English revision is about putting some time into serious thinking

English revision is about putting some time into serious thinking

What is the best way to revise for a GCSE English Language exam? Given that typically it consists of a Reading paper and a Writing paper…  

For the Reading paper revision could be reduced, perhaps, to going over a few special memory aids like AFOREST, in readiness for the analysis of a piece of persuasive journalism.

And certainly it would do no harm to look through shorter or longer lists of language vocabulary – metaphor, personification, hyperbole etc. Marks are obtained when instances of these devices are spotted and labelled correctly, so no student should take them lightly.

But might there not be a more satisfying, more creative way of preparing for a GCSE English exam – and especially for the Writing paper?   

One approach, which I recommend to students who are looking for a B or an A grade, is to cultivate the habit of observation – observation of everyday life – which means pondering, wondering, comparing – in short, trying, by thinking that bit more consciously, to get that more out of ordinary experience: and recording the process, the adventure, in the manner of a note-taker or diarist.

Perhaps we could think of the English (for GCSE) as being like an overwhelming encyclopedic art gallery – like this:

The visitor with limited time has the choice, either to go round the whole exhibition, pausing before nothing, meting out the time they spend before each picture to a few seconds; or they can decide, since every object in the collection is valuable and has a claim to be noticed for itself, to select two or three works out of the hundreds, and devote the time they have available to a longer, deeper, more considered  observation.  

I think the visitor who takes the second option will probably end up having the more rewarding and memorable experience in such a place – and less exhausting – even though, upon leaving the gallery, they will have not have ‘seen everything’.  

The ‘gallery’ of the English Language exam presents in a way, I think, the same sort of choice. A candidate can go in and try to comprehend ‘everything’ – but that approach may be the equivalent of hurrying from room to room, flitting from object to object, merely in order to tick it off.

Alternatively, he or she may try a method that covers less but allows the mind to offer more – reflecting, engaging and exploring – and thereby doing precisely what examiners most look out for and reward in an answer.

The art is to record the thinking process as closely as possible, to give a voice to the stream of one’s thoughts and impressions as they arise. It is evidence of such ‘sustained’ and ‘considered’ thinking (to quote from a marking scheme) that clinches the higher marks.

But how, under the pressure of the clock, and in the unnatural environment of the examination hall (some may object) can this be achieved? 

Of course it is not easy, and practice is required.

​But every impulse to experiment creatively in an answer – whether describing vividly, or following up a fanciful train of thought, or rolling out a personal anecdote – will be welcomed and rewarded by the examiner.

Yes, it will very likely make the process of writing a little slower: the essay may not be as long. But marks are not awarded for length (no examiner wants to see page after unending page), but for insight and signs of mental application.

I conclude with a few ideas to try out.

1/ Look at a picture or photograph for 10 or 15 minutes (eg the carousel picture here). Imagine yourself into the scene. Then narrate it, describe it, the atmosphere, the surroundings, what it suggests, what it makes you wonder about. What might the human figures (one or two of them) be thinking and feeling?

2/ Reflect upon one particular hour or half-hour of your day. Not the most exciting or entertaining necessarily, but a routine hour, a typical hour, of the sort that, without an effort write about it, would most likely be completely forgotten or merged into other similar hours of similar days. Recall the details and write them down so that you have a record of eight or ten particular moments.

3/ Relate a vivid memory of a past event – something that goes back a few years, a childhood recollection of an outing to the sea perhaps, or a camping experience, of which many of the details will have fallen away, although other impressions will still be clear. Tell the story and describe the scene as faithfully and colourfully as possible.

Such might be a fruitful agenda for the revision of English – a re-visualizing you could perhaps call it. Fruitful not only as an examination strategy (and definitely more fun), but as a writing strategy for the long term as well.

After all, won’t almost everybody, after GCSE, wish to take their thinking and writing skills on to other uses?