As a teacher, I’m asked this almost constantly in the run-up to exams. There is a perception that English is a “skills subject” and therefore much more difficult to revise for compared to, say Biology or History. Although there’s a great deal of skill involved, there is a lot of knowledge needed for English exams; the “skill section” is in putting it all into practice. I’m not sure if the question is a misunderstanding of this, or a sense of being overwhelmed with where to begin. I think it’s sometimes the latter, and so in this post I’ll look at a few ways to get started, how to organise your knowledge, and give you something concrete to revise.
What do I need to know?
The knowledge side of English includes:
- Plot – what happens and in what order? For plays have a knowledge of the key scene numbers e.g. 1.5-Romeo and Juliet meet. When you’re given an extract it will help you place it in context within the play.
- Characterisation – what are characters like at the beginning, end and what causes them to change?
- Literary techniques – language (metaphor, personification etc), form (blank verse, soliloquy, stanza etc) and structure (cyclical, beginning, focus). You need to know terms but more importantly be able to identify them. Check out my Quizlet set for literary vocab here. Don’t worry that some people know terminology you don’t! There’s SO much, and every teacher has a slightly different set. You’ll know some that others don’t.
- Key quotations – which quotes have you come back to time and time again? Check out my post on memorising quotations. Don’t forget about the significance of titles and opening/final lines, particularly in poetry.
- Context – what social, historical and literary influences affected the writer?
- Critical viewpoints – sometimes you’ll need this, particularly at A-Level. Have a range of more generalised (e.g. Marxist, feminist) and some specific quotations from critics.
What do you know already?
The first thing to do is an audit of your knowledge using something like this, for GCSE literature and language;
If you’re doing A-Level, it will be very similar but break down the poetry collection into the different poems – some you’ll be more confident in than others – and make sure you cover all the criteria, such as knowing critical concepts over time and so on. Use a red/amber/green rating to see where your confidence lies – the red ones are the places to start!
Make sure you’ve got all your materials and resources handy, in one place – ideally where they won’t have to be cleared away for family dinners etc, so the dining table’s not a great idea! Try to have somewhere you can set up as your work space until your exams are over.
Keep different subject resources together – either in different folders or a different pile that you put on the desk when working on it and clear away when you’re on a different subject.
Make it active
Highlighting doesn’t work. It’s too passive – revision needs to be active and involved. Do something with resources; re-write them, say them aloud, chant them walking round the room – whatever it takes to get you focused on what you’re doing and learning in a strong way.
The examples below are also spaced out – if you do blocks you’re less likely to remember it whereas if you come back to topics over and over, they’re more likely to stick.
Example revision schedule for AS or A Level
Although I could write a whole post on how to create a revision schedule, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour. Don’t review it on computer: any amendments can be scribbled on by hand – don’t burn up your revision time! it doesn’t have to be pretty, it should be a working, changing document. If you miss a day, make it up by adding some more time OR by cutting another session in half and doing two sessions in one. Don’t change the whole thing.
Below are two examples for OCR, with sample tasks.
- Create flashcards – these should include important interpretations or key ideas, as well as any context or quotations that are important. Think of them as mini essay plans.
- Look / cover / check – like learning spellings at primary school! Look at the card/mind map – turn it over – replicate it. Check: what did you get, what did you miss? The faster and more completely you can do this, the more repeatable it is in an exam. You can also use this for memorising quotations.
- Mini-essay plans: very similar to the flashcards but with a specific question in mind. Some elements of your flashcards won’t be useful, and you need to think about the order of your writing and creating an argument- writing a practice introduction is essential.
- Essay and review. If your teacher will mark the essay quickly, then great, but you can review it as well OR agree with a friend to swap regularly. Review by making sure you know which criteria you need. Look for key markers e.g. highlight analysis in one colour, or critical viewpoints in another, or look at the balance of the two texts in a comparison. What do you need to address, considering the feedback you’ve already had?