How do students achieve that elusive Grade 9 in GCSE English?

by Gemma Gilbert


In August 2017, we waited with bated breath to receive the first bout of 1-9 grades from the new English Language and Literature GCSEs. We’d been promised only a handful of Grade 9s across the entire country, but in the end over 2000 pupils achieved straight Grade 9s. The crème de la crème of GCSE attainment suddenly seemed obtainable and sights are now firmly on this summer’s exams.

GCSE_English_Grade_9

As teachers, we have the responsibility to ensure our students are given the best possible chance of achieving that top grade. So which areas can we have the most impact on?

Starting with KS3

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 our KS3 curriculum. 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 at KS4. 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 finish KS3 having 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 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.

If it's not working, stop doing it

Many schools are now looking for alternative feedback methods to the more traditional ‘pen in books’. One technique that has come to the fore is class marking: instead of writing individual comments in books, the teacher identifies common misconceptions, themes and successes across the class and delivers this feedback en masse during the next lesson, perhaps using a feedback handout. A development of this technique might include teachers putting a symbol in each student’s book, indicating which parts of the feedback are particularly relevant for them. Students can then spend the next lesson engaging with this more in-depth feedback and re-drafting their work independently.


Interested in implementing low-stakes testing in your department? We can help. Doddle provides a bank of high-quality teaching resources and self-marking quizzes to help reduce planning and marking workload and support improved outcomes. Book a free online demonstration to see Doddle in action.

After working as an English teacher in a number of inner city schools I have developed a passion for finding the most effective and creative teaching practices. As a Senior Education Adviser at Doddle I now support schools in using technology to achieve their longer term priorities by innovating day-to-day teaching.

– Gemma Gilbert

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dHlsZXMiOiIiLCJhZGRfYXR0ciI6IiIsInZuX29ubHlfbnVtYmVyIjoiMCIsInZuX29ubHlfbGV0dGVycyI6IjAiLCJ2bl9wYXR0ZXJuIjoiIn0seyJic19jbGFzc19pZCI6IjEyIiwidmFsdWUiOiI8aDY+V2hhdCB3b3VsZCB5b3UgbGlrZSB0byBzZWU/PFwvaDY+IiwiaHRtbCI6Imh0bWxkZWxpbSIsIm1hbmRhdG9yeSI6IjAifSx7ImJzX2NsYXNzX2lkIjoiMTIiLCJuYW1lIjoic3ViamVjdCIsImxhYmVsIjoiWW91ciBzdWJqZWN0IiwidmFsdWUiOiIiLCJ2YWx1ZV9wcmVzZXQiOiIiLCJodG1sIjoic2VsZWN0Ym94IiwibWFuZGF0b3J5IjoiMCIsImxhYmVsX2RlbGltIjoiIiwiYWRkX2NsYXNzZXMiOiIiLCJhZGRfc3R5bGVzIjoiIiwiYWRkX2F0dHIiOiIiLCJpY29uX2NsYXNzIjoiIiwiaWNvbl9zaXplIjoiIiwiaWNvbl9jb2xvciI6IiIsInRlcm1zIjoiIiwib3B0aW9ucyI6W3sibmFtZSI6IlBsZWFzZSBTZWxlY3QiLCJsYWJlbCI6IlBsZWFzZSBTZWxlY3QifSx7Im5hbWUiOiJTY2llbmNlIiwibGFiZWwiOiJTY2llbmNlIn0seyJuYW1lIjoiTWF0aHMiLCJsYWJlbCI6Ik1hdGhzIn0seyJuYW1lIjoiRW5nbGlzaCIsImxhYmVsIjoiRW5nbGlzaCJ9LHsibmFtZSI6Ik1GTCIsImxhYmVsIjoiTUZMIn0seyJuYW1lIjoiSUNUIGFuZCBDb21wdXRpbmciLCJsYWJlbCI6IklDVCBhbmQgQ29tcHV0aW5nIn0seyJuYW1lIjoiR2VvZ3JhcGh5IiwibGFiZWwiOiJHZW9ncmFwaHkifSx7Im5hbWUiOiJIaXN0b3J5IiwibGFiZWwiOiJIaXN0b3J5In0seyJuYW1lIjoiQXJ0IGFuZCBEZXNpZ24iLCJsYWJlbCI6IkFydCBhbmQgRGVzaWduIn0seyJuYW1lIjoiQnVzaW5lc3MgIiwibGFiZWwiOiJCdXNpbmVzcyAifSx7Im5hbWUiOiJDaXRpemVuc2hpcCIsImxhYmVsIjoiQ2l0aXplbnNoaXAifSx7Im5hbWUiOiJEZXNpZ24gYW5kIFRlY2hub2xvZ3kiLCJsYWJlbCI6IkRlc2lnbiBhbmQgVGVjaG5vbG9neSJ9LHsibmFtZSI6IkRyYW1hIiwibGFiZWwiOiJEcmFtYSJ9LHsibmFtZSI6Ik11c2ljIiwibGFiZWwiOiJNdXNpYyJ9LHsibmFtZSI6IlBFIiwibGFiZWwiOiJQRSJ9LHsibmFtZSI6IlBTSEVFIiwibGFiZWwiOiJQU0hFRSJ9LHsibmFtZSI6IlJTIiwibGFiZWwiOiJSUyJ9LHsibmFtZSI6IkFsbCBzdWJqZWN0cyIsImxhYmVsIjoiQWxsIHN1YmplY3RzIn1dfSx7ImJzX2NsYXNzX2lkIjoiMTIiLCJuYW1lIjoic2VuZCIsImxhYmVsIjoiU2VuZCIsImh0bWwiOiJzdWJtaXQiLCJhZGRfY2xhc3NlcyI6IiIsImFkZF9zdHlsZXMiOiIiLCJhZGRfYXR0ciI6IiJ9LHsiYnNfY2xhc3NfaWQiOiIxMiIsInZhbHVlIjoiPGhyIFwvPjxwPjxlbT5CeSBzdWJtaXR0aW5nIHlvdXIgZGV0YWlscyB5b3UgYWdyZWUgdGhhdCB3ZSB3aWxsIGdldCBpbiB0b3VjaCB0byBhcnJhbmdlIHlvdXIgZGVtb25zdHJhdGlvbiBhbmQgYWRkIHlvdSB0byB0aGUgZ3JvdXAgb2YgdGVhY2hlcnMgd2UgZW1haWwgZnJvbSB0aW1lIHRvIHRpbWUgYWJvdXQgRG9kZGxlIGFuZCByZWxhdGVkIHByb2R1Y3RzLiBZb3UgY2FuIHVuc3Vic2NyaWJlIGZyb20gdGhlc2UgY29tbXVuaWNhdGlvbnMgYXQgYW55IHRpbWUgYnkgY2xpY2tpbmcgdGhlICdVbnN1YnNjcmliZScgbGluay48XC9lbT48XC9wPiIsImh0bWwiOiJodG1sZGVsaW0iLCJtYW5kYXRvcnkiOiIwIn1dLCJvcHRzX2F0dHJzIjp7ImJnX251bWJlciI6IjQifX0sImltZ19wcmV2aWV3IjoiYmFzZS1jb250YWN0LmpwZyIsInZpZXdzIjoiMjM2NjYiLCJ1bmlxdWVfdmlld3MiOiIxMDEyMSIsImFjdGlvbnMiOiIyMDIiLCJzb3J0X29yZGVyIjoiMCIsImlzX3BybyI6IjAiLCJhYl9pZCI6IjAiLCJkYXRlX2NyZWF0ZWQiOiIyMDE2LTA2LTI4IDEzOjUwOjU0IiwiaW1nX3ByZXZpZXdfdXJsIjoiaHR0cHM6XC9cL3N1cHN5c3RpYy00MmQ3Lmt4Y2RuLmNvbVwvX2Fzc2V0c1wvZm9ybXNcL2ltZ1wvcHJldmlld1wvYmFzZS1jb250YWN0LmpwZyIsInZpZXdfaWQiOiI2XzIwMzQ2MSIsInZpZXdfaHRtbF9pZCI6ImNzcEZvcm1TaGVsbF82XzIwMzQ2MSIsImNvbm5lY3RfaGFzaCI6ImY3OGIzZDRhMzM0MDUyODIxYjJkNWQ5ZDEwOGY1YzIyIn0=