By Richard Vardy
With mock exams fast approaching, we should reflect on the most effective ways to revise texts in the classroom and to prepare our students for writing essays under timed conditions. Mock exams are also opportunities to encourage students to evaluate – and adjust, where necessary – their own approaches to revision.
Revising the texts
- There is probably not enough time to re-read entire plays and novels in class (see this blog for ways to encourage students to re-read the text in their own time). Lessons could be used instead to re-visit key moments. Students could see how much they remember about each moment by talking for a minute about ideas, style, characters, etc. This should be followed by a personal reflection in which they identify the moments they feel less confident about.
- Students could construct a timeline (or storyboard) of events. This will help them to contextualise quotations and to notice how events follow on from each other. They can chart how characters change or develop (or not) throughout the text.
- Steer students away from spending all their time learning quotations at the cost of everything else: this will not lead to detailed and considered personal responses. However, some class time could be used to develop the best ways to remember the most pertinent quotations. Effective strategies include:
- Completing unfinished quotations.
- Developing and displaying mnemonics (such as the acronym BADD for Macbeth’s ‘black and deep desires’).
- Matching quotations to exam questions.
- Putting quotations in the order they appear in the text. This helps students to appreciate structure – especially in poetry – and plot. Students could put their quotations on the timeline.
- Contextualising quotations helps students to bring more textual details into their responses. Ask questions such as: Who said it? Where? Who to? What happens before? What happens after? Where does it appear in the poem?
- Quizzing is a simple but effective way to make the textual knowledge stick. Try spacing it out: set a challenge to learn four or five things (such as quotations, key contexts or stylistic features) at the beginning of the week. Then revisit and refresh at the end of the week. At the start of the following week, provide a short quiz to see how much they are able to recall.
- Invite Year 12 students to talk about their own experiences of revising and approaching the mock exams.
- Students should continuously reflect on the different strategies and resources they used to revise the texts and identify any they found especially useful – and those that were less successful.
Preparing for an exam
- Mock exams are not just an opportunity for students to see how much they know but also to consider how they plan and write essays under timed conditions. Try modelling your own essay planning in class: provide a commentary on your own thinking, such as reasons why you included a specific quotation or why you chose to structure the essay in a particular way.
- Students could look at exemplar essays and consider how they have been structured, how well they use quotations and how they have answered the question.
- Practise speed planning – give students 15 minutes to plan a response, then discuss in small groups why they planned their essay in the way they did.
Learning from the mock exam
- Ask students to reflect upon feedback on the mock exam in order to improve subsequent essays. Give them time to improve identified paragraphs or other aspects of their response.
- Provide a reflection sheet, ideally for students to complete when they finish the exam (or as soon as practically possible afterwards). Ask questions such as:
- How much time did you spend preparing for this mock exam? Was this time adequate?
- How well did you know the text? Did you encounter any gaps in your knowledge in the exam?
- What do you think are the strengths of your response? What didn’t go so well?
- What will you do differently as you prepare for the real GCSE English Literature exams?
GCSE English Literature mock exams therefore enable us all – students and teachers alike – to reflect upon and refine our approaches and resources in preparation for the real exams in the summer.
Richard Vardy is a Head of English and freelance writer with 13 years' experience of teaching English Language and Literature.