Command words — what do they ask?

Excerpt from the accompanying training booklet

Explain, explore, evaluate: we know that as extended writing becomes integral to more and more GCSE subjects the profile of literacy across the curriculum has been raised, but the nuances of a command word, even the concept, can still present huge challenges for teachers and students.

An average secondary school timetable may involve going from a chemistry lesson to a drama lesson, to the canteen and the football pitch before returning to the history classroom. Imagine that in each of those settings you are asked to explain something. Would an explanation of a chemical reaction use the same semantic structures as an explanation of a weekend’s activity over lunch, or of the series of events that led to the 1939 invasion of Poland?

Or take the word evaluate, meaning in its simplest terms to identify and present the value of something. In a 2017 English language paper, students were asked to evaluate an extract of a short story by Katherine Mansfield. To explain whether they agree with a statement that protagonist Rosabel was right to be angry, the students are invited to evaluate the way in which the writer conveys her reaction. They are not asked to say whether the writer’s portrayal is good or bad — they are not presenting a value judgement of the writing — but rather to identify elements of the writing that support a view of a character.

Now consider a sample P.E. question from the same year: “Using your knowledge of agility and reaction time, evaluate the importance of these components of fitness for performers in the 100m sprint.” Here, students are expected to demonstrate their knowledge of agility and reaction times through applying them to a given scenario — the 100m sprint — and make a judgement on how necessary they are — or, crucially, what value they have to the performer. Here the meaning of the word is much closer to its roots.

The second issue is that of the different command words within a subject. Secondary Mathematics consultant David Dowling comments:

“Across one series of higher tier maths papers this summer candidates were asked to ‘work out’ on 21 occasions, ‘find’ on 22 occasions, and ‘write down’ on 5 occasions. In fact for most of the questions where candidates were asked to ‘find’ they couldn’t find the answer on the page and in fact had to ‘work out.’ […] Candidates were also asked to estimate, draw, describe, give a reason, prove, factorise, simplify, sketch (accurately!), show that, enlarge, match, complete, explain, comment, expand, expand and simplify, find an estimate, and on only one occasion to solve.”

Aside from the issue that there are so many different command words here to get to grips with, Dowling hits on a key issue: where a single word’s meaning can vary between contexts, multiple words can have the same meaning in a single paper. Is this then causing unnecessary confusion to students who think that to “find’ something on the page is different from working something out, and get misled down a road of looking for an emergent, self-evident answer when in fact, they are still expected to ‘work it out’? Non-mathematics specialists might also assume that ‘work out’ is quite a non-technical term where ‘solve’ or ‘prove’ might seem more applicable, particularly in a higher paper, and yet ‘work out’ is the second most common term.

Not only do students have to grapple with the contextual nuances of these command words but they also need to understand the concepts, which in itself presents a challenge to many. Science teacher Dominic reflects on the notion of comparison:

“ “Compare” and similar words trip students up often… [they often] talk about one aspect of subject A and an unrelated aspect of subject B. Usually the mark scheme requires them to talk about an aspect of subject A [and] the inverse aspect of subject B, then another aspect of subject A and another inverse aspect of subject B.”

In this case, while students may understand the meaning of the word ‘comparison’, it’s the actual mechanism of identifying comparable features that holds them back. These notions may extend beyond literacy into more conceptual cognitive processes, but it is essential that students can reconcile the two ideas.

Whatever today’s results show, one thing is clear: in schools where command words have been taught well, students have the advantage.

To find out about our 1-day workshop on understanding the GCSE specifications in different subjects, including reading different text types and modelling extended writing, visit or email