What do students need to break through the grade 4 "ceiling"?

Now that GCSEs are replacing letter grades with a numerical 1–9 grading system, it’s time to reflect on how we can really get our students moving up through those grades.

Whether your exams are still using the letter grades or the new numerical system, the challenge is the same – for our students to aim for and achieve higher than just a bare pass. Traditionally the pass grade has been a ‘C’; now, the new ‘4’ grade aligns to a low ‘C’.

As a minimum, in the exam our students need to have something to say. So, it's partly the quality of the student’s ideas. But this is not the whole story: success also relies on the quality of the language they use to express these ideas. Take, for instance, the following examples from the introductory paragraph to a review:

The story has three main characters, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. There are some twists and turns and some interesting events. The characters have shocking encounters and unexpected adventures with Draco Malfoy.

The story revolves around the three central characters; Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Some amazing twists and turns follow them throughout their fascinating exploits. In particular, they encounter various terrifying adventures with Draco Malfoy.

Which one would you rate more highly? The topic and content are the same, as is the length of the two texts. The first is fine, at around the basic pass level 4; it is clear and contains some serviceable evaluative language such as ‘shocking’ and ‘unexpected’. In short, the student has something to say and their text does the job.

Yet the second text definitely has the edge. Lexically it is more engaging, extending the simple verb ‘has’ to ‘revolves around’ – this sounds much more dynamic. Likewise, the frequent evaluative adjective ‘interesting’ is upgraded to the level of ‘fascinating’. Usefully, the second student guides their audience and focuses their attention with the discourse marker ‘In particular’, which serves to frame the fourth character, Draco Malfoy. Text 2, then, has the edge, and should clock in at a solid 5, with the potential to build further and go higher.

The key to lifting the student’s grade is language.

In the above examples the student’s ideas are fine. Many grade 4 students simply reach for the language they know, and that’s what they use. The more ambitious student strives for more interesting, more complex language. Try the following language-based techniques:


  • Trade up! Encourage your students to move beyond their comfort zone when using words.  Develop resources based on word clouds, e.g. sets of synonyms and related words, and clines expressing increasing sophistication, e.g. nice → interesting → fascinating → scintillating.
  • Build complex noun phrases. Instead of the ‘and then’ style of writing, work with your students to create more academic noun-based forms. Compare the following, for instance:
  • King Duncan is talking to his officers about Macbeth. The Captain calls describes him as ‘brave Macbeth’. Later, Macbeth returns in triumph.
  • King Duncan and his officers’ discussion of ‘brave Macbeth’ sets the scene for his triumphant return.

Here, the first example is serviceable, but the second is more concise as well as more vivid. The actions of the first example are expressed in noun phrases: King Duncan and his officers’ discussion of ‘brave Macbeth’; and his triumphant return. Using noun phrases like these can work wonders for the quality and assessment outcomes of your students’ writing.

We can see, then, that it is not only our students’ knowledge and understanding but also the language they use which can increase their exam performance. Our students’ improvement will reflect positively on ourselves as their teachers, our school, and above all on each and every student who has achieved their potential.


About Edward de Chazal
Edward de Chazal is a teacher, author, and conference speaker. He teaches English in secondary and university settings. He specializes in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and has published resources for the global English-medium international school and university sector. Visit his profile to find out more and connect with Edward.