practice. After several positive whole-school practice sessions related to the embedding of whole-school routines, our Lead Learners asked Heads of Faculty to adapt practice to our subjects. What followed was an experience that turned out to be enlightening, valuable and, most importantly, supportive.

Each member of the team was given the opening extract from a novel and a rather bewildering question from the new AQA specimen English Language Paper 1 (the structure question). We then spent around 40 minutes planning a lesson, or part of a lesson, approaching the question. A feedback session followed in which we shared our ideas, acted out activities we thought might be helpful and gave each other feedback on what we’d come up with. Negative reactions to this might range from scoffing to offended, but, honestly, it was completely worthwhile. It was more than shared planning or bouncing ideas around: the act of getting up in front of your peers and explaining an idea as you would to a class forces you to confront the tricky explanation, feedback or questioning parts of lessons that are frequently not thought about until the live delivery in front of a class. Significantly, the peer feedback from colleagues offered a crucial opportunity to adapt and improve teaching methods. Think of it this way – everybody knows that the teaching of difficult concepts improves when you have had more experience of teaching that concept. With brand new, difficult concepts being introduced across subjects, surely it makes simple, common sense to practise with our colleagues before we stand up in front of our students.

After this first foray into subject-specific practice, the feedback from the department was overwhelmingly positive. Colleagues who had been daunted by the prospect of it now felt secure with the constructive, non-judgemental environment we’d created. Personally, as a teacher determined to keep improving my skills, I think it is a vital tool to ensure my own development. I can’t wait to do it again. Try it. Ultimately, if everybody in your team has the shared drive to succeed, what could be the downside?


Coaching: 20 years of CPD in 1

When I first entered into the teaching profession, I quickly became used to having lots of different people coming into my classroom and giving regular feedback on my teaching practice; professional mentors, subject mentors, professional tutors, subject tutors and my Head of Department. I didn’t realise it at the time but back then I had it made!

We place great importance on giving feedback to our students to help them improve. However, in a profession that has great demands on our time, rarely do we devote this time to feedback on our own teaching. After my initial training year, I found myself waiting for those once per term, high stakes observations, in which I would receive three or four vast areas for development, and which we all know do not give an accurate reflection of the day-to-day teaching and learning that happens in our classroom. We all know that one teacher that pulls it out of the bag only when it counts or the great teacher that panics under the pressure of these one-off judgement based observations. Neither of these teachers receives the professional development they actually need. As an NQT I definitely felt that I had been left to my own devices, and it initially felt great to have the autonomy, but as a teacher who wanted to develop my skills in the classroom, I felt I had stilted somewhat.

Fast-forward a few years and I am extremely happy to now work in school where I know I am constantly developing as a teacher. Over the past year at Dixons Kings, we have embarked upon a weekly coaching programme to provide regular feedback to every teacher. Each week everyone from the Principal to the NQT is observed for 15 minutes by their coach and has a feedback meeting soon afterwards. These coaching observations are supportive and non-judgemental. They focus solely on the strengths seen in the short observation and then one focused and specific key lever, which can be implemented within a week. In the follow-up meeting we are encouraged to practice the strategies that we will use in the next lesson. The difference between this and those one-off high stakes observations, is that we can put strategies in place to improve our teaching immediately and receive feedback on this the following week instead of having to wait a whole term. By receiving feedback weekly, we receive as much feedback in one year as most teachers do in twenty!

Last year I wanted to focus on my deeper questioning skills in Spanish. The targets that my coach set for me following the coaching observations were simple and easy to implement. Over the course of the year, these slight tweaks to my teaching practice have meant that I can now question my students on complex grammar points and they can respond to my questions in Spanish.

And it’s not just as a classroom teacher where I reap the benefits. As a Head of Faculty, these coaching sessions allow me to have a clear picture of the teaching and learning that happens across the department on a day to day basis. I believe that the information collected through coaching observations is much more reliable than any information collected on a one-off high stakes observation.

The coaching programme has also been instrumental in planning the in-school CPD as each week there are updates on the CPD needs for every teacher. It has also created an open door culture, in which we can informally observe other teachers who have been identified as having strength in a particular area.

Coaching has allowed us as a school to constantly develop our teaching and to celebrate the success of everyone- from the cover supervisor to the experienced teacher.