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7 Mistakes to Fix to Improve Your English GCSEs

So, the GCSE exam results came out last week. There have been lots of smiles and celebrations going on, but quite a few tears and emergency tuition sessions, too. So many students were on track for good grades. They’re shocked! How could they have messed up so much? Well, it’s amazing how much a simple mistake can do.

English Language is one of the most important subjects in your school life – along with maths. You’ll have to keep sitting those two exams until you pass them, or until you turn 18 and the government can’t control your education anymore.

Even if you just wait it out until you turn 18, things won’t be easier after that. If you want to go to uni or continue your education, you’re going to need to prove that you have a good level of maths and English. That means doing your GCSEs again or finishing an equivalent course.

So, it’s best to pass as soon as you can!

If you have to resit your English GCSE, don’t worry at all! It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Next time, just make sure you consider all these mistakes. Making these small changes will help you to see huge improvements in your grades next time!


The Biggest Mistake: They Don’t Read the Question

I can’t tell you how many students don’t read the question properly. This is a mistake you can make no matter how good you are at English.

In fact, there was a boy in my last school who was on track for an 8 or 9 in his GCSEs. However, when get got his mock results, he only got a 4! That’s 4-5 grades lower. Why? Because he didn’t read the question.

Everything he said was great. His analysis was beautiful. The problem was that he didn’t write about the lines that he was supposed to. So, his teacher wasn’t allowed to give him marks for 60% of his answer for question 4. It didn’t answer the question, after all! It was useless!

If he had read the question, that wouldn’t have happened. He wouldn’t have mistook lines 16-25 for lines 5.15. Then, he’d have been able to brag about his grade 9.

Don’t let this be you. Don’t take the risk. Read the question 3 times if you have to.

In fact, I highly recommend that you annotate the question. Circle the lines it is asking you to write about. Underline the most important words in the question. Make sure you’re 100% clear on what it’s asking before you start.

Sure, that might take you a bit more time at the start. It will take you a hell of a lot longer to redo the answer if you read the question wrong, though.

So, slow down! Take the time to read the question properly. That could boost your grades massively.

They Only Read the Text Once

You can’t fully understand a text if you’ve only read it once. I don’t care how good your reading skills are. It’s impossible. So, if you’re only reading the exam text once, you’re making a huge mistake.

The first time you read a text, you need to figure out the essence of the story. Basically, you need to know what’s literally happening. Can you sum up what’s going on?

I like to call the first reading a “pens down read” because I don’t want my students to annotate at all. I just want them to understand. They can annotate later!

To be honest, I’d then read it a second time to make sure I’m 100% sure I understand what happened. Even I need to do that. I mean, the first time I read “My Last Duchess“, I thought the Duke forced his wife to stop smiling. Like, I thought that he went up to her and ordered her to be depressed. Strange.

Then, I read it again. Oh my! He killed her! Or, at least, he ordered her death! That changes everything!

If I had made the mistake of reading that poem only once, I would have never picked up on that.

After you’ve read the text to understand what’s going on, you need to think about the message the writer wants to convey to the reader. If you have understood the message, then it’s time to look at the literary devices they use. Of course, you need to read the whole thing again to do that well!

If you aren’t reading the whole text at least three times, you’re doing it all wrong. You’ll miss out on the hidden meanings! That will then cost you important marks that you’re 100% capable of getting.


They Fail to Annotate the Text

I have been giving feedback on mock exams since September 2015. In that time, I have noticed a huge clue that tells me a student probably hasn’t understood the text fully. That’s when I see an entirely blank text with no annotations on it.

We all annotate in different ways. Some of us have lots of different coloured highlighters. Others just like to underline the most important bits. Me? Well, I draw arrows and writer notes all over the text. You should see my poetry anthology!

There are some people who can do all the annotation in their heads. They do exist! The problem is that way too many students think they can annotate in their heads when they can’t. It’s not their style.

So, when I see that the text is blank with no annotations, I brace myself. I assume that the student has missed important details. 9 times out of 10, I’m right.

If you don’t annotate your text, you can really miss a great deal of detail. We can get caught up in the message and forget to think about the connotations of the words we’re reading. Thinking about how words are used and the feelings they bring up gives you great analysis that can boost your grades.

Plus, there are so many students who can’t even remember to bring a pen to school every day. I don’t know how they expect to remember every thought they had about this unseen text in a stressful situation. That’s completely a self-report, by the way.

Please don’t make this mistake. Write all over that paper. Even if you think you can do it in your head, you don’t want to find out you’re wrong on results day. It’s better to be safe than sorry.


They Mistake Literary Devices as the Most Important Thing

Way too many students start to read a text by looking for literary devices.

They go on a hunt for similes and metaphors. They scour a poem for onomatopoeia and iambic pentameter. Sometimes, I see them muttering in their mock exams, trying to figure out if they’ve found alliteration.

It’s really great that they know these things! However, I think that some of us teachers have made you think that English is all about finding literary devices. We’ve turned it into a big game of Where’s Wally with personification.

No wonder you all think English is a pointless subject! I mean, it seems like all English examiners care about is how Stevenson used a metaphor here and what Macbeth said in Act Three Scene One. Unless you get a career in English, that’s not exactly going to be useful to you.

But English is actually about studying manipulation. It’s about figuring out what messages a writer wants you to learn from their work. More importantly, it’s about understanding how to use words to make people think and feel certain things. That will always be helpful to you for so many reasons.

So, you need to approach your English exams the right way around. When planning your exam answers, ask yourself these questions in this order:

  1. How do I feel about this part of the story? Why?
  2. What do I think about this part of the story? Why?
  3. What message is the writer trying to tell me here?
  4. How do they use language to do all this?

If you answer these questions in your head first, you’ll boost your grades massively. You can slot the devices in the “how do they use language” question. There’s a reason it’s the final thing you should think about!


Their Writing is Too Complicated

I tutor a lot of students who have some amazing ideas. The problem is that they don’t write them down in a way the examiner can understand.

When you’re doing your English GCSE, remember this: there are real people reading these papers! Examiners read answers like yours for hours and hours on end – until their eyes go blurry. They suffer through handwriting they can barely read. There isn’t enough coffee in the world to keep them awake! Don’t add confusing sentences to their plate. It will only hurt you in the long run.

Make the examiner’s life easy. Keep your sentences uncomplicated. Or, as I like to say to my students, make sure you only have one idea per sentence.

If all of your sentences are long and complicated, the examiner is more likely to make mistakes when reading. Plus, you won’t be able to show that you can vary your sentences in your creative writing section.

Don’t get me wrong: you don’t have to stick to short, simple sentences. You can throw commas in your work! You just need to make sure it helps people to understand your work. It is important to make sure it doesn’t confuse them even more.

If you’re the kind of person who puts comma after comma in your writing, make sure you are aware of that. Look back over your old exercise books and see if you can practice shortening your sentences. It’s not an easy task, but you can absolutely do it!

They Translate the Quote Instead of Analysing

I know every English teacher out there has read something like this before:

“The speaker of the poem said he would ‘thief’ to get on the Windrush ship. That means he’s willing to steal.”

I can also tell you that it makes every English teacher want to bang their own head against their desk. But what’s wrong with it?

Well, the student is just translating the word ‘thief’ from English to English. We know that “thief” means “steal”. So, that’s not analysis.

You have to think a little bit deeper about the word if you want to analyse it. You can’t just use another word that means the same thing. That will get you no marks for analysis. It could really mess with your grades!

So, how do you think deeper about the word? Well, you ask yourself questions. Is stealing a good thing? Do you think he’d choose to steal if he could get on the ship another way? Does it mean he’d be willing to do anything to get on it, even if it means breaking the law? So, can you think of a word for that? Desperate. He’s desperate to get on the ship at any cost.

There you go! That’s proper analysis and that will get you some great marks.

Of course, this isn’t an easy thing to get in the habit of doing. It takes a lot of practice. However, I would start by thinking of how the word is used and what connotations it has.

If you need more help with this, I’ve useful guides for Study Buddy members! Or, you can book a tutoring session with me! Once you’ve got it, you’ll see your grades shoot up!


They Accidentally Write a History Essay!

As someone with a history degree, I think this mistake is the most frustrating for me. It’s when a student will make their English Literature essay all about what was going on when the writer was writing.

I’ve seen it for An Inspector Calls the most.

Let’s say the question is about how Sheila changes over the course of the play. For good marks, you’d talk about how she starts to talk like the Inspector and how she stops calling her parents “mummy” and “daddy”. You’d mention that Priestley makes her become more mature as the play goes on. Then – and only then – you can talk about why he did this. You can speak about how the younger generation at the time was more open to the world changing around them.

Instead, though, I’ve seen way too many students do it the wrong way around. They start their paragraph with a full description of what was going on at the time. They tell me how the play was written during a time of change and that the younger generation was willing to move with the times. Then, they’ll start talking about Sheila. This is a mistake.

It makes it seem like they’re writing a history essay and using the play as a source.

That’s why you should start the essay by describing how Sheila is and the words that Priestley uses to present her like this. Then, you can explain why he chooses to do this afterwards. This will get you more marks in the long run.

Most of these mistakes are easy to fix. If you do, you’ll see how much your GCSE grades will improve! If you have to resit your exams, please take this all on board. You won’t regret it!

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