GCSEs are fiddly. There’s no way around it. They contain multiple question types which demand slightly different things of pupils, and they are marked according to rigid criteria, often by examiners who lack the deep subject knowledge to make nuanced judgements. This means that knowledgeable and able pupils can lose marks unless they have been trained to serve up ‘what the examiner wants’.
Therefore, although it is not the same thing as education, schools cannot avoid doing test practice. And because it must be done, we need to think about ways of making this test practice as educational as possible. We need to make the test practice as coherent as possible, and pay as much attention as possible to building cultural capital that is retained in long-term memory, even while we are addressing the dreary and anti-educational issue of ‘what the examiner wants you to do in paper 1 question 3’.
If we can crack this issue, we can make GCSE preparation more than just a joyless, soul-destroying exercise in ticking the exam board’s boxes.
Let’s take a look at GCSE English language. However much I deplore the very existence of this non-subject, it’s part of our current educational reality, and so it must be addressed. How might we prepare our pupils, for example, for GCSE English language paper 1 section A? In this part of the exam, candidates are required to read an extract from 20th or 21st century fiction and answer a series of question types which move from fundamental understanding of content to critical evaluation of literary techniques.
The exam boards provide anthologies of extracts for practising these question types, but I would advise English teachers not to use these, because they are not created with any coherent knowledge goal in mind. If we want to make the best use of the time spent doing test practice for GCSE English language, we need to come up with our own anthologies so that we will not simply be reading any old thing in order to ‘practise comprehension’.
Let’s look at some specific examples. If you are studying The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for English literature, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from gothic fiction, such Frankenstein, Dracula and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. If you are studying An Inspector Calls, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from other twentieth century socialist writers, such as John Steinbeck and George Orwell. Or you could gather together some Edwardian fiction, such as E M Forster, to give a better understanding of the time at which the play is set.
The same principle can be applied to GCSE English language paper 2 section A. The two linked non-fiction texts you use could be related to the literature you are studying. I recently pulled together a resource pack for Inspiration Trust English teachers focused on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, using a piece of 21st century journalism looking at the history of the novel’s reception, along with a contemporary review of the novel from the 19th century. These two non-fiction texts contain a wealth of knowledge and vocabulary which has intrinsic value. They are actually worth studying for their own sake.
If you’re going to use rich, satisfying and challenging texts for the purposes of GCSE test practice, then you will need to teach these texts explicitly. You’ll need to leave behind the idea that each lesson can be a mini-mock, and explain key ideas and words to pupils before they attempt the questions. They’ll still be getting familiar with ‘what the examiner wants’, but they’ll actually be learning something into the bargain, instead of muddling their way through and retaining nothing in long-term memory due to cognitive overload.
Once you start thinking about it, there are so many possibilities for using test practice as an opportunity for building rich knowledge and vocabulary and enhancing pupils’ study of literature. So take the leap and abandon the exam board anthologies, which are based on the false notion that it doesn’t matter what material you use for practising the generic skill of comprehension. Comprehension is primarily based on knowledge and vocabulary, and we must not waste our time delivering lessons that are not focused on building retention of these in long-term memory.