The AQA GCSE English Language Exam – Question Six

Question Six – ’The Facts’:

The first thing that you should know about Question 6 is that it is the question on which you should spend the most time. With a massive 24 marks on offer, the exam paper itself suggests that you spend 35 minutes planning and writing the task. As it sits within Part B of the exam, we know that this question is going to assess your writing skills, specifically your ability to argue or persuade.

However, first thing’s first. As with any writing question, you need to put yourself into the mind of an author with a commission. The question here is just that; a brief for you, the author, to produce a particular piece of writing. The question, or brief, will dictate the way in which you approach this writing.

Firstly, we need to work out the GAP for the brief. In this example, I will be responding to the following question from the January 2011 exam paper:

“Your school or college is inviting entries for a writing competition. The topic is “Dangerous sports activities and pastimes are selfish, often put others at risk and should be discouraged.”

Write your entry arguing for or against this view.”

From the question, the Audience is made clear from the mention of ‘school or college’; this will be an article for your peers, other teenagers. The Purpose, based on the final sentence, is to argue for or against the topic. The Genre here is a little more ambiguous, although this is not a huge problem. Whilst the question specifies that this is a ‘writing competition’, it does not state a clear genre such as newspaper article or blog, meaning that in this case, I will not need to include any genre conventions such as headlines, hyperlinks or spaces for images.

With the GAP clear in my mind, I can now begin to make the three basic writer’s decisions. I need to work out whether this article will be:

Formal or Informal?

Personal or Impersonal?

Chronological or Non-Chronological?

As this is will be an article designed to argue, or persuade, ideally, I will need to adopt a Formal register. This will give me the authority to put forward my argument in a convincing manner, and make the reader more likely to agree with me. If I were to begin my article, “Yo, dangerous sports are well bad bruv,” then the reader would (rightly) be against me from the offset, and probably give up reading promptly.

This will be a piece of writing centred around my point of view, thus I am more likely to write from a Personal rather than impersonal perspective; after all, these are my opinions, not those of anybody else.

Finally, and most simply, this is not a story, so there is no need to write a chronological (time ordered) narrative, rather a Non-Chronological series of well-voiced opinions.

There is, of course, one more decision to be made. Am I for or against the proposition made in the question? This is largely down to your discretion, however in this case I have chosen to argue against the banning of dangerous sports, as I can see an opportunity to include irony and satire in my response (more of this later).

With these choices made, I can now move onto planning my article. A fantastic and very simple way of doing this is to simply mind-map as many ideas to back up my argument and potential counter arguments as possible.

I have come up with the following:

–          Health and safety gone made – dangerous tiddlywinks?

–          Personal choice – your decision

–          Potential risks – don’t be a coward

–          Ultimate thrill – we don’t get that with football

These are now going to form my paragraphs for the answer.

There is a lot of debate about the differences between arguing and persuading, however, I see them as largely the same. Both of these skills use the same basic language toolkit, with which frequent viewers of this marvellous blog will already be familiar; the rhetorical devices. Whilst in Question 4, we are looking for examples of these and the effect that they have on the reader, Question 6 is our chance to show off exactly how well we can use these in order to impress the examiner.

Name of   rhetorical device Definition Teacher’s   example
Rhetorical   question A question   asked for effect that does not expect or require an answer Would you   like to be abandoned by your parents?
Imperatives A form of a   verb that   expresses a command; a ‘bossy word’ Get out now   and do something about this appalling practice.
Rule of   three A list of   three things. Smoking is   antisocial, unhealthy and disgusting.
Hyperbole Over   exaggerating in   order to make a point Teachers will   tell you a million times to tuck your shirt in.
Emotive   language Words which   are designed to create an emotional response in the reader Children as   young as eight are abandoned  and forgotten by their parents.
Alliteration A group of   words which start with the same letter  or sound Smoking   seriously sucks.
Repetition Repeating a   word in order to make it stick in the   reader’s brain. Smoking is   foul, smoking makes you smell, smoking   will kill you.
Flattery Saying nice   things to somebody in order to make them more likely to agree with you. As an   extremely intelligent person, you must agree   with me.
Personal   pronouns Words like   “you”, “us”, “we” – designed to make the reader feel included in the writing. You are the   only one who can save us from this   horrible fate.
Facts and   statistics Things which   are true, used to convince the reader. 85% of all   parents would send their children to   private school.
Counter   argument Giving the   other side of the debate in order to   make your argument look stronger. It might be   cool to wear skinny trousers, but they are against school rules.

Obviously, the examiner doesn’t want to open a script to be faced with the right hand column of this table, so we need to use these devices effectively and with some degree of subtlety. Imagine these devices as my favourite condiment; a small smear of wholegrain mustard will really set off the flavour of a sausage sandwich, but spreading it as thickly as marmalade will keep you sneezing until Christmas.

You will have had some practice at using these devices throughout your school career as, whisper it, the writing section of this exam is undoubtedly the most logical and worthwhile part. Just remember not to have every sentence ending in a tricolon, or every new paragraph beginning with a rhetorical question and you will be fine.

For top band answers, the exam board like to see flair and originality, specifying in the mark scheme that a great shortcut to this is through the use of satire and irony. Put simply, verbal irony is (no, Alanis, just stop) the art of saying one thing whilst subtly implying the other. This differs to sarcasm, in that it is largely used to flatter the reader rather than insult them, relying on their ability to differentiate between what you are saying and what you actually mean. See if you can spot my use of irony in the exemplar.

Handy Hints for Answering Question 6

  • Work out the GAP by underlining the key words in the question, and decide, as above, how that will influence your writing. Obviously, a blog for teenagers is going to be very different from an article for a national newspaper.
  • If you don’t know anything about the topic you are asked to write about, don’t panic: just make it up. There are no marks allocated for telling the truth in Section B, and 73% of all students make up statistics in their responses. Like that one.
  • Failing to plan is planning to fail. It’s a horrid phrase, but sketching out a quick paragraph by paragraph plan will help you to keep on track in your writing and ensure that you maintain a structure in your response.
  • Spelling, punctuation and grammar are marked in this question, but don’t let that stifle your creativity. Examiners are more likely to reward a valiant attempt at a sophisticated word, misspelt, than a simple and banal substitution.
  • Try to begin your writing with a drop paragraph. I have included an example of this below, but basically, it means beginning your writing in an abstract and interesting way, leaving the reader unsure of the focus of the piece and eager to read on to find out.
  • Link each paragraph to the previous one using discourse markers. These are handy linking words, such as: However, Also, On the other hand, Additionally, etc. This will give your writing a sense of fluidity, and stop it from looking like a bunch of disparate paragraphs jammed together at random.
  • Be creative. An examiner will mark hundreds of scripts in a sitting, so you need to try and make yours stand out. If you have an idea that you think is a little on the odd side, use it, as it will grab the reader/examiner’s attention and as you are rewarded for creativity, persuade them to give you better marks.
  • Don’t just let your answer fizzle out. If you find you’re running out of time, conclude your answer with a snappy parting blow. Relating this to the introduction is also a great way to show the examiner that you have considered the structure of your piece.

Question 6 Exemplar:

Your school or college is inviting entries for a writing competition. The topic is “Dangerous sports activities and pastimes are selfish, often put others at risk and should be discouraged.”

Write your entry arguing for or against this view.

Outside the hall, the St John’s Ambulance staff wait anxiously, alert and ready for the inevitable call from inside. At the table, the competitors face each other in a tense silence. Gazing through the bars of their American football style helmets, they eye each other cautiously. A referee blows a whistle, and the game is afoot. Gloved hands, clad in the latest bulletproof fabric, move swiftly down to the apparatus below. The crowd step back, anxiously. At the last match between these two titans of the sport, fourteen spectators were hospitalised, with one left permanently blinded in one eye as the result of a stray shot. This time, though, all will be well, with the athletes encased by a clear plexiglass dome to prevent any similar accidents. And then, almost as quickly as the game started, it’s all over. A single plastic counter ricochets into a small pot. The crowd roars.

A new World Tiddlywinks Champion has been crowned.

Thankfully, this is fiction. But it is only a small step away from reality. More and more often, the sports which have been keeping the youth of this fair nation energised, healthy and victorious for decades have been categorised as ‘dangerous’ and a risk to our health and safety.

You’ll break your arm playing rugby, they say.

You’ll scrape your knee skateboarding, they whine.

You might break a fingernail playing tiddlywinks, they (probably) smirk.

You’re in danger of having fun, they cackle from their health and safety Kremlin.

It’s a disgusting state of affairs. ‘Dangerous’ sports are what makes this nation great, and it is precisely this attitude that makes them even more appealing. Teenagers have always enjoyed doing things that others disapprove of, almost as much as they like making their own decisions. So if I want to break my arm playing rugby, or dislocate my collarbone on a skateboard, why shouldn’t I? I might be off school for a couple of days or perhaps, the unthinkable, be unable to write during my exciting English exam. It might mean that my parents have to take me to hospital or (worst case scenario) pour soup down a tube to feed me, but it’s a small price for them to pay in order to have a son who is as daring, adventurous and downright awesome as I am.

And it’s exactly this risk of danger that makes dangerous and extreme sports so enticing.

Think about all of your heroes. How many of them would you classify as cowards? Exactly. Life is short, so if I’m not allowed to mangle myself on a muddy pitch, have my block knocked off in a mixed martial arts hexagon or jump out of an aeroplane with only a flimsy and incredibly well designed and thoroughly tested piece of fabric to save me, I should be applauded. The people who are complaining about these dangerous sports are currently sat at home, writing their eight thousandth letter to David Cameron in order to outlaw fun, whilst I, the future, am… Sat a desk taking an exam. But later on, I’m going abseiling. Off an 8,000m high cliff. Without a harness.

Of course, abseiling and base jumping make fairly poor spectator sports. But has any footballer ever experienced the adrenaline rush of the ground rushing up to meet you, intent on breaking every bone in your body, including a few that you didn’t even know existed? No. But they have experienced the drunken chanting of thousands of adoring fans, several million pounds a year in their bank accounts and a beautiful wife. Is this fair? No. But I would gladly trade any amount of money, any beautiful woman or legion of screaming followers to experience the pure rush of indulging in one of my favourite pastimes.

So, health and safety gremlins, leave my sports alone. Or else before you know it, we’ll all be playing tiddlywinks wearing mittens.

Review of this exemplar:

  • How many marks do you think this would achieve based on the criteria below?
  • How many of the ‘handy hints’ have they included?
  • How could they improve?

Success Criteria for A*:

Communication

  • writes in a way which shows clarity of thought and communicates in a convincing / compelling way
  • engages the reader with detailed, succinct argument, a range and variety of persuasive ideas, abstract concepts, vivid detail, e.g. makes a moral appeal, invokes finer feelings
  • makes and sustains the purpose, intention and objective of the writing, e.g. by specifying outcomes, considering implications
  • writes in a formal way employing a tone which is appropriately serious but also manipulative and subtle, uses e.g. assertion, reason, sophistication
  • uses linguistic devices such as the rhetorical question, hyperbole, irony, satire in an effective and appropriate way
  • shows control of extensive vocabulary with appropriately used discursive markers e.g. ‘ Surely it is reasonable to expect….’, ‘Taking the global view…’, ‘One alternative position might be..’ etc.

Organisation of Ideas

  • writes a whole text in continuous prose
  • employs paragraphs effectively to enhance meaning including, e.g. one sentence paragraphs
  • uses a variety of structural features, e.g. different paragraph lengths, indented sections, dialogue, bullet points, as appropriate
  • presents complex ideas in a coherent way

Written Accuracy

  • uses complex grammatical structures and punctuation with success
  • organises writing using sentence demarcation accurately
  • employs a variety of sentence forms to good effect including short sentences
  • shows accuracy in the spelling of words from an ambitious vocabulary
  • uses standard English consistently

Feel free to attempt this same question and post it in the ‘comments’ section below.

Any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

Mr Fothergill

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