Boost your marks by understanding how to write the perfect English PEA (POINT, EVIDENCE, ANALYSIS) – a vital strategy for answering GCSE English Language reading questions and GCSE English Literature essay questions.

(This is the complete version of this article. A much more concise version is available if you just need a quick summary.)

1. What is the perfect English PEA? And, where can I see it in action?

The PEA process is a strategy for answering GCSE English assessment questions (both in Language and Literature). Some teachers refer to PEA using a different name: PEE, PETAL etc. My own preference is to think of this process as PEEx (POINT EVIDENCE Expand) as I think Expand is a better description of what happens after the EVIDENCE than the more scientific-sounding ANALYSIS. However, for the purposes of this article, I’ll go with the majority and call the process PEA.

Put simply, PEAs are little chunks of argument proven with EVIDENCE. Rather than telling your examiner that Macbeth is presented as a violent character, and offering no EVIDENCE, you will instead be showing the examiner how well you know the text and how well you understand the writer’s methods and choices by giving EVIDENCE too. Take a look at this example:

Later in the play, Shakespeare presents Macbeth's violence as the cause of his downfall. As the rebel army closes in, he becomes introspective and declares that he has “supp’d full with horrors.” The metaphor suggests that Macbeth has feasted on violence and another forkful of horror signifies nothing to him now. He proves this moments later as, on hearing a shriek from the dying Lady Macbeth, his response is to ruminate nihilistically on the pointlessness of life rather than mourn his wife. We are shocked by Macbeth's cold heartlessness; it is clear to the audience that Macbeth's violence has stripped him of his humanity.

And not just EVIDENCE. As you can see above, the EVIDENCE is followed by ANALYSIS where you can fully show the examiner why you have made the interpretation you have stated.

This seems like a lot of hard work. It would be easier to simply write a summary of the text and your ideas about the text, without EVIDENCE. Writing using PEAs, however, lifts the level of your writing to something more formal, more analytical.

Whilst PEAs are never mentioned by name in mark schemes or assessment objectives, the language of those assessment objectives, make it clear that what teachers call PEAs can help you to meet the requirements of English Literature AO1: “students should be able to maintain a critical style and develop an informed personal response.”

As explained by one of the exam boards, this means that students should write “in a reasonably formal way, using appropriate terminology.” The answer should be “informed” which “means that it is necessary for candidates to refer closely to the text in justifying these interpretations.” This means you need to give EVIDENCE.

Students should also give a “personal response” which doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be absolutely original in your response to the text; that would usually be asking too much at GCSE level. It is one of the roles of Literature PhDs and Professors, not GCSE students, to develop original ideas about literary texts.

Nor does “personal response” mean that “I hate this and find it boring” is an acceptable answer. Instead, again according to an exam board, “‘personal response’ means trying to express what the text might mean to an audience, or reader, today.” You are one of those readers but you should also consider other readers and how they might respond to the text.

For example, you might try to argue, in a very personal (and wildly unusual) response, that at the end of the play, Macbeth is presented as a good man and a great role model. However, consider other readers or members of the audience. Are they likely to agree with you? Can you convince your examiner of that radical opinion using EVIDENCE? Or is it more likely that you can successfully argue, using a perfect English PEA, or a number of PEAs that, at the end of the play, Macbeth is presented as a bad man and would be an awful role model?

PEAs, then, help you to answer GCSE English assessment questions in the required informed, critical style. For some answers, only one or two PEAs will be needed. For others, you can link PEAs together into more detailed paragraphs and build essays. Either way, whether for short- or long-answer assessment tasks, using PEAs will be a vital strategy for building excellent answers.

So, if you want to see the perfect English PEA in action, take a look at my collections of model answers which use PEAs liberally. You can also see worked examples of PEAs in my YouTube videos.

And, if you want to know more about the ins and outs of the perfect English PEA process, including how to use them flexibly and avoiding plodding repetition, read on.

2. How do I prepare to write my PEAs?

Before you start writing any GCSE English answer, you will need to read the question and then go to the text and select the best EVIDENCE to help you answer the question. Though EVIDENCE comes second when you write your perfect English PEA, selecting EVIDENCE is in fact your first job before you start writing. Only once you have selected your EVIDENCE can you then build your POINTs around it.

Of course, as is often the case in exams, you may be making these choices from memory. The AQA GCSE English Literature Paper 1 Macbeth task provides a short extract (so you can underline/highlight your quotation selections) but you are expected to write most of the essay based on your memory of the play, including memorised quotations.

Take the June 2019 AQA Macbeth question, for example:

Starting with this speech, explore how far Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a violent character.

Write about:

• how Shakespeare presents Macbeth in this extract
• how far Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a violent character in the play as a whole.

So here are some good short quotation choices to help answer the AQA June 2019 Macbeth question about Macbeth as a violent character. (Please note that this is not a complete list. A full essay answer would need more quotations than these four.) I have included act/scene/line numbers for reference:

  • CAPTAIN: “brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name” (1.2.16 – from the extract in the question)
  • CAPTAIN: “which smoked with bloody execution” (1.2.18 – from the extract in the question)
  • MACDUFF: “all my pretty chickens and their dam?” (4.3.220 – from elsewhere in the play)
  • MACBETH: “supp’d full with horrors” (5.5.13 – from elsewhere in the play)

As you can see from my selections, quotations should be short, sometimes even a single word. It is rarely necessary to quote whole sentences and, in fact, long quotations can cause problems for you as they make your writing less precise and may seem to an examiner like you are simply copying out large chunks of text (perhaps to pad a short answer) without making informed selections from the text. If you really feel that a long chunk of text is useful for your answer, break it into small quotations and deal with each small quotation in individual PEAs.

Note 1: EVIDENCE almost always means a quotation taken directly from the text. Occasionally, EVIDENCE might not be a quotation but instead will be a clear identification of a structural feature. This is particularly relevant for essays on poetry. On rare occasions, a paraphrase might work as well as a direct quotation but I generally recommend aiming to quote directly from to text to avoid any mistakes of interpretation.

Note 2: an occasional misconception I have encountered is the belief that quotes have to be taken only from words spoken by a character. This seems to come from a confusion between “speech marks” and “quotation marks” which, of course, look exactly the same. This leads some students to believe that only dialogue can be used for quotation in essays which can be very limiting when writing an essay on a prose text (e.g. A Christmas Carol) which has lots of words – the narrator’s – not spoken out loud by characters and therefore not presented within speech marks in the novel. Generally, all words in the text(s) you are writing about are available for quotation. This includes, where relevant: titles, chapter titles, stage directions, footnotes, captions, epigraphs.

3. How do I select the best EVIDENCE?

As long as your EVIDENCE is from the correct part of the correct text, it will probably work for you. However, it is true that some EVIDENCE is definitely a better choice and will allow more in-depth ANALYSIS and lead to higher marks.

One way to know you are choosing better EVIDENCE is to try to select EVIDENCE that contains an identifiable ‘technique’ (e.g. imagery, simile, metaphor etc.). This will allow you to use relevant Subject Terminology in your answer and should also allow an opportunity to show your ability to infer what a writer is implying through their use of figurative language which tends to be indirect, subtle, allusive, nuanced, ironic even a little ‘tricksy’. Direct, non-figurative language, by comparison, provides very few opportunities to infer as in direct language, by definition, the writer is not implying anything.

Consider these two versions of a hypothetical Unseen prose text:

  1. Rooks cawed and swooped, clawing at the sky, dragging doom down upon our cowering heads.
  2. There were some rooks in the sky and they were flying around a lot as we walked along.

The first example contains dynamic imagery, suggestions of colour (black), symbolism, religious allusion, assonance, alliteration, metaphor. The effect is electric, apocalyptic. We can infer that the people are in grave danger. The reader is chilled to the bone, filled with fear for the “cowering” people in the scene. (At this point, I am aware that I am praising my own writing. If any agents want to swoop in with a multi-million pound three-novel deal, do get in touch).

The second example is a very humdrum narration of the same scene with far fewer figurative techniques. There is just less to ‘analyse’; it is simply a basic, and un-exciting, use of imagery meaning that all that can be said about the second example is that the writer narrates the scene.

So, when selecting quotations, give yourself the best chance for the ANALYSIS section of your perfect English PEA by choosing the quotations that stand out with drama and dynamism, filled with nameable writing techniques that allow you to infer.

So, now you have selected your EVIDENCE, and made sure it’s the best EVIDENCE, let’s take a quick look at the concept of subject terminology

4. Where does Subject Terminology come in?

The names of the various writer’s techniques make up the stock of words and phrases known as Subject Terminology.

(For reference, terminology means: the set of technical words or expressions used in a particular subject.)

For most EVIDENCE, you will be able to identify and name a writer’s technique, using a term from your knowledge of Subject Terminology. Common writer’s techniques include: imagery, metaphor, hyperbole, anaphora. If you can see a relevant technique in the EVIDENCE you have selected, use the name of the technique in your perfect English PEA.

However, not every quotation will have a relevant technique to name using Subject Terminology. Some quotations may simply be very powerful, meaningful words that help you answer the question. You may choose, as some students do, to name the word class but often this is not relevant – and relevant is a key word for the exam boards. Is it relevant that “brave” in “brave Macbeth” is an adjective? I argue that it is not relevant to an essay about violence. There is always some debate about precisely which Subject Terminology is relevant and which is irrelevant and often we need to make this decision on a case-by-case basis.

Another pitfall with Subject Terminology is ‘feature spotting’ which is a process of scanning the text to find writer’s techniques without any relevance to the question you are answering. Feature spotting usually results in empty statements such as “this is an adverb” or “this is a juxtaposition.” There is no ANALYSIS and no attempt to connect what is written to the exam question. It’s a largely pointless statement of the obvious.

Take it from the examiners who say they do no want to see “over-reliance on…subject terminology, which [leads] to decontextualised feature spotting at best.” (AQA Report on the Examination Paper 1 June 2018 p3). The examiners also note that “it is what the student does with the subject terminology that is credited, rather than the mention of an obscure term that the student does not understand and does nothing with.” (AQA Report on the Examination Paper 1 June 2017 p4)

Instead, writing “this powerful image/metaphor/simile suggests that…” (and completing the PEA) will get marks as this shows a “more concentrated focus on detailed explanations as to why the writer may have chosen to employ a particular language feature…Students [will] be rewarded for the quality of their analysis, not the number of features they [can] identify.” (AQA Report on the Examination Paper 1 June 2018 p4)

Be careful though. Students often hear the messages above and think it means NO SUBJECT TERMINOLOGY. No. It means NO INCORRECT/IRRELEVANT SUBJECT TERMINOLOGY. Part of the challenge of GCSE English Language is to learn how to use Subject Terminology correctly and relevantly.

5. How do I make a POINT?

Take the June 2019 AQA GCSE English Literature Paper 1 Macbeth question, for example:

Starting with this speech, explore how far Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a violent character.

Write about:

• how Shakespeare presents Macbeth in this extract
• how far Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a violent character in the play as a whole.

For example, here are some POINTs with key words from the question in bold:

  • In this extract, Macbeth’s violence is presented as worthy of celebration.
  • The Captain’s speech presents Macbeth’s violence as bloody and gruesome.
  • Elsewhere in the play, Shakespeare presents Macbeth becoming increasingly violent, even to his close friends and allies.
  • Later in the play, Shakespeare presents Macbeth’s violence as the cause of his downfall.

The other words in the POINTs are summaries and interpretations of the moment around the quotation which will need to be proven with EVIDENCE. The summaries/interpretations are not wildly unusual – Macbeth’s violence is definitely celebrated early in the play. He has, after all, saved the Kingdom from rebellion and invasion. Many in the play owe their continuing lives and wealth to him.

However, even though the summaries/interpretations are solid and hard to disagree with, we still want you to provide EVIDENCE for them because, after all, part of what is being assessed here is your ability to write an “informed…response.” To show that your answer is “informed” you need to add your EVIDENCE.

6. How do I add EVIDENCE to the perfect English PEA?

Having already chosen your quotations, you should now be able to connect them to your POINTs. The best way to do this is to embed them into the flow of your perfect English PEA, rather than leaving them dangling un-attached.

Consider these examples based on the POINTs and EVIDENCE above. In each perfect English PEA, the EVIDENCE is embedded in a slightly different way:

  • In this extract, Macbeth’s violence is presented as worthy of celebration. The Captain hails “brave Macbeth” saying that “well he deserves that name.” (Note: the quote is split to allow for smoother embedding).
  • The Captain’s speech presents Macbeth’s violence as bloody and gruesome. He describes Macbeth’s sword “which smoked with bloody execution.” (Note: the quote smoothly continues the first half of the sentence which has been written to connect perfectly to the quote).
  • Elsewhere in the play, Shakespeare presents Macbeth becoming increasingly violent, even to his close friends and allies. Macduff, on learning that his family has been slaughtered cries out: “all my pretty chickens and their dam?” (Note: the quote is appended to the end of a sentence using a colon).
  • Later in the play, Shakespeare presents Macbeth’s violence as the cause of his downfall. As the rebel army closes in, he becomes introspective and declares that he has “supp’d full with horrors.” (Note: the quote smoothly continues the first two thirds of the sentence which has been written to connect perfectly to the quote).

The EVIDENCE is embedded within quotation marks which signal to the reader that what they are reading is a quotation. There is rarely any need, then, to call the quote a quote (e.g. “This quote,” “In this quote,” etc) which is essentially a redundant statement.

Now the EVIDENCE is in your perfect English PEA, let’s turn to the final step.

7. How do I add ANALYSIS to the PEA?

The ANALYSIS section of PEAs is the hardest section and the most misunderstood. This is the main place in your perfect English PEA for independent text interpretation, showing your ability to infer from what a writer is implying. Especially when writing about Unseen texts, some students find it very difficult to infer. Inference is slightly easier when writing about a text you have been taught as a teacher has the opportunity to teacher you what you should be inferring. You just have to make sure you memorise the inferences.

One way to make this section flow smoothly is to make sure you have chosen excellent quotations. If you’re quotations are well-chosen they should suggest lots of ideas for you to write about. Poorly chosen quotes will give you very little to infer. Take another look at the section above to remind yourself about how to make the best EVIDENCE selection.

There are two main approaches to filling the ANALYSIS section. Neither approach needs to be used every single time and nor do they need to be used in the order below. Some flexibility and judgement is needed here to decide the best and most relevant way to fill your ANALYSIS:

  1. ‘Analyse’ what the quotation suggests by inferring the meanings, connotations, messages of the quotations. Identify any connections, echoes, reflections and unpack the suggestions of the language technique.
  2. Identify and name the effect on the reader/audience.

Let’s take a look at our PEAs, now with ANALYSIS attached, following the steps above. Remember that the question that these PEAs are being written in response to is “explore how far Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a violent character” so the ANALYSIS should reflect the language/focus of the question:

  • In this extract, Macbeth’s violence is presented as worthy of celebration. The Captain hails “brave Macbeth” saying that “well he deserves that name.” This suggests that, for the Captain, the brutal and gruesome killing of rebel soldiers is an act of valour, not of shame and the Captain seems almost breathless in his praise and admiration of Macbeth.
  • The Captain’s speech presents Macbeth’s violence as bloody and gruesome. He describes Macbeth’s sword “which smoked with bloody execution.” The metaphor here transforms liquid blood into fire and smoke, presenting the battlefield as a fiery hellscape, enabling the audience to picture vividly the gory scene that they did not witness and perhaps foreshadowing the “hell-hound” Macbeth’s later descent into a hell of his own making.
  • Elsewhere in the play, Shakespeare presents Macbeth becoming increasingly violent, even to his close friends and allies. Macduff, on learning that his family has been slaughtered cries out: “all my pretty chickens and their dam?” These playful diminutives, perhaps the loving family names the Macduffs used to refer to each other, present Lady Macduff as a mother hen and the children as defenceless chicks, emphasising the brutal violence of Macbeth’s decision to have them killed. Moreover, the reference to Macduff’s children, one of whom appeared on stage in an earlier scene creates a jarring juxtaposition between the loving, nurturing Macduff family and the sterile, childless marriage of the Macbeths, showing how far Macbeth has failed as a monarch, unable to nurture a family, let alone a nation, turning instead to violence and child murder.
  • Later in the play, Shakespeare presents Macbeth’s violence as the cause of his downfall. As the rebel army closes in, he becomes introspective and declares that he has “supp’d full with horrors.” The metaphor suggests that Macbeth has feasted on violence and another forkful of horror signifies nothing to him now. He proves this moments later as, on hearing a shriek from the dying Lady Macbeth, his response is to ruminate nihilistically on the pointlessness of life rather than mourn his wife. We are shocked by Macbeth’s cold heartlessness; it is clear to the audience that Macbeth’s violence has stripped him of his humanity.

Each PEA now has ANALYSIS added after the EVIDENCE. Notice that each PEA is slightly different in the way ANALYSIS has been added; this is correct. Each perfect English PEA should be written on a case-by-case basis. If the EVIDENCE calls for it, some PEAs can grow quite long as there may well be a number of different inferences or connections to write about.

The third PEA here, for example, essentially includes two different sets of interpretation. The first interpretation is a close look at the connotations of the quote (“pretty chickens” etc) but then, after the “moreover”, I step back from the quote and connect it to my understanding of other elements of the play – the juxtaposition between the Macbeths and the Macduffs. Of course, this requires more words and makes the PEA longer but my judgement is that this is a great moment to make that connection.

Others PEAs might be quite short and direct. The first PEA makes a good point about the Captain’s response to Macbeth’s ‘bravery’ and is complete. My judgement here is that there is not much more to w write about a simple adjective (“brave”) and I should move on and develop other PEAs.

This judgement is a vital part of writing PEAs and requires also a close eye on the clock and, in the case of essay answers, on your essay plan. If you are tight for time, you may have to make some tough decisions. It may be better to move on to other PEAs rather than expand a PEA if taking the time to write a longer PEA means that later PEAs don’t get written – because you’ve run out of time.

As an examiner, I am very familiar with the ‘funnel’ effect caused by answers that begin with long and expansive PEAs but then continue with each PEA getting shorter and shorter as the students clearly begins to panic, realising time is running out. Avoid this by planning your answer, pacing yourself well and sticking to your plan.

Another reason for the ‘funnel’ effect is students who try to write everything they know in the first PEA and then run out of things to write, leading to short repetitive PEAs in the rest of the answer. A well-planned, well-paced answer will spread text knowledge across the essay. If you know that “pretty chickens” is coming up later in your plan, you don’t need to make the interpretation about the juxtaposition between the two families in your first PEA. Save it for the best moment, later in your answer.

8. Where does context come in?

For some exam questions, you are required to connect the quotation to the context of the text. At GCSE context comes under the AO3 assessment objective.

In a recent GCSE English Literature mark scheme, AQA defined context (AO3) thus:

AO3 is the understanding of the relationship between the ideas in the text and the contexts of the text. The range of contexts and relationships that is most relevant as part of AO3 will depend on the text, the author and the task. In teaching and assessing AO3, teachers and students can consider context in a flexible way, depending on the text itself and whichever contexts are the most relevant for that particular text. These contexts may relate to the relationship between the text and the context in which it was written. However, the contexts may also relate to the context within which the text is set: location, social structures and features, cultural contexts, and periods in time. Context, where relevant, may also apply to literary contexts such as genres, and also the contexts in which texts are engaged with by different audiences, taking the reader outside the text in order to inform understanding of the meanings being conveyed. Acknowledgement of the universality of a literary text is an integral part of relating to it contextually. Context is assessed throughout the paper. The strand in the mark scheme related to AO3 references ‘ideas/perspectives/contextual factors’. However, if a question requires a student to think about the text in its context, this is also reflected inherently through the response to task.

Exam boards are very keen for connections to context to be relevant and to be made in a flexible way. Plodding, repetitive connections to context are to be avoided.

Take a look at the examples below. The PEAs have been expanded with connections to the context of Macbeth:

  • In this extract, Macbeth’s violence is presented as worthy of celebration. The Captain hails “brave Macbeth” saying that “well he deserves that name.” This suggests that, for the Captain, the brutal and gruesome killing of rebel soldiers is an act of valour, not of shame and the Captain seems almost breathless in his praise and admiration of Macbeth. (No context added – some possible relevant links [attitudes to violence etc] are available but none that really add to the answer).
  • The Captain’s speech presents Macbeth’s violence as bloody and gruesome. He describes Macbeth’s sword “which smoked with bloody execution.” The metaphor here transforms liquid blood into fire and smoke, presenting the battlefield as a fiery hellscape, enabling the audience to picture vividly the gory scene that they did not witness and perhaps foreshadowing the “hell-hound” Macbeth’s later descent into a hell of his own making. The language reflects the Christian theology of both the early-mediaeval period, where the play is set, and the Jacobean period, when the plan was first performed. The original audience would have been well-versed in eschatology, fearing for their own lives after death. Presenting Macbeth as ‘hellish’ is a clear signal to faithful Christians that he is a violent, brutal murder who deserves eternal damnation. (Relevant link to Christian theology added).
  • Elsewhere in the play, Shakespeare presents Macbeth becoming increasingly violent, even to his close friends and allies. Macduff, on learning that his family has been slaughtered cries out: “all my pretty chickens and their dam?” These playful diminutives, perhaps the loving family names the Macduffs used to refer to each other, present Lady Macduff as a mother hen and the children as defenceless chicks, emphasising the brutal violence of Macbeth’s decision to have them killed. Moreover, the reference to Macduff’s children, one of whom appeared on stage in an earlier scene creates a jarring juxtaposition between the loving, nurturing Macduff family and the sterile, childless marriage of the Macbeths, showing how far Macbeth has failed as a monarch, unable to nurture a family, let alone a nation, turning instead to violence and child murder. (No context added – the PEA is already very long).
  • Later in the play, Shakespeare presents Macbeth’s violence as the cause of his downfall. As the rebel army closes in, he becomes introspective and declares that he has “supp’d full with horrors.” The metaphor suggests that Macbeth has feasted on violence and another forkful of horror signifies nothing to him now. He proves this moments later as, on hearing a shriek from the dying Lady Macbeth, his response is to ruminate nihilistically on the pointlessness of life rather than mourn his wife. We are shocked by Macbeth’s cold heartlessness; it is clear to the audience that Macbeth’s violence has stripped him of his humanity, leading to his deserved downfall. This depiction of a tragic hero’s demise is a familiar trope from the ancient genre of tragedy. The original audience would have been very familiar with similar stories of powerful people brought to destruction as a result of their hamartia, their flaws. (Relevant link to the long history of the genre added).

Notice that, even though I could have done so, I didn’t add a context link to all of the PEAs. Not every PEA will need a context link and, in fact, adding a context link to every PEA would almost certainly lead to repetition. Make sure to add context links but only where relevant, avoiding repetition.

9. How should I paragraph PEAs?

I encourage students to see PEAs as modular building blocks that can be used in a range of combinations, depending on the question being answered. In a short answer question, for example the AQA GCSE Eng Lang P1 Q2, you might prefer simply to write each PEA as a short paragraph on its own, and write as many of them as you can in the short time available.

For longer answer questions, and also for comparison questions, I recommend gathering the PEAs together into longer, connected paragraphs. Again, this will be different from question to question and largely depends on the time available. This helps to avoid answers feeling like a series of disconnected paragraphs rather than a considered informed response.

In a Literature essay, a c50 minute Macbeth task for example, I recommend building more sophisticated paragraphs that include other elements (e.g. Topic Sentence, Context Link, Paragraph Conclusion). A Literature essay may also benefit from an Introduction and/or a Conclusion paragraph which generally don’t contain PEAs as they are summaries rather than analyses.

For comparison tasks, I recommend bringing PEAs together in 50/50 paragraphs where 50% of the paragraph is about Text A and 50% is about Text B.

For a sense of what exam boards are looking for, take a look at this indicative content from the AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Mark Scheme (November 2020) Question 2. The PEAs are combined into a connected paragraph. The quotes are mainly single words and one short phrase. There is very little repetition and the writing is very efficient. Each POINT is dealt with quickly before moving on:

The writer develops the image of the mulberry tree as a dominating and supernatural force in the garden. Adjectives like "massive" and "twisted" establish the authoritative size and complexity of the tree and this is further developed with the simile "like a gigantic malformed hand." This personifies the tree and gives it a sense of deliberate intent, as if it rules over the elements of the garden around it. The "hand" could imply a supernatural power that has a sinister influence over the rest of the garden.

Note that, as in the example above, it is possible to write PEAs in slightly different ways. My recommendation is always to practise one method until you can do it perfectly every time. In fact, with some creativity and perhaps a bit of bravery, you could complete the stages of a PEA in almost any order.

However, if you struggle with PEAs, stick to the tried and tested formula. You will not lose marks for following the same PEA pattern.

Thus, becoming familiar with the pattern of the PEA is an excellent starting point. Once you can write them ‘in your sleep,’ you will be able to connect them into more sophisticated answers – and not just in English. You may will find the PEA process useful in other subjects (e.g. History, Geography) where extended prose writing forms part of the assessment.

10. What are some of the common pitfalls I should avoid?

This comment from the AQA Report on the Examination Paper 1 June 2018 (p4) summarises the most common failings with PEAs:

There are still areas where students can improve. Some of those who did less well on this question
selected unwisely, or were still just identifying and labelling language features erroneously and
failing to comment on the effect on the reader or explain a reason behind the writer’s choices. At
times, they offered a basic, generic comment, eg ‘it creates a picture in our heads’ or ‘it makes us
feel like Mr Fisher feels’, which could apply to most examples of language in the given lines and is
merely a ‘simple comment on the effect of language’, worthy of a mark in Level 1. Other students
selected lengthy examples, such as the writer describing stories of the past with the similes ‘ran
like gazelles and pounced like tigers and exploded like rockets’, and then attempted to offer an
explanation of their collective effect, which frequently led to a generalised comment. These
students would have fared better if they had dealt with the similes individually and offered a precise
explanation of effect for each one. Moreover, sometimes the selection of very lengthy examples led
to paraphrasing and discussion of ideas rather than analysis of language.

Some students looked for the connotations of words without a consideration of context, eg they
saw the use of ‘fever’ in the phrase ‘whole classes swept away in the fever’ as something negative
because fevers are bad, and were not able to recognise that Mr Fisher was recollecting a positive
memory of when he found the enjoyment of reading to be infectious, even contagious, among his
classes. Students need to remember that their comments have to be precise and contextualised in
order to achieve Level 3 or above.

This comment can be summarised thus:

  • Unwise selection of EVIDENCE
  • Incorrect naming of language features
  • Feature spotting
  • Generic analysis (could be said about almost any piece of language)
  • Quotations too long
  • Paraphrasing (summarising) rather than PEA style analysis
  • Incorrect interpretations of words, especially words used in a slightly creative way that means they are being used slightly differently from their everyday usage (“fever”). The context of the word (i.e. how it connects with other words and meanings in the extract) should show you how this word is being used at this particular point in the extract.

In short, good EVIDENCE selection is the backbone of a good PEA. After that, your ANALYSIS should feel relevant, specific and expansive.

11. My teacher says PEA is wrong. Are there different approaches I could use or, should we abandon PEA altogether?

Of course there are different approaches. As elsewhere in the assessment of English at GCSE (and A level), there are a range of possible right answers.

Note: never let yourself say “there are no right and wrong answers.” This is clearly untrue: there is no EVIDENCE, for example, that Macbeth likes to take a break from murdering in order to play the trombone. Instead, understand that examiners are looking to reward a range of possible responses to a text. Mark schemes usually include phrases such as “any other valid responses” which means that examiners are instructed to reward for anything considered ‘valid,’ even if it’s not explicitly written on the mark scheme.

So yes, there are lots of different ways you could structure an answer to the various GCSE English questions. However, the PEA process is tried and tested. And it works. So stick with it, is my recommendation.

This is especially useful for students moving schools, or changing teachers. Some sort of widely acknowledged standard approach to answering GCSE English questions (i.e. the PEA process) can help resolve any uncertainty or confusion caused by each teacher having their own favoured way of answering questions. Furthermore, anxiety is caused when students realise that, of course, their anonymous examiner may themselves have their own preferred approach to answering questions.

Such a muddle can be avoided by sticking to the widely-taught, widely-accepted PEA approach.

Sometimes students stumble upon websites or hear from teachers/tutors that they should ditch the PEA to be more “free-spirited” in order to get top marks. However, there is no indication that exam boards will penalise for using PEA and top marks is definitely achievable by PEA style answers. It is true that highly repetitive, plodding PEAs will be penalised but that is because they are, well, highly repetitive and plodding. The PEA is not the problem there. Students should deploy the PEA process flexibly and creatively to avoid such a situation.

There are many nervous writers and reluctant writers who really benefit from the spatial/visual approach to writing that the PEA process provides. Rather than relying on “write what you feel” approaches, many students need the solid ground beneath them provided by the PEA process. Telling these students to throw out the framework and just “wing it” is not good for their confidence nor their mental health. I definitely recommend that it is much better to practise the PEA process and then find ways to use it more flexibly where relevant.

Bear in mind that the PEA process is also a very useful transferable skill, for GCSE and beyond. Flash forward 15 years. Let’s say you become a town planner, for example, and you need to argue in favour of a new housing development, you might struggle to win the argument by simply saying “I think its a good idea” and offering no EVIDENCE. What about if you join a marketing team and try to launch a new, expensive marketing strategy by simply saying “I think this will work” and give no EVIDENCE? You might find your boss looking at you with a quizzical look and having second thoughts about that promotion.

So, the message is: practise the PEA process, write regular timed practice answers, watch those marks roll in and feel your confidence rising.

Thanks for reading and best of luck in your exams.

Image credit: Bill Ebbesen, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.