AQA English Language GCSE – Build for Success in the Exams

AQA English Language GCSE – Introduction

When Michael Gove went about his educational reforms in 2015, he probably didn’t know that it was going to turn the AQA English Language GCSE into an almost inscrutable monster.

The general feedback I get from students, even those who enjoy English, is that they don’t enjoy the subject. I have also spoken to quite a few English teachers about the English Language papers in particular, and they generally believe that it is too difficult. I also believe that the papers are far too concentrated on unseen analysis.

In this blog, I will try to help tutors, teachers, parents and students learn why it is so difficult. Furthermore, I will attempt to explain how the qualification works (and doesn’t work).

What makes AQA English Language papers so difficult?

The truly devilish part of the AQA English Language GCSE is that it is all unseen. Students go into the exam with no indication of which texts will appear.

Moreover, these texts can be very difficult. I’m a great supporter of students reading challenging literature, but I believe that it is asking too much for them to be expected to write full-length essays on unseen difficult texts. This type of task, in my opinion, is something that should be only within the domain of English Literature exams.

In fact, the components of the English Language GCSE would be far more interesting if it were developed as a coursework, or independent study.

There are also, few marks available for retrieving information from the text, and other basic comprehension skills. Basic comprehension is an important life skill, so I believe more marks should be dedicated to this aspect. Moreover, there are many students who do not necessarily speak English as a first language. Asking them to read an antiquated text and then delve into an in-depth analysis, in many cases, sets them up for failure.  The AQA English language GCSE is a qualification that ought to have a foundation tier, however, no foundation exam is available.

The exam format (tips included)

The AQA English Language GCSE exams have a pre-determined structure.

Paper 1 – Explorations in creative reading and writing (1 hour 45 minutes)

The paper has 80 marks in total – 50% of the AQA English Language GCSE. This paper has a section A and section B.

Section A – Reading – 40 Marks

Section A, in the AQA English Language GCSE, is an extended comprehension which uses a 19th to 21st century text. This part of the exam is difficult as if a student is not used to reading this type of text in their leisure time, he or she could find it quite difficult to even understand the text, let alone comment on the various writing techniques employed by an author.

Question 1 – 4 marks

Question 1 is a 4 mark question. The question asks the candidate to extract 4 details from the first few lines of the text. For instance, ‘Provide 4 things that we learn about [insert place/character]’.

This type of retrieval question should be fairly straightforward for the average GCSE English student, but may be difficult if a student has limited experience of comprehension. It might also be difficult if the student is a non-native speaker. Students should endeavour to get through this question as quickly as possible and secure the marks.

Question 2 – 8 marks

Question 2 is an 8 mark language focused question. A section of text is provided, and the student needs to write a detailed response.  A typical question would be something like: ‘How does the writer use language to ________________’

These bullet points are given after the question to help guide the student:

You could include the writer’s choice of:

  • words and phrases
  • language features and techniques
  • sentence forms

I think that spending about 10-12 minutes developing an answer is required. Sometimes, students have a tendency to spend too long on this question and not concentrate on the basics.

The approach that I tend to favour is to first start by thinking of some adjectives that can help you organise an answer.

For instance, if a question asks ‘How does the writer use language to portray Nicholas’ character?’ I would start by getting students to think of possible adjectives that come to their mind when they read the short extract to describe Nicholas.

Then I would get them to underline or highlight the evidence that can be used to demonstrate this point. This evidence could include uses of figurative language techniques by the writer, a word (lexical) field, or a striking use of words. It is critical for students include a wide range of evidence.

Question 3 – 8 marks

Question 3 is another 8 mark question, this time focused on the writer’s use of structure across the whole text. Question 3 is a difficult question from a technical standpoint. Most students have a limited understanding of structure and its effect upon the reader.

In basic terms, structure is how the text is arranged. If you think about a movie, you’ll notice camera angles, and how the director gets the videographer to focus on different objects, people, places and so on. A writer similarly selects points of focus in the text to guide the readers emotions, create suspense/build tension, highlight ambiguity and so on. Furthermore, a film director will utilise flashbacks and flash forwards and play with the time-narrative to develop a sub-plot or character. Question 3 is always: ‘How has the writer s

For a basic guide to language and structural features, check out the BBC Bitesize explanation BBC Bitesize explanation.

Question 4 – 20 marks

Question 4 is for 20 marks. The question is evaluative, and is designed to gauge the candidate’s personal response to the text. I think question 4 is the most difficult, as it is typically the least formulaic of the section A questions. However, it is certainly possible to master approaching this type of question.

First, it is worth going through the text with a highlighter and noting anything relevant to the question.

Section B – 40 Marks

Question 5 – Creative Writing – 40 marks

Question 5 in AQA English Language GCSE paper 1, is a creative writing task. As there are so many marks up for grabs in this section, some students opt to do this question first. If I were a student, I would personally prefer to attempt the comprehension first, before taking on the creative writing, as I may be able to take inspiration from the comprehension passage for my own piece of writing. It is ultimately up to the students to work out the approach that works best for them.

If you struggle with this section, I would always recommend choosing the question that deals directly with the picture. Students tend to obsess over producing pieces of writing that are plot-driven, rather than based around description. Providing enough detail in your creative piece is key.

An approach that my old English teacher used to recommend was to structure your description like a funnel, or upside-down triangle:




I would never want to be too prescriptive and how students write, as personal style is something that they need to develop themselves. The triangle, however, provides a simple structure that they can use to improve the way they build up a description.


For instance take a look at this passage from George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans) Mill on the Floss:

A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace. On this mighty tide the black ships—laden with the fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal—are borne along to the town of St Ogg’s, which shows its aged, fluted red roofs and the broad gables of its wharves between the low wooded hill and the river-brink, tingeing the water with a soft purple hue under the transient glance of this February sun. Far away on each hand stretch the rich pastures, and the patches of dark earth made ready for the seed of broad-leaved green crops, or touched already with the tint of the tender-bladed autumn-sown corn. There is a remnant still of last year’s golden clusters of beehive-ricks rising at intervals beyond the hedgerows; and everywhere the hedgerows are studded with trees; the distant ships seem to be lifting their masts and stretching their red-brown sails close among the branches of the spreading ash. Just by the red-roofed town the tributary Ripple flows with a lively current into the Floss. How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets! It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, placid voice, as to the voice of one who is deaf and loving. I remember those large dipping willows. I remember the stone bridge.

The writer starts the description by talking about the huge plain and the sea, which are the largest features. After that, she builds in some imagery to convey the vitality of the scene and create a warm atmosphere. Her use of personification (check out our video below), in particular, accentuates these aspects. Then she narrows her description and alludes to the wavelets on the river, and then finally, the stone bridge. The way the past ends abruptly with a short sentence, contrasts against the long descriptive sentences used earlier in the text. This approach raises suspense for what may be revealed later about the bridge.

Whatever structure a students decide to take for the creative writing piece, they must ensure they use a variety of techniques, a wide-range of vocabulary, adequate paragraphing and a significant length (I wouldn’t suggest a number of pages as it varies depending on handwriting).

I have spent a lot of time addressing paper 1, as it seems to be the one that most students seem to find more difficult.

Paper 2 -Writers’ view points and perspectives (1 hour 45 minutes)

The paper has 80 marks in total – 50% of the AQA English Language GCSE. This paper has a section A and section B.

Section A – Reading – 40 Marks

Section A is a comprehension; essentially the non-fiction equivalent of paper 1 section A. Paper 2 section A provides two non-fiction texts. One of these texts will be a 19th century and the other a 20th/21st century text.

The non-fiction texts may be in the format of a letter, an article, a blog, an extract of travel writing or from an autobiography.

Question 1 – 4 Marks

Question 1 of AQA English Language GCSE paper 2 is based around basic understanding of the text. If a student has adequate experience of basic comprehension tasks, this should not be too much of a challenge, and should be an opportunity to pick up marks quickly. As these questions will be based around the 19th century text, students may struggle.

The question will be phrased as follows:

‘Choose four statements below which are true’.

The student is then presented with 8 statements. I would recommend using elimination to narrow down your options to begin with. You may need to reread the text to answer this question accurately. Having each of those statements in mind before you read the text should help you locate the correct answers.

Question 2 – 8 Marks

Question 2 of AQA English Language GCSE paper 2 involves comparing both sources’ presentation of a certain, object, place, person, location, etc. I’d recommend by starting with a highlighter to locate the evidence that is necessary for the question in both sources. Look for both similarities and differences between each source. With any comparison, it is also crucial that students do not spend too long addressing one text over the other; no matter how effective your response, addressing one more than the other will cap your maximum marks!

Question 3 – 12 Marks

Question 3 is a lot like question 2 of paper 1, as it focuses on language features. It is, however, for an additional 4 marks, so students have to write a bit more. Having three well-developed paragraphs is usually fair guidance. Question 3 focuses upon one of the sources and not both of them.

Question 4 – 16 Marks

Question 4 is about comparing attitudes of the writers across both sources. Again, as this task involves a comparison it is crucial that the student does not get too drawn into just one of the sources, and makes sure to balance out the evidence. The answer to this question will probably take around 15-20 minutes to write.

Section B – Writing – 40 Marks

Section A requires the student to write their own non-fiction text.

Question 5 – 40 marks

The non-fiction texts may be in the format of a letter, an article, a speech, a leaflet or even an essay.

Each of these forms of writing requires a lot of explanation, and in a few future blogs, we may outline each in detail.

Again, just like in paper 1, there are many marks up for offer in question 5, so some students like to do this task first. Students should work out the approach that works for them.

Past papers

We have made available the AQA English Language GCSE past papers for download. Again, we have organised them into folders to make it easier to store on your device: