Variety is the spice of…revision?

Five top tips for spicing up your revision sessions

By Mike Gould

There’s a lot of received wisdom when it comes to mastering skills or becoming an expert. One of these is that anyone can master anything with 10,000 hours of practice (see Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers), although even that is disputed. What is certain is that English teachers do not have 10,000 hours to offer students on each GCSE set text. So, how to make the most of the much more limited time available for revision? Here are five key tips.

Tip 1: Keep them guessing

When a revision session becomes predictable, the results can be predictable, too – lack of engagement. How about changing it up? Start with a team-based quiz on knowledge of the play, poem or prose work. Make it rapid and fun, with lots of silly points for good/bad responses (‘You didn’t reply ‘‘Macbeth’’ with a Scottish accent – minus three marks!’) Then, move straight into something utterly different – pairs or groups of threes working on improving an exam-style essay plan, then onto something independent and individual, such as ‘exploding’ a key quotation and then writing an essay-style paragraph about it.

Tip 2: You taught me language

Caliban is able to curse Prospero because he taught him the language to express it. More positively, when students verbalise what they know, it helps embed the learning. Simple tasks such as students working in pairs to talk aloud, recounting a key plot line, or explaining a theme with the other offering prompts and queries, can help hugely. Many teachers already give students a palette of words or phrases for critical writing (e.g ‘‘Shakespeare conveys/ suggests/proposes…etc.’’) but speaking these aloud – a form of spoken essay practice – can help the muscle memory for when it comes to writing in the exam. Even reading an essay – or part of it – aloud may reap unexpected benefits.

Tip 3: Ask the expert

Having ownership of what you do or learn is key to engagement. Try taking one of the class’s core texts – say, An Inspector Calls – and create sets of experts. So, group 1 are the experts on Birling, group 2 masters of stagecraft in Act 1, group 3 the go-to guys on industrial relations in the play…and so on. The fact that a student might be an expert in one area won’t prevent them from revising another. Everything is linked – it’s impossible to be an expert in Birling without understanding something of Edwardian employment and the class system. How you use the experts is up to you, but this could be anything from panel-style interviews in the form of Question Time to mix and match groups where representative spokespeople from each group disperse to present to other expert groups.

Tip 4: Recreative writing

In the past, there has been some push-back on getting students to do creative tasks – for example, writing ‘Eva’s Diary’ for An Inspector Calls. Quite why this was is hard to say. Perhaps because Eva does not actually appear in the play. But it feels quite legitimate to use creative writing or other linked activities to secure an understanding of what has happened or to explore key themes. For example, what are the servants saying behind closed doors about the Birlings? Could students improvise or write that scene, drawing on their understanding of the social differences, the characterisation of each family member? As this is for revision purposes, such writing or impro should be short and sharp – a brief 2–3 minute script, for example.

Tip 5: Shock therapy

Of course, English teachers regularly give students practice in exam situations working on past papers. But how about an accelerated version? Students come into the class to face a silent room, exam papers on their desks and the shock of being told they have just 15 minutes to write an essay response to one of the questions on the paper. The goal is to get as much down in the time given, energising the brain to think quickly, dredging up remembered quotes on the spot. This is not about exam technique, but breaking the taboo of the blank page – showing them that they can write quickly and to the point if they have to.


Our workbooks are designed on the principle of there being a variety of ways of tackling revision – whether that is completing simple tables about characters, plot and theme, or improving essay paragraphs. 

For example, in the Macbeth Workbook, students can use the ‘Quick test’ feature in the early sections before ‘Thinking more deeply’ by writing about an aspect of a character or theme. Later in the workbook, they can revise their understanding of what makes up higher-level achievement by evaluating and writing sample paragraphs.

Our full range of GCSE workbooks can be found here

You could also match some or all of these shorter, focused activities in a revision session with tackling a full practice paper from our ‘Practice Tests’ series.



Mike Gould is a former Head of English and Senior Lecturer in English and Education, and has written over 150 books and resources for students and teachers.