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O Level English: Surviving the New Syllabus Summary by Jason McCorrister

If you are teaching Year 9 students this year, you’ve no doubt had a look at the new syllabus for 2024 and realized that there have been earth-shattering changes to the syllabus that will have serious implications for how we teach our students.

Changes to the Note-taking and Summary section of the Reading Paper are going to take some time to adjust to.  In this article I will walk you through the changes and try to give you some advice on how to respond to these changes.

Let me begin by saying that we really don’t have a firm idea of where this is all heading.  We only have one poorly constructed exemplar paper to look at.  To really understand the changes, we will need to wait until Spring 2024 when we will see our first set of real papers.  By then we will have more documentation such as examiner’s reports and student exemplar booklets to look at and, if we are lucky, maybe Helen Toner will create a new edition of her book.

For now, let’s assume that the example paper that we have will be fairly representative of what we will see in 2024.  Here is a quick summary to highlight what you should know:

Note-taking and Content Points

First of all, CIE has now made the Reading Paper the Paper 1 and they have made the summary the second part of the paper. In addition, they have added 15 minutes to the exam time. These changes are relatively insignificant. The most significant and obvious change to this section of the paper is that students no longer do a note-taking exercise where they make a list of bullet points. Previously, students were rewarded for their notes with up to 12 marks (24% of the paper grade) and this gave students an opportunity to perform very well. Now, these marks are embedded into the summary mark with a total value of 10 marks or 20% of the paper grade. Rather than rewarding students twice for the content points (both in the note-taking and in the relevance section of the summary rubric), the new exam has a summary writing rubric (called Table R, Reading) for the content points. I’m going to assume that Cambridge has a threshold for the number of content points that they consider in the top band, fulfilling what they call “A wide range of relevant ideas”. Perhaps we can anticipate that students will need to get something like 10 of the 13 points to score in the top band. Below, you can see the new table for the content points:

Language Points

The other major change to the summary relates to how the examiners reward students for their use of language. With the 2018 syllabus, examiners looked for two main things: did the students write any irrelevant sentences and did they use language effectively (fluently, synthesising the text, and using linking devices). CIE support materials focused a lot on the importance of linking devices and complex sentences. This allowed teachers to focus on the importance of identifying the main points and how to use linking devices to write an effective summary.

 

The new rubric for language is called Table W. The initial comment included in the rubric band is that the writing should be “expressed clearly, fluently, and mostly with concision” which is fair enough. It would seem to reflect the idea, like previous summary rubrics, that the writing should effectively summarize the text with a focus on the writer’s overall use of language that demonstrates a high fluency.

Well Organised

A new focus seems to be that the writing should be “well organised”. We will need more documentation from CIE to know exactly what they mean by “well organised”. However, the Summary Task Guidance document which can be found on the CIE Support Hub gives the following advice for selecting points and organising the summary: review the ideas selected to check they are relevant, complete and distinct. For example, aim to identify any repeated points or examples of the same thing that could be covered in one over-arching, ‘umbrella’ point organise content to decide in a logical order and/or the best way to group relevant ideas. Numbering the points will help highlight the most efficient route through the answer and cover all of the ideas within the 150–180-word guidance. Based on this, it seems that when students are looking at a text, they will need to be on the lookout for ideas that get repeated and they should be careful that they select and group ideas when writing their summaries – something they have not really been asked to do before. Indeed, on previous exams, CIE’s recommendation was to present the points in the order that they appear in the text. If you look at the exemplar paper and its accompanying mark scheme, the content points are a bit of a mess. In previous years, it was possible to match the text to the mark scheme. Content points were listed on the mark scheme in the order they came up in the text which made it relatively easy to mark students’ papers. You could easily spot certain key words in the students’ notes and summaries. With the new mark scheme, content points do not appear in the order that they appear in the text. For example, content point 13 in the mark scheme includes information that could be taken from paragraphs 4, 7, and/or 11. Even the organisational pattern that students have used in the past will need to be re-thought. First of all, there is no sentence starter as there was on previous exams. Students must write their own first sentence. How will they begin their writing? A clue to how they may want to begin can be found in the Summary Task Guidance document. The sample “candidate” summary begins with an overview sentence and the examiner comment next to it suggest that the student’s writing is good because it contains a useful overview of the text. This would seem to indicate that when we teach summaries from now on, we should encourage our students to try to capture the overall point of the text before going on to highlight things in more detail.

In addition, the Summary Task Guidance writing sample includes the linking word “Finally” near the end of the text. The examiner comment praises the writer saying, “The candidate uses formal linking words to move the reader through the information”. This would seem to suggest that linking words will still be rewarded as part of organization or perhaps even under the umbrella of grammar that “clarifies meaning”. Therefore, it is likely worthwhile to continue with the type of linking device instruction that we have been doing.

More Language Points

The second bullet in the writing rubric (Table W) begins by referring to the writer’s use of own words. The use of own words had originally been scored separately in the pre-2011 exam rubrics and then was simply mentioned in the overall task description of the post 2011 exams. However, CIE has decided to put it back into the rubric again. It is interesting to note that CIE now includes the phrase “own words and/or structures”. This would seem to further encourage writers to alter the syntax of their written texts to make them more complex and, at the very least, different from the source material. Thus, teachers will most certainly want to put extra emphasis on teaching students how to combine ideas using a variety of complex sentence structures and linking words.

As for the phrase “with a range of vocabulary which clarifies meaning”, this phrase is not included in the other bands of the rubric so perhaps CIE examiners are going to look more closely at effective use of vocabulary as a way to differentiate between top band and lower band writing. Though vocabulary will be an important part of your lessons, it may be something that your higher level students will want to pay particular attention to.

AS a side note, CIE seems to be confused about how long they want the summaries to be. Their online video about changes to the exam mentions the writing being 120 words and in their Summary Task Guidance the sample essay has 120 words. However, the syllabus materials and the question papers refer to 150-180 words. At this point I am assuming that the syllabus materials are correct.

Advice for teachers

  • Go to the CIE Support Hub and try doing the sample paper “A night among trees”.  After that,  try marking it using the mark scheme in order to get a feel for the new challenges presented on the exam.
  • Download the new syllabus materials and the Summary Task Guidance from the CIE Support Hub.  Note the sample paper provided and the guided examiner notes provided to get a better sense of what CIE examiners will be looking for.
  • Consider using the pre-2011 exam papers for summary practise.  For now, favour using the narrative style papers rather than the non-fiction papers for practise.
  • Consider teaching students a writing process that includes how to do the annotations.  Due to the added difficulties caused by the new style of the text, this will take some practice.  Students will need more guidance on how to handle the content points after they have identified them in order to see which points are repeated and which points can be connected in the summary (see advice for students 6-8 below).
  • In spite of the model given by CIE and until we learn more about Cambridge’s view on what makes an effective summary, I would encourage students to begin their writing with a sort of general thesis statement which uses the main idea from the question.  For example, I would tell students to begin with the phrase:  “There are many things that would appeal to most guests about a stay at the Treehold such as …”  To me, this would be an effective way to make sure that students focus on the thesis and stick to it, avoiding the inclusion of irrelevant details. 

Advice for students :

Annotations

Write your summary

Begin by writing a general thesis that captures the main idea of the text. Use the key words or ideas from the question (e.g. what would appeal most to guests about a stay at the Treehotel) in your general thesis. Include 10-12 points from the text and stay focused on the idea in your thesis. Try to combine points from different parts of the text when appropriate. Use your own words whenever possible. Avoid copying long sections of the text or including irrelevant details. Use your own structures and complex sentences whenever possible. Use linking words to guide your reader through the information.

The Non-fiction Text Insert

Over the years, Cambridge has experimented with using excerpts from published texts for their inserts, but normally they have done that with texts for the fiction part of the exam.  In my experience, the results have never been very good.  I much preferred the exam texts that were created by the team of CIE exam writers as they were fit for purpose and it allowed them to tweak the writing to make it just right for the question types that they typically include in an exam paper. 

With the sample exam paper for 2024, it appears as though CIE plans to use excerpts from published texts for both sections of the reading exam.  Text B “A night among the trees” has been adapted from a newspaper article reviewing a treehotel (https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2010/aug/28/treehouse-sweden-hotel).  The writing style in this text is quite different from the non-fiction texts that students have been faced with since exam changes in 2011.

The sample exam is written in first person which gives it the feel of a narrative and it is filled with quotations and has the rhetorical style of a feature article for a magazine or newspaper.  This means the text completely throws out the academic PEE writing style (point-example-explanation) that we have all grown used to.   On top of that, the text has 11 paragraphs (instead of six), but it is shorter than previous exam texts (550-600 words instead of 700+ words).    Because it is based on a newspaper article, the reading age appears to be lower than previous exam texts.  In spite of the fact that the vocabulary level and reading difficulty appears to be lower than usual, the actual task has increased in difficulty.

 

Everything Old is New Again

As I have mentioned, with the exams from 2011 until the present, it became common for non-fiction insert texts to use an academic rhetorical style with PEE structures (point-example-elaboration).  This meant teachers and students focused on this rhetorical style in order to identify the main points and resist the temptation to include examples and elaborations in their notes.  However, in the new text, this rhetorical style is absent.  This means that the exam papers that we have been using for exam preparation since 2011 are of very limited use to us.  Indeed, I would not recommend using them at this time.

So what can we use for teaching materials?  Prior to 2011 the reading exam had one two-page text insert.  Sometimes the text was factual and sometimes it was a narrative.  The two-page text insert was used for both the comprehension questions and the summary.  Exam questions required students to look at a portion of the text (usually about half of it) for the summary. 

If you have a look at the old exams prior to 2011, you will find that the texts are more similar to the 2026 sample text we have been given and they could provide us with relevant practice.  If you do not have copies of the old exam papers, you may try Googling them online as there are some websites that offer free downloads of old exam papers.  Unfortunately, the CIE Support Hub only allows us access to papers back to 2017.

To learn more about the O Level Exams, you may want to read the other articles in this series including:

 

Part 1:  So You’re Teaching O Level English

Part 2:  Note-taking – the gold mine of the exam

Part 3:  The ‘Secret’ to Scoring Well on the O Level

Part 4:  Success on the Summary Writing

Part 5:  A Guide to the Opinion Question

Part 6:  An Analysis of the Summary Text for Exam Writers and Teachers

Part 7:  Surviving the New Syllabus Summary

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