Friday, July 29, 2022

Natsume Sōseki and Mary Seacole extracts on our VLE

We’ve recently seen a flurry on the activity on the VLE and that means that new authors have been selected and included. Our two latest additions are Natsume Sōseki and Mary Seacole.

Soseki was born in 1967 a time when Japan was becoming both westernised and industrialised and his writing reflects these changes. As well as being a highly successful novelist he became the Professor of English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University. He remains immensely popular in Japan and there has been a global emergence of interest in his works in the 21st century.

Sōseki did spend some time in the UK. Arriving in 1900 he spent just over two years there on a government scholarship. Although this meant he could not afford to study at Cambridge, he went to UCL (University College London). Unfortunately, despite making some friends, he had a miserable time, writing later that “the two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years in my life. Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves”. Yet the years he spent in the UK helped him to consolidate his knowledge of English literature and to go on to acquire two prestigious roles teaching English Literature at Japanese universities.

His novels predicted many of the issues that we face today, which is perhaps why he is being “rediscovered” on a global scale outside of Japan (where he has remained consistently popular and one of the most widely-read novelists that the country has produced).

Yet the extract we have chosen is about a boy – the protagonist of his 1906 novel Botchan (Young Master). This is definitely the kind of boy you will have come across yourself – full of mischief and naughtiness. However, the reasons for his behaviour are fully implied when his less than perfect home life is revealed to the reader. It’s hugely compelling and full of humour but rather poignant at the same time. We think it’s a great text for anyone studying towards Paper 1 - Explorations in creative reading and writing.

You can read the full novel of Botchan here.

Mary Seacole, too, was never forgotten in her birth country of Jamaica but after her death her legacy was neglected in the UK, leading to a “rediscovery” in the 1970s. She is now on the British History National Curriculum.

A British-Jamaican nurse and businesswoman who set up the “British Hotel” behind the lines during the Crimean War. A hugely popular figure during her own lifetime, she published her autobiography in 1857 which was an immediate best-seller. In 2004 she was voted the “Greatest Black Briton” in a poll. In the UK, there is an annual prize to recognise and develop leadership in nurses named after her. Her autobiography reveals a resilient and humorous woman who although faced with many obstacles throughout her life, resolutely refused to be side-lined. We have chosen an extract about the theft of a pig which will, we hope, have you smiling as Mrs Seacole entertainingly recounts the tale of the stolen porker! As a slice of autobiographical non-fiction, its place is most definitely deserved in our Paper 2 (Writers’ Viewpoints and Perspectives) section.

You can read Mary Seacole’s autobiography here.

It is said that “travel broadens the mind” and by including these two authors we hope to transport our learners to places as they were so long ago and to experiences that should be shared and remembered. While we are committed to "decolonising the curriculum", of course the more “traditional” writers will always, too, have a place so you can expect Dickens and Orwell and many others on the VLE. Yet when familiar voices are joined by others that are different and unique in their own right, don’t you think it improves the whole choir?

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Paper 2 Question 4 – The Neglected Question?

Is it me or is English Language Paper 2 Question 4 a little neglected when it comes to online resources (not to mention student interest)? There are the past papers, of course, but if I attempt to find resources by teachers or even educational companies, there seems to be fewer resources for this question than for any of the others. Not only that, when I ask other English teachers which one question they would like to improve on in terms of delivery, then it is invariably this one – and a lack of good resources is a reason often cited.

There could be a number of reasons for this, which I will discuss later. However, this question can not, should not, must not be overlooked. 16 marks are available for students to gain when answering this question. If I embed maths into this article in the same way I do in my GCSE English lessons (so, uhm, probably badly), then that represents ten percent of the overall qualification. There are 160 marks available over the two papers. Fortunately, 16/160 is an easy enough bit of maths for even my brain to understand.

Ten percent may seem like a lot – or maybe not. That will all depend on your perspective (and definitely more about perspectives later!). Yet to begin, let’s take a look at the most recent set of grade boundaries – for the November 2021 exam.

Students had to get 68 marks for a grade 4. To get a 5, they had to get 79, a difference of 11 marks.

It gets more interesting the higher the grades go.

To get a 5 it is 79 – to get a 6 it is 90. That’s 11 marks.

To get a 6 it is 90 – to get a 7 it is 101. That’s 11 marks too. Pattern?

Then between grades 7 and 8 – and 8 and 9 – there are 10 marks.

Here it is in the form of a chart.

So, none of the numerical differences between the “important” grade boundaries are larger than the number of marks available for Paper 2 Question 4.

The implication here is that if students give P2Q4 a good go then their chances of popping themselves up into the next grade boundary are fairly high. If they are half-way to getting a grade 5 already, for example, then to get inside that grade boundary they would “only” need 6/16 for this question.

As such, this is a question that shouldn’t be neglected and perhaps my Google search skills are lacking. Maybe it is a reason why it is sometimes a little overlooked – perhaps students can get half-marks on this question on autopilot? Regardless, I do find it very difficult to get good resources (apart from past papers) for this question. Why is this?

I think the answer is the texts - or more accurately finding good ones. The GCSE exam team have some time to research the topic chosen for the paper. They have some time to find relevant texts which show differences or similarities between writers’ perspectives to the extent needed to enable students to have enough choice around the areas of the texts to which they choose to respond. No wonder AQA allows them to respond to the texts in their entirety for this question. Plus, if you find the original texts you will soon discover that some, erm, editing has gone on in order to manipulate them into the format of the questions. Sometimes words and sentences are added – and occasionally whole paragraphs are excised. There’s no shame there – the editing is cleverly done and does not destroy the original meaning or intention but that too… takes time.

It could also be because AO3 – Assessment Objective 3 – is not examined in any other question but this one. If any AO is going to get lost, this could be the one. Let’s remind ourselves of the objective: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts. Just a quick read of this AO and you know it’s not for the faint-hearted resource creator.

Joining these issues up, it’s difficult to find appropriate texts and it’s the only time this particular skill is assessed in the exam. I think we have the primary reasons for the dearth of resources for this question. As for the resources I have found, there has also on occasion been a confusion between Question 2 and Question 4. Sometimes, in teacher written past-papers, question 2 has been about the attitudes of the writers (or attitudes of people in the texts) – something which is avoided in AQA produced papers. It will just confuse my students if I expose them to attitudes for question 2 as well as for question 4. It goes to show how hard it is to source these texts, as one not only has to take the assessment objective into account but also all of the other questions in Section A of the exam – and their assessment objectives into the bargain.

There is a final reason why this question sometimes doesn’t get the time it really needs in both teacher delivery and student attention. It’s the last “Section A” question over the two papers. Schools and particularly colleges have Schemes of Learning that place this question right at the end of the delivery – and this does make perfect sense. However, other things can get in the way, and the approach to this question can sometimes be hurried and not in the detail needed. Plus, do you ever see “GCSE fatigue” spreading around a class like gossip in the staffroom? In my experience if it is going to happen at any point, it’s usually when we get to this question!

Skills for this question can be embedded earlier. Discussion of how writers have portrayed characters and settings can be a good starting point. However, as the question itself is around a non-fiction text it’s a good idea to introduce short texts and focus on emotive and persuasive techniques throughout the academic year. When it comes to the question, there are various ways to deal with P2Q4. Here’s how I approach it (this graphic concerns the “cycling” past paper). 

I take time to sidle up to this as my students at least find this question intimidating. The full lessons can be found on the VLE alongside a number of quizzes about methods.

Of course, this is a “step one”, and the process has to be developed and repeated by the students. Generally, I advise that the students make three points about each text. This is not the only way that this question could be approached but I find that this works well with my learners.

The second post in this series about Paper 2 Question 4 will be published soon. In the meantime, if you know where there are some great (preferably free) resources for this question - then leave a comment below! Thanks!

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Who was Frances Harper?

Frances Harper is the latest addition to the host of writers featured on the VLE.  Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, Frances was born free in 1825.  She devoted her life not just to writing – although she was a very successful author of poems and novels – but to the abolitionist cause, campaigning to help ensure the eventual emancipation of enslaved people in the USA.

Harper also devoted much of her energy to the cause of women’s suffrage.  To many she was the veritable “double-headed monster” – not just a politicised woman but a politicised black woman into the bargain.  Her gender drew a great deal of criticism when she began to give antislavery lectures, beginning in 1854 - many considered it improper for a woman to speak in public at that point in history, but Harper continued regardless.

Harper included her political opinions in her novels. At one point in her 1869 work Minnie’s Sacrifice, she puts these words into her protagonist’s mouth: “I cannot recognize that the negro man is the only one who has pressing claims at this hour. To-day our government needs woman's conscience as well as man's judgment. And while I would not throw a straw in the way of the colored man, even though I know that he would vote against me as soon as he gets his vote, yet I do think that woman should have some power to defend herself from oppression, and equal laws as if she were a man.”

She certainly wasn’t a dreamer – just a little while later Harper kills off her protagonist, having her fall victim to an act of racial violence.  She knew that the times that she lived in were hard and she expressed this reality in her novels.

The extract we have used for the VLE is from “Trial and Triumph” which addresses an issue that can still provoke highly emotive reactions in some – that of the unmarried mother. Following the fashion of the day it is a little melodramatic but is an elegant and very poignant extract, nonetheless.

Here at Pass GCSE English, we want to ensure that the authors we present are as diverse and as interesting as possible – and Frances Harper is certainly a wonderful “find” for us.  We have created a quiz based on an the extract mentioned above which covers elements of Paper 1 Question 2 - otherwise known as the language question!

You can read more about her on Wikipedia and a number of her novels are also available at Project Gutenberg.

If you know of an author we could include, please let us know!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

GCSE English: The Structure Question – and How it Can Help Creative Writing

Paper 1 Question 3 asks students to comment on the structure of the text featured in the exam.  In order to prepare for this, they must learn quite a lot of vocabulary centred around structure.  This can be used when planning their own creative writing response later on in the exam.  Sometimes joining the dots between the two questions can take a little time.

As such, why not take a look at the video below which has just been uploaded to YouTube. It’s the first time we have partnered with “Teaching and Learning Resources for Me” to create the content that we need on the VLE.

The video covers a response from one student to an exam-style question.  It breaks down each paragraph by the structural features that the student has planned in order to fully organise their writing and to help maximise the marks that they will receive for the piece.

Teachers have a Hobson’s choice really – teach creative writing or teach creative writing for a GCSE English exam. It must be noted that most short story writers would be hard pressed to produce anything nearing their usual quality in 45 minutes – which is the time allowed for our students to flex their creative muscles.

As such this video is an attempt to give students a certain method with which to approach their GCSE English creative writing – so that when they go in to the exam they know how to begin, develop and end a short story (or a piece of descriptive writing) in terms of structure. In that way they can focus on the language that they use – after they have planned the structure of the piece.

I’m going to include the video below, too.  It shows what I think are the top ten tips for Paper 1 Question 5 – and a number of them are rooted in structure.  One of the issues I get as a teacher all the time is that students will insist on producing plot-heavy stories – so much so that their pieces become a list of what happens and then what happens next… and so on! The tips included here will help to ensure that students narrow their focus and don’t try to world-build in 45 minutes – and that means they will be able to focus on descriptive language rather than plot.

I have a prop that I use in class.  I have a little glass snail and I place it on a table. Then I move it diagonally to the opposite side of the table.  That, I tell them, is all the plot that you need to create an interesting and engaging story.  Another thing I do is leave the class and tell them to watch me as I re-enter.  I move (in a very sombre manner) to sit at my desk and place my head in my hands. I then pull myself together and take a deep breath, stand, and announce to the class what they will be studying in that lesson.  That, I tell them, is all the plot that you need to create an interesting and engaging story - #2. 

Perhaps I’m running away with myself here. I hope you enjoy the videos!

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Quizzes for GCSE English – Are they Important?

When a student walks into that big scary hall to take their GCSE English exam, they won’t have to do a single quiz – unless you count the “true or false” element of Paper 2 which is worth a measly four marks out of the 160 up for grabs across both exams.  So, why on earth use quizzes as a teaching and learning tool in preparation for this incredibly important pair of exams?

That’s a good question – and a simple one too.  My very simple answer would be “because they’re fun” and generally that’s where I would like the questioning to end.  I’ve never seen anything engage students more than a good quiz, especially on a platform like Kahoot. That’s the primary reason there are so many on the VLE, but more about that later.

Quizzes are flavour of the month right now – that’s for sure.  However, as long as the teaching wheel continues to go full circle every decade or two then the popularity and perceived use of quizzes will likely wax and wane accordingly.  Their star is most certainly in the ascendance at the moment – although they never really went away at all.

I love quizzes but doing a search for “quizzes for GCSE English” comes up with some strange results – most popular being the quizzes that various newspapers have put together to challenge their readership thus: “Could you pass GCSE English?”.  The quizzes then mostly have very little to do with what learners face in the exam.  Great.

You can go on Kahoot or Quizziz (both of which I adore) but sifting through the tsunami of choice you get on either platform can often be challenging when time is a factor.  I’m surely not the only teacher to have rapidly if somewhat guiltily pulled a quiz “off the shelf” only to discover half-way through that many of the “correct” answers are horribly, howlingly, hysterically wrong. No mind, I sometimes think that I could give my learners Kahoots on spot popping or nose picking or elbow greasing and they would probably enjoy them just as much, the competition being so much more important than the questions (of course).

So, why am I such a fan of quizzes?  As I’ve said, they’re fun.  There. 

They are important, too.

Of course there are many reasons other than fun why quizzes are important to me as an English teacher.  First and foremost, I am asking questions – I’m a big fan of the Socratic method.  Quizzes, particularly online quizzes, allow me to ask questions in a different way. Instead of asking a class and watching the sometimes desultory raising of hands, I’m doing the same thing in a more active way – plus I am asking all of the learners for the answer at the same time rather than just one.  True, most quizzes don’t allow you to probe if there is hesitation – it’s right or wrong. Yet more sophisticated quiz software such as Moodle can allow for this and if a question is answered incorrectly, then a similar question may be asked in a different way and the learner gets the opportunity to try again, effectively.  Real-time quizzes with a group don't do that.

Forget the more sophisticated software for a second and boiling it down to the basics, what I am really doing is asking my learners to retrieve information. You don’t get many points for that in the GCSE English exam, true enough, but this act of retrieval has been shown to help with the ability to learn in general.  When a learner retrieves information from that dusty corner of their mind this may lead to further learning and the bonus is it’s independent of the teacher.  There’s a furthermore too – simple retrieval exercises can even lead to learners applying the information in new circumstances (future lessons!) too.

Then there’s feedback. I'm sorry if all the blood drained from your face at the mention of the word, especially if you hear it from the mouth of someone who hasn't been inside a classroom in a small dog's lifetime, only just heard about its importance in a meeting and is now insisting that you do it 24 hours a day (including in your sleep) and mention it approximately 765 times in each scheme of learning you produce, even while they don't really understand what it truly means and is apparently ignorant of the fact that it always has been incorporated in good teaching and learning before it became the buzz word du jour.

Rant over. Now, I don’t use quiz results to measure progress for individuals on a regular basis but online quizzes are mighty useful in as much as they can tell me which questions are being answered correctly by most students and, likewise, which the majority are not getting right.  I have used this information in the past to shift focus or to refocus on skills that I had assumed the class had grasped.  Obviously, something hadn’t happened and I had blithely moved on, unaware that my staggeringly good teaching had had little impact. So, the students are giving me feedback rather than the other way around.

As I mentioned earlier, I rarely use quizzes to assess individual progress, but they can sometimes show when something is wrong – a disinclination to do a quiz or poor performance on one can indicate an underlying (usually domestic) issue that is bothering a learner – and this of course leads to very different questions.  I wouldn’t say that I use quizzes as a safeguarding tool per se, but they have had that unexpected secondary outcome on a number of occasions.

Of course, as an English teacher I get annoyed on many other occasions.  I am easily frustrated and bewildered by the lack of reading that my students do outside of college.  I teach predominantly male 16-18 year olds, so their very state of being apparently exacerbates the issue.  “Reluctant” is not the word when it comes to their inclination to read – they are often reading refuseniks.  And they don’t care that they don’t read! They are fully aware of the doors (metaphorical and otherwise) that reading can open but they are quite happy to live their lives with books, newspapers and textbooks (electronic or otherwise) firmly closed.  “I don’t really like reading, sir,” they merrily chime with a certain implicit pride and only the merest hint of apology – to themselves or to me. I know full well that they mean “I’ve never really bothered to read, and I have no plans to either - even if it would improve my ability to pass the exams. I'm quite pleased with that state of affairs too.”  I’m sure that if reading the first twenty pages of Pride and Prejudice triggered the best orgasm of their lives, they would change their tune but alas, no.

Instead, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young man in possession of a grade 3 must be in want of a resit or two..

So, a few years ago, I put together, with the help of 42 other English teachers, an anthology of short stories called As Told by Teachers.  I will often use read one of these stories in class – after informing them that there will be a quiz about it after we had read it.  As such, what I get is rapt attention being paid to a piece of fiction that might otherwise have been half-heartedly semi-digested.  If my class was a meal, it turns from sprouts and cabbage to chicken and chips in an instant.

There’s a certain psychology behind this, of course.  Researchers long ago pointed out that when a test is expected then learners pay greater and closer attention to what will be tested.  If students expect a regular quiz, then performance is also enhanced so I try to do one in at least one of the two weekly English classes I get with a group.  I did a quick calculation last year and the quizzes I did based on the anthology mentioned above led to 10,000 words being read and (I hope) closely scrutinized by my learners.  I always smile inwardly when a student asks “Are we having a quiz today?” in anticipation of a positive response.  It makes reading for retrieving information an almost Pavlovian reflex.

I often do something really sneaky, too.  If I have done a quiz on a particular story or text one week, then I will focus on a paragraph or two from that text the week after, focusing on language or structure or the attitude of the writer - you name it.  The students have already read the text once, have answered questions about it and are much better prepared (and willing it seems) to respond in writing to elements contained within it than if I used a fresh text.  So, recycling works in English classes too!

It’s not just the teacher that benefits from quizzes – learners too can get a better idea about how well they understood or have been able to apply something.  I’ve seen quizzes motivate students to “go back to the drawing board” so that they can do better when the similar content comes up in a future quiz.  It allows learners to informally build up their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses – and many do act on this awareness.  Not that I can get my lot to translate these insights into meaningful targets, of course...

So awareness of subject can be heightened, I try to ensure that the quizzes I create are specific to assessment objectives (or their elements) in order to avoid a scattergun approach which isn’t really much good for anyone and relegates the quiz fully in to the “just for fun” category. So, for one text I will create a quiz around the language that is used, in another it will be the structure of the text - and so on. Random question quizzes can be fun but if I want to see how my learners are doing with a particular skill then I have to be very specific in the kind of questions I ask.  Common sense, I know, but the temptation is always there to splice in a question about language into a structure quiz – and that can lead to learners confusing the two when we get to exam response practice.

I guess this all leads me on to a plug for the VLE.  We have created a stack of quizzes on there – both for weekly collective challenges on Kahoot and for individual students to use on the site (mostly the latter).  These quizzes encourage students to attempt them more than once with feedback on each question.  They, too, demand some reading before they can be attempted and instead of getting a kit-kat as they might in class, learners get a silly badge – you can see some examples opposite.

Did I mention that quizzes are fun?

Friday, July 23, 2021

New Authors Added to Pass GCSE English

We’ve had a flurry of recent activity as we prepare for the launch of the Pass GCSE EnglishVirtual Learning Environment (VLE). 

One of the great things about creating a VLE is the wealth of literature from which we can choose.  We’re not restricted, as the examiners are, by three centuries of literature so we can include writers like Pu Songling who was writing just a few decades after Shakespeare.  Of course, it’s in translation and it may be express cultural behaviour that is different to experience or expectation, but it introduces learners to literature that they may not have encountered before from civilisations they know little about.  It could spark an interest that leads to a lifetime of exploration.  Here’s a little about him.

Building a VLE has also given us an insight in to how hard finding the “right texts” is for this qualification. It isn’t simply a matter of pulling one off a shelf, it has to fit the assessment framework “just so”.  So, for example, for Paper 1 the text must contain enough detail for candidates to not only answer questions about structure and language (in separate questions) but also for a critical response to the text to be generated.  It isn’t every single beautiful piece of literature that fits the bill – finding extracts that “ticks all the boxes” is hard work.  No wonder that in the “proper” exams there is the occasional deft editing of the original for it to be something that candidates can respond to (especially in terms of length)! 

It’s not just finding texts that have the right elements – they have to be in the right order, too.  So, for Paper 1, the first half of a text must have the elements in place for candidates to answer questions 1 and 2.  Question 3 is the structure of the whole piece, but the text must have elements of structure that are fairly straightforward to pinpoint, explain and comment upon. Question 4 is always the second half of the text so again must have enough elements to engender a critical response. Paper 2 is, if anything, worse!  Although contrasting attitudes are usually straightforward enough to find on any given subject, finding something else that both writers mention that can be used to form the summary needed for question 2 is an entirely different kettle of fish!

We have managed to find some authors who “tick all the boxes” but it has meant a great deal of reading (which isn’t detrimental in any way other than the time it takes!).  Perhaps it’s no surprise that we found something from Orwell, whose work is now in the public domain in the UK.  Under UK Copyright law, copyright expires 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author died.  As Orwell died (sadly, too young) in 1950, that means that his work went into the public domain in the UK in 2020. 

As an aside, did you know that although Orwell’s work is out of copyright in the UK, if you want to photocopy a whole edition of, say, 1984, you still have to be wary of copyright constraints? That’s because typesetting, (the way that the work is presented on the page) is also subject to copyright.  This is set in the UK to 25 years from the end of the year in which the edition was first published So an edition of 1984 that was published in 1984 is fine to copy but one published in 2004 isn’t.

Copyright is something that we take seriously and that has meant that “old” texts predominate.  However, the idea that has taken root (particularly among students) that the older the text is then the more challenging is simply untrue.  Not everything before 1900 is unfathomably wordy! Take, for example, Fanny Fern, something of a celebrity journalist in her day – her beautiful, direct prose often seems like it was written yesterday.  Why we don’t hear more about her is beyond me.

As such, while we have been able to use authors that students are already familiar with, like Dickens, building the VLE has also given us the opportunity to rediscover writers who have been overlooked or even forgotten for no apparent reason.  Arthur Morrison is a case in point. 

Of course, some were not recognized in their own lifetime, such as Herman Melville.   He isn’t exactly the Van Gogh of literature as he did enjoy some early success. However, he didn’t live long enough to see the renaissance of interest in his work that led to his inclusion in the pantheon of the greats of American literature. One must hope that he wasn’t too disillusioned with the lack of commendation his work received during his lifetime.  The startling piece we are using from the posthumously published Billy Budd shows what a remarkable writer he truly was.

Finally, we have a children’s author – Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Her prose brims over with beautiful descriptive passages which don’t go on too long because she kept her audience in mid!

So, these six now join the others on the VLE.  If you are a little concerned about the lack of ethnic diversity on display here, please be assured that we are making every effort we can to include prose work from as diverse a selection of writers as possible.  You will find blog posts here on some of those writers, including William Bells Brown, Mary E Jones Parrish and OttobahCuguano. Plus, our “Reading for Pleasure” section allows us to include links to modern short stories and other prose from a great selection of writers from all over the world.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Why Planning is important in GCSE English Creative Writing

The great composer Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” 
I can’t think of a better way to start this post as that’s exactly how I feel about Paper 1 Question 5 of GCSE English Language!  Planning is vital to success on this question but my goodness, 45 minutes is something of a constraint. “Not quite enough time” is something I hear from my students all the time – but expressed in a manner not quite so polite!

Planning is also the subject of one of the multimedia lessons on the VLE and something I want to expand on a little here in a way I couldn’t in the lesson which is almost purely instructive.  Here I want to scratch my head a little about the psychology of planning – or to put it more precisely, I want to start by wondering out loud why so many of my students begin their GCSE course with me considering planning as inessential to their success in both creative and functional writing, but especially the former.

I work in a FE college. Most of these students are “resits”, which Is a nice way of saying that they didn’t do very well the first time (for any number of reasons, bone-idleness being at the forefront but still one of many reasons why students do poorly in English Language). Those who are new to the qualification are usually those who have been through the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) pathway and these “newbies” tend to be quite receptive to planning texts.

Just as people do poorly at GCSE English for one of many reasons, there may be just as many explanations why so many students are unreceptive to the idea of planning a piece of creative writing.  However, do you know why I think that students can be less than keen to plan?  It’s because they don’t know how – and they’re just too embarrassed to admit it and ask in front of their peers (being at that peculiar time of life known as "teen").  Somewhere along the line, they didn’t quite get what the point of it was – and again the reasons for this can be many (and is almost leading to a “chicken and the egg” situation here). Regardless of the reason, this lack of knowledge around how to plan can lead to many a student refusing to attempt it.  They know they should know how to plan, they know they don’t – they decide not to bother.

So, it’s often a case of back to the drawing board – and that is exactly what the lesson on the VLE is all about, using the WAGOLL technique.  I’m generally averse to acronyms but What A Good One Looks Like is a favourite as it reminds me that being able to look at the finished product first can often make learning how to make one so much easier.  Before I ask students to write anything creative, I show them how to plan it first.  For GCSE English this involves considering what the examiner is looking for – and that means taking a look at the assessment objectives that cover the writing skills.

This may sound boring but again I am often surprised that students (in whatever previous educational setting) have not retained knowledge of the skills that they need to demonstrate when writing a creative text whether narrative or descriptive.  I hope I don’t sound like I’m pointing a finger, but it is comparable to telling someone to build a house but not letting them know how many rooms you want, what type of rooms you want – and where to put the windows and doors!

So, although it sounds dry as a bone, one of the first things I will show students is a list of the skills needed for both AO5 and A06.  That’s the content of their text and how it’s organised (aka structured) for AO5 and the technical accuracy (spelling, grammar, punctuation) of the text for AO6. This might involve revision or re-evaluation for the learners – you might be surprised how many blank faces I get when I ask for someone to tell me what they think “sentence demarcation” is.  Yet this is essential information.  I’ve heard some say it’s like building a cage for the students; I prefer to think of it as giving them a frame.  Focusing on what is to be assessed is never a constraint on creativity, indeed it can be a spur.

Plus, assessment objectives don’t need to be boring – a good Kahoot on them will get the attention of the class and lead on to a discussion about their importance.  When students know what they are going to be assessed on, they begin to focus on these skills.

The next step is to show students how to plan.  Again, along the lines of WAGOLL, it’s no good just giving a creative writing task and saying “spend five minutes planning before you start writing” if they don’t know what a good plan looks like or even how to plan a story at all.

So, I show them what a good plan looks like and how to plan is built in to this.  I do a little live modelling – not the Naomi Campbell type – starting with a question and then going through the steps I would take to plan it.  I ask for tips from the students as I go along (and encourage them to laugh at as well as with me) but try very much to bring the plan in to a specific format (which you can see on the VLE).  My approach is that I ask my students to think about structure first.  My mantra is “if you have good structure, then good language follows like a puppy wagging its tail.   Structure is the house, language the home furnishings.  Again – and this is an opinion I hold strongly – giving students a format is not a constraint when it is done properly.  Why? Once something (in this case the format of story telling for GCSE English) is acquired then experimentation upon it can begin.  If no format is acquired there will never be any experimentation only floudering.

Creating the structure of a text gives the students a sense of excitement – they have the finished product essentially planned in about eight quick lines.  It’s also great “unconscious revision” for Paper 1 Question 3. Many can’t wait to start writing but I haven’t quite finished. I then ask them to consider the language they could use in each part of their plan.  You can see an example on the left here.  I have used this method for quite a while now – it gives a sense of immediate success, and first attempts can sometimes be startlingly good.

Perhaps give it a try.  The comprehensive version of this method – and how I follow on from the introduction to creative writing – is all on the Pass GCSE English VLE.

Image Credit  

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Remembering Mary E. Jones Parrish

We’re very happy to announce we have content on the Pass GCSE English VLE written by Mary E Jones Parrish.

Never heard of her?  That isn’t unsurprising – for many years she was almost hidden from history.  Here is a little  background information. 

A century ago Tulsa, Oklahoma, was an example of how black Americans could thrive socially and economically.  Although a highly segregated place, the Greenwood area of the city was an oasis for black business people and educators alike who, collectively made the district thrive to such an extent that it was often referred to as “the Black Wall Street”.

All this came to an end on 31 May 1921 when a young black man was arrested on a charge which was later dropped.  A throng of white citizens surrounded the jail where he was being detained and news reached the black community that a lynching was to take place.  A number of black citizens marched to the jail to protect the detainee and from there a single gunshot unleashed a gunfight followed by a all-out attack on the Greenwood area.  In the space of twenty-four hours, hundreds of people had died and most of the prosperous district had been burned to the ground – this event would come to be known as the “Tulsa Race Massacre”.

Mary E Jones Parrish lived and worked in the Greenwood district.  She ran a small business school and had her home directly above it, where she lived with her young daughter Florence May.  She witnessed the full extent of the fury of the mob that descended on Greenwood which, from her account, seems like a full-on (if uncontrolled) military invasion as much as anything else.  After the episode, she decided to stay on in Tulsa and gather witness statements, as well as writing her account of what she had seen during those fateful days.

Her account was published the following year as “Events of the Tulsa Disaster” and serves as a living history of what happened – possibly the worst race riot in the history of the USA.  Afterwards, she went on to become head of the commerce department at a high school in Muskogee, Oklahoma but gradually her book became forgotten by all but historians, family and those who experienced the massacre themselves. Now, however, she is being given the credit she deserves for recording the tragic historic event and giving a voice to those who had been directly impacted by it.

To commemorate the centenary, the New Yorker has just published an article entitled “The Women Who Preserved the Story of the Tulsa Race Massacre” which tells the story of this awful crime by Americans on Americans as well as a lot more detail about Jones Parrish.  It is a fascinating read and a reminder, too, that events we see unfolding around us now are rooted in a past that isn’t that long ago.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

GCSE English Paper 2 Question 1 Resources - Quizzes!


GCSE English Paper 2 Question 1 presents students with a text and they then have to select which four (out of eight) statements about it are true (or false, depending!). This may sound quite straightforward but as many English teachers will tell you, they have a number of students each year who do not get all of them correct – and then go on to miss a grade four by a single mark. So, although it is easy to underestimate the impact that a poor performance on this question may make to some learners.

As it is only worth four marks, however, it is often overlooked in the pursuit of the “big hitters”. By that I mean the questions that are worth more marks. Our VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) aims to put that right with a series of quizzes that can be attempted a number of times. We have tried to make the subject matter as interesting as possible – so while learners can practice their skills on this question, they will also pick up a few thought-provoking history lessons too.

History? What on earth does that have to do with GCSE English? Well, the texts that the students are examined on can date back as far as 1801. Overwhelmingly, the older texts have appeared on Paper 2. So, our aim is to provide some stimulating quizzes that offer a little cultural capital to boot. They give an insight in to how people lived and died in days gone by – and what they did between those two major events too! It also, by default, helps to develop reading skills by exposing learners to texts from a different day and age which they may have to focus on a little more than usual in order to understand their meaning.

The quizzes (and the associated exam question) cover part of AO1 (Assessment Objective 1), specifically the ability to “identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas”. You can sign up for the VLE using the one of the tabs above – depending on whether you are a student, teacher or private tutor.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Sunday, November 29, 2020

External Links to Blogs about How to Pass GCSE English

In order to do well on GCSE English Language, why rely on the skills and knowledge of a single teacher? On first inspection, that statement may seem a little disparaging to your current English teacher. However, there are plenty of English teachers out there who often write about their own methods using a blog as a teaching and learning platform. Some of them are very, very good. So, each section of the VLE has an ‘external links’ section. This are hand-picked blog posts which we feel will be of great use to you as you progress towards your GCSE English exams. Most of them are written by teachers for teachers. However, we only choose the ones that will make sense to learners, too. They can be a challenging read, but you will find that each one has something valuable to pass on to you.

If you do a search for “advice on Paper 1, Question 4” for example, you will get a bewildering amount of search results that may take you an awfully long time to sift through. So, we have done the hard work for you, selecting just the ones that we feel are most appropriate for people (young and older) who are sitting the GCSE English Language exam in the near future. One small “however”: remember that the VLE is based around the AQA curriculum. That means that the advice given is for those exams only.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Earn Badges for GCSE English Language

Badges. They seem rather old fashioned, something of a throwback to Blyton times with class monitors and head girls replete with hockey sticks and a few shillings for the tuck shop. However, they are an excellent way to reward online students for activities they have completed on a GCSE English Language VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). Badges are a great way of celebrating achievement and showing learner progress. There are plenty of things to learn when you study GCSE English so they can also act as a reminder of the ground you have covered so far – and where you need to get to in the future. Badges may be awarded based on a variety of chosen criteria and are displayed on a user's profile so that they can keep track of their successes while doing the online course.

We decided to develop a series of badges – you can see a selection of them above. However, knowing that our audience is predominantly young we chose to make them differ a little from expectations. There is a “traditional” badge you earn as soon as you complete the induction activities for the course - the “Induction Panda” badge which serves as a friendly hello from us to you. After that, the badges you earn may not adhere to anticipations.

There are, as you probably know, a number of assessment objectives for GCSE English Language. These are set by the government and are assessed in the exams. So, for example, Paper 1 Question 1 covers Assessment Objective 1 – “Identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas”. Once you have completed a number of online activities you will get a badge to show that you are competent – but the badges may not necessarily be terribly impressed. You may well receive the ‘nonplussed pooch’ to show that while you have achieved something there is some way to go.

Doesn’t sound much like a reward! However, we hope that we have put enough humour into these badges to show learners that they have successfully completed a part of the course but there is some way to go! As students progress on the course they will achieve more badges, a number of which have names which will stretch the vocabulary of the learners. The hope is that they may go rushing to the dictionary to discover what, exactly, a “ravenous logophile” is and hopefully add these words to their vocabulary (and of course we have the Word Gym to help there too!).

The badges have taken on something of a life of their own – they can even get jealous of achievements. OK, so this is all rather silly. However, we recognize that working towards a qualification with just a computer in front of you can get a little tedious. It is hoped that that the badges will not only encourage learners to progress through the different elements of the course but that they will put smiles on faces as they are achieved.

Together with the different levels that learners can achieve on the course (our “Level Up!” feature) plus the games that can be played on the VLE, it perhaps all sound a little too much like fun. While it may not turn reluctant learners into “ravenous logophiles” overnight, it is our hope that it will help.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Structural features for GCSE English Language

The structure question is one which can cause all sorts of problems for students approaching GCSE English.  So, there are a number of lessons on our VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) which cover what might come up in the exam – and the approach we take to it may surprise you.  

However, of course, just like the language question, Paper 1 Question 3 (of the AQA exam) demands that you know some terminology so that you can describe the structure of a text while responding to the question.

So, here are some of the structural features that you will see in action on the VLE.  Knowing what to look forward is straightforward enough, so as you can see from the list below, there are a number of important structural features to look at.

Knowing how to take this terminology and put them together to make an exam response is, of course, something altogether different.  We will leave those lessons on the Virtual Learning Environment!

In the meantime, take a look at the structural features below.  They come with a set of graphics that may blind you!

Structural features for GCSE English Language


This is where the time that the story takes place is established (year or month or season etc).  It often sets out where the story is set at the same time and is useful exposition.  Often mentioned “in passing”.

This is where the place the story is set is established.

The introduction of the main character - also known as the protagonist - can be an important structural element of a text.

This is where background information is placed in a text. This information can be about setting, character, prior events, historical context (and so on!) might be mentioned. Can be short but often lengthy.

This is a device used to change ideas or perspectives.  It can go from the outside to the inside.  It can go from one character’s thoughts to describing a scene -and so on!

This shows events that happened before the current time frame.  They are often shown as memories and help a lot to explain background and motivation.

This is where conversation and speech may be used.  It is important that dialogue moves a story forward and can slow down the pace of a text to allow the reader to take in new info.

Short paragraphs often ‘zoom’ in to specific, important details in a text.  They can help to convey excitement, danger, or action – and also raise the emotional reaction.

Long paragraphs (often called expository paragraphs) usually focus on setting, characters, and/or mood.  They tend to be descriptive and help set the overall tone of a story.

Although this is probably not going to feature often, it’s worth a mention.  This is where the writer might give you a hint, early on, about what is going to happen later.  It helps the reader to build up a sense of expectation about what is going to come up in the story later

This is something that happens in the story that is unexpected.  It gives a new view on the whole topic!

This is when the first word or line is repeated at the end of the story, showing that it has come “full circle”. Often there may be subtle changes to show narrative movement – that things have changed since the beginning.

This is, of course, not the only way to end a story - but it seems to be the most common in GCSE English texts.

If you are a student studying towards this exam, we have a way of answering this question which may makes things a lot easier for you - at least more straightforward.  Come and join us on the Virtual Learning Environment.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

GCSE English Language: How to get High Marks on Paper 1 Question 2

If you are working towards your GCSE English Language (AQA paper) you will already know that Paper 1 Question 2 is the one where you are asked to read a tiny extract of a text (sometimes just six or seven lines) and then you have to comment on the writer’s use of language.  Often, reading through those lines, a student can feel a little like Oliver Twist begging for food in the Poor House – “Please Sir, can I have some more?”

Paraphrasing one of Dickens’ most popular characters probably isn’t going to do any good here – but if you got the inference that I just made then you are well on you way to doing very well on this questions.

Over on our VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) our section on this question is becoming more extensive.  As well as a number of lessons where we take you through the steps you need to take in order to answer this question successfully (left is a graphic from one of the lessons – you can see an answer in progress), we have quizzes, videos – and of course, the opportunity to earn a badge by being successful in your learning.

It’s easy to write this question off – it’s only worth 8 marks.  However, you must remember that there is another language question worth 12 marks in Paper 2.  That means altogether your knowledge of how to describe how language is used is worth 20/160 marks – in other words 1/8 of the entire exam  As this is easily the difference between one grade and another, the language questions must not be ignored.

Often, of course, students don’t ignore these questions – they spend far too much time on them meaning they have less time to answer the questions that are worth more marks.  Irony aside, our VLE also has advice on timing (well of course it would, wouldn’t it?).

The question itself can be rather stupefying – it is so long and has a bullet list of things that you can look out for (language features, sentences, words and phrases) that are meant as useful prompts but can translate in to a list of bewildering things to find in those few lines.  The hunt for language features, for example, can be an end in itself – what happens if you read through and there are none that you can spot?

Fear not – we can help you out there too.  Language features are not the be all and end all – in fact what often happens is that students find a simile – yippee!  They then spend the next ten minutes describing what a simile is instead of how that particular simile has been used to give the reader the impression of this, that or the other.  So, language features aren’t always as useful as they appear to be when you spot one in the exam!

On our VLE you will be able to prepare for the question and eventually submit an answer to a real English teacher (all of ours have years of experience delivering this qualification) who will mark it and give you feedback on your response.  Sounds good, eh?

Saturday, August 15, 2020

William Wells Brown extract on our VLE

One of the great things about running a VLE like ours is that we aren’t restricted, as the GCSE English curriculum is, to UK authors. That means that the wealth of literature (both fiction and non-fiction) written in the English language by those who were not born in the UK (or there naturalized) can be used.

One author that we can now add to our list is William Wells Brown. You can see a short biography of him in the graphic above. This is just a snapshot of his life – but this man was remarkable. As well as making a living as a writer – hard enough under any circumstances – he overcame huge obstacles in order to realise his potential.  Plus his novel Clotelle has many elements that make it perfect for those studying GCSE English.  I have chosen an amazing extract for inclusion and will be using it in the Paper 1 Question 3 section - that's the one about how writers structure their texts.

Most of us, fortunately, cannot imagine being born into a life of slavery as Wells Brown was. Yet added to this there was betrayal. His father, George W Higgins was the cousin of his owner – a Dr John Young of Kentucky. Higgins acknowledged Wells Brown as his son and exacted a promise from Dr Young that he would never sell William. However, Young broke his promise and William Wells Brown was sold several times before his eventual escape.

Ironically, Higgins was a descendant of Stephen Hopkins, a passenger on the Mayflower, the English ship that transported the first English Puritans, known today as the Pilgrims, from England to the New World in 1620. Yet this new world of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness did not apply to Wells Brown despite his descent on his father’s side to the first pilgrims.

When he came to the UK, he decided that he would not return to America as laws had been passed (the Fugitive Slave laws) meaning that if he returned it could easily have been returned to his ‘owner’. While in London he published his first novel and famously confronted visiting American slave holders in the grounds of the Crystal Palace. That must have been an electric incident to watch. He became a very popular travel writer, visiting many European capitals and lecturing on abolition throughout his journeys. Yet once he was able to purchase his own freedom he could return and continued to publish many different works up to his death at the age of 70.

I think his life would make a riveting film, filled as it was with so much drama showing how one person can overcome such enormous obstacles to become hugely successful on his own terms.

I have chosen quite a dramatic extract from his novel Clotelle for inclusion on the VLE. However, it is full of drama – each chapter (always short and concise) has something which makes it almost impossible to put down. I certainly had to read it all and while it is certainly not short of what we now call melodrama and is very much of its time because of that, it is all the more insightful because of Wells Brown’s first-hand experience of so much that happens in the novel. As has been the case with so many of the authors I have “discovered” in my search for texts to use on the VLE, I found I had to read it all. It may not be the quickest way to set up an online course, but it is one that has broadened my knowledge of authors I had hitherto been unaware of – not to mention those I have revisited. However, I have been able to engage in one of my favourite pass times (finding new authors and reading them!) so for me it’s a win-win!

You can find Clotelle on Project Gutenberg. I believe that this is an important text not only if you wish to learn more about American history of this period but also if you believe, as I do, that fiction can help change the world.