Help your students master the new GCSE literacy demands

Whether you teach PE, science, history or geography, you will need to get to grips with the literacy requirements of the new GCSE specifications.

Whether you teach PE, science, history or geography, you will need to get to grips with the literacy requirements of the new GCSE specifications. They place greater demands on your students’ reading and writing skills, giving marks for the quality of their written communication, as well as extra marks for their spelling, punctuation and grammar.

The first thing you need to do is understand what the new literacy requirements for your GCSE subject are and how they will be assessed, helping you provide the best possible literacy support to your students.

The new literacy demands come under four categories:

1. Key text types and their typical language features

2. Specific reading requirements, including command words in exam questions

3. Specific writing requirements, including grammar and punctuation

4. Subject specific vocabulary

Many literacy requirements run across the majority of GCSE subjects, such as being able to read and write discussion, explanation and evaluation text types. However, every GCSE subject also has its own, more specific, literacy requirements, as highlighted in the table below:

After getting to grips with the new literacy requirements of the GCSE subject you teach, it’s time to help your students to do the same by embedding them in your teaching. Here are some practical tips to help you get started.

Reading for learning

Students use different reading strategies to make sense of different types of texts. In order to meet the literacy requirements of the new GCSE specifications, teachers must help students develop the skills they need to access more complex texts and read for meaning

Introducing directed activities related to texts (DARTs) in the classroom can help improve your students’ reading comprehension and make them critical readers.

DARTs can be divided into two groups:

1. Reconstruction activities, that require students to reconstruct a text or diagram by filling in missing words, phrases or sentences, or by sequencing text that has been jumbled

2. Deconstruction (or analysis) activities, that require students to find and categorise information by marking or labelling a text or diagram

Here are some strategies to get you started:

Improving students’ writing

Students must be taught that when certain command words are used in exam questions, their answers must include particular keywords or language.

For example, the command word discuss means that students should use modal verbs, such as might, could and should, to show alternative arguments; and the command word explain suggests the need for causal discourse markers such as therefore, because or as a result.

Identify the most common command words used in the GCSE exam questions for the subject you teach. Then help students understand how these words are used in different contexts and support them to practise how they can respond to them.

Here are a number of command words used in GCSE exam questions to get you started:

To get the best GCSE grades, students must learn to write like subject experts. In addition to teaching students how to best write answers that respond to certain command words, teaching them useful sentence starters, specific language features and appropriate academic language will help them express what they know more clearly and confidently in exams. Examples of these include:

· Discourse markers: using conjunctions such as “however” and “moreover” and adverbials such as “probably” and “perhaps” will enable students to construct more sophisticated, complex sentences

· Passive voice: describing actions in a passive way can create a more formal, academic style, for example, “the king was assassinated” or “the rainforests were destroyed”

· Active verbs: strengthen analytical and evaluative writing with words such as “implies”, “clarifies” and “signifies” (though make sure students know the difference!)

The information and activities in this article form part of the National Literacy Trust’s Understanding the Literacy Requirements of the new GCSEs one-day CPD workshop. Developed by secondary experts, the workshop helps teachers:

· Understand the literacy demands of your subject

· Transform informal, speech–like writing to a more formal written style

· Try out key strategies for improving reading comprehension and extended writing in curriculum areas

· Practise writing and modelling longer GCSE answers

A failure to master these literacy requirements will hold students back in every subject, whilst those with the very best literacy skills will be at an immediate advantage. Helping your students read, write and speak like subject experts has never been more important!


The Department for Education is running a campaign to boost awareness of reforms to GCSE qualifications. The campaign page directs users to factsheets for parents, employers and further and higher education institutions, and provide explanations of the new grading system and other information about the reforms.


This article was first published in Teach Secondary magazine.