Academic writing for GCSE

Academic writing for GCSE


In recent years, people have been talking much more about students needing to use academic writing.  At first, it seems like an impossible request.  Many of us link academic writing to the essays and research that we read while studying at uni.  Do we really expect a sixteen-year-old to emulate that?  However, academic writing just means that our students need to write in a formal manner that reflects their level of educational and is distinct from how they would converse orally or via text.  A good approach is to gradually introduce students to a range of ways in which they can ensure their writing is more academic.  I find it helpful to divide these into three aims: being concise, being precise, and being sophisticated.

Being concise

The simple idea behind this is getting students to avoid unnecessary words and unimportant information so their work reads clearly and they answer the set question.  I think it’s also an area that’s significant for our more able learners.  They will often happily produce incredibly long and detailed responses to homework tasks but then struggle to get through all the questions on an exam paper under timed conditions.

As well as teaching my classes how to deconstruct an exam question so they’re only responding to what has been set, I regularly ask them to re-read their work and spot anywhere that they aren’t being succinct.  We look for repetition, over-long phrasing, pointless intensifiers (such as, ‘People held really different views’), figurative language, and synonym pairs (for instance, ‘She feels happy and joyous’).

Being precise

In order to show the examiner that they have a full understanding of what they’re writing about, our students need to be using words and phrases that convey their exact meaning.  Too often, their language is vague or – again, in the case of some higher ability students – they adopt ‘big’ words that sound good but actually have different connotations to what was intended.

At a word level, I spend time with my classes learning subject-specific and topic-specific words, using classroom displays to help our memory.  We also have ‘best not biggest’ as our vocabulary mantra and look at how just grabbing any word from a thesaurus can radically affect our meaning, sometimes with quite rude consequences!

At a sentence level, we take time to establish ideas with topic sentences.  We then find different ways to connect our ideas with demonstrative or developmental links, as well as ways to introduce alternative interpretations.

Being sophisticated

For students who struggle with their writing, being concise and being precise are great ways to help their work achieve a clearer academic focus.  For our grade 7+ students, being sophisticated is a lovely way for them to show off just how well they can control and craft the English language during an exam response in order to emphasise their understanding.

Again, this can start at a word level by exploring how well-chosen synonyms can provide variety as well as conveying important shades of meaning.  We consider how we can alter our language to either clearly assert a definitive answer or cautiously express possibility and interpretation.

Once my students have mastered how to correctly form a complex sentence, I also challenge them to change the positions of their subordinate clauses for variety and to use different sentence structures to enhance their meaning.  For example, we look at how to use simple sentences to establish ideas, compound sentences to link ideas, and complex sentences to develop them, but also lists or patterns of three to present evidence, parallelism to emphasise ideas, and antithesis to highlight contrasting aspects of a single concept.  In addition, having control over a sentence allows them to expertly embed evidence or integrate different aspects of their response.

All of these strategies are explored fully in the Snap Revision Guide to Academic Writing.  At my school, we bought a copy for every Year 11 student and had a different writing focus each fortnight.  This was established in tutor time through the relevant pages of the guide, then actively used in lesson time across the curriculum not just in English.  For example, Science took the lead on teaching demonstrative links while Humanities focused on embedding evidence.  Students then used the question pages to revise their understanding as part of their home learning.  It’s been a gradual process but we’ve seen some big improvements.

Ian Kirby has been teaching English for over twenty years.  He is a senior tutor and key stage 5 coordinator at a school in Northamptonshire. He is also the author of a number of English textbooks and revision guides, including the popular Snap Revision series.

Snap Revision is a series of bestselling text guides and workbooks for GCSE English. Plus, new editions now include video support for the most popular AQA set texts accessed via QR codes.