Getting a good result in GCSE English can be surprisingly difficult, even if your kids are very bright when it comes to other GCSE subjects like Maths and Science.
The main reason for this is that there isn’t much in the way of actual revision you can do. Unlike subjects like the sciences and History, there are few facts to be learned. Rather, GCSE English is almost entirely focussed on acquiring skills – principally reading and writing.
Don’t forget that English Literature is a separate subject from English at GCSE, although some of the skills your child learns for straight English will overlap with it (GCSE English is sometimes referred to as ‘English Language’ or ‘straight English’ to differentiate it from English Literature). We’ll cover English Lit. in detail in our next post.
With little obvious revision to do, how can you help your child if he or she is struggling with English? We chatted to GCSE English tutor and examiner Andrew Lackey for some suggestions. These are Andrew’s tips:
“Improving the broad range of your child’s English skills isn’t something you can do overnight. There are some quick fixes, but in the run-up to GCSE a long-term strategy is a good thing to have. At the heart of that strategy should be reading. Among the kids I teach, year on year, I see a consistent correlation between those who read a great deal and those who do well at GCSE English. Now, you could argue those who are ‘naturally’ good at the subject are likely to read a lot anyway, but I think it cuts both ways: get a child interested in books, and his or her English skills will improve, simply because he or she will unconsciously pick up a lot of good practices while reading.
“That said, reading isn’t the answer to everything – it won’t make your child a brilliant speller overnight, or necessarily teach good punctuation skills. It will, however, give him or her a more instinctive feel for written language.
“Remember that encouraging your child to read doesn’t mean you should only push fiction. Everyone likes a story, but many kids, especially boys, don’t really engage with novel-length fiction in their teenage years. Factual material is just as effective when it comes to promoting basic skills, so look out for books about sport, science and technology and so on. Newspapers are obviously good, and don’t knock your kids when they lounge around reading magazines – it’s all to the good. Remember, too, that your child will be expected to deal with factual material as part of GCSE English.”
“If the exams are bearing down on you, there are still a few things you can do to improve your child’s English ability. Don’t forget that a strong ability when it comes to reading and writing has a cross-curricular benefit: better English skills can mean better performance across many other subjects at GCSE, especially in Arts and Humanities subjects such as History and Modern Languages.
“The best quick fixes are in the areas of spelling and punctuation. These are important areas in themselves in GCSE English exams, but the way an exam candidate spells and punctuates affects the examiner’s view of him or her. If an examiner sees a GCSE English paper or piece of coursework that is properly and consistently spelt and punctuated, that examiner will unconsciously assume that it’s from a strong candidate. Why? Because A and A* candidates tend to be good at that sort of thing, C and D candidates less so – it’s just a case of what the examiner is used to seeing.
“Spelling is quite difficult to sort out, because it is one of those areas where people have naturally varying levels of skill. English spelling is deeply illogical: some very bright kids really struggle with it, while some of average ability suffer few problems.
“Your best bet if GCSE is looming is to go through your child’s schoolwork and try to identify the top dozen or twenty misspellings. Some are common to nearly all weak spellers: ‘thier’ instead of ‘their’, ‘aswell’ instead of ‘as well’. Make a list and get your child to learn them off by heart – it shouldn’t take long, and it will help claw back some marks that might otherwise have been lost.
“Punctuation is easier, because there are rules to be learned, and lots of resources around to help. Many children (and adults!) have problems with punctuation simply because they have never been formally taught how to use it properly – which is ridiculous when you think about it, because most punctuation is so easy. I always tell my students that just knowing how to use apostrophes properly is worth half a grade at GCSE English.”
There’s some good material on punctuation – and a range of other topics – at the BBC Skillswise website.
If you feel your child needs some additional help, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us – English is one of those subjects where personal attention from a specialist tutor can make a huge difference to results.