AQA English Language AQA English Language Paper 1 Section A KS4

On Paper 1 Section A (3 is the magic number)



When it comes to Paper 1 Section A, 3 really is the magic number (except when answering question 1 of course…). This simple message is helping my students to quantify exactly what they need to do for each of the questions. I also enjoy the spontaneous burst into song whenever I say the words ‘3 is the magic number’!

Back in December I attended AQA’s Effective Exam Preparation course for the new English Language GCSE. It was a really informative day and has been instrumental in helping me to design how we prepare our year 10 students for their English Language exam this Summer (I will blog at some point about why we’re entering year 10s for English Language a year early). This is a post to share what I learnt and approaches to answering Paper 1 Section A which you may want to use in your own classroom.

Paper Specific Booklets and Metacognition

One of the best takeaways from the course was the idea to create booklets using SAMS4. Every student in year 10 now has a Paper 1 Booklet (Paper 2 to follow) that includes SAMS4 source material and questions along with exemplar essays and mark schemes. We then use metacognition lessons to: model exam strategy; model how to write answers; unpick the AOS and the mark scheme; mark exemplar answers and to make note of important reminders e.g. to read ALL of the information available to them on the question paper.

Students have responded really well to this approach. The best thing has been seeing elements of the metacognition lessons appearing in the answers students have written for their most recent Paper 1 Section A attempt – it’s fascinating to see what has stuck. I’ll be posting about the impact of these metacognition lessons soon…


Our Booklets


Assessment Objectives

The course leader shared some student friendly AOs which we have used to help us unpick the Assessment Objectives and make them more accessible for students. Once students have a good understanding of what skills are being tested it really informs their approach to different questions because they know which AO is being tested.

[Picture to follow – just tracking it down… bear with!]

Question 1

We want ALL of our students to get 100% in this question – a message which we have repeated throughout the year. This question, testing AO1, is placed first to ease students into the paper and is, on the face of it, pretty straightforward. However, if we don’t teach this question well, it is very easy for students to make silly mistakes and lose marks. It is important that we consider how a student might make this question difficult for themselves and prevent these pitfalls.

A useful activity, after looking at how to approach this question and then letting students select their four things, is looking at some seemingly plausible answers and discussing whether or not they think the examiner will award a mark. This helps students to, in the words of Jo Heathcote, understand how to ‘examiner proof’ their answers.

What we’re telling our students:

  • If it helps, rephrase the question to aid focus e.g. Things I learn about the bird in this extract are…
  • On the source, put a highlighted box around the lines you are being asked to answer about (this may seem silly but we want to do what we can to ensure students don’t answer about the wrong bit of the text – it also highlights pretty quickly students who struggle with ‘getting’ what the numbers down the side of the text are).
  • What is the focus of the question? What precisely are you being asked to select from the article?
  • The key word is ‘List’ – there’s no need to waste time on inference. You might be able to say all sorts of interesting things about the significance of the colour of the bird but you won’t gain any marks by including them here… sorry!
  • Use a pronoun at the start of every point e.g. It was black.
  • Spend no more than 5 minutes answering this question and then move on.
  • If it helps, put the time you need to move on by.


Question 2

We’re probably a bit more comfortable with this question than we might be some of the others on the paper (ahem… Q3) and it’s worth utilising our comfortability, and students’ natural inclination to make inferences, to build students’ confidence that they’ve got this – they’ve been doing this sort of thing for years!

The AQA course leader made the point that this question is about making intelligent comments NOT identifying fancy techniques. Students can get top marks by exploring a word in depth – let’s not fall into the trap of over-complicating things.

What we’re telling our students:

  • Ignore ‘could’ above the bullet points and replace with ‘should’ (with the caveat that sentence forms may or may not be the most useful bits of evidence to explore).
  • To write APES STOMP next to the bullet about ‘language features and techniques’ to remind yourself of SOME of the techniques that writers use (this is not an exhaustive list but a useful tool for lots of students and an acronym devised by Mrs KT @books4kooks).
  • Think first: What is the effect? What are we being made to think, feel or imagine? Now think: How is the writer making me think, feel or imagine these things? Which words or phrases have they used to do this?
  • 3 is the magic number. Identify 3 words or phrases that make you think, feel or imagine something in relation to the question. What effects do these words/phrases have? Can you identify any techniques the writer has used in your selections?
  • The following are BANNED:
  1. Makes the reader want to read on
  2. Puts an image in the reader’s mind (OF WHAT!?!?!?)
  3. Makes it interesting/engaging
  4. Makes it flow

These statements are vague and could be made about ANY text

  • Say a lot about a little.
  • Spend no more than 10 minutes answering this question and then move on.
  • If it helps, put the time you need to move on by.

Question 3

There has been a lot of fuss about Q3 which I completely understand – I’m still getting my head around this one. Whilst I’ve seen fellow tweachers teaching their students terms such as anaphora, I don’t think this question demands that level of terminology (the AQA course leader said as much). Whilst we English teachers spent the last year fervently digging out fancy terms for analysing structure, the realisation has started to dawn that this question is much more about perspective and focus and movement (note my polysendetic list) than it is synecdoche, epizeuxis or chiasmus.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach students this language of structural analysis, and there will be times when it’s illuminating, but we shouldn’t be overloading students with this stuff just because of this question (especially given that it’s not warranted).

What we’re telling our students:

  • Where in a text is the source from? Why might this be significant? What does it tell us if this is taken from the beginning of a novel (for example)?
  • Ignore ‘could’ and replace with ‘should’ – these bullet points should guide your answer.
  • 3 is the magic number. You are going to write about three different ways in which the text is structured to interest you as a reader.
  • Whose view is the text written from? What time? Where?
  • What does the writer focus your attention on at the beginning (bullet one)? Why?
  • In a word, summarise what each of the paragraphs are about – what do you notice about the focus of each? Where does it shift? What’s the effect?
  • What else do you notice about the structure of the text? You might consider: connections and links across paragraphs; introductions and developments; reiterations; repetitions, threads, patterns, motifs; the sequence through the passage; narrative perspective; summaries and conclusions; outside to inside perspectives (vice versa) and movement from big to small (ideas/perspectives).
  • Spend no more than 10 minutes answering this question and then move on.
  • If it is helpful, write the time that you will need to move on by.


Question 4

It’s very easy to over-complicated Question 4. If we boil it down, though, all students need to do is say how far they agree with the statement (from a limited scale of ‘a bit’ to ‘completely’) and explain why using evidence which they then explore.

What we’re telling our students:

  • On the source, put a highlighted box around the lines you are being asked to answer about.
  • You will likely AGREE with the statement that you have been given (though you may include one point about why you don’t entirely agree).
  • What are your first impressions? Is Alex struggling to cope and how do we know he is?
  • 3 is the magic number. Find three parts of the text that you can use to respond to the statement and write about them.
  • Plan your response. How do each of those parts of the text show that Alex is struggling to cope? What techniques does the writer use?
  • Do NOT include an introduction – this is a waste of time.
  • For some students, PEACH has been a useful acronym to structure their three paragraphs (I will track down who I can credit this idea to): P – Personal Opinion e.g. I agree that… E – Evidence e.g. This is clear when… A – Argue e.g. This suggests… However… CH – Choice of words e.g. The word ‘ghost’ has connotations of…
  • Spend no more than 2o minutes on this question (unless you’ve gained time from other Section A questions) and then move on. You MUST leave 45 minutes for Question 5.
  • If it helps, write when you need to move on by.


I hope that proves helpful to other English teachers trying to wrestle with Paper 1 Section A though I suspect lots of it is familiar. If you have any questions or comments I’d be happy to respond.

My post on Paper 2 Section A  is here.

NB: We use the SAMS material to create the booklets which you can find on the e-AQA secure key materials section (Insert – Question 1 – Question 1 Mark Scheme – Question 2 – Question 2 Mark Scheme – Question 2 Exemplars and so on). You can, however, download the booklet cover for Paper 1 here.



  1. This is an excellent approach. We have found annotated papers invaluable for A level and will now be using this idea for GCSE too. Thanks for sharing your ideas.


  2. This is really useful thank you! Would you be willing to share the booklets you have made from SAMS4 for Paper 1/ 2? I would love to share this with my department.. students etc!!


  3. Yes! My twitter account is LoveLiteracyVic …. Is that all the info you need? I’m not very up/in/ happening with twitter 🙂


  4. I haven’t been using Twitter or reading blogs for very long and it still blows me away how helpful everyone is! Thank you so much for this, as a newbie to teaching it has made things so much clearer!

    Can I be cheeky and ask for a copy of the booklets too?


  5. Hi – this is brilliant, thank you. Can anyone tell me what APES STOMP stands for – I can guess a lot of them but it would be nice to know!


    1. Hi Emma. I took the acronym from @books4kooks.
      A – Alliteration
      P – Personification
      E – Emotions
      S – Similes

      S – Senses
      T – Triplets of adjectives
      O – Onomatopoeia
      M – Metaphor
      P – Pathetic Fallacy


  6. Thank you so much for sharing this – it has been useful to use alongside tips I have been giving to our revision class students. Would you be so kind as to share your booklets? I think they’re a wonderful idea and will make ones for supplementary papers in the future, but simply son’t have the time between now and study leave….

    Thanks once again for your generosity…


    1. Ruth do you have access to AQA secure area? The SAMS material is on there. You can also DM your email on Twitter if you want the cover sheets.

      So pleased the post has been helpful – the students really benefited from the modelling.


  7. Hi, I’ve just stumbled across this in desperation for materials for Year 11. Is there any way you could send across your booklets? I have spent hours scouring the AQA website for the sample materials and can’t find them! No worries if not.


    1. Do you have access to the secure key materials? It’s just one of the sample papers. However, if you send me your email I can send you what you need.


  8. Hi! Just come across this while looking at ideas for Y11 exam prep and love the idea of the booklets. I have the SAMS materials from AQA but wondered if you had a google drive link to the covers or the metacognition lessons you teach in conjunction with the booklets?


    1. Hi Hannah – I’ve just added a link to the covers. As for he metacognition lessons, we just talk through the approach in the post and annotate our copy using a visualiser. Sorry I can’t be more helpful!


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