Teaching AQA Language 1 Question 4

Out of both AQA English Language papers, question 4 on paper 1 is the biggest and most valuable, containing more marks than any other reading question.

This blog outline some approaches that I have found to be successful.

Being successful at any form of extended writing involves being fluent (accurate and fast) in a range of different sub-skills, elements or components and I have written before about how the composite skill of extended writing can be split up and practiced .

So what are the components of this particular question? What sub-skills do students need to be proficient at if they are to write a good answer? Although students will probably need to have reached a knowledge crafting level of writing expertise to succeed, this post will focus on things specific to question 4 and the approaches assume that students have fluent transcription as well as sufficient background knowledge to access the text.

Approach 1: Start with Literature texts that they know well

Question 4 asks students to respond to a critical statement, something along the lines of: A student said ‘This part of the story, set during breakfast time, shows that Alex is struggling to cope with his mother’s illness’ How far do you agree with this statement?

Instead of beginning with unseen extracts, it can be useful to initially use literature texts so that students can focus solely on the approach needed for this question. If you have already taught the literature text, then students will already know the content that they are expected to use when attempting a Q4 style question. This essentially lowers the cognitive load as they have less information that they need to manipulate or hold in mind. If you begin with unseen extracts, students will not only have to grasp what the question is asking them (as well as the nuances that are required for high marks), but they will also have to maintain a coherent representation of the text in their minds so that they are able to select relevant information for their answer.

Here are some examples:

EXAMPLE 1: Teacher modelling

  1. Write the question on the board and give some oral examples as to how to answer it, modelling to students that they need to explain HOW the writer makes Mrs.Birling seem cold:

Mrs.B has a dismissive attitude and uses curt language like ‘impertinent’, making her seem cold. etc. etc.

2. You can then add other words to describe Mrs.Birling (red pen in the example) and give further oral examples:

Mrs.Birling is worse than cold; she is a spiteful woman who, through her disparaging language, denigrates and objectifies Eva, referring to her as ‘girls of that class’. etc.etc

Debating and discussing the key words in the statement by offering alternatives can help students to fully engage with the prompt as well as ensuring that they adopt a more nuanced and evaluative approach to the task. With this example, I came up with other words that students could use to lead their evaluation and analysis: spiteful, egotistical, opaque, sclerotic, ossified. Thanks to DiLeedham for suggesting this approach to me: it has been really successful in pushing HA kids towards full marks.

EXAMPLE 2: Guided Practice

  1. Write this second question on the board and ask students to discuss why Utterson is dull (analysis/evaluation) and how they know that (methods)
  2. Ask them for other words they could use instead of ‘dull’. In my example, all three of the red suggestions are vocabulary terms that they learned in the Jekyll and Hyde unit.
  3. They can then discuss why he is austere/authotitative/hypocritical (analysis/evaluation) and how they know that (methods)
  4. You can then ask for verbal answers checking that students engage with the prompt, analyse, refer to the text and include methods.

EXAMPLE 3: Same process as Example 2

Once these literature focussed examples have been completed, you could then compile a list of methods, demonstrating to the students that a method is any possible way that a writer expressed an idea, ranging from the microscopic and phonetic (things like ‘plosives’ and dashes) to the structural and macroscopic (things like transitions, sections and changes in focus).

Using Short Stories

You could then look at a question 4 based on a short story that you have already taught and discussed, again the advantage here being that students already know the content so they can focus on what question 4 requires them to do.

Here is an example that focusses on Helen Phillip’s phenomenal short story called ‘The Knowers.’:

The example above further outlines what q4 is asking them to do as well as continuing the idea of ‘debating/discussing the question words’ in order to encourage more nuanced responses.

As explained in this post , I would start with a model answer and annotate it to show students what they need to do:

You could then skip straight onto an unseen extract and accompanying question. A really good extract (and I can’t remember where I found it so please let me know so I can credit you!) is from ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ by T Boyle.

Here’s a question 4 for this extract:

A critic said ‘The Writer has created a tense and suspense filled scene’ How far do you agree.

After reading the extract, students can then write down other words that could be used to describe the scene: instead of ‘tense and suspense filled’, they may come up with ‘chaotic, exciting, nerve-wracking, fear-inducing etc’. You can then show another model answer, highlighting components in the first part like this:

….before asking the students to read the rest of the model, identifying the same components and using your annotations as an analogy.

Beginning with lots of modelling is always important so that students can understand exactly what it is you want them to do.

Approach 2: Break it down into Sequential Steps

While the approach above may work with higher ability students, some students will require you to break things down even further.

  1. Read and discuss a short story (The explanation below is based upon ‘Story of an Hour’ by Kate Chopin )

Short stories are often easier for students to understand than extracts. Because of this, they are ideal for the initial teaching of language questions. Although they won’t be able do this in the exam-and we all know that students who struggle with GCSE language are often those with insufficient background knowledge to understand the unseen extract that they have to read-in class, you can spend time checking for understanding, explaining and ensuring that they know what happens.

2. Focus on the question

This part of the text where Mrs Mallard reacts to the news of her husband’s death makes us feel both pity and joy for her. To what extent do you agree?

Students need to understand that the question is a prompt that directs them to find relevant evidence and steers their response. You could underline the key words and then demonstrate how to find evidence that fits them. To model this, the teacher could find things that fit ‘pity’ like this:

Showing them how to do this under the visualizer allows them to see the process in action.

You could then ask them to find things to fit ‘joy’:

As you have already demonstrated HOW to do this under a camera, they should know what they are expected to do and should be able to find relevant evidence.

Even with lower ability students, it can still be useful to get them to debate the question words by looking for evidence that supports another interpretation of the woman’s actions:

These two quotations could be seen as evidence that she is callous; equally, they could make us feel horrified rather than piteous or joyful.

With lower ability students, it is really useful to outline non-examples so they know what not to do in this question. I find that some students slip into writing advice to the character instead of engaging with the question properly:

Addressing these misconceptions before students begin writing makes it far more likely that they won’t do this!

While more able classes could cope with whole models, I would split up the answer for lower ability groups so that they are not overwhelmed:

  1. Show how to engage with the question:

Once you have shown students how to engage with the question through a model like the one above, you could ask them to rewrite it in their own words. This will be very close to mimicry but that may be an important first step on the journey towards flexible knowledge. Later practice opportunities could use the alternation strategy where students use your model as an analogy rather than something to directly emulate.

2. Create a diagram that describes the answer:

3. Show how this abstraction can be realized as writing:

You could then ask students to label the rest of a model answer, checking whether they understand what is required.

Approaches that will be important whatever the level of the class:

  1. Lots of modelling at the start so students know what to do.
  2. Lots of distributed practice, moving closer and closer to examination timings and combining practice with other reading questions too so as to build examination stamina.
  3. Asking students to check their own work for key elements: METHODS + EVIDENCE + ANALYSIS/EVALUATION

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