Senior Tutor, Matthew Uffindell, gives his time-tested advice for revising for your A level English examinations.
There are several useful tips for revising for English A level. With many years as an examiner and helping students through the revision period, I have chosen five important pieces of advice to help you avoid the most common errors which anxious students fall into at this time of year. These five tips will give you something to act on now! (As a bonus I have also added a further five blunders to avoid in the examination!)
1. Know … your Assessment Objectives
My top tip is to know your Assessment Objectives. This means knowing what an Assessment Objective is (essentially it is the particular information required to gain marks in an examination) and the percentage of the marks the examiner will be giving for (for example) context, critical perspectives, comparisons with other texts etc. in each of the questions. Some answers simply do not require all the information you may want to write down – and some may require more.
Your examination specification won’t be the most exciting read of your life, but at least you will know what is being tested! It’s your examination, so look at the examination board websites for the information.
2. Know … what to practise
For an essay-writing examination like English you need to practise what you will be doing in the examination – writing timed essays. And practice makes perfect. Exactly what you practice is crucial, so this point is connected to the first tip. However, in addition to Assessment Objectives, remember to weave in the facts you learn to enable you to develop your argument. Memorising that a particular passage in a text is an example of irony probably won’t help much until you have had the experience of working your example into an actual written answer.
Ask a friend to try to identify the Assessment Objectives you think you have put into your essays – it’ll be good practice for both of you!
3. Know … the point you want to make
The next tip, following from the previous one, is that you should always practice linking facts to the meaning of the text in your revision essays. Looking at students’ notations on texts, one often sees isolated words or phrases such as ‘alliteration’ or ‘iambic pentameter’. Essays are not lists of literary jargon but an argument, so it’s not very helpful for the examiner if you write: ‘This is an example of antimetabole in Richard II.’ So what? Your knowledge may sound impressive, but the examiner wants to know the link between the fact you know and the point you are making (and also whether it is answering the question).
You might know the meaning of ‘antimetabole’ but unless you can show how the grammar of the sentence ‘shapes meaning’ (in the language of the Assessment Objective) then I’m sorry to say the examiner will remain mostly unimpressed.
4. Know … what question you are answering
This tip is as simple and as obvious as it gets! The most common complaint of examiners is that students simply plonk knowledge indiscriminately onto the page, regardless of the question asked. The questions at A level will actually be framed (to the surprise of most students) in a way that helps you address the Assessment Objectives – and you now know how important they are!
So practise answering the question – and as another extra tip, plan your essay for a few minutes to ensure you write a brief introduction, a logical development and a brief conclusion to your essay.
5. Know … your texts
Really? Well, again, this sounds a statement of the obvious – but it’s alarming how many students won’t have read all their texts. Many, for example, will be vague about the minor characters or important developments of the plot. An ‘open text’ paper is not an excuse for spending valuable minutes during the examination flicking through the texts or reading chunks of poetry or prose for the first time.
If you really are panicking in these last few weeks, my advice (for remedial action only) is to choose half a dozen passages now (of a page or so in length) and concentrate on a close analysis of the language of each. Then move on to another half a dozen more when you are ready. This will help you avoid unnecessary panic, restore some confidence and really contribute to your knowledge of the text.
And after five ‘Do …’, here are five brief ‘Don’t …’ for the examination itself:
- Don’t misspell the name of the author (or the title of the text, characters, etc.)
- Don’t write in incomplete sentences
- Don’t ask rhetorical questions
- Don’t use slang
- Don’t try to be humorous.