On the English Language GCSE exam

On the English Language GCSE exam

Last week I filled in forms to examine for next summer’s GCSEs. At the ‘Choose subject’  box I hesitated – should I put down English Language as my first choice of paper to mark, or English Literature? Having marked GCSE English Literature in the past, this would be the easier task – on the other hand, would it not perhaps be useful for myself, more in accordance with the teaching I do over the year, to opt to mark English Language? I didn’t spend long deciding: and chose English Literature. 

I have long had misgivings about what  the GCSE English language exam requires from students in terms of their reading, thinking and writing about everyday texts. These surface almost every time I open a GCSE English textbook, and look for worthwhile exercises to set. The emphasis page after page on a microscopic scrutiny of  language devices and media techniques employed in such prosaic forms as the informative website, the glossy advertisement or the newspaper editorial, dampens my spirits – and I would imagine, must equally depress many students and their teachers. Surely the study and practice of English for public examination at 16 need not be as arid as this? 

To illustrate what I mean, here is detail of an exercise in analysing a letter of argument to a newspaper. The textbook from which it is taken was published by a leading examination board in 2010. The argument advanced is that motorists should drive with more thought for cyclists – a good and relevant  topic for teenagers.  However, the associated task does not  lead to any discussion of issues and experiences ; instead it has the student focus on rhetorical analysis: matching certain phrases in the letter, such as –  It makes me so cross  – My husband is a keen cyclist who has been riding bikes for many years   – just a few cuts and bruises – It happens all too often – Some cyclists may be putting themselves in danger –  to comment statements, such as – implies a criticism by asking a question rather than directly attacking – shows that she has a knowledge of the subject – states her feelings in a very measured way – understates any possibly ‘dramatic’ information – recognises there are two sides to a problem.  … and so on. 

The sample given is incomplete, so I don’t recommend trying it:  but the point is, how can this type of exercise be expected to appeal to 16-year-olds aspiring to become more articulate?  To me it seems a quite perverse approach to the exploration and cultivation of language. Get the students rather to express their opinions and tell their stories: on the ‘cyclist versus the motorist’ as on all other topical issues ,  let us have tasks more engaging to the imagination.    

Perhaps as the GCSE is phased out and the English Baccalaureate is phased in, some of this will naturally be swept away. We shall see.  

But in the mean time, if I am to be an examiner next summer, I hope I get my first choice – to mark the Literature paper.