How to Prepare for your English GCSE Exam and Why Studying English is Important

GCSE English is a really important qualification. What’s the best way to get ready for exam day? Find out below!

English teacher Matthew Bolton talks you through the best way to approach your English GCSE exam.



Before I became an English teacher I worked in a large office in Dublin. One of the men I worked with, we shall call him Colin because that is what he was called, always talked about how he was certain he would be fired. At least once a week he would say, “I am going to be fired and they are just waiting.” Because of this he stopped trying at work. His performance suffered and the more he was told off by his boss the more it confirmed his belief that he was for the sack. Then after all the warnings, all the one-to-one meetings, the fateful day came; he was let go. Without any fanfare he packed up his desk and we talked about other things at lunch. 

I have started this article talking about Colin for a simple reason, he was certain he would be sacked and through his actions, or inactions, he led himself to getting sacked. This became, what is known as, a self-fulfilling prophecy. How does this relate to your Maths and English GCSE? The perception you have of your ability in English has an impact on how you perform. If you think that you will fail, then you will because you will be unwilling to put the necessary work in. If you tell yourself that you have a better than fighting chance then you are all the more likely to make use of the resources that we, as a college, can provide and get that pass. If you change your perception, then you change your application. And then, you change your result.



How to Revise for an English GCSE Exam

Colin’s story taught us that it’s important to start with the right perception around the subject. If you hate English lessons, and I have students tell me that, you need to see them as a necessary step to the next part of your education or life. See English as a short-term project and give it as much of your focus as you can. If you change your perception, then you change your application. And then, you change your result. There is no reason that you cannot pass.




Secondly, get to work

Here are some of my top tips on how to revise for an English GCSE exam: 

  1. There are many free online past papers available to download. Work through them, in conjunction with a revision guide or videos such as Mr Bruff on YouTube, then hand them to your tutor to mark and give you feedback.  Your tutor will tell you where you need to focus and where you are doing well.
  2. Read magazine articles about anything you want, then analyse them. Think about what the professional writer has done to interest you as a reader. How have they put the words together and what techniques have they used? You do not need to know fancy Latin terms, simply look at the word types. How as an adjective, a noun, a verb or an adverb changed the meaning or tone of the text? Why did the writer select them? What is the effect of this?
  3. Read fiction books and do the same. Since print media is on its last legs these articles are available, often for free online. If you look for a topic that interests you then you are more likely to discover the techniques you need. If you are a musician, read NME Magazine; a footballer then Four Four Two or if you’re a Boxer – Ring Magazine; a gamer then Retro Gamer. The point is, no matter what your interest, something will be out there written to interest you. Embrace your interests and use them to help you succeed. 
  4. Access Creative College also provides free one-to-one online tuition, though they are popular so ask your tutor to book yourself in before they get snapped up. This will allow you to focus on any areas where you need some help with and close that outstanding gap in your understanding. Working with a tutor on a close basis is proven to increase your chances of passing. This is because the tutor can stick on a topic until you understand it and can effectively do it. In class your teacher can be constrained by numbers and time, which is less of a factor with an online tutor. 



How to Prepare for an English GCSE Exam

Let’s now think about how you prepare for the exam themselves. You’ve done all your revision, your attendance has been excellent and the exams are fast approaching like a Japanese bullet train. How do you prepare? What can you do to better your chances? Let’s have a look. 

  1. Make sure that all of your equipment is ready the night before the exam and know where you are going. Unlike high school you may not be sitting your GCSEs at your centre so you need to know where you are meant to be. You’d think no one would get this wrong, wouldn’t you? But they do. Sort your clothing out so you are not bombing around the house in a mad rush looking for pants. As Roy Keane has often said, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. And this counts double when it comes to pants.
  2. Get an early night. I sound like someone’s nan here but it is true. This year all English GCSE exams are in the morning, so you’ll need to be up early. Getting a good night’s sleep will allow you to be sharper quicker. Not everyone is a morning person, I know, but it is still better to get a solid night’s rest. Eat a decent breakfast. Don’t just neck a litre of Monster and hope for the best. When I was at college, way back in the dawn of time, I sat a three-hour history exam. After ten minutes two facts become abundantly, screamingly clear to me. One, I had not revised enough and two, I was hungry. It is fair to say that the exam was torturous. Don’t make the mistakes I made. 

Now you are dressed, you are fed and watered. You are in the exam hall and sat at your desk. The silence has fallen, an air of expectation mixed with the scent of dozens of Lynx deodorants hangs in the air. How do you attack the paper? For this I am going to focus on the AQA Language Paper as that is the most common one that student’s sit.




How to Manage Time in an English Exam

I would recommend completing Question Five first. It’s worth 40 marks, equating to a quarter of your GCSE. Look at the image in Paper One and divide it into 4 sections. Each quadrant is a paragraph. Look for key details and think about: the colours, any similes or metaphors you can create, how would you feel if you were there. These techniques will help you craft an engaging narrative. Don’t just say: this happened and then this happened. That is boring. Aim to spend at least 40 minutes on this question plus time for planning and double checking. I often advise students to write a descriptive paragraph every 10 minutes. 4 solid paragraphs plus an ending will see you climb the mark scheme like someone who climbs things. Then move on to Question Four. 

For Paper Two, do the same. Get the biggest questions done first. This will help you gain marks where often students don’t attempt them.



English Exam Techniques

Have a look at what type of writing the paper wants. Is it an article or a letter? What do these feature normally? A heading or an address? Remember the DAFOREST techniques and start to plan your answer. If you don’t know, DAFOREST stands for:


Direct Address – speak to the reader directly – “Have you ever felt…”

Alliteration – words that start with the same sound in a row or phrase

Facts – you can make these up but keep them realistic

Opinion – what you believe but not a fact – I believe Burnley are the best football team, isn’t a fact

Rhetorical Questions – can be used like Direct Address “Did you know that…?”

Emotional Language – using words to make your reader feel an emotion

Statistics – Like facts but with numbers. 76% of students spot this.

Triples – repeating a phrase or word three times for effect.


You are writing to persuade; you need to imagine what you are talking about is real and that it means something to you. Think about appealing to your reader’s sense of fairness, emotions and logic – ‘is it fair?’, ‘does it not make you feel…’ and ‘does it make sense?’ These are the cornerstones of persuasive writing. Again, aim for a paragraph every 10 minutes. Include two or three DAFOREST techniques and vary your sentence types. Short sentences. Beautiful, drawn out and descriptive sentences that slow the pace, create a sense of atmosphere and include a variety of punctuation, such as a cheeky semicolon here and there. 

It’s unlikely that any of the three texts you face will be what you would normally read. However, think of it as what would a fan of this type of story enjoy? If you change your perception, then you change your application. And then, you change your result.

There is no reason that, with some work and using the resources available, you cannot pass. You have the tools and you have the opportunity. You have to discard the failures of the past and realise that you have the perfect opportunity now to succeed.



Why is the study of English important?

English and Maths are a major part of life. Recent studies have found that 16% of the UK population are functionally illiterate, this means that they cannot read or write to a decent level. It doesn’t sound much, does it? 16%. That works out as, roughly, 10.77 million people. Which is an awful lot. Further studies found that 1 in 5 young adults struggle to read and write in English. The reasons for this are very varied. Suffice to say that the key factors are related to rates of poverty, often undiagnosed learning needs and students who have had to leave school early.

Those that struggle to read and write in English will find tasks such as travelling by public transport hard or nearly impossible, they may not be able to pass their driver’s theory test and will struggle when applying for a job. Once in a job they may find understanding written instructions impossible. Subtext and inferred meanings, which are often used in work emails, may be missed and that could lead to problems such as the tasks being incorrectly completed and complaints from customers, suppliers or whomever.

Realistically you don’t need to learn the definition of an imperative verb, or what the main themes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are, however you do need to know the basics of language to communicate effectively. Most jobs want prospective employees to have at least a grade four in GCSE Maths and English. 

English terminology is referred to all the time on TV and online, as such you need to be able to join in that conversation. Having a firm grasp of how the language works and why we use it the way we do, will give you the space to make an informed decision and to make up your own mind. Being able to make inferences and reading between the lines will give you the tools to identify the agendas of others and what they are really saying when they talk. Finally, you may have children one day. They will be given homework from their teachers, and you would want to be able to help them. For every person who succeeds without their GCSEs, I have heard about a dozen who have struggled. If you change your perception, you change your application, and ultimately change your result.

We have looked at why English is so important, and because I am not a Maths teacher, I will not discuss revising for Maths, but you do need to for the same reasons as above. 

For a challenge and to kick-start your revision, go through this article and see which DAFOREST techniques and other literary devices I’ve used. And all the very best of luck. 

Learn more about how we support our students with their Maths and English GCSE qualification.

Last updated on: 22nd May 2023