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.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

A New Series About Exam Tips - Past Papers Blues 1

Most students who register for my crammer courses have already been studying past papers with a fine-tooth comb. (See the Exam Tip about Finding Past Papers HERE.)

It's not unusual to see students get burned out with this repetition. Plus, they sometimes feel that they stall in their studies and stop forward progress. Indeed, they even come to the correct conclusion that just cramming the paper over and over isn't enough for what they want to achieve.

So, I'm often asked what else can they do to strengthen their skills in English that will be useful for the exam?

Personally, I think this is letting the tail wag the dog.

Gratuitous photo of a dog with a tail

Performance-related testing is killing students' love, interest, and mastery of almost all subjects, leading them instead to prefer knowing just what's on the test and not bother about the transferable skills and life lessons one could get if one studied a subject properly.

But I realise that's a soapbox and I won't climb on top of it here.

There are, nevertheless, some things a student can do that are directly relevant to the exam, and yet, aren't taught via past papers alone.

The first one I want to talk about in this blog post is reading a variety of texts.

Reading all kind of texts will help

I'm sure most students have read novels and short stories already. Many have had to read some kind of textbook for their other subjects. However, few students spend much time with newspapers and other print media these days, and if I were to suggest an area that needs shoring up, it would be here.

So if your student has run out of past papers to study, or feels as though progress is slowing, then go splurge a tenner on two print newspapers like The Times and The Guardian, and perhaps a magazine like The Economist or National Geographic or New Scientist.

Set aside a whole day of English study to just read through the print media. Have the student come to you with one article from each, read it together aloud, then have the student tell back to you the details -- as many details as he/she can remember -- for each one.

Build this reading comprehension practice into your weekly routine. You don't even have to buy any new newspapers or magazines as long as you get good quality ones in the first place: the student could just read through them a little at a time each week, and then discuss them with you.

Read and discuss the texts together

The aim is to a) get exposure to different types of writing, b) strengthen his/her attention to the text during the reading portion of the activity, and c) be able to tell back the details accurately and in depth.

Over time, you could add other kinds of print media such as journal writing, speeches, interviews, etc, which are types of writing that turn up on the exam, either as an example to read or as a task the student has to write.


Friday, 16 December 2016

A New Series About Exam Tips -- At What Age Should You Take English iGCSE?

This may be one of the most frequently asked questions for people who are preparing to navigate the whole season of their children's lives where exams loom large.

Quite frequently, parents will reason that English would be a good exam to do first. After all, it's the student's first language and they've been doing reading and writing for many years.

However, most experienced home-educators and examiners advise that you hold off taking English. Why is that?


A child who loves reading is
preparing for exams, but not ready to take them.

First of all, there are other exams with cut and dried answers, like maths, where you either know it or you don't, and these are easier to tackle in the earlier part of one's exam career. English, on the other hand, is essay-based, and this means that a student needs to be able to write fluently and with maturity, skills that are often "uncooked" in teens toward the thirteen-year-old end.

Make no mistake: an examiner can often tell a younger child's script from an older one. I once marked a whole centre in the US who signed up their 13-year-olds for the exam (it was a middle school, so you could tell the rough ages of the candidates they'd entered). The gap between their writing style and that of older students -- even students at a British school in special measures -- was glaringly wide: their answers were so babyish.

"But my child is a beautiful writer," parents will say to me sometimes. That may be, but beautiful writing is only one of the skills that is assessed in the 0500 iGCSE exam.

Being able to read between the lines and understand nuance is something that most younger teens struggle with. Furthermore, it's not unusual for the exam to cover topics that just need more living of life to be able to respond with any kind of confidence or clarity.

Life experience helps with English iGCSE

To reiterate, taking the English exam when you're 12 or 13 is generally a bad decision: younger children tend to not write as maturely, they don't infer as well, they don't have the life experience to even comprehend what the exam is talking about.

However, there are those who persist in early entry for the 0500 iGCSE. To them, I say this: do so at your own risk.

Even if your child's script doesn't stand out like a sore thumb amongst the hundreds of exams written by 16-year-olds, you should still play the long game with English Language. Your child will get no less mature, his or her writing will get no less fluent and fluid, vocabulary will only expand, and life experiences will widen, so why push it too early and risk a bad grade when waiting would almost 100% guarantee a better showing later?

When it comes to exams,
English Language is better as a long game.

Hopefully, I've convinced you to wait with English Language exams until your teen is more toward 16 than 12. If I have done so, I've probably managed to generate hundreds of more questions for you, such as what do you do in the meantime with English at home?

That will be for a later blog post, but suffice to say, it's unlikely to include KS3 workbooks with their short answer, fill-in-the-blank approach. Not when you need to generate fluency, teach inference, and expand life experiences.