GCSE Skills checklist – for parents & pupils from upper primary onwards

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'If you fail to plan, you plan to fail'

From upper primary age and the early stages of high school education, GCSEs might seem a world away.  However, years of teaching experience has taught me that the necessary skills for successful exam performance take years to develop.  Don't make the mistake of ignoring this advice and believing that 'somehow, things will sort themselves out'. They don't. Schools can't cover every eventuality or perform miracles: extensive experience in schools has taught me that workload and curriculum issues result in some aspects of English being neglected – a fact that must be remedied in home support.

Don't leave getting 'GCSE ready' until Year 11!

The terminal papers require pupils to answer a range of questions relevantly; i.e. to understand the requirements of each question.  Examiners want to have evidence of a pupil's perception about what a writer may be suggesting, beyond the surface meaning of the words, and to be able to express their ideas in legible, developed sentences, using interesting, accurately spelt vocabulary, employing varied sentences and a range of punctuation. These skills take years to be understood and practised.

'SPG' or 'SPaG', as teachers often refer to it

The learning and checking of 'SPaG' (spelling, punctuation and grammar) as early on as is desirable for your child is a MUST. As much of their writing as possible should be thoroughly checked – word by word, literally; writing skills now account for 50% of Language GCSE, with accuracy alone being about a third of that mark.

  1. High frequency spellings (i.e. common and useful words) ideally need to be thoroughly learned on a weekly basis.  Following up on spelling corrections from schoolwork is crucial, so that youngsters become accurate in spelling words that they want to use in their writing. Organise yourself with a notebook, so that corrected words can be taken home to learn and ensure that the correct spelling of a word is learnt! (This key point is particularly vital and comes from years of correcting 'learnt' words, which have been written incorrectly).
  2. Basic punctuation and layouts (clear capital letters, full-stops, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, speech marks, and, later, semi-colons, colons, brackets, dashes and ellipses, as well as rules about paragraphing and the layout of direct speech) should be learnt and practised, so that their use is highly accurate.
  3. Proof reading/editing/checking are all words that are used countless times throughout a child's education.  The routine checking of written work before it's considered completed is (more or less) universally neglected.  Re-reading work carefully, word by word (with a finger passing slowly underneath each word as you do so) and self-correcting, where errors are recognised, is another MUST.
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  1. Critical'/'intelligent' reading is the skill of reading accurately, clearly comprehending the text.  For GCSE preparation this must be combined with checking your understanding of other aspects of any text: the methods writers use to 'hook' readers, the meaning of more sophisticated vocabulary, the interpretation of characters (what has the author suggested about them by key words and phrases?) and an awareness of plot structure – how a writer begins, develops and completes a text; developing your opinions with reference to examples from the text.  Allowing your parent/carer/trusted adult/friend to assist you, so that you can explore a text more thoroughly is also essential. Don't make the error of assuming that your interpretation is right or the only one.  Many pupils lose marks because of misreading or misunderstanding a text.
  2. A varied reading 'diet'. Reading every day should be an enjoyable activity between children and their parents/carers.  There are numerous lists available to widen reading 'horizons' – on the web, from school and local libraries.  Reading has been proved to be great for brain development but also introduces children to new ideas. GCSE Language and Literature exams assess depth of understanding and an ability to explain reactions; years of 'critical'/'intelligent' and diverse reading will have created an attitude that questions 'why?' about many aspects of texts; then creating reasonable hypotheses in response.


Another key issue is the contraction of the English language; often, words beyond very basic, 'functional' or conversational English are a complete mystery to many and tend to remain so.  Reading regularly, listening carefully to what is said around you and questioning what you don't understand or what you want to know will broaden a youngster's 'working' vocabulary. Keeping a log to retain new words is another way of improving exam chances but requires discipline and long preparation. Online dictionaries have sample sentences showing how to use words grammatically and also a pronunciation function so you can hear how it should be said.


The primary curriculum is so over-loaded that handwriting skills can also be over-looked.  Although much of society now types into phones, tablets and computers, exams are still handwritten.  Quick, legible handwriting is another MUST as part of 'future-proofing' for good exam technique.  It is also a good life-skill in the 'arsenal' of accomplishments that should, ideally, have been gained during the educational process.

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'General knowledge'

Once upon a time, the development of a child's 'general knowledge' was encouraged; knowledge about the world in which we live: the major cities in Great Britain, the location of different countries and their flags, who is the current Prime Minister, major contemporary and historical events and so on.  Paradoxically, despite the infinite knowledge offered by the internet, pupils' knowledge seems to be contracting.  Parents/carers can reverse this (and probably increase their own knowledge and act as role models for children) by encouraging curiosity: one of my pupils recently asked me, 'Where's Rome?' and another 'What's Manhattan?' – as a result of their reading.  It's so quick and easy to follow up on questions by a Google search.

Added value

As, arguably, English is THE most important subject in the school curriculum, these points are transferable to other subjects, so have added 'learning value'.
Especially in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science, GCSE grades may affect a person's eligibility for a future course or job promotion, even if they don't have direct relevance; a former pupil suddenly discovered at a University Open Day that a '6' in English Language GCSE was required to be eligible for a Mechanical Engineering degree – fortunately, he had it!  It is vital to be aware of this little nugget of knowledge!

Other ways that parents can assist in their child's learning

Good communication between parents/carers and their child/ren can 'flag up' points requiring attention, and, as someone who, as a youngster, kept a lot to herself, I would urge children to discuss their learning, so that any issues affecting educational attainment can be attended to, sooner rather than later.  Children's general understanding of the world and general knowledge can also be improved with lots of home talk.
And finally – for pupils:

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