What every teacher, student and parent needs to know about the English Language GCSE

The inescapable truth about the current GCSE English Language qualification is that ultimately section A of each paper is an assessment of a student’s ability to read. This should not come as a surprise. It is not a mystery. Section A is the reading section of the examination. However, more than ever before, if a student is not a proficient reader of demanding texts then they will fail to achieve highly in their English Language GCSE.

Consequently, the onus on schools to improve a student’s reading ability has never been more important.  If a student cannot independently read a complex text then they are doomed to failure, and given that it is a reading assessment, no student can have a reader to read the text to them. As such, there are many students who will struggle to accurately comprehend the meaning of the text and, in turn, accurately answer the questions related to that text.

English teachers up and down the country will be getting their Year 11 students to complete mock papers and practice questions. Often, after students have completed these papers and practice questions, the teachers will spend hours upon hours going back over what the students did wrong for each question. However, some will question the merit in this when the text in the exam will never be the one the students have done for practice. They will ask what value is there in the students understanding the text they got wrong in the practice when the exam text may be completely different and the student may not understand that text either. I am not going to get into a debate about this here but what I am going to stress is the most important thing that we can do to ensure that students do well in their English language GCSE is: make students more competent readers of demanding texts.

Just this week the Guardian published an article about the lack of reading undertaken by secondary school pupils https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/feb/22/reading-progress-halts-when-students-reach-secondary-school

and it is extremely worrying that so many students’ reading ages fall well below their chronological age at secondary school. To put this challenge into the exam context, one of the GCSE AQA specimen exam inserts has an ATOS level of 8.8; this level is well above what most students at secondary school will be reading for pleasure and so we need to do much more to promote reading and, in particular, the right sorts of reading so that students are more suitably prepared to take on the English GCSE.

The Matthew Effect is well known and we need to be more proactive about making sure that all of our students are “word rich”. If we tackle students’ reading engagement and reading ability lower down the school at KS3 then we will most certainly improve our students’ successes at GCSE.

At my current school we do some of the following in order to try to boost our students’ progress in reading:

  1. We have a whole-school tutor reading programme where students partake in whole-class reading in their tutor groups for 20 minutes twice weekly. The texts have been chosen by our English Lead Practitioner and cover a range of prose, poetry, fiction and non-fiction. These texts are rich, varied and demanding and they help to increase our students knowledge of the world and cultural capital.
  2. Students read for a minimum of ten minutes at the start of every English lesson with lower ability sets reading for up to 30 minutes. We follow the Accelerated Reader program with students reading age and level appropriate books.
  3. At KS3 we study challenging texts such as Animal Farm, Journey’s End and Great Expectations.
  4. For homework, students are expected to read for 30 minutes per evening and write a paragraph summary of their reading. These summaries are checked daily by the class teacher and detentions are issued for non-completion. As a school we have invested in high quality readers so that each student is given a new book to read each term. This allows us to ensure that the students read a range of books that are challenging but still age appropriate. This initiative guarantees that all students read at least 6 books for homework each academic year.

We hope that this focus on reading will pay dividends for our students in the future and we cannot express strongly enough to anyone who will listen that the best thing any teacher or parent can do for the young people in their care is to ensure that they are confident and competent readers.

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