Preparing for the Impossible: What is the reading section of the language GCSE assessing?

When the new reformed GCSE for English arrived a few years ago I was keen to immediately embrace it. Much as I had enjoyed teaching elements of media texts, or the coursework freedom of the IGCSE, I felt that we had heading off in a direction which wasn’t providing the focus students needed for their next learning steps. It wasn’t equipping them to be able to think hard about language and literature in their coming years and be able to engage with some of the big topics they would be likely to encounter.

However, despite embracing the new approach, I have become less and less convinced about what we are trying to achieve here as I have seen the impact of the changes, especially in relation to the reading section of the Language GCSE.

The main problem for me is the unseen element of the exam. I know the thinking which underpins this is for students to be able to apply their understanding of how writers use language and structure to a range of contexts regardless of the text. Therefore, we model for them how to analyse a text, get them to practise on lots of other texts and then apply it to a brand new one seamlessly. I have absolutely no issue with that in practice in my classroom. All English teachers want all students to encounter a broad range of texts, both fiction and non-fiction and be able to read and discuss them. We all want them to explore the craft of the writer, thinking about how they convey ideas across different forms and experiment with those techniques themselves creatively.

However, I’m not sure this is quite what we are ‘assessing’ in the reading section of our current language exam by presenting them with an unseen text here.

There are a number of people who have pondered exactly what we are assessing when we assess reading comprehension and have found the issue is a complex one. Daniel Willingham argues that reading tests are ‘just knowledge tests in disguise’ and furthermore, without good contextual knowledge of the topic presented, being able to draw inferences are difficult, regardless of how good a reader we are. A ‘poor’ reader with good knowledge of football will comprehend a text on this subject matter better than a ‘good’ reader who has poor knowledge of the same topic.

So, what is it we are actually assessing in this part of the language exam? There are too many variables with an unseen text to be simply checking comprehension if we take what Willingham says as true (I do). Students in recent years have been expected to show understanding of topics such as surfing, boating, and what life might have been like for a shop girl in the early 1900s that could lead her feeling anger towards her wealthier counterpoint. This last example is great if you were also studying An Inspector Calls on the Literature course, not so good if your teacher had opted for Lord of the Flies or Curious Incident. There was much mirth some circles at those students who thought Rosabel’s bus trundling through Oxford Circus meant she was in an actual circus! They simply didn’t have the knowledge of the world around them to know what Oxford Circus was and to be honest why would they all?

Ideally, students would have had such a broad understanding of the world to know this, but would we have taught it just in case? I don’t know about you, but there are still many things I am learning about the world today and when I pick up a text written from an unfamiliar cultural perspective or  historical position from my own, there might need to be some further exploration needed for me to fully understand it. I might have to take time to think and research as I explore the unfamiliar. Yet, we want students to not only understand these unfamiliar texts, but to analyse it too, in 60 minutes. Sometimes with a second text to look at. In an exam hall. On a day when they might have already sat an exam or be about to do another on a different subject entirely. And then write a story or article too. And do it well!

I’m all for rigour and challenge, but I am often left wondering if we are asking them to do the impossible here and then trying to claim we have measured something we simply haven’t. What do I really know of what a student can do after they do that exam? When we use these exams formatively throughout the course, do we learn they don’t know about the topic or can’t analyse language?

There is also a lot of ‘noise’ around these assessments, as all those assessed through the medium of writing, so of course they may not have done well in the exam, not because of comprehension issues at all, it might be related to their ability to craft sentences or write fluently in the time allocated or whatever else those students who don’t have good literacy skills will struggle with in any exam.

In her blog, The Dignity of it All Christine Counsell reminds us that

while GCSE or any 16+ qualification is always going to be a flawed proxy for that, it’s worth remembering that being a proxy is supposed to be its job.  A public examination such as GCSE is just a sample of the full domain represented by the curriculum.  [1]

But what then is the Language exam a proxy for? So far, I see it tells us if a student knows things about lots of subjects which aren’t related to English. It tells us that if they do have some understanding of the topic at hand, they can pick out some language or structural points and think about impact on the reader. It might tell me they can craft sentence to express these ideas or they might not be able to, even though they understood the text. The unseen element of this exam means that we are running a lottery on whether they will or won’t be able to comprehend the text due to their wider knowledge which we would have been unlikely to have taught in English before we are even addressing the issue of their ability to answer. I don’t know about you, but I certainly failed to spot that knowledge of boats should have been on my curriculum alongside Shakespeare. What was this ‘sampling’ from my curriculum then?

English has long been pulled back and forth across the knowledge verses skills divide. We were always told that we were a skills-based lesson and if we taught students well, they would be able to achieve good grades. But coming back to the Willingham point about reading tests being knowledge tests how can we possibly prepare students for that?

Hirsch argues you can’t and should accept that ‘the only useful way to prepare for a reading test is indirectly by becoming a good reader of a broad range of texts, an ability that requires broad general knowledge.” This of course means that whole school curriculum and opportunities to explore beyond the exam specification is even more important. However, the Language exam seems to discourage this further, with schools opting for coaching students from year 7 onwards to be able to answer GCSE style questions about every text they encounter. This is even more true for students who are struggling with reading and writing generally, with this group often being provided with checklist and formulas to be able to answer the question without any real understanding of the text.

The reading element of the language exam is tying us up in knots. It is distracting us from the important job of ensuring that reading and writing are being developed, as we become trapped in a world of AOs, tick boxes and interventions to jump through exam hoops. Counsell reminds us again that when you ‘teach narrowly to the surface features of its test and you not only miss the point of the curriculum, you limit success for many by not letting the wider domain do its work.’ Rather than broadening our curriculum I worry that the reading section of the language exam is setting us and our students up to try to achieve the impossible and also could be leading us down a route of limiting both their experience, and ultimately, their success.


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