How do students achieve that elusive Grade 9 / A* in English?

In the jam-packed, knowledge-rich curriculum, covering all the content can be a struggle. Even the best taught topics can be entirely forgotten in a matter of weeks, leaving students struggling when it comes to exam time. With a responsibility to support all students, and give them the best possible chance of achieving that top grade, which areas can teachers have the most impact on?


Reading to enjoy

As highlighted in Ofsted’s 2015 report on ‘The Wasted Years’, one clear aspect we can have a significant impact on is the breadth, depth and challenge we offer in the curriculum for ages 11-14. Exposing students to ambitious texts and encouraging them to make links between the texts they read is essential in order to prepare students for the challenge of the IGCSE. So let’s toss away those modern English editions of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and challenge our assumptions that our students won’t cope. By focusing on the enjoyment of reading, let’s introduce our students to staples such as Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein and The Catcher in the Rye and ensure students age 14 have read classic works of literature.

Making sure they know the text inside out

The new literature specifications clearly emphasise the importance of deep, whole text understanding. Students aiming for a Grade 9 / A* need to show impressive knowledge of the characters, themes, writers’ methods and context. With the new closed book exams, they’ll also need to remember quotations which can be seamlessly embedded into their response.

Low-stakes testing is proven to be one of the most effective revision strategies for long term knowledge retention, and it’s easy to implement too. The start of a lesson is an ideal time to test students on key information from texts studied previously such as:

GCSE English text knowledge
  • List 3 themes in A Christmas Carol and write a quote to back each one up.
  • Name 4 characters in An Inspector Calls and describe them in one word
  • Find a quotation in Jekyll and Hyde which shows the duality of human nature and be ready to explain it to the class.

By recalling this information time and time again, students are more likely to commit it to their long-term memory and won’t waste precious minutes in the exam trying to remember key facts which are just out of reach.

Understanding the big picture

Close textual analysis is a great skill, but students also need to be able to pan out and demonstrate their understanding of the big picture. Students who achieve Grade 9 are able to communicate their understanding of context and how it informs the text’s themes, language and characters’ motivations. This needs to go beyond what Assistant Head, Mark Roberts, refers to as 'generalised statements about what happened "in those days"’.

To help develop this wider comprehension, one strategy is to ground your students’ understanding of the texts in history: ask them to plot the texts they are studying on a timeline and spend time analysing how language, attitudes and norms have developed over time. Look at other works by the texts’ writers and consider how their writers’ craft has developed over time. The deeper your students’ understanding of the big picture, the more likely their responses will be underpinned by insightful, perceptive analysis.

Giving feedback that works

Marking thirty essays and writing the same comment time and time again is time-consuming and might not be having the impact you hope. It’s hard to condense meaningful feedback into a few sentences, and, more often than not, students don’t engage with your thoughtful comments. This can be especially true when multiple students are approaching full marks and need more in-depth feedback to improve.

How can we use feedback to drive the improvement necessary for students to achieve top marks? First, evaluate the methods you’re using. Is your 6 hours of marking reaping the results you expected? Are your comments giving your students the depth of advice they need to move forward? If it’s not working, stop doing it.