The language of the exam hall: how to prepare your students

One comment we frequently hear from students is that they were delighted to see a question on their favourite theme/character/poem pop up in the paper, but there was a word in the question that they didn’t understand and so they opted for another question. ‘How does the poet’s writing make his thoughts and feelings so vivid for you?’ was a gift of a question for a class I taught a few years back: they knew the poem inside out and back to front, but the word ‘vivid’ caused them to turn away, insecurity rearing its ugly head as they decided not to tackle it.

A recent AQA Paper 1 interrogated Lady Macbeth’s ambition, the aggressive male behaviour of the Capulets and Montagues and Antony’s manipulative nature. Now, you could argue that without knowledge of these words a student can’t truly understand the characters they are being asked about, but that’s to assume that they’ve used these specific words in class, explored their nuances and evaluated whether these particular labels are appropriate for the characters in question.

For some students, words like this are enough to throw them off course and disturb a self-confidence that is already fairly fragile.

What can your school do to prepare students for the language of exam questions?

How nuanced an understanding do your students have of task words? Could a different task word throw them off track? A few years ago, we hadn’t seen the use of ‘How far do you agree…’ in specimen papers but it turned up in the Literature paper that summer. Whilst I think most students probably dealt with this admirably, students that have an extensive academic vocabulary and a sound grasp of all task words can face a range of questions with confidence, avoiding any wobbles that might eat up precious time in the exam hall.

Do you compile topic specific vocabulary lists that could be used in exam questions? Some of our partner schools are doing just that: explicitly teaching the vocabulary they will be using to teach a text before they even open the script/novel/anthology. By thinking about these key terms before the teaching, they are essentially considering the possible questions.

One school we work with created a Macbeth vocabulary list; the students were taught the words explicitly and we helped them to assess the students throughout the teaching unit, ensuring that the class teachers knew exactly which words were still problematic and allowing their teaching to be targeted and data driven. When seeing the word ‘ambition’ pop up in the exam, the teachers knew that their students had a deep and detailed understanding of the term and that they would have used that knowledge to frame their response.

What about the vocabulary the students use themselves?

It’s not just receptive vocabulary that we need to focus on though, in the new assessment regime, expressive vocabulary is equally important, if not more so. In February, we conducted a poll. 90% of English teachers we surveyed felt that their students did not have a confident grasp of subject specific terminology. Does your school have a GCSE vocabulary curriculum? If we look at AQA’s levelled criteria, subject specific terminology must be used ‘relevantly…effectively…judiciously’ as we move up the mark scheme. How does your school ensure students are confident with these terms? Do you assess it in your classroom?

As we edge towards exam season, we’d love to hear your ideas about how you’re teaching subject specific terminology. Comment below or Tweet us.

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