Getting to Grips with Gcse English

No matter which exam board students take the GCSE English Language exam with, they will have to sit a paper that presents two non-fiction texts or ‘items’ which they will be questioned on and asked to compare in some way. Geoff Barton’s ‘Comprehension to GCSE’ is a book that presents a collection of paired texts under different genres autobiography, reportage, campaign ads, travel writing amongst others and gives questions of the type that would be set in an exam. The questions that require fuller answers carrying between four and eight marks are followed by advice to show students what kind of information to look for in the text and how to structure a well-written response.

Taking the Samaritans campaign ad as an example, the preliminary advice suggests looking at different types of advertisements on television as well as in newspapers and magazines and trying to critically analyse the techniques that advertisers use. Students then have to read two advertisements for the Samaritans that appeared in newspapers in 1997, and they are asked to think while they read about what the main message is, who it is aimed at and what it tries to persuade people to do. The advertisement covers one whole page with a photograph of a young woman smiling followed by two columns of text in a small font; on the left-hand side there is a slogan. The text is reproduced in a larger font on a separate page for easier reading.

On the next page is a series of questions that focus on the advertisement. As a general rule, the first two or three questions in Section A require straightforward answers based on fact. Here, the first question asks the student to choose one of four phrases that best describes the meaning of the slogan ‘We’ll go through it with you’, which appears at the foot of the advertisement. Question two requires the students to explain in their own words what the headline ‘Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone you don’t like’ means. The third question asks the students to identify the reasons why ‘someone might not want to discuss a problem with a close friend or a member of the family’.

Section B is composed of questions that require fully detailed answers for which between four and eight marks would be awarded. For the Samaritans advertisement, the first question in this section asks ‘How well does the layout of the advertisement add to its effect?’ The book gives a few lines of advice after each question in Section B, and for this one it asks students to think about the message conveyed by the photograph, what part is played by the slogan, how the text is organised beneath the image, the font size and the length of the paragraphs. The final question focuses on how the language of the advertisement makes the readers feel that the Samaritans are on their side. The advice below it asks students to think about the use of the words ‘you’ and ‘we’ in the text, as well as vocabulary such as ‘mate’ and ‘fancy’. Students are also asked to consider whether the language is mainly informal and why, as well as why it is more formal in certain parts.

Other reading passages that feature in the book include ‘A desert dies’ (travellers brave a sandstorm in the Sahara) and ‘Hitching through the Yukon’, both under travel writing; an article on the benefits of various forms of exercise and sport, which includes information in table form; and leaflets produced by Tesco and Waitrose on healthy eating for comparison, where the Tesco leaflet is essentially geared towards children. An extract on the history of airlines is crammed with detailed information concerning history and various types of planes; one of the questions on this passage requires students to draw a picture based on information given in the passage. I think this type of question is highly unlikely to occur in an exam, but it is an interesting way of testing how readers have been able to follow details in a text. The questions on a Norwich Union advertorial guide students into looking at ways in which the advertisement initially appears to be a newspaper article, and how through reading you realise that it is in fact an advertisement.

For several years now I have given private tuition to individual students working towards GCSE English Language, and I have found this book to be invaluable. I have sometimes had the impression that schools find it difficult to devote time to this area of the syllabus, such are the demands of coursework and the set texts for English Literature as well as the poems that are part of the Language syllabus. It is of course impossible to predict whether the non-fiction items that feature in any one exam paper will come under the domain of reportage, autobiography, travel writing, advertisements and so on, but if a student has had exposure to many different types of writing they should feel much more confident in the exam. Added to this, the book presents questions that require the student to look at many different aspects of writing such as purpose, language, bias, and also layout in the case of leaflets or advertising. The advice given for the questions requiring detailed answers is excellent and will show students how to look for various aspects and how to structure a response.

‘Comprehension to GCSE’ also offers writing activities that are linked to the topics covered in the texts and are of the type that feature in the English Language exam. For example, following an autobiographical text written by a teenage girl following her mother’s death from cancer, students are asked to write a profile of the girl for a local newspaper, explaining what she has gone through and showing what kind of person she is.

Other study and revision guides that I have used or looked at that cover the whole of the English syllabus do not usually give a great number of sufficiently long non-fiction texts and are unlikely to be able to cover all the different types of non-fiction writing. Another point to bear in mind is that the exam board AQA makes its past exam papers available on its website and these can easily be printed off, but at the time of writing there is only one paper available that gives the non-fiction ‘items’ along with the questions. I believe that this is for copyright reasons. ‘Comprehension to GCSE’ is therefore the single most valuable source of non-fiction texts with questions that I am aware of.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Intended as a textbook for use in schools, it would also be an excellent resource for private tutors, for anyone being home-schooled, or in fact for any student who is looking for extra practice in this area of the English Language syllabus. It is more expensive than study guides you will find in your local bookshop, but I consider it to be worth every penny.

Comprehension to GCSE
Oxford University Press, 1998
Geoff Barton
Paperback 120 pages
ISBN 0198314477