Thursday, 23 March 2017

A New Series About Exam Tips - Tell Me About Pens

Here's a question that was recently posed on one of the exam chat boards: what's the best pen to use for the exams.


Beautiful but not really practical!

With the English Language exam, it's really important that you have a a nice strong line with a fine nib and no bleed through.

I've just been marking my crammer students' mocks, and those with a weak line are very hard to read. This will necessarily hurt a student's grade, because much of what an examiner is looking for is fluency of expression. If instead he/she is having to decipher each word, the fluidity of the sentence is compromised.

On the other hand, a pen that bleeds through is equally bad. Exam scripts are now scanned into a computer for examiners to mark on the screen, and if a student has bleed-through on the script, it's also really hard to read (and they're hard enough on the computer as it is!).

I recommend the finest line such as a 0.4 mm because letters are formed more clearly.

Basically, the more clarity with a student's answers in terms of handwriting and pen choice, the more likely the script will avoid unnecessary limitations on its clarity and fluency.

This black Stabilo Fineliner is my favourite:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/cn/Stabilo-Point-88-GB-8810-46-Fineliner-Pack-of-10-Black/B01BCE27BC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490279642&sr=8-1&keywords=stabilo+fineliner+black

(this is not an affiliate link!)

Whichever pen you decide to use, your student needs to start using it as soon as possible, and as much as possible. Not only is it important for getting the "feel" of it, but people so rarely write these days as opposed to typing on a keyboard, that certain muscles need building up in the hand before spending two hours writing with a pen.

Think of it as another kind of training that you need for the exam!


The lost skill of handwriting!



Tuesday, 7 March 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips -- Practise Reading the Questions Right

If I had only one tip to give a student, it would be this one: read the question!

Even though I give my revision students a mantra about remembering to read questions carefully, they will still create or manufacture their own version of what the question is asking, and thus, end up NOT answering the question at all.

Just a slight alteration to the starting point
can mean you miss the goal entirely!


It happens all the time in the exam. The question can be about an early morning stroll through the town, but students will write instead about what it's like at night, or what it's like to walk into the country from the city, or write about the city in two different seasons.

Or, it can ask what a father should do about his child's experience at school, but the answer is turned into a diatribe against modern educational practices.

For an exam that tallies 50 out of 100 marks for how well you can read, it would make sense to avoid sabotaging your grade by breezing over the question and misinterpreting it.

Here are some quick tips to help you with this niggling weakness:

  1. Take your time with the question; if you tend to read it too quickly, then make yourself underline each word as you say it to yourself within your head.
  2. Jot down a re-wording of it on the question paper.
  3. Grab a big pile of old exams, even those before June 2015, and talk over the questions with your parents or a study partner.
  4. For the composition section of Paper 3, don't expect to memorise and re-create a description or story that you practised as part of your revision season. The examiners know, and nine times out of ten, will be too awkward for fitting the task and merit only a "C" at best. AT BEST!
Basically, don't be a doof. The question is as important as your answer, if only to set you on the right path.



Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips -- Start at the End?

When I mark exams, I have to be honest that I like to start with the last question and work my way back to Question 1, whether it's the reading or the writing paper.

I'm not sure why I like to do this. I think it's because all the other questions are more cut-and-dried or enjoyable, while the Question 1s sometimes feel like nails on a chalkboard to me.

For the exam candidate, there are some good reasons for freeing yourself from the normal conventions. In the reading paper, for example, that Question 3 listing is something you can do in a fairly short time frame, and the subsequent summary should be churned out just as fast as you can write.

Free yourself from convention

Both these parts of Question 3 get easier and faster the more you practise them, so I just keeping thinking: why not grab some quick points in a short time frame, and leave yourself to ponder the more laborious Question 1 with some points already in the bag?

There are more complex and detailed reasons for starting back-to-front, and there are more timing tips and explanations I could heap upon you, but for the real nitty-gritty about why a backwards approach might be superior, I'm afraid you'll just have to sign up for one of my crammer courses and get the full picture in the Day Four webinar!

Just one final point: if you're going to work back-to-front in the exam, start doing it in your revisions, too.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips -- Making Bullet Points Your Friends

I don't know why students don't want to use the bullet points available to them on Question 1 on Paper 2, but I can assure you, they're there for a reason.

These three bullet points are your friends!

Three's the magic number on Question 1

Use each one of the bullet points as a paragraph with information that comes from the insert. It may mean you have to search throughout the insert for what to include in each of the bullet points, but that will only show off your ability to re-organise your thoughts.

In the main, these bullet points are generally asking the same three things:

  1. What are some of the obvious things in the insert that show your comprehension is good?
  2. What are some of the implications of details, ie, how well do you read between the lines? Often this will include someone's thoughts and feelings, perhaps based on another character's actions and behaviours. All four of these items - thoughts, feelings, actions, behaviours - should be addressed.
  3. What are some inferences you can project from the details about what happened next?
All three bullet points are absolutely, firmly seeking an answer that uses the insert. Even number 3, which used to have more leeway to make stuff up, must now be answered with details from the insert. 

Use the insert like it's a mystery full of clues.

By sticking to the bullet points, your answer will be clearer for the examiner and much easier to spot relevant points, so do yourself a favour and make use the bullet points.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips -- How Many Mock Exams?

Another common question I get asked is about how many mock papers a student should do in preparation for the exam.


Work, work, work ... but best?

The answer is slightly complicated by the need to practise questions vs practising a whole paper.

Ever since CIE changed its spec starting June 2015, the papers before then aren't very useful for taking as a complete mock. However, they still offer a number of great opportunities to practise certain skills that you find in the current style of exam.

For example, I think it's great to do a lot of practice with the old Question 3s from Paper 2. There won't be 15 facts to find as there are in the current papers - maybe only 7 or 8 -- but practising the skill of identifying "salient facts" continues to be relevant, and not just for Question 3, but even for Question 1.

I know you'll probably want to do some Question 3s for the new spec, too, though, so how do you choose which ones to do only in part, and which as a whole?

Well, each exam period, there are three versions of the exam that are used around the world, to take time zones into account. The numbers are 0500-21, 0500-22, and 0500-23, and knowing this, you could decide to keep, say, the 0500-21s as your mock papers, and use the other two for practising in part.

This will give you 4 papers (summer and winter from 2015 and 2016) to take as mock exams. If you have been practising the separate questions and have identified time limits for each of them, then four mocks will probably be enough.

Remember that mock papers is only part of your revision strategies. Copywork, narration, reading lots of non-fiction like newspapers, and of course, writing, writing, writing, so you can get your writing speed up to the level for a timed exam.

Keep up with more blog posts on tips and tricks so you can see where these other revision strategies are discussed. Subscribe to the blog or "like" the Facebook page so you can get notified when new posts are published.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips - Bringing Your Mechanics Up to Scratch

The CIE English exam cares about your punctuation, spelling, grammar, and sentence structures - not as much as it used to, but enough that you need to spend time revising these aspects of your skills.

A lot of people try to do this via workbooks, short answer, quizzes, and exercises, but I think the best way to cover all these aspects of "mechanics" is something called "copywork".


I still do copywork, too!

Essentially, copywork is taking a classic book like The Hobbit or A Tale of Two Cities or something poetic like selections from Hardy or Frost, and copying their words - word by word, comma by comma - for ten to fifteen minutes a day.

It's not a quick-fix by any means, but an organic process that will strengthen all your writing skills in one activity.

One of the ways it works is that it forces you to pay close attention to the words that you're copying. If, for example, you were to copy just the sentence I wrote before this, you would probably be able to say inside your head "One of the ways ..." and then turn to your blank paper and write that phrase down.

In order to do that, though, you have to take a mental photograph of those words before transposing them onto your blank page. That's basically what good writers do every time they write something -- "see" the words, punctuation, and grammar in their heads as they are writing, so you're teaching yourself how to hold good writing in your head.

Over time, you'll also pick up on the vocabulary, the variety of sentence structures, and mastery that you're using as your models.

So what are you waiting for? Start your mechanics revision by taking up daily copywork!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips - Which Board for iGCSEs?

Here's another question that's asked frequently on the various home-education boards on Facebook: which iGCSE board should you use, CIE or Edexcel?

The truth of the matter is that most people don't have a choice - you have to choose the board that's offered at your nearby exam centres. If your exam centre offers both, then you will need to weigh up the style of exam, learning style of your teen, exam dates, and other factors to make your decision.

For example, these exams vary in how long each session is for taking the papers. CIE's exam is two different papers at 2 hours each. Edexcel has two options: Spec A which is also 2 papers but of 2 hours 15 and 1 hour 30, and part of this Spec requires knowledge and preparation of an anthology beforehand, whereas Spec B has no anthology but is a single paper of 3 hours' duration.

Second, CIE changed its spec back in June 2015, so it isn't due any overhaul or alteration in the near future, whereas Edexcel is going over to the 1-9 mark scheme of the "new GCSE" style for the summer 2018 exam series.

It's this fact that recommends serious consideration for anyone due to sit exams in 2018. I don't want to scare monger, but I was an examiner for CIE when they changed the spec in 2015, and there were big percentages of schools and private candidates who received marks that were wildly different from those predicted.

It's my belief this was because the new style of paper was not very well written compared to the ones they're producing now, plus the examiners were feeling their way with a new way of marking that was unfamiliar and sometimes unclear. It's inevitable that making big changes in an exam will lead to some experimentation with a mixture of success.

So if you have a choice of CIE or Edexcel for 2018, I would go with CIE because you have plenty of past papers that support the current spec, and the examiners and papers are bedded in now, whereas Edexcel will no doubt be feeling its way.

Personally, I wouldn't want my child to be a guinea pig for an exam board.