How to revise for English exams

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If your English language or literature GCSE or A level exam is approaching we’ve gathered some of the best tips to help you with your revision.

In your English language and literature exams you will be writing essays and newspaper articles or analysing poems rather than answering shorter, one-answer exam questions. You can revise effectively by knowing your texts/vocabulary, understanding how to structure your answers and getting lots of practice.

Make sure you know what the examiners are looking for

You need to know what to include in your answers to get as many marks as you can in the exam. Whether these are assessment objectives or language techniques such as onomatopoeia, make sure you know what they are and how to structure your answers using them. Make it as easy as you can for your examiner to give you the marks – almost as if they are ticking off a checklist. Many of the features of the mark scheme can be easily included in your essays to get you the highest marks; for instance in the WJEC GCSE English language mark scheme, a candidate’s answer must include: ‘paragraphs to structure the writing, a style adapted to purpose/audience and a range of vocabulary selected’.

For English literature exams: know the texts

When you are revising for English literature, you should make sure you know the texts you are studying in detail and whether your exam is open or closed book (whether you are allowed to bring the text into the exam). The WJEC A level English literature drama section of the exam is closed book; however, the OCR GCSE English literature unit 4 exam is an open book paper. Either way, you will need to read the text and different summaries of the storyline so you know the plot in depth.

You will need to establish and learn the main themes and action in the text as well as learning quotes (if you have a closed book exam). Mind-maps, flashcards, speaking quotes out loud and sticky notes are all good methods to help you learn the information. But remember, the examiner is not expecting you to be able to quote Shakespeare word perfectly. If you can’t remember the exact wording of a quote in the exam, you are usually allowed to summarise the quote or explain the context of the quote instead.

When you’re re-reading your English texts, it is also a good idea to review the introduction and any footnotes included in your edition of the text as they can provide you with important contextual information and/or overviews of the text.

For English language exams: learn the vocabulary and how to structure your answers

When you are revising for English language exams, you should make sure you know what different forms of writing you could be asked to write in the exam, and how each one is structured. For example the different forms of writing you may be asked to replicate could include a newspaper article, a report or a poem. You should also know the different literary techniques writers can use, such as metaphors or similes, and what effect they have on the reader. Writing the definitions for the different literary techniques on flashcards and getting someone to test you or sticking notes around your house can help you learn them.

Make and review your class notes

During your revision, you should review your class notes and expand on these with more of your own ideas. You should also review any practice essays and mock exam papers you completed in class so you can see any suggestions your teacher made on ways you can improve your answers, as well as what you did well and can repeat in the exam.

For English literature, it can also be advantageous to watch any film or dramatic adaptations of your set texts. These can help you visualise the way a play may be staged and emphasise any themes the director may have highlighted for the audience that you might have overlooked when you read the text.

For English language, you could read and analyse as many different examples of different types of writing as you can get hold of, such as newspapers and poems, to get as much practice as you can.

Practise English past papers

Some people presume you don’t need to practise writing English essays and answers because you cannot learn exact answers to the question. However, practising past papers is extremely useful preparation for the exam. There are two key reasons why you should do past papers for your English exam revision:

  • To help you practise working within time constraints during the exam, making sure you allocate enough time for a plan, an introduction, the main body of your answer and a conclusion.
  • You also need to practise structuring your answers in the exam. Once you have written your answer, get different coloured pens or highlighters and underline where you have met the marking criteria, as this is where you have got the marks. If you need any help doing this, you should speak to your teacher to understand the best methods to structure your answers.
  • You should also see our advice on tips to beat procrastination to help you stay focused.

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