All Exams Are Equal, but Some Are More Equal Than Others

by | Mar 22, 2021 | Education

For current year 11s, the pandemic has proved particularly trying. Last year they watched their predecessors and the results fiasco with fingers and toes crossed that all would be better by May 2021. And here we are. It is better though.

Students taking GCSE English Language and English Literature might still be struggling for several reasons. Although they may have had access the Literature texts over lockdown, that is no substitute for the guided reading and support teachers can offer. The novel 1984 can feel substantially overwhelming when you are trapped indoors with Boris Johnson’s government messages emanating out of your home ‘telescreen’! There may have been little incentive to write much longhand, which will be required now they are back in school. For my UK tutees, the cancellation of ‘real’ exams has led to greater pressure regarding their day-to-day lessons, their best work being syphoned off into an ominous ‘evidence folder’. For my international students it is trickier still, as some exams are going ahead with questions omitted.

As a tutor I have built great relationships with my tutees and their families and these have transferred to online sessions super smoothly (though I miss the tea and biscuits and cats). However, being able to support students effectively has been more challenging. Without that extra few months of learning, the mock exams feel daringly early and the idea of teacher assessment a little further out of their control. Yet, there are things students can do to make the most of the last few weeks of their English Language and English Literature experience.


Read the set texts again

Everyone can watch the Leonard DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet and write assuredly about “the fight in the petrol station” (um, in 1595?) or state that the Inspector “vanishes” at the end of An Inspector Calls (nope). Nothing screams top grade more loudly than a student who knows the texts inside and out. To achieve this, the student needs to read them more than once. Even better, embedding their learning by practising active reading (perhaps making notes as they go or highlighting interesting lines related to theme or character).

In addition, students can develop their own personal response to texts, as this can showcase greater engagement and understanding. How does the poem Plenty by Isobel Dixon make you think about your own childhood? How far would your ambition take you? (Macbeth) To what lengths would you go to protect a friend? (Of Mice and Men)

Reading generally, whether it is a novel (apparently some teenagers do read for pleasure) or non-fiction (free feature articles from the Observer newspaper/New Scientist/National Geographic/Trail Running – whatever is their interest) and considering what choices the writer has made is ALWAYS helpful for English Language, to pick up new vocabulary and tips on how to use structure and imagery to captivate an audience.


Look up online study guides

To support reading, students can look at study guides for new perspectives. There are so many free ones online e.g. Spark Notes, YouTube videos, BBC Bitesize… Integrating these ideas into their work or class discussions can help make their response to the text/question more exploratory and critical.


Practise writing exam responses

Practice makes perfect and past papers/example questions are rife online. I encourage my students to write a response in an allotted, undaunting time frame e.g. an hour – with a treat at the end of it and, of course, detailed feedback.


Participate in class

If a student is in lessons answering questions, making notes, putting their all into their work then they are going to reap the benefits later. Either by being able to quickly recall key quotes or techniques in a mock or by having high quality evidence of their abilities.

Likewise, as a tutor, I try very hard to not talk so much (sometimes I am too busy eating the biscuits or stroking the cat!) and instead encourage my students to. For example, by explaining a poem to me or writing an essay paragraph that we then edit together using the ‘share screen’ function so that they can see real time how to improve it.

As an English tutor, I have seen first hand the strain of uncertainty and so my hopes are high for this summer. As an examiner for a popular exam board, I am heartbroken that I will not have the opportunity to mark for yet another year. Personally, I find it a true honour to be able to read their rawest of first drafts. Every year a student sets out tantalising thought or asserts a piece of analysis that I have never even thought of, about a text that I have probably read 100+ times. My advice to them would be to still go for it! In the meantime, I look forward to getting back to ‘normal’ in 2022 – fingers and toes crossed!


Blog Author – Michelle Harris

“Originally from the north east, I live in Bristol with my 7 year old son. Although I am not a classroom teacher anymore, I teach English one-to-one and in small groups in homes or schools as a private tutor as well as working part time for a scientific research journal. My favourite thing, however, is marking and I am privileged to be an English Literature team leader for a popular exam board. Other than that, I knit and sew, I write comedy, I am a karate green belt and I potter on my allotment.”


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