Reading non-fiction texts for GCSE English Language

By Clare Mellor

Students should not be fearful of reading non-fiction texts in their GCSE English Language exam, and there are a few simple things you can do to help reassure and prepare them.    

It may sound obvious, but one helpful step is to encourage students to notice the texts in their everyday lives: Twitter feeds, advertisements, leaflets that come through their front doors. These shorter texts can be used to familiarise students with language techniques and ideas about audience and purpose.   

Of course, because students will encounter longer, more complex texts in the exam, it’s vital they are prepared to read in a sustained way. But which texts and approaches are best? 

Here are a few ideas you could try with your class: 



Try having an ‘article of the week’ that you read and discuss at the beginning of the lesson. Coverage of the 2021 Facebook outage, the COP26 summit or the impact of Covid-19 on education could engage students.   



In the exam, students will be asked how the writer uses language to portray a particular idea or topic. 

Suggested text: Guardian article on falconry  

Exam-style question: How does the writer use language to describe the power of the birds? 

1. Students read independently. Think/pair/share: What is the text about? What is the writer’s point of view? 

2. Give students a series of True/False statements about the text to respond to individually. Peer/self-assess responses. 

    Example statements: 

    The writer knows lots about raptors. 

    The writer thinks the birds are stupid. 

    The writer admires the birds.

3. List some key quotations from the text. Students to identify the technique used. 

    E.g., powerful verbs, adjectives, simile, metaphor 

    ‘she smacks my head with her massive wingspan, nearly concussing me’ 

    ‘I spy a Harris’s hawk glaring at me, shoulders bunched like a boxer’ 

    ‘Dinosaur claws, digging into my forearm.’ 

4. In pairs, discuss the effect created by each of the examples. Teacher can model analysis if needed. 

5. In pairs, students annotate the text in response to the exam-style question. Responses to step 3 should help here. 

6. During class feedback, create a plan for this answer.   

7. Students write individual responses in timed conditions. 

Additional exam practice: 

Suggested text: Extract from Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk (2015)  

Exam-style question: How does the writer use language to describe her experience of seeing the wild goshawks? 



In the exam, students are required to compare two texts, looking at how the writers present their ideas differently. 

Suggested texts:  

• Charles Dickens’s Pictures from Italy (1846)

• The Times travel guide to Lyons

Exam-style question: Compare how the writers convey their different perspectives or feelings about the city of Lyons.   

1. Ask students to read both texts. Take class feedback to identify genre, audience, purpose, and key ideas in each text. Come up with words/phrases to describe each writer’s view of the city (e.g., critical, admiring). 

2. Recap exam skills and requirements (both texts, writer’s methods, comparisons). 

3. Model analysis of one quotation from each text, e.g.: 

Dickens: ‘The houses, high and vast, dirty to excess, rotten as old cheeses’. Focus on adjectives, notion of ‘excess’ and simile. Notice how Dickens is ridiculing the city. 

The Times: ‘Lyons is the most exciting “unexciting” city in France.’ Focus on the superlative and the writer’s technique in undermining previous expectations the reader might have about the city. 

4. Put students into pairs. Allocate each pair one of the two texts. Students analyse how the writer of their text conveys their impression of Lyons (differentiate this by giving key quotations or prompts if needed). 

5. Join pairs with another pair who have looked at the same text. Share ideas. Add to their notes. 

6. Each pair now joins up with a pair who have looked at the other text. Share findings about their own text. 

7. Working in these fours, students find quotations from both texts which link to these comparative statements. Encourage them to think about the writers’ methods and differing perspectives, e.g.:

Both writers describe the geography of Lyons. 

    Dickens: ‘the hills that hem the city in’ 

    The Times: ‘encircled by agricultural abundance’ 

What are the differing connotations of these images? 

Both writers focus on the fact that Lyons is an industrial city.   

Both writers describe the people of Lyons. 

8. As a whole class, take feedback from students and come up with a plan for answering this question. 

9. Students can now write a response in class or at home. 



You will need up to eight texts for this task (depending on the size of your class). You may choose to ask students to read their allocated texts in advance. This task will run over two lessons. 

1. Put students into groups of four. Allocate each group one text. 

2. Students work with their group to become experts on their text. 

3. Ask students to split into pairs (A and B) within their groups of four. The As stay where they are. The Bs move around the room clockwise (as directed by the teacher) spending around 5–10 minutes at each table. As should teach Bs about their text, then Bs should teach As about theirs. This process is repeated until students are back in their original groups. Students will then have notes on all eight texts. 

4. Finally, get the original expert groups to write some exam-style questions with sample answers/indicative content that the whole class can use for revision. Students can use their knowledge gained from other groups to help them answer the questions.   


And finally … 

There is an opportunity to really engage your class by choosing texts that will appeal to their interests. Class discussion on topics raised by the texts could form the basis for writing tasks or for the Speaking and Listening NEA component. See also the list of suggested additional texts below. 

Hopefully, these approaches will help students to feel confident approaching a wide range of non-fiction texts.   


Clare Mellor is an experienced English teacher and former Head of English. 

For more English Language support with coverage of every part of the exam, check out our English Language & Literature: Revision and Exam Practice Guides, Workbooks and AQA Practice Papers. You can find the full range here: https://www.yorknotes.com/gcse/english-language/type/guides 

Want to read more? See our blog on teaching the skill of reading for a different angle: https://www.yorknotes.com/news/what-can-we-learn-from-George-Saunders-about-teaching-the-skill-of-reading 


Suggested additional texts: 

• Nature writing: Extracts from Roger Deakin’s nature writing

• Nature writing: A preview of Robert Macfarlane’s Underground    

• Autobiography: A preview of I Am Malala  

• Autobiography: A preview of Aquanaut: A Life Beneath the Surface

• Diary writing: Extracts from Anne Frank’s diary

• Travel writing: An extract from Better than Fiction, True Travel Tales From Great Fiction Writers

• Travel writing: A preview of Simon Armitage’s Walking Home  


Texts for comparison: 

• This extract from 438 Days (2015), Jonathan Franklin’s biography of the Mexican fisherman lost at sea could be compared with an extract from John Franklin’s Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea (1823), pp. 358–60.