Litteranguage – Part 1

Before you read the rest of this blog, take a few minutes to go off, get yourself a drink and consider these questions:

  • What do you think should be the purpose of an English Language GCSE?
  • What do you think is the purpose of the current English Language GCSE?
  • To what extent is the current English Language GCSE fit for purpose?

I literally want you to not read on – at least not until you’ve had a think anyway…

Stop right now. Thank you very much.

…So, I hope you’ve had a good drink as well as a bit of time to consider. Now, about those questions. Let’s mull over some possible responses to the first one.

My suspicion is that your answer fell into or across one or more of the categories below as they’re an amalgamation of responses which I received to the same question on Twitter.

The purpose of the English Language GCSE is to:

  1. Act as a governmental lever to ensure schools cover specific curriculum content
  2. Establish a clear set of “skills” which students should develop during their time in Years 10 and 11.
  3. Define the knowledge that students should be able to recall at and beyond the end of Year 11, ensuring that students are exposed to the best that has been thought and said in order for them to get “cleverer.”
  4. Assess mastery of a proportion of the content of the National Curriculum for English at Key Stage 4.
  5. Gauge the “progress” which individuals or cohorts of students have made between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.
  6. Function as a qualification that demonstrates to employers a certain level of proficiency in language use.
  7. Prepare pupils for the study of English Language at a higher level.

Too much of something is bad enough. 

What’s interesting is the potential for conflict which exists between these aims. You may favour one or more of these purposes over another one. You may think that one of these purposes should play no role in the design of a qualification which most children take at age 16. You may think it’s possible to do all of these things through a single qualification. You may even want to suggest an alternative or additional purpose which has no connection with any of these. If you do, I’d be interested to know what you’ve came up with so please do get in contact.

Now though, I’d like to explore each aim in turn, thinking about how it ties in with the current GCSE and whether the qualification as it stands is fit for purpose. In the rest of this post, I’ll look at numbers 1-3, Parts 2 and 3 will explore 4 and 5 whilst the final post will examine number 6 and 7 before going on to tentatively suggest some possible improvements.

Tell me what you want, what you really, really want.

As academies and free schools no longer have to follow the National Curriculum and there are currently no Key Stage 3 SATs tests, the GCSE qualification is the main lever by which the government can attempt to ensure curriculum content coverage.

This lever is used to make some content less important and some more significant.

For example, the National Curriculum for Key Stage 4 says that “Pupils should be taught to understand and use the conventions for discussion and debate.” In the English Language GCSE however, students are only assessed through an individual presentation with follow up questions. Moreover, the fact this assessment no longer contributes to the final grade, but instead is allocated a grade in its own right (albeit one that doesn’t feed into the school’s data set) has impacted on the way many schools approach the spoken language aspect of the qualification. There will be schools which focus on the teaching of debate and discussion, but, due to their disappearance in the assessment model, I would expect the numbers to be fewer than had previously been the case.

There are similar examples in other aspects of the curriculum. In writing, the National Curriculum establishes the expectation that teachers will teach students how to make notes, draft and write, including using information provided by others [e.g.writing a letter from key points provided; drawing on and using information from apresentation].” If this act of note making and transformation fed into a question in the GCSE paper, then it would be covered extensively by English departments across the country. As it is, I’d guess, in comparison with other aspects of the curriculum it’s barely touched upon.

In contrast, “seeking evidence in the text to support a point of view, including justifying inferences with evidence” is assessed a great deal. This is required for every single reading question in both AQA papers.

One reason this happens is that there’s a document which acts, in some ways, as a filter between the National Curriculum and the GCSE Specifications – the English Language GCSE Subject Content and Assessment Objectives.

According to the website, these “GCSE subject content publications [set] out the knowledge, understanding and skills common to all GCSE specifications.” I knew something like this existed, but have only read it properly as part of the process of writing this blog.

In English, this is the document which establishes that “All texts in the examination will be ‘unseen’, that is, students will not have studied the examination texts during the course.” It set out that these have to be, “challenging texts from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.” It shifted English language exams away from media studies by declaring, “Texts that are essentially transient, such as instant news feeds, must not be included.” Like it or not, the government have clear leverage over the content of the GCSE in English Language as well as some leverage over the style of the papers. If you like it over all of the other purposes outlined at the start of this blog, you could argue that the GCSE is fit for purpose.

It’s also worth keeping in mind what might happen if we removed government leverage altogether and removed the English Language GCSE. In some schools, what is assessed is what is taught. Were the English Language GCSE to be removed in favour of assessing reading and writing through other subjects, then the focus on coherence, clarity and accuracy in communication would, in my view, fade. 

Swing it, shake it, move it, make it, who do you think you are?

I’ve also, never taken a look at the documents for other subjects before. Here are the content and assessment objectives for science, maths and religious studies. When you compare them, one thing that’s likely to immediately strike you is the relative brevity of the English document. In fact, there are very few which are shorter (drama and computer science are two examples). Some might argue that this is due to the nature of each subject – that science is primarily a knowledge based subject whilst the English curriculum leans towards the development of a set of skills. The science content document explains that its “first section explains the main ways in which working scientifically should be developed and assessed…The second section sets out the key ideas and subject contents for the biology, chemistry and physics components of combined science.” To exemplify this, one of the scientific ways of working is “presenting observations and other data using appropriate methods” whilst one of the scientific ideas which students need to know from biology is that “life processes depend on molecules whose structure is related to their function.” This structuring of skills and knowledge isn’t present in the English Language document. Rather, we have a list of skills like “critical reading and comprehension…summary and synthesis…and producing clear and coherent texts.”

There are clear differences between science and English and the way the document is structured to focus on skills is beneficial if you believe purpose number 2 in the list at the start of this blog post to be most important. However, this structuring leads to two key issues in terms of the English GCSE. The first relates to teaching and the second to the design of the exam papers.

Firstly, it would be difficult to argue that the skills listed are not worth developing over time in terms of our students’ ability to communicate. There is, though, a body of knowledge which needs to lie behind this. In terms of English, this includes specifically punctuation, vocabulary, spelling, word classes, grammar, figurative language and rhetoric. There is little point, I think, in getting students to apply a set of skills if they do not possess a body of knowledge to apply them with. In addition, due to the unseen nature of the texts, if they are not to be disadvantaged, the reading section of the exam also requires students to have a broad knowledge of history, geography, science – a general knowledge. It is possible to a degree, to improve performance in exam questions by practicing exam questions. If we want students to improve as communicators, then we need to think more widely, addressing gaps in factual and procedural knowledge. To some extent, the exam can be pot luck test rather than a test of students’ knowledge and application of English language. Ensuring that students develop the knowledge which is hidden behind the subject content document for English Language requires great teaching across the whole of the curriculum and, likely, a restructuring of the English curriculum.

Secondly, the weighting of the content document towards skills and the fact that the final say in the document is given to the Assessment Objectives, has led exam boards (most notably AQA) to directly focus each of the questions in their exam papers on a limited range of the Assessment Objectives. AQA have also designed their papers so that the structure and question stems will be almost identical year on year. The result of this is a set of questions which is mechanical in nature and responses which, I’d predict over time, will become increasingly mechanical in order to address aspects of the mark scheme. The skills that students will be developing with this style of GCSE will be the skill of responding to a specific question type, rather than the skills of reading and writing. If we genuinely want students to develop skills and apply their knowledge effectively, then we may have to accept a less standardised form of exam paper. For this reason, I’d argue that the current model of GCSE in English Language is not fit for purposes 2 and 3 in our list.


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