Author logo AQA English - preparing for the GCSE exams

Paper 1: Reading
Paper 1: Writing
Paper 2: Writing
Stylistic effects
Word classes


This guide is written to help students preparing for GCSE exams in English. It is specifically for students taking the AQA GCSE English examination. This guide has information about both sections (Reading and Writing) of Paper 1, and about the second section (Writing) of Paper 2. For help with the Reading section of Paper 2, please look at my guide to the AQA/NEAB Anthology, which is the set reading material for this paper. This guidance applies to both Foundation and Higher Tiers. For these papers, the questions are substantially the same, with two slight differences:

  • some of the source material for reading on Paper 1 may differ;
  • the wording of all questions on both papers is made more accessible for Foundation Tier candidates.

Paper 1: Reading

In this section you answer questions on media and non-fiction texts you have not seen before.

  • You are marked for reading only, so (in this section) you need not worry about your writing style.
  • Use white space, bullet points, underlining and other appropriate methods to show clearly how you have answered a question.
  • You may refer to evidence in the passages, but should not copy out large amounts.
  • If you are asked to give a list you may use phrases rather than full sentences.
  • Keep the length of answers in proportion to the number of marks on offer.
  • You have an hour for the first section, worth 27 marks. This means that the number of minutes you spend on each part should be twice the available marks (e.g. 4 marks = 8 minutes).
  • You have 45 minutes for the second section, also worth 27 marks. This section is not divided into further parts.

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Expect to find two (or more) texts on the same subject or theme. These may be more or less factual, or may give opinions - they may do both, in different places.

  • Expect to have a question that asks you to identify fact and opinion, and say how you know which is which.
  • Be aware of the contrast between writing which is subjective, personal, opinionated and committed and writing which is objective, detached and impartial. Often (but not always) subjective writing is in the first person (the writer appears as I) while objective writing may be in the third person (people are named or referred to as he or she, while the writer does not usually appear in the piece).

At some point(s) you may be asked to comment on language. Try to do better than referring vaguely to “language” or “words”. Below are some headings you might use to organize comment on language. This is not a full list - you should practise reading texts with your teacher's guidance.

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Word classes (kinds of word)
  • Nouns (naming words for things): are they familiar, ordinary or exotic and strange?
  • Verbs (action words): are they strong and forceful? Do they express abstractions like hoping, thinking or believing?
  • Adjectives (words which describe nouns): How do they make the meaning clear?
  • Adverbs (words which describe verbs): How do they affect the verbs they qualify?
  • Pronouns (words like I or they): How do these show the viewpoint?

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  • Look at the structure of phrases and sentences. If you can, look at words which cluster round main verbs (clauses). Are these short and clear, or longer and more complex?
Stylistic effects
  • Look for comparisons, like metaphor and simile: what effect do these have?
  • Look for words which sound like their meaning (onomatopoeia).
  • Look for words or phrases which make written texts seem like speech (colloquialism).
  • Look for play on words.
  • Look for ambiguity, irony and sarcasm, or examples of humour.

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Paper 1: Writing to Argue, Persuade or Instruct

  • In this section, you are assessed for spelling and punctuation. Use the question paper and the passages for the Reading section as a dictionary, if you need one. Use these to find the keywords for your own writing.
  • Use the time available to write enough, but do not write a very long answer - you are marked for quality not quantity. Two pages of your answer book may be enough - four is excessive.
  • It is essential that you look for the keyword for your task: argue, persuade or instruct. Whichever you choose, make sure your writing does it consistently.
  • It is also essential that you note the audience - the people or person for whom you are meant to be writing. The manner and style of your answer must show that you have seen this. If it's for young readers, keep sentences short. In fact, keep them short in any case, unless you have a good reason to write complex sentences, and the skill to do so.
  • Layout is important - if you write a leaflet, a magazine feature, a letter or a playscript, make sure it looks like one on the page. You don't get extra marks for elaborate artwork, but you should use appropriate layout, size of text and indicate where graphics might appear.

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Paper 2: Writing to Inform, Explain or Describe

  • When you do Paper 2, you have your Anthology with you. You may wish to use it as a dictionary and source of ideas (it is full of poems and stories). But don't copy passages from it directly - the examiners will recognize where they come from! Some students use ideas in the poems they have studied as a starting-point for writing: this is allowed.
  • Unlike the writing task on Paper 1, this one may not necessarily be aimed at a particular audience. If this is the case, write as you would for an intelligent general reader. You will have opportunities to write about things which you know, or things which have happened in your life.
  • Keep in mind whether you are writing to inform, explain or describe. Inform requires you to give facts, in an organized and clear way. Explain requires you to show what something means - to get beneath the facts, and find the importance it has for you or others. Describe requires you to find ways of showing the details of something.
  • The different tasks will appeal to different kinds of student. You should know which of them you are best at, before you go into the exam.
  • If you write personally, you may exaggerate or alter details for effect. But you should avoid fantasising, as this rarely produces good writing. If your subject seems too big, don't write at length - focus on the important bits. And don't be trapped by chronology (time sequence) - tell things in the order which makes for the best writing!

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© Andrew Moore, 2000, 2004; Contact me

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