Exam prep getting you twitchy yet?
Yeah me too.
I have a bunch of exam classes this year, one however is causing me to pause and think.
My top set year 11 English class are doing (essentially) 100% exam for Language and Literature.
The decision was taken in late September that they would take (in addition to the planned CIE iGCSE Literature qualification) the 80% exam version of CIE iGCSE Language. The 20% being the S&L that remains with this qualification.
I don’t want to get into the whys and wherefores here. Yet – it continues to make me pause. Their exam schedule will go something like this:
- Language Extended Reading paper – 3 questions on 2 unseen texts
- Language Directed Writing paper – 2 questions based on unseen 1 text
- Literature Prose and Poetry closed text – 2 questions, 1 on Literary Heritage text and 1 on a collection of poetry
- Literature Drama open text – 1 question on a Shakespeare play
- Literature Unseen – 1 question on an unseen extract or poem.
Rather than preparing for this over two academic years, we have had just one. In that time we have read Jekyll & Hyde, the CIE poetry collection – Songs of Ourselves and The Tempest.
As a result, being exam ready is taking on a whole new meaning for me. The sheer volume of material to cover for the Literature means I have had to teach the Language elements implicitly whilst teaching the Literature.
Last Monday evening, I delivered a staff INSET session on practical approaches to exam readiness. Below is a brief summary of my approach – which is inspired by Doug Lemov’s Practice Perfect (which I highly recommend).
1. Encode success – content is king.
It would have been very easy for me to rush through the knowledge content of the course. Knowing that you have 6 months to prepare students for 5 exams and read 3 texts, might result in a pressure kick. Whilst I do believe in ensuring there is time for revision, I could not rush the teaching. It took us from September through to early December to read Jekyll and Hyde. December and January were dedicated to the 15 poems and now we re-reading The Tempest in its entirety.
We revised and tested our knowledge as we went. Writing essays, summarising, creating revision resources along the way. They will be no time for in-depth revision later.
2. Analyse the game and embed the process
Yet this is not an exercise in intelligent curiosity. Pupils are studying for a purpose and as broad ranging as my class discussions may be, their examination answers are the end product. We must be realistic about the hoops that examiners asks pupils to jump through. Know them and show them.
Within this is instilling confidence with exam questions and answer processes.
The wording of individual exam questions is predictable. There is often a rubric used, so that the given content of a year is almost the only change. It seems logical to share this rubric with students. Have them sort it out, internalise it and remove the fear. To give them an extract and have them use the rubric (aka exam question generator) write an easy exam question, a tough one, one they would love, one they would hate, the left-field one, the one even Mrs Enstone would hate.
Hand in hand with this goes the rubric process of answering a question. Mark schemes don’t change year on year and as such we should be able to help pupils articulate and internalise the process of answering any question. “Question 1 Miss? I need to do this, this and this. So first I’m going to…”
3. Isolate the skill
The skill of memorisation cannot be championed in the classroom enough. My students are fantastically knowledgeable about the texts we have studied. Yet their ability to apply sophisticated technical literary terminology is still emerging. It’s only through dedicated classroom time to memorising can I ensure that this vocabulary is confidently secured early. Linking texts and ideas to critical terminology makes sense.
Literary terminology can be like stacking dolls – once you remember one term, they kind of unstack around you and suddenly you’ve remembered 15 clever words.
Those triggers are easy to identify and pounce on – I use bits of the examination hall as the triggers. A photo of the door, the lights, the clock.
A photo of the stage in our examination hall reminds us of: Stagecraft > Caricatures > Facades > Duplicity > Repression > Social norms > Stereotypes > Gender.
Each of these terms links to moments in the texts we have studied. Each idea can be unpacked precisely and in detail. Each will trigger a series of single word quotations.
4. Make a P.L.A.N
We don’t have time to create and learn different approaches to essay planning. The questions and mark schemes are too varied. I don’t want my pupils to have to pause and search for a different plan for each question. I trust they know the content and are prepared – the PLAN strategy works for each question on every paper. P.L.A.N was suggested by the very lovely Mrs S (@HeadofEnglish) – it hasn’t failed me yet.
5. Plan with marks in mind
Planning with marks in mind means I must tackle the hard questions now – or even way before now.
Do we know how to gain full marks?
Could we write a full marks answer in exam conditions?
Is this true for every question on every paper?
My class is an A/A* group – I must be able to answer yes to these questions, otherwise what am I doing in my classroom?
Being an examiner helps (though not in a literal sense as I don’t teach the exam board I examine for), yet it’s the research that counts. Reading examiners reports, studying exemplars, recalling papers, writing answers myself and having them marked.
6. Plan to the last minute
I’m pretty confident now with the CIE exams. I know where the strengths and weaknesses lie. Now students can play these to their advantage.
Why not answer the questions in a different order?
If pupils have internalised all the knowledge and processes needed beforehand, the mystery and fear of the paper is removed. The last step is ask the question ‘which is my best route to full marks?’ For some this maybe answering the questions in a different order.
7. Think aloud
You’ve probably heard of a walking/talking mock. I don’t exactly know what they are and have never used this strategy. But I do like to do a Think Aloud answer.
This goes back to my point about being confident that I could write a full marks answer.
It’s a simple process, outlined in the picture above. The essential key is that I say aloud my every thought. As I am thinking, planning and writing – I am verbally modelling for students my thought process and how I go about writing.
Sometimes I put students in charge of listening for different AOs, writing down only key words or counting quotes etc. They can write a P.L.A.N as I talk or just write the thesis statements. For the language papers – they often give me the Reading marks as we go, they work out how well I am ‘using my own words’ or when I move up a Band on the writing marks. Then it’s their turn.
As I said at the beginning, these are just a few of the key strategies I am using with year 11 this year. I’m hoping that they are fruitful for this amazing and resilient class.
Thanks for reading.