Expert A Level English Language Teacher Halla Williams takes us through her top tips to get yourself in ‘shape’ for your English exams.
It seems like a lot, doesn’t it? So much to cover over the course, some (most?) of it very difficult. But just as you wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it, you need to get in shape for months before your exams. Start small and build up (even if you are gasping for mental breath at first) and you will soon be doing more than you ever thought you could.
These training tips are steps you can take on top of the homework tasks that you are given so that you can really achieve your best. They should work for many other subjects too.
The steps could seem intimidating at first but if you make this process part of your study habits, you will really see your exam ‘fitness’ building up. Remember, no-one expects you to be able to do all these things without practice and you will build up all the skills gradually so don’t be put off if you are not achieving the quality of work that you want yet.
Build in regular study time and spend some of it really thinking about your aims and progress.
1. Work out what you need to get better at:
- I’ve made this step one but you need to do this regularly, every few weeks, because it will change as your skill levels in different areas improve
- Make a list/diagram of what you need to be able to do better at by the time the exams arrive
- Focus on skills rather than content – if you’ve got a lot of content to learn, work on getting better at memorising as part of your skills training
- This could be an alarming list, so make the areas as big as possible at first and then break it down into smaller skills later e.g. ‘get better at close textual analysis’ might be a good area of focus – it could break down later into ‘exploring metaphors’, ‘identifying word classes’, ‘structuring analytical points’ etc. And these might break down further into more precise skills. So keep the areas big for now.
2. Pick an area to start with:
- Depending on your confidence, or your energy levels during that study session, either choose one you are reasonably confident with or an ambitious one – don’t necessarily try to tie it in with what you are currently doing in class because you need to work on all the skills by the end of the course at the pace that is right for you
- Break your chosen area down into exactly how you get better at it e.g. if you pick ‘improve my guided writing’, you could break that down into skills including ‘choosing content to suit the audience, purpose, form and marking criteria’, ‘structuring content at the planning stage’, ‘linking ideas using connectives/discourse markers’, ‘using standard grammar and spelling’ etc.
- Use the marking criteria for that task to help you if you are not sure which skills are involved – you can go to the exam board website if you haven’t got the criteria already but there will be other skills that you need, so some deep thinking about how to do the task well is vital.
3. Set yourself small tasks that will allow you to exercise those skills:
- What could you do that would help you practise this skill? Really think about it because this problem-solving approach is a skill you will need throughout your life
- Find examples of the skill being used and study them closely, especially examples from other students but also any well-written real-world example that shares elements with the task you are doing
- Read advice on how to approach the task from study guides, text books, online sources etc. (make sure to evaluate how reliable online sources are)
- Use your preferred learning approaches to help e.g. mind-mapping programs, moving content around physically, reading your writing aloud to hear how well it flows, memorising terminology using rhythm or rhyme
- Only plan to do tasks that are achievable in the time you have. If not, timetable them in to do another time – feel a sense of reward each time for having achieved something, even if it is only planning!
- Remind yourself it is a hard slog to get there but that you are working those English muscles.
4. Plan a time in the future to come back to that area:
- Coming back to what you’ve been working on is vital to join together the skills and content that you are learning so that you can see that you are making progress
- Having a big plan as well as small, timetabled tasks is important for a sense of progress too.
5. Don’t forget the physical element:
- Drink lots of water, eat slow-release foods, get plenty of sleep and exercise so that you can stay focussed when you study
- The other physical element is being able to hand-write for up to six hours a day in exams, so (unless you are using a laptop in the exams) practise writing tasks by hand and at speed every chance you get.
If you are feeling energised at the thought of getting down to this, fantastic! If you are worried that you won’t know where to start, make a leap of faith and have a go (it’s so much better than putting it off and getting stressed). Any small area you can identify as being something to work on is great. If you need help making a plan of action, there is help available! This self-training approach to study (and life) is difficult at first, but once you start, you will see how much power to improve lies in your own hands. Start getting exams-fit today and you will soon feel the benefit!
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Halla Williams is a highly experienced English Language teacher and professional writer.