How to nail the English Language paper

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Timing is Key

The English Language paper is a laborious 2 hours and 15 minutes long, so make sure you've had a good breakfast beforehand otherwise you'll get hungry very quickly, and go to bed early the night before instead of staying up all night revising or watching TV.

The paper is split into two sections: A and B. The following guidelines for timings won't be on the paper and the invigilators certainly won't be shouting out when to move on to the next question, so if you don't have a watch - get one! It's important to set goals for yourself of when to move on, and move on at that time, even if it means leaving a question unfinished. If you get through one of the other questions quicker than expected you can always come back to an unfinished question, and it's better to do some of all the questions than to leave one out completely - you never know, what you wanted to add on might not have gained you any extra marks after all.

You should spend around 1 hour and 15 minutes on section A, which is all about reading unseen texts and analysing their features.

You should spend about 1 hour on section B, which is all creative writing.

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Question One

For section A you will be given a booklet of 3 texts, all based around the same theme, for example travel or celebrities.

Unsurprisingly, question 1 is based on source 1, which is most likely to be a newspaper article. It is worth 8 marks. Firstly, you should read the question. Then, spend around 5 minutes reading the source, highlighting any information that may be relevant to the question. Don't dive straight into writing your answer without first reading through the whole source, because you might miss something good to right about, or even completely miss the point of the text.

You should spend 12 minutes writing your answer. Question 1 is all about infering, so don't just write what you read, use your common sense. If the source says "Emily arrived at the hotel, sighed and threw her bags down, before diving into bed," by all means write this in your answer as a quote, but then expand on it by saying "she was tired" or "she had had a long and exhausting day of travelling", which are not written in the text but you can assume they are true from what you have read.

Your paragraphs should include a point referring to the question, for example "From the text we can learn that Emily was tired after a long flight." Then take a quote, and add your own inference. You should aim to make around 4 of these points.

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Question Two

Question 2 is also worth 8 marks and will be based on source 2. It will be about presentational devices. The source will more than likely be a news article, either from a magazine, newspaper or website, and it will have a picture with it, which could be a photograph, drawing, diagram or chart. The question will be "How are the headline and picture effective, and how do they link to the text?"

Again, you should first read the question, and then take 5 minutes to read the text and highlight any relevant information. Then take 12 minutes to write your answer. Remember to infer!

Your answer should include 4 points, which are found in the question:

  • How is the headline effective?
  • How does the headline link to the text?
  • How is the picture effective?
  • How does the picture link to the text?

If you can, try to include all 4 of these points. Because they are in the question, the examiner will expect you to answer them all, and you may lose marks if you don't.

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Question Three

Question 3 is - you guessed it! - worth 8 marks and based on source 3. Source 3 could be a blog post, a section taken from a book, expect anything. You should again take 5 minutes to read and annotate the source, and 12 minutes to write your answer.

The question is again all about taking quotes from the text and using them to infer, this time with special reference to thoughts and feelings. It could ask you whether the subject of the text was scared/excited/nervous/etc, and how you know this.

For example, if the source says "Mark was involved in several protests against animal testing last year." you can infer from this that Mark is against animal testing, and he felt so angry about it that he needed to protest. You may feel stupid writing something as obvious as this, of course Mark is against animal testing, isn't that written in the text? Well actually, unless the words "Mark is against animal testing" are in the text, this is inference, and this is what the examiners are looking for. They want to know that you can read the text and understand what it is saying, simple as that. So state the obvious!

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Question Four

Question 4 is the most important question from section A, worth 16 marks, which is double the marks of all the other questions. Therefore, you should spend around 24 minutes writing your answer.

There is no source 4 in the booklet, instead question 4 is about comparing source 3 with either of the other 2 sources, choose whichever one you think you can answer best. As I mentioned earlier, all of the sources are linked by topic, but that is NOT what you are comparing. You are asked to compare literary techniques, so don't go off on a tangent about how they both mention the Maldives. Have a look out for:

  • Hyperbole
  • Satire
  • Imagery
  • Connotations

If you get really stuck, go back to basics and just compaire WORDS! Pick out a word from one source and say what you can infer from it, then take a word from the other source and compare them. And remember, you are allowed to mention something you already identified in a previous quesion, you won't lose any marks for repeating yourself.

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Question Six

Section B has 2 questions, which both ask you to produce a piece of creative writing. They will again be linked to the same theme as the texts you used for section A, and don't worry about stealing an idea from one of them if it's relevant.

Question 6 is the longer piece of writing of the two, so it might be a good idea to answer this one first. Question 6 is worth 24 marks, and you should spend around 35 minutes on it. A guideline for how much to produce is about 2-3 sides, but if you can't do this within the time, remember that quality is more important than quantity.

It will ask you to argue/persuade, for example "Celebrities are a bad influence on young people. Write an article for a teen magazine for or against this view." A good place to start is to draw a table of "fors" and "againsts" and pick the side that you have the most ideas for, even if this isn't your own personal opinion - the examiner isn't looking for the truth! Try to include 5 well explained points, with at least 1 point that is against the point of view your are arguing for, e.g. "Some people may disagree, and say that... But this is irrelevant/wrong/cancelled out because..."

You could also try to include an anecdote, or story-within-a-story, which may support your opinion. Even if in the stress of the exam situation you can't remember all the details or facts, make it up! It doesn't have to be true.

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Question Five

Question 5 is a shorter piece of creative writing. It is worth 16 marks and you should spend around 25 minutes writing your answer. It will be assessing your ability to inform, explain or describe, and you will be marked based on your content & organisation, and spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Think about the following anagram:

  • P is for Purpose - Why are you writing this letter/article/blog post? To inform, explain, or describe?
  • A is for Audience - Who is reading your text? How should you talk to this person/these people?
  • F is for Format - What is it? If it is a magazine, give it a title. If it is a letter, write "Dear..." and sign it off at the end.
  • T is for Tone - Is what you are writing formal or informal? Sombre, or cheerful? For example, don't use "it's really cool" if you're writing a letter to the prime minister.

Format is particularly important, because this shows that you have understood the task, and you will lose marks if you don't make it obvious what you are writing. But don't take too long on this, for example if you're struggling to come up with a name for your health blog, just call it "My Health Blog", it doesn't have to be amazing as long as you've acknowledged what it is you're writing.

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Don't Forget!

While you're in the exam situation, you're likely to forget even the most obvious of things. So it's important, whatever your English ability, to keep in mind the following:

  • Always use paragraphs to separate your ideas
  • Don't forget to use capital letters for the starts of sentences and proper nouns
  • Be careful with your spellings, particularly on easy words
  • Be careful with homophones, i.e. your/you're and there/their/they're
  • Try to include a range of punctuation - not just full stops and commas
  • Vary your connectives - try not to say "and so... and so... and so"
  • Don't forget to include multiple interpretations of the same phrase - argue with yourself!
  • Go back and read through what you've written to check that it makes sense
  • Vary your sentence length and structure - try starting with a verb sometimes

Instead of just saying "this shows that" all the time, find loads of synonyms for this phrase before you enter the exam, to prevent repetition. Examples of words that mean "shows" are: conveys, portrays, demonstrates, presents, illustrates, depicts... There are many, many more, so there's no excuse for always using "shows"!

Good luck!

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